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.

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THREE CHARACTERISTICS OF EXISTENCE: PRACTICE

THREE CHARACTERISTICS OF EXISTENCE: PRACTICE

In Buddhist philosophy there are Three Characteristics of Existence realized by the Buddha. These characteristics arise from the realities of causality and causally conditioned phenomena, and fall away due to the same realities. These characteristics are impermanence, suffering, and not-self. You cannot practice the three characteristics, yet your practice is interdependent on your realization of these philosophical concepts.

A passage in many discourses reads: “Impermanent indeed are the compounded (the conditioned) things; they are of the nature of arising and falling away. Having come into being, they cease to exist.” Things are characterized as impermanent because they are subject to three stages of being: arising (uppada), falling away (vaya), and decay or change (thitassa annathatta). Impermanence is a synonym for the Buddhist ideal of ‘arising and falling away’ or ‘birth and death’. Birth in the human sense, birth of an idea, also in the sense of the combining of material phenomena from constituent parts into what is viewed as an object fit into this concept. Death as applied to living beings is readily understood; death of inanimate phenomena is sometimes termed destruction even though nothing is every truly destroyed. Inanimate death is experienced as the breaking down of its present form.

Impermanence is causality and it causally conditions all phenomena, and the same is true for suffering and not-self. Things are impermanent due to the causal nature of the Universe and human beings suffer and exist as not-self due to that same nature. All phenomena from the material to the immaterial, from rocks to emotions act as both cause and effect as they arise and fall away. A rock striking you on the head can be a cause of pain; emotional pain can be a cause for you to throw a rock. All things are causally conditioned due to the causal nature of the Universe. You were not in pain until the rock hit you on the head; you reacted with emotion when you threw the rock. Experiences are causally conditioned by internal and external factors.

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Moments and Causality

CAUSAL MOMENTS

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The whole of the human experience is a sequence of causal moments. Some of those moments pass without notice, others never seem to pass. Each moment, no matter the span of time is causally conditioned by the moments before and by the conditions in that very moment. Then that moment conditions the ones beyond that experience. It is up to each of us that walk the Noble Path to be mindful that each moment presents us with an opportunity to take action intended to have wholesome causal effects on others and ourselves. It is up to each of us that walk the Noble Path to take firm hold of this responsibility.

“Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.” This verse is from the intentional practice of Sharing the Merit that is recited at the close of meditation and sangha sessions. It is a ritual of intent meant to remind us that the journey from birth-to-death is short and that we must make the most of each moment. The human life span, on average is 80 years. At age 20 that seems a long way off; at 60 the view shortens considerably. The appropriate view isn’t how many years are ahead, it is how do we make each moment count in the pursuit of liberation and human flourishing.

Zen Master Eihei Dogen is revered for the transformation he brought to Japanese Buddhist meditation practices. He also spoke of the utter continuity between being and time; that time is interconnected to, but not interdependent on all phenomena, animate and inanimate. Experiential examples of that interconnectedness is found in human aging, the effects of erosion on earth, and global warming all due in part to the passage of time. Along with time though there is another factor, causal conditioning or dependent origination.

A Zen practitioner is instructed to “be in the moment” in meditation practice and in the course of daily life. They train themselves to engage mindfulness and awareness in every moment so that appropriate choices can made in the variety of situations that life encompasses. There is great value in doing so no matter the Buddhist path being walked. What must first be clear is what is a moment anyway. Master Dogen offered a view in order to define “in the moment”. He determined that in each day there are 6,400,099,180 moments, moments that happen in 1/75th of a second. A quick math exercise reveals that an hour equals 266,670,799 moments, a minute equals 4,444,510 moments, a second equals 7407 moments, the time it takes to snap your fingers equals 60 moments. Moments come and go very quickly.

There are 6 billion, 400 million, 99 thousand, and 180 moments in each day and Zen practitioners are meant to “be in” each and every one, to maintain a high level of mindfulness and awareness in order to do so. Dogen likely wasn’t expecting others to memorize these numbers be he must have thought that knowing them would bring about the realization that time does swiftly pass by. One could find themselves disconnected from experiences if moments were allowed to pass without one being mindful and aware of their passage. Things change, impermanence happens in each moment. This can be intimidating, the ideal that being in the moment requires mindfulness and awareness 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year in each of the daily 6 billion, 400 million, 99 thousand, 180 moments.

Buddhaghosa, an Indian Buddhist scholar of the 5th century CE is most famous for writing the Visuddimagga, a Theravada based commentary on the Tripitaka (the Three Baskets). It included his own ‘theory of moments’ in which he used the textual components of Buddhism to make his point. He wrote, “Herein, the flowing present finds mention in the commentaries, the enduring present in the sutras (discourses). Some say that the thought existing in the momentary present becomes the object of insight.” Buddhaghosa offers that when studying or writing about Buddhist texts that commentaries are the lessons being engaged in the moment they are written so culture, context and experience shape the thoughts of the writer. The discourses or sutras, whether recited from memory or written down are the foundational moments those thoughts arise from; they endure before and beyond the writer. The reader’s thought, dependent on culture, context and time arises in the present moment of that individual and can provide a view of that immediate experience. A past moment transforms into a present moment, and is an immediate moment. How can this theory of moments have value in a contemporary Buddhist practice? With a touch of creative re-description.

The enduring present is the experience itself that is viewed without delusion or perception. It is what is actually happening, the reality or dharma. This is what must be appropriately responded to. What we tell ourselves in the midst of a momentary experience, with or without delusion is the flowing present. Language based in reality is more likely to lead to a wholesome response than language intended to sooth the ego or avoid the issue. The thoughts that arise during a momentary experience should be remembered if they lead to wholesome effects, or they can be allowed to fall away when unwholesome effects are the result. This is the insight that Buddhaghosa wrote of. The practitioner must learn from each experience no matter how long the moment lasts. The whole of any experience or moment is causally conditioned by the past and present and conditions the present and the future.

Eihei Dogen offers the 1/75th of a second suddenness of a moment. Buddhaghosa offers three aspects of each moment. Two paths arise from these views. One of a minute span of time and another of such complexity in each moment that it would be extremely difficult for the human mind to process a momentary experience within it. A third path can be blazed to engaging moments in a contemporary Buddhist practice.

Moments become a more accessible ideal when the reality that a moment isn’t a span of time is engaged. Instead it is viewed as a span of experience that is dependent on moments before it. Sure a moment can happen in the “snap of finger”. The suddenness of an enlightened moment, of satori, when all hindrances fall away and Buddha-element is revealed is such a moment. The gradual training of meditation, character building, practicing of Buddhist ideals such as generosity of spirit and acceptance that may take decades to affect the practitioner and others is also a moment. View moments not as chunks of time, instead as the whole of experiences keeping the insight that within each gradual moment there will be sudden moments.

With the acceptance that each moment causally conditions the following moments a practitioner more fully realizes the value of moral thought and ethical action. The thought or action we engage in each moment matters. What we do matters. Cease to do harm so no harm is done. Do good so good is done. Do good for others so they will do good for others.

The practice of the bodymind being in each of the 6 billion, 400 million, 99 thousand, and 180 moments that Master Dogen offers is in each day isn’t a pragmatic goal. It is more valuable and useful to practice being mindful and aware of each experience, each situation we find ourselves having to respond to during the day. It isn’t the quantity of moments that is the reality of the lives of human beings; it is the quality of each experience in which we engage the ideals of our practice.

Rock in the Road – Uncovering Buddha-element

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

A student asked, “Is Buddha-element easy to find?”

“No.”

“Then why should I put in the effort to find it?”

That led to a tale.

There was a road that led to a magnificent castle. The people of the kingdom used the road to get to that castle where they could sell their produce, their wares and get what they needed to live. It was a rough road made even more treacherous by a large rock directly in the middle of it.

Horses were made lame by stumbling on it. Wagon wheels shattered when they bumped against it. People who climbed over it would fall breaking legs, arms and sometimes heads. It made a trip to the market a challenge.

One day a family of farmers headed into the castle to sell their wagon load of vegetables stopped before the rock. Ahead of them a wagon had lost a wheel to the rock. The tipped over wagon had spilled melons across the ground, some cracked open and others bruised beyond use.

In the farmer’s wagon a young girl turned to her father and said, “Father, why is that rock allowed to remain there? It causes so much anger and loss, still no one tries to move it.”

Daughter, it has always been there and there it will remain.”

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