The Inseparable Link Between Motivation and Practice

Rule #81

(#81) The Rule of Actions: An action presupposes a motivation, and a motivation presupposes a goal. There are no random or unintended behaviors, but there are manyunacknowledged and/or unadmitted goals. -Fred Kennedy-from “The Rules” (compiled by the late Ryugen Fisher Sensei and Jim Eubanks Sensei)

Sometimes “motivation” is misunderstood in Buddhism, particularly Zen. We hear instead an emphasis on not desiring, not seeking, and not acting. This emphasis on what is perceived as non-action contributes to the misunderstanding of the link between motivation and practice. This is due to the important Buddhist teaching that overzealously desiring, seeking and acting leads to attachment, that a denial of the realities of impermanence and causal conditioning ultimately facilitates a cycle of unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish. A more appropriate view of motivation reveals a categorical difference between not doing something “too much” or “over doing” and not doing it at all. We do indeed need and must value desiring, seeking and acting in Buddhism because these attitudes generate motivation, which is a necessary part of developing both a consistent practice and an earnest practice, one that works toward alleviating unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish. If we are appropriately motivated to achieve goals, we will recognize the value of the methods that will get us there. If we are not properly motivated, there is no imperative to make sure that what we do is efficient or successful. If I want to eliminate the “monkey mind” but work toward that goal only half-heartedly, or without any “real” desire to do so, there is no imperative to assess and reassess my practice to ensure that the goal of eliminating the monkey mind is being pursued appropriately.

The Buddha did not work in absolutes; he did not say “always do this” and “never do that.” Instead he advocated a balance based on the basic Buddhist teachings as they relate to the current situation, what we call “situational ethics.” It is pragmatic to set aside any sense of dogma and to act as a situation calls for rather than acting from a “script”. Likewise, even though most people in modern society tend towards excess as a compensation for unsatisfactoriness (like more money, more sex, more food), Buddhist teachings inform us to moderate our approach and not to eliminate it. The Buddha made clear in the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel that his paradigm was one of moderation between the extremes of excess and denial.

There is another critical aspect of motivation. A practitioner must ensure that an understanding of impermanence and causal conditioning informs what is desired, what is sought after, and how one acts to get there. In other words, as we develop goals and take concerted steps to cultivate various changes within ourselves, we must also remember–at each step along the way–that the path we are taking is subject to change. The path to any transformation take unexpected turns dependent on internal and external causal factors.

Taking this to heart, one can accept the reality of impermanence and causal conditioning and remain open to the many unforeseeable variables along the way without losing sight of the path. When we come across difficulties as we move towards our goals (like creating a daily practice), we must “go with the flow” instead of resisting those difficulties. We use the difficulties to facilitate our continued progress instead of fighting against them. Samuel Beckett saying, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” can act as a mantra to strengthen motivation.

The Passion: Motivation in Pragmatic Buddhism

What makes a person a Buddha, as distinct from other enlightened persons (called arahants), is that a Buddha discovers and teaches the path to enlightenment. What is crucially important about all Buddhas is that they began and ended life as human beings (what they are at this moment is an open debate). According to the early Buddhist tradition, the path blazed by the Buddha is a path available to all human beings who strive in each moment to attain the moral conduct (sila), mental culture (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna) taught by the Buddha.

John J. Holder in his book Early Buddhist Discourses offers that Siddhartha Gautama was driven by motivation and goals. It is this “passion” that was a causal factor in him leaving his family to search out experiences that might lead to answers to his questions, it allowed him to study and master all of the major spiritual and philosophical schools of his day and meet or exceed their knowledge and level of practice. The Buddha had a clear purpose in mind throughout his studies which was to understand the origination and termination of human unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). Once he mastered the available worldviews and came to realize that a “middle way” was necessary to resolve unsatisfactoriness, he came to the realization that knowledge mandates responsibility. To the Buddha, one who truly understands the dharma shares that understanding selflessly and through all his or her attitudes and actions become an example to others that personal responsibility is a critical component when walking the middle path. In doing this, the Buddha also became a great source of inspiration for others. As Daniel Coyle states in his excellent book, The Talent Code: “Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening. Where deep practice is an incremental wrapping, ignition works through lightning flashes of image and emotion, evolution-built neural programs that tap into the mind’s vast reserves of energy and attention. Where deep practice is all about staggering-baby steps, ignition is about the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be. We usually think of passion as an inner quality. But the more I visited hotbeds [of exceptionally talented groups of people], the more I saw it as something that came first from the outside world.”

We can see that Buddhism not only leaves room for an understanding of and appreciation forpassion/motivation/goal-oriented thinking and acting,” it requires it for success. While we remember that we must be open to change, we stay focused on our continued practice and development. The earnest cultivation of new behaviors, what Coyle and other Buddhists have called “deep practice,” is coupled with our positive intention to not only do it, but do it with excellence. We move through deep practice step-by-step and use our mistakes to inform our next step. Our motivation for practice is to make being a better human being a habit, to make excellence in our personal character a habit.

As Aristotle said, “Excellence is a habit.” Indeed it is.



by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The modern world offers us a multitude of distractions whether we are at home or at work, distractions the Buddha couldn’t have conceived in his culture and era. Checking emails, texting, Samsung phones and iPads, Hulu and YouTube, checking the latest news on the Internet, eBay, Twitter, the phone ringing and just looking out the widow to check the weather. People must actually like distractions because so many of them look for distractions and engage them. Discovering a new television show that’s coming up on Netflix or seeing what Donald Trump is up to can be entertaining and disturbing. In the midst of the seemingly overwhelming distractions you can engage the intent of Appropriate Concentration and create and maintain an engaged, responsive and productive state of being. Develop a skillful way to concentrate or focus on whatever task needs to be done.

Being distracted, along with multitasking, creates the opposite state of being from focused, from concentration. Focus is safer . . . think of driving a car. It is more effective . . . think of what you haven’t gotten done yet. Focus is satisfying . . . think of how you felt the last time you fully completed a task.

Distractions come to us in two major ways. Multiple tasks are calling out to us to grab our attention and time. In the midst of those tasks is the real need for the bodymind to have moments of relaxation and reinvigoration. You can skillfully re-describe distractions giving them value in the pursuit of tasks, more on this later.

The modern world is not only full of distractions but it is equally as full of things that must be done. Chores, work assignments, scheduled activities for the kids, appointments of all kinds and the dreaded “this needs to done right now . . . not later . . . now” situations. With so much that needs to be done, and the distractions in our contemporary society it is no wonder that the glories of multitasking are touted as an antidote to anxiety and confusion.

Multitasking has long been touted as a positive aspect of the American work ethic. The concept of multitasking is a misnomer and a major distraction to pursuing deep practice. In Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, Marc Lesser writes, “There are two primary types of distractions: those that draw us in multiple directions at once, resulting in confusion and an inability to complete a thought or action, and those that provide mental relaxation, offering small “breaks” that support intense focus and effort. Clearly we want less of the former and more of the latter.”

You’re right to ask here, what is deep practice? In talking about Appropriate Speech I bring up an ideal attributed to Thich Naht Hanh know as Deep Listening, the actof sincerely giving over your whole attention to what is being said. Doing so allows you to hear what is really being said, as opposed to what you might want to hear, or think you hear. Deep practice has the same foundational ideal. You sincerely give over total concentration to the task at hand so you get done what needs doing in an effective and timely manner. This doesn’t mean no breaks . . . we’ll get to that in a moment.

Multi-tasking is the negative distraction that the author is referring to in the quote above. Multi-tasking might make us feel more important and more valuable in our jobs and private lives but it is an anathema to deep practice. The human brain and body is good but it never truly does two things at once. It bounces back and forth between actions/thoughts making excellence in any task nearly impossible to achieve. We might be 100% focused on multi-tasking but we won’t be 100% focused on either task.

Mr. Lesser offers that a small break, five minutes of mindfulness, standing and stretching, or just taking three deep cleansing breaths can help to maintain intense focus rather than diminish it. There is to be experienced in Mr. Lesser’s concept. For example, during meditation retreats when periods of up to three hours are spent in silent meditation breaks are taken within each hour for meditators to rise and perform a short session of Qigong or just stretch their muscles and breath deeply before continuing to sit. What works on the cushion works as well off.

Multiple tasks and distractions can be detrimental to whatever you need to accomplish. What if you turned multiple tasks into distractions that would work for you in two ways . . . you take a break from a concentrated task and get something done on another task? You’d remain in an engaged, responsive and productive state of being more of the day, and get multiple tasks accomplished.

Whenever I have a time-consuming, brain-busting, thought and action heavy period of writing or studying to do I make sure there is also a necessary chore needing to be done, and that is what I use for a distraction. Not a distraction for fun . . . a productive distraction. I skillfully re-describe what would be multitasking to deeply practicing one task and engaging another task as a distraction. I’ve been doing this for so long now that both tasks become distractions for the other and I get more done during the “work day” and have more time to relax when the “work day” is over.

For example, today I sit editing this very dharma talk. I know I’m going to do some refresher reading, a little Internet searching, time for contemplation, and lots of typing. Monday is also the day I do laundry, washing clothes, drying, hanging up, folding and putting away. So, when my eyes are tiring and my focus slipping from reading and searching and writing, I go put a load in, switch a load to dryer, hang up clothes on the line or folding and putting away clothes. Any one of those ‘distractions’ take five or ten minutes and then I am back to the computer and the books. Doing this I’ve come to look forward to doing laundry because it can be a welcome distraction and give my bodymind some downtime. Focusing intently on laundry for five minutes often allows me a new perspective when I get back to the major task.

I don’t engage in frivolous or meaningless activities during ‘breaks’. No email checking, no Twitter, no Hulu, or computer games. Whatever is the ‘distraction’ that day is a chore that must be done. It’ll be walking the dogs or giving them baths, weeding the herb or rose garden, washing the car, dishes, cleaning out the refrigerator . . . you get the point.

This isn’t really multitasking because total concentration is given to the ‘distraction’ for its time. I’m not thinking about the dharma talk while doing laundry . . . I’m doing laundry then. Distraction becomes a positive action rather than a hindrance to what needs to be done, because they become one and the same. You may be thinking that this sounds suspiciously like multitasking with a new name. I’d agree, except experience has taught me otherwise. There is 100% concentration on the process, or deep practice. The task and the distraction are immersed in totally during their time.

In order to maintain appropriate concentration on a task you must allow yourself a distraction. This is another of those seeming Buddhist paradoxes. Focus on the task, but for a some moments don’t focus on the task. The skillful means of doing this is to choose your “distractions” wisely. Rather than multi-task, accomplish multiple tasks each in their own moments.

Wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.” William James

Meat and Meditation – Part One

by Wayne Ren-Cheng


There are two aspects of what Westerners understand of Buddhism that are likely to deter them from pursuing its philosophy and practice. These constitute engaging in a regular meditation practice and foregoing the eating of meat; sitting with themselves quietly and changing their diet. It is one or the other, or both of these reasons that many Westerners give for not wanting to be Buddhists. The question then is can a person be a Buddhist and do neither, meditation or be a vegetarian? In this moment we’ll delve into the diet issue; in the next moment it will be sitting.

For a Nikayan Buddhist, one who looks to the earliest written down discourses of the Buddha it is clear that the Buddha allowed the eating of meat by his disciples (in these early discourses disciple is what we now call monks). There are strict stipulations but the intent is clear. These are found in the Jivaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya #55). Jivaka, a disciple, asked the Buddha about the consumption of meat. The Buddha’s reply was that meat would be unsuitable if the living animal had been chosen by the disciple, if the living animal had been mistreated or mishandled, if the intent was the animal was slain specifically to feed that monk, if the living thing was frightened, or if knowing any of these things to be true the disciple/monk consumed it anyway. In any of these instances either the consumer, the provider, or both would engender negative karmic consequences.

Zen Master D.T. Suzuki in his commentary on the Lankavatara Sutta (an important Mahayana sutra) states that the chapter dealing with eating meat was added in later versions of the sutta and was likely not the authentic words of the Buddha. There is ample evidence in the Pali Nikayas that show that this total rejection of meat as part of the diet was not part of early Buddhist philosophy.

In the article ‘What the Buddha Said About Eating Meat’ on the Urban Dharma website ( Ajahn Brahm, a British Theravada monk offers insight into this subject. Here are some excerpts:

Since the very beginning of Buddhism over 2500 years ago, Buddhist monks and nuns have depended on almsfood. They were, and still are, prohibited from growing their own food, storing their own provisions or cooking their own meals. Instead, every morning they would make their day’s meal out of whatever was freely given to them by lay supporters. Whether it was rich food or coarse food, delicious or awful tasting it was to be accepted with gratitude and eaten regarding it as medicine. The Buddha laid down several rules forbidding monks from asking for the food that they liked. As a result, they would receive just the sort of meals that ordinary people ate – and that was often meat.

However there are some meats which are specifically prohibited for monks to eat: human meat, for obvious reasons; meat from elephants and horses as these were then considered royal animals; dog meat – as this was considered by ordinary people to be disgusting; and meat from snakes, lions, tigers, panthers, bears and hyenas – because one who had just eaten the flesh of such dangerous jungle animals was thought to give forth such a smell as to draw forth revenge from the same species!

The Vinaya, then, is quite clear on this matter. Monks and nuns may eat meat. Even the Buddha ate meat. Unfortunately, meat eating is often seen by westerners as an indulgence on the part of the monks. Nothing could be further from the truth – I was a strict vegetarian for three years before I became a monk.

It is recommended that you read the entirety of the article and search out other insights on the web and at your local library.

So, to be a Buddhist one doesn’t have to be a vegetarian. The question then arises why are so many Buddhists vegetarian, or at least claim to be? There is a good reason.

Some followers of the Mahayana tradition cite, among others, the Brahmajala Sutra, the Brahma’s Net Sutra as a Buddhist text that calls for the abstention of the eating of meat of any kind. This text was written in the 5th century by an unknown author, later translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva. It is considered apocryphal (not accepted as part of the canon) by some, while most Mahayana scholars and monastics hold to the opposite belief, that its words were spoken by the Buddha. This writing offers that abstention from eating meat is part of the broader intent of the first of the Bodhisattva Precepts, Not to kill or encourage others to kill. The idea is that by consuming meat one is requiring others to kill. In the Mahayana version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha is quoted in a final teaching before his death, “the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of Great Kindness”, that compassion falls away if one eats meat. Later Mahayanist texts like Lankavatara Sutra strongly favor a vegetarian diet. This likely arose through cultural changes as Buddhist monks began to gather in fixed location monasteries and monks no longer performed alms rounds. Before that the Buddha instructed all monks to wander, to visit the towns and villages, to accept the alms they were given, to teach and to examples to others. Once the monastics spent the majority of their time in monasteries the local lay people became responsible for supporting them. This meant that any meats were most likely killed and butchered by the lay people specifically for the monastic community, one of the Five Instances to be avoided in the consumption of meat that the Buddha explains in the Jivaka Sutta. This precipitated a spiritual need to choose a vegetarian diet.

The most common reason that a Western Buddhist will give for not eating meat is that it strengthens their compassion and loving-kindness. It may do just that. That the eating of meat does encourage industries that treat animals in cruel ways and kill millions of animals is undeniable and that abstention eases some small part of that suffering cannot be denied.

The Buddha Gate Monastery website ( offers eloquently this view. There are many expedient means to help us attain purity of body, speech, and mind. Expedient means can be thought of as a bridge or a pathway. Whether at work or in spiritual cultivation, it will not be easy to succeed without using expedient means. In cultivation, a first expedient means is to practice vegetarianism. The spirit of Buddhism is compassion and equality. If we wish to attain a mind of compassion and equality, first, we should not kill; second, we should save and protect lives; third, we should practice vegetarianism. If we can accomplish all these, our compassionate mind will manifest. A compassionate mind is the Buddha’s mind. Therefore, even though practicing vegetarianism seems ordinary, its significance is profound and far-reaching.

It is a fact though that many Mahayanists around the world do not follow a vegetarian diet.

Again, find other views on the web or at your local library concerning Buddhism and vegetarianism.

In our own time and culture there are Buddhists, and those of other world-views who are smug vegetarians who negatively judge others for eating meat. In the view of both traditional and contemporary Buddhist thought a monk or lay person who claims spiritual superiority because they are a vegetarian is considered to have an immature practice, one where the ego is still prevalent.

In the Frequently Asked Questions section of the Accesstoinsight website in answer to the question: “Do Buddhists have to be vegetarian?”, the answer is that the choice of whether or not to eat meat is a personal choice in Theravada Buddhism. Though many who choose to follow the Middle Path may eventually decline to eat meat out of compassion for animals, vegetarianism is a choice not a commandment.

This is a complicated issue whether one is a Buddhist or not. Buddhist philosophy doesn’t demand that one be a vegetarian but it does offer us ways to make that decision on our own.

Whichever we choose, herbivore or carnivore or omnivore we must remain mindful of our interconnection with everything around us. As part of our daily practice we must develop mindfulness of those connections and what we eat can be an opportunity to practice. Before each meal take a moment to respect the journey what you are about to eat took to get to you.

“Let us be mindful of the journey this food took to reach us. May the energy we derive from consuming it be used to promote human flourishing.”

It isn’t diet that makes, or unmakes a Buddhist. Does meditation? That discussion comes in the next moment.



Reading Carla Hayden’s fascinating book, “The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures” I came across some information about how Thomas Jefferson categorized his library and was struck by the similarity to how a Buddhist practitioner might categorize the mind. She wrote, “Jefferson adapted his cataloging scheme from Sir Francis Bacon’s classification system that started with three main categories: Memory, Reason, and Imagination . . .” Later this system was changed to History, Philosophy and Fine Arts but the original system is reminiscent of the activities of the mind.

Memory is the history of our experiences, some that were built on truth while others are built on delusion. Memories are potent forces in your conscious and unconscious mind, forces that we can harness to improve how you see yourself and the world around you, or forces that can hamper your becoming how you imagine you can be.

Episodic memory arranges the separate sensory inputs the brain receives during an experience so that the incident later replays like a video in the mind. There must always be the acceptance that the video in the mind is not always an accurate one as it is causally conditioned by context and time. Semantic memory allows the recall of general information that can be engaged when needed. Repeated engagement of information that is experienced to have value in dealing with situations is what transforms to wisdom in a mature Buddhist practice. Emotional memory arises as the intense personal memories that can cause unwholesome reactions to phenomena without deep mindfulness of the danger of allowing the emotional context to dominate the mind.

Reason is the mind transforming knowledge and experience into worldview and into how you interact with the world around you. For a Buddhist reason arises from the dharma. The Three Refuges are the first step on the path to that reason. The Buddha, the teacher, the example of what a human being can do to transform themselves into beings capable of bringing compassion and liberation into existence. The Dharma, the Four Ennobling Truths that guide you on the path of appropriate view, intent, speech, action, livelihood, mindfulness, effort and concentration; these are the first guides to reason. Wholesome intent arises from reason that fully realizes the power of ceasing to do harm, doing only good, and doing good for others, the Pure Precepts; the power to transform the mind into one where the unwholesome cannot root, where the unwholesome growing there withers and falls away, where the unwholesome becomes only a memory.

Imagination is the mind constructing possibilities. The Sangha is a reservoir of like-minded individuals who imagine as you do. Imagination is the mind realizing the potential of human existence to not only walking the noble path of morality, generosity and acceptance but to achieving a mind of compassion, loving-kindness and finally of liberation. The appropriate view that you can be a better human being. Not a better human being than the person next to you. Imagination can open the heart and mind to the better human being you can be in the moment following the present moment.

The dharma is the realities of life. The ideals of the dharma are not only found in the words of the Buddha, the words of the many legacy teachers that followed him, or in the words of the dharma teachers from the many Buddhist traditions. It is also found in the wisdom of all those who came before you, and those among you right now. Listen deeply and allow a mind of memory, reason and imagination to flourish.

I bow with respect,

Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, Carla Hayden, Chronicle Books, 2017, ISBN  1452145407