It’s not what we do, It’s why we do It.
Intention is everything when it comes to the Buddhist perspective.
I, for one, can easily fool myself into thinking my intentions are crystal clear, only to discover they are actually pretty murky. Did I give up my seat on the bus purely for the benefit of the old lady standing, or was it partially about basking in the glory of being the best person on that bus? Does it even matter why I did it as long as I did?
Well, the Buddha believed it does matter, according to the Dhammapada,
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.”
Intention was everything when I made the difficult decision to euthanize a little fluffy dog, named BJ.
Four years after we rescued little BJ, he was still a territorial mess. We lavished him with love and affection, with thousands of dollars worth of training and therapy, plus thousands more on fences and fortifications. Although with our immediate clan—including newborn twins and other pets—he was the dearest little fury friend a family could ask for, but for our family and friends, he was a terror.
Over time, he bit every single member of our extended family and every friend who ventured near us. Even worse was when he would draw blood which was happening with increased frequency, Once, BJ dug under our fences and bit our neighbors in their own yards. And when he injured the elderly lady next door, I knew our time had run out.
I feared the authorities would seize him, or worse, someone would take the law into their own hands and harm him. I took him to a rescue center where I had volunteered, because I knew if there was any way he could be helped, they’d find it. But they didn’t.
For days, weeks and months I walked around with a black cloud hanging over me. I’ve rescued many animals in my life, young and old, healthy and sick, timid and flamboyant and every one of them survived to an old age, curled up at the foot of my bed. All except BJ whose death, at my suggestion, left me feeling unrecognizable to myself.
How could I have done it? How could I give up? Why didn’t I try harder to find a way to keep him secure until his little life reached its own natural conclusion?
I finally took these questions to my favorite Tibetan monk, Geshe Sonam. I don’t know why. I think in the vain of “once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” I wanted to confess to him in the hopes that he’d think up a way that I could punish myself to make it right somehow.
He listened thoughtfully to my long, sorry tale:
“Yes, yes,” he said eventually, when he realized he’d heard the nuts and bolts of it, “you assisted this dog from his suffering, and from his creating suffering for others. It was right thing.”
“Huh?” was my rather undignified response. To make it worse, I remember I actually tilted my head to the side just as little BJ might’ve done.
“Your intention was to prevent the dog from hurting others, yes?”
“And you tried all the other ways, yes?”
“Every time the little dog hurt someone created bad karma for the little dog. You have stopped his bad karma.”
“But I should have found another way,” I pleaded. “I should have sacrificed everything to save his life—Buddhists can’t kill things!!!”
“Oh,” he said, shaking his head, “motivation is key. When I have mouse in ceiling, I kill mouse.”
(Steep head tilt from me.)
“If I kill mouse thinking ‘oh I hate mouse, mouse is less than me, I can just kill what I want,’ that is negative intention. If I kill mouse thinking, ‘one mouse means many mice, mice spread disease which will make me and other people sick,’ that is positive intention.”
So there I was, left with the question of what my true motivation had been. Was it to make my life easier, or was it to protect others and end BJ’s torment? Was it a bit of both? Murky—very murky.
Upon much meditation on the topic, I’ve found a way to live with it. I’ve dug very deep and found that my motivations while probably not pure are ones that I can live with. Of course I regret what happened, but I also gave that little dog, damaged before I knew him, everything I had until I had no more to give.
I know exactly what my intention was there, and I don’t regret that for a second.
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Editorial Assistant: Jessica Sandhu/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Lindsey Block