Right Resolve (a.k.a. Right Thought)

by on Apr 11, 2017Zen Master Hae Kwang

The noble eightfold path is traditionally divided into three parts, with steps one and two, right view and right resolve, paired together as the first group and termed prajna (wisdom). The next three steps—right speech, right action, and right livelihood—are grouped together as sila (morality). And the final three—right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi—are collectively referred to as dhyana (meditation). Instead of a straight-out series of steps that begins with right view and culminates in samadhi, the path as a whole can be regarded as a kind of loop trail, with wisdom growing out of meditation practice and leading to correct function in this world, and then continuing around in a deepening cycle. Or the eight steps can be regarded as eight practices that we should try to cultivate simultaneously. In either scenario our practice has no beginning and no end. When we look at the noble eightfold path in this way, the second step, understood as right resolve, is crucial to the whole system, because without a strong resolve nothing happens, there is no impetus to begin or to continue along the path.
The second step, samyak samkalpa in the original Sanskrit (samma samkappa in Pali), is sometimes translated as right resolve and sometimes as right thought. The latter is how the early Chinese Buddhist translators rendered samkalpa, using two characters that each have the radical for heart-mind and mean “thinking” or “pondering.” The Chinese translation was probably made under the influence of Theravadan sources of interpretation. Examples of right thought from traditional Theravadan sources include wholesome thoughts, thoughts of nonattachment, thoughts of loving-kindness. Our thoughts influence our actions, the next three steps on the path, for better or worse; and keeping our thoughts pure prepares our minds for the meditation practice that constitute the three steps after that. And, completing the cycle, our meditation practice fosters the wisdom that are steps one and two. So, given the overall structure of the noble eightfold path, there is good reason to translate samyak samkalpa as right thought.
But there is another tradition, Mahayana and the spirit of the bodhisattva ideal, which interprets samyak samkalpa as right intention, or right aspiration, or right resolve. This translation is justified from both a scholarly point of view and, more important, from the point of view of our practice. To see why, let’s first look at the Sanskrit word more closely, keeping in mind that in Sanskrit, as in most languages, a given word can come with a rather wide range of meanings depending on the context in which it is used.
The word samyak, an adjective applied to each of the eight steps, means “complete, perfect, correct, right.” Samyak also occurs in the Heart Sutra in the phrase “samyak sambodhi,” which can be translated as “perfect, complete enlightenment.” (For some reason this phrase is left in Sanskrit in both the Sino-Korean and English versions of the Kwan Um School of Zen’s Heart Sutra).
The sam- prefix in samkalpa is the same as in samyak. Kalpa here (no relation to the better known word kalpa meaning an eon) signifies an act, especially an act of the mind or, more commonly, the will. If samkalpa means “thinking” it is something like the English use of the word in expressions like “I think I will do this,” meaning “I’ve made up my mind to do this,” conveying a considered intention rather than dreaming up ideas or even thinking good thoughts. The prefix sam– adds an intensive force, so samkalpa means a strong mental or volitional act—not just an ordinary thought or a wish, but rather a firm commitment, a resolute decision.
And adding samyak to samkalpa strengthens its meaning even more. This is no ordinary thought or decision or resolution that we have in the second step of the noble eightfold path, but a complete (samyak) commitment (samkalpa) on the order of great vow. It is the “fierce determination, resolute practice” that is the literal translation the Sino-Korean yong maeng jong jin (an intensive meditation retreat, sometimes poetically paraphrased as “to leap like a tiger while sitting”). It sums up the essential spirit of the four great vows, in which we pledge to reorient our lives on every level toward wisdom, compassion and bodhisattva action. And we find it in its simplest, most direct form in the very first sentence of the Temple Rules: “You must first make a firm decision to attain enlightenment and help this world.” This injunction contains the three major divisions of the noble eightfold path. The firm decision comes first.
This kind of intense, total commitment might at times seem difficult to the point of being overwhelming. Zen Master Ko Bong said, “You should practice as if your hair were on fire.” But unconditional resolve actually clears away a lot of obstructions, imagined and real, and creates a sense of freedom, a bright, liberating energy that can sustain us through any difficulty. When our mind is truly made up and we are all in, we naturally “only go straight” and “just do it” and “try, try, try for 10,000 years nonstop” as Zen Master Seung Sahn often put it. And this leads to a snowball effect, the energy mass getting larger and gaining momentum as it rolls down the path. It’s up to us to get the ball rolling. When we recite the four great vows first thing every morning that is just what we are doing.

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