By Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche, Ph.D.
A woman buys a fancy hat and then returns it a few days later for a refund.
Is this moral?
That’s crazy, you say. As long as the woman has a receipt, there’s been no damage to the item and the store policy permits it, what does morality have to do with returning a hat? Potentially plenty.
To Buddhists, very few actions—even the seemingly innocent act of getting a refund—are ever without consequence. The reason lies in something that we cannot easily discern but that ultimately plays a major part in our well-being and peace of mind: intentions.
Intentions are powerful but ephemeral—so much so that, in Buddha’s day, many spiritual teachers disregarded intentions altogether. The yogis of the time believed that action alone dictated one’s karma. Buddha’s insistence on backing up the process, in making the doer’s intentions the determining factor for a deed, was a radical idea that marked the beginning of a new philosophical path.
The idea is just as radical and relevant today.
The Buddhist teaching on intention also challenges our Western obsession with results. In many ways, we embrace—even celebrate—the Machiavellian notion that the ends justify the means. We believe in winning at all costs. We talk about “road kill,” joke about “show me the money” and offer contrition only when caught. Even then, it is with an asterisk—as evidenced by the recent competition-made-me-do-it confessions of professional athletes who have been found to use performance-enhancing drugs.
Intention is why even a small donation can reap big karmic gains. As long as the giver does so with pure motivations, not for ego-gratification or praise, the merit of the donation outweighs the amount.
Does this mean Buddhist morality is relative? Not really.
The Buddha was actually quite forceful in his warnings about the consequences of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, gossip and the use of harsh or divisive speech. He made it very clear that we are to refrain from causing harm. He left it to us to be honest with ourselves when we face decisions that fall in the gray area, where we are tempted to make excuses for our actions. He taught that even if we aren’t honest, the karmic law of intention, action and reaction will apply despite our state of denial.
For this reason, Buddha boiled his philosophy down to three basic tenets. Refrain from bad conduct. Do more good. And purify the mind.
Now back to the lady and the hat. Whether her return of the hat is moral depends on her intentions when she bought it in the first place.
Let’s say she tried it on and thought it looked good. She bought it with the intention of keeping it. When she got home, though, her husband broke out in laughter. “When did you start wearing a fruit basket on your head?” he said. After taking a second look in the mirror, the woman realized he was right and marched right back to the store for a refund.
In a Buddhist sense, no harm, no foul.
But what if the woman bought the hat under false pretenses, never intending to keep it? What if she only wanted to “borrow” it for a special occasion?
Since the store is presumably in the business of selling merchandise, not renting it, the woman’s purchase would be subterfuge. In a Buddhist sense, she would be engaging in a subtle form of theft and not-so-subtle form of deception. If the clerk asked if there was a problem, that deception could become an outright lie: “Nothing, I just didn’t think it was me, after all.”
So an innocent-looking act ends up being not so innocent after all. And the difference, as always, depends on the intent behind it.