What was it that my late aikido and Zen sensei asked me to do, on that day twenty-some years ago? I do remember his request struck me as difficult to carry out, and perhaps not really necessary. I recall with great clarity the short exchange that followed the request:
“I’ll try,” I waffled.
Sensei just stared at me.
“OK, I get it. There is no try, only do or don’t do.” I weakly attempted to mollify Sensei with a line from the new film, Karate Kid.
“That’s right,” Sensei replied. “But there is also intention.”
He’s gone from this Earth now, and I never had the chance to ask him what he meant.
What is intention? Where does it come from? We can see “do,” and “don’t do” is pretty easy to notice too. We can’t see intention. It would have been unlike Toyoda Sensei, a Zen master, to ask me to believe in something I could see, much less something invisible. If I were to say, “I decided,” or “I intend,” Sensei would have demanded to know who intended. Intention might, then, have something to do with ego.
Since intention also seems connected to making a decision, and I have published a book on Zen and decision making, my students tease me: “Sensei, did you figure out what intention is yet? Going to write a sequel?” A proper Zen master would say intention pops spontaneously from the enlightened mind, like water from a spring. This is trite, though, and not too informative.
(In martial art, we speak of reading the attacker’s intention. However, we also say that the moment of attack is a moment of insanity on the attacker’s part. We would prefer to know the nature and origin of intention in the sane mind.)
The Western psychological literature on the subject is murky too. In the ‘70s, Julian Jaynes suggested that Homeric times brought a shift in human consciousness. The Odyssey reflects a world in which the voices in a man’s head were presumed to be the gods sending directions. Characters in the later Iliad understand internal voices to be their own, talking to themselves. (Not much improvement, if you ask me.)
Later research seemed to show that the cerebral cortex censors impulses to speech or action, but does not originate them. Experiments that allowed subjects to self-report the moment of decision revealed that nerve signals to (for example) a finger were on their way well before the reported instant of deciding to move the finger. Whether the original impulse came from the old limbic (“lizard”) portion of the subject’s brain or from some telepathic connection with the Great Mind of the Universe was never settled. Either way, though the cortical censor can sometimes abort an action that comes from elsewhere, the censor, and the illusion of making the decision in the cortex, are sideshows to the main event.
Actually, this sounds very Zen, but isn’t a really satisfying answer to the question. And why my lizard brain, or yours, would decide to prove the Pythagorean theorem or read War and Peace… well, let’s not go there.
In 1992, D.C. Dennett mustered powerful arguments against the notion of the “Cartesian theater.” The Cartesian theater is the assumption – implicit in ordinary conversation and in much research, too – that there is a central control center, something like a little person sitting in a tiny director’s chair in front of a screen in one’s head. The Mini-Me sorts sense impressions, forms intentions, makes decisions, and sends out action orders.
The problems with the Cartesian theater are obvious. (What’s inside the little guy’s head?) It’s just that it’s hard to imagine an alternative that works. Robert A. Heinlein drew a deliciously ironic map of the Cartesian theater, and then in one last, short sentence demolished it:
What was an ego? He didn't know, but he knew he was one. By which he did not mean his body, nor, by damn, his genes. He could localize it – on the centerline, forward of his ears, back of his eyes, and about four centimetres down from the top of the skull – no, more like six. That was where he himself lived – when he was home – he would bet on it, to the nearest centimetre. He knew closer than that, but he couldn't get in and measure it. Of course, he wasn't home all the time.
Heinlein wrote this in 1942. Fifty years later, science caught up with literature when Dennett authoritatively dispensed with the Cartesian theater. With what did he replace it? Echoing the Homeric Greeks, Dennett sketched a brain made up of semi-autonomous personae. His modern twist is that these personae are organic computers, parallel processing at such a level of complexity that self-consciousness emerges as an epiphenomenon (translation: sideshow to the main event). Intention may originate in any one of these parallel processors – or in several at once, with some accidental algorithm allowing one or another to dominate.
How does this help us make the decision to make the intention to make a commitment to a teacher? Well, it doesn’t.
And that suggests we might try to reframe the question’s context. Seeing the question of
intention as coming from Fumio Toyoda the Zen master led to all the fruitless twists and turns above. However, the question as asked by F. Toyoda, the man from Japan, is more straightforward. A person steeped in the samurai tradition – as distinct from the Zen tradition – values sincerity (makoto) and obligation (giri). In this framework, proper behavior consists of “making up your mind, saying what you’re gonna do, and doing what you said you were gonna,” and shouldering the consequences if you don’t. In other words, it’s about correct social behavior, not about deep psychology.
There are, nonetheless, a couple of Zen lessons here. First, Western science has come to an Eastern-sounding conclusion about the brain: “There’s nobody home.” The notion can leave Westerners feeling adrift without a life jacket. Zen students, though, have had lots of practice in dealing with this reality, and the progress of Western psychology is just a further validation of Zen practice, if such is needed.
Second, beware of getting stuck to assumptions! My implicit assumption that my Sensei was imparting a Zen lesson stalled my understanding of “intention” for many years. Yes, a Zen master always speaks as a Zen master. But not everything he says is a koan. When the master says, “I’m hungry,” sometimes it just means it’s time to eat.
 Robert A. Heinlein, Beyond This Horizon. Signet, New York © 1942, p.127.