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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The Eightfold Path: Willingness and Experience

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

With the Four Ennobling Truths, Siddhartha set the groundwork for all Buddhists who would follow his teachings. In pragmatic Buddhism we use ennobling rather than the traditional translation of noble because like fertile ground the Truths are empty until used. Ennobling is an adjective, one that brings recognition that the Four Ennobling Truths are only furrows in a field. It isn’t until one is willing to plant the seeds, cultivate the ground, and experience what grows there is only emptiness.

Contemporary Buddhist scholars like Stephen Batchelor and David Kalupahana experience Siddhartha as presenting not a list of observations that if one believes their truth then that person can join the Buddhist club. Instead they experience the truths as a sequence of dependent origination or causality. The first Truth is, so the second is, the third is, the fourth is, and the fourth leads back to the first; and forms a causal loop. They are the truths that reveal the reality of how things are and of what works best in the here and now.

Why do we think this is what the Buddha meant? By looking at each of the ennobling truths we can see the corresponding action it requires.

#1 Unsatisfactoriness exists for human beings.

You must become fully aware of all the types of suffering that plague mankind and the world he lives in. Only by fully knowing unsatisfactoriness can we recognize the causes. You must accept that all human beings will encounter moments of suffering.

#2 The cause of unsatisfactoriness is craving, unnatural attachments and dualistic thinking that neglect an understanding of dependent origination,

You must look within (rigorous self-honesty) and without for the causes. The realization that nothing arises from nothing is where we begin. Craving for permanence and fear of change, a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Universe works, and an attachment to ego must be recognized as that cause.

#3 There is a path that leads to the cessation of craving and unnatural attachments of the mind, and thus there is a way to positively transform unsatisfactoriness.

The lessons of the Middle Path will lead us to the realization that suffering can be alleviated. You discover through experiential verification that the realities of the causal process of the Universe coupled with impermanence empower you to make the changes needed, to engage in positive transformation.

#4 This path is Eightfold.

In the Eightfold Path you find the dispositions of human beings that directly effect HOW you interact in an interconnected world. Like all Buddhist “lists” the Eightfold Path is not meant to stand alone but to be a dynamic and integral part of Buddhist practices, all which have an impact on HOW a Buddhist lives their life in relation to the causal Universe. The ideals of encompassing and corrective view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration when applied in conjunction with the Six Refinements become a “power tool” in the Buddhist toolbox.

The English Buddhist monk Novera said, “The four truths are not to be understood or known, they are injunctions in which we are directed to ACT!”

Wisdom, the sixth refinement is gradually developed as you practice generosity, morals, tolerance, energy and meditation, and acting with wisdom also helps us gradually develop those characteristics. For example the wise application of generosity takes more than just giving. You must learn to develop a clear and realistic view of the situation, what is needed as opposed to what is wanted. To start there will be a level of self-regard to your giving and that is a part of the gradual turning from that self-regard to selfless compassion. Your intent will undergo that change if you are mindful. The other aspects of the Eightfold Path – speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration – also have value in determining acts of generosity. Looking deeply into the Eightfold Path you’ll recognize the elements of the Six Refinements. View and intention are acts of wisdom. Speech, action and livelihood are acts of morals and ethics. Effort, mindfulness and concentration are acts of a meditative bodymind.

Like all Buddhist teachings meant to be useful and productive in the alleviation of suffering, their intent should lead us back to the ideals of the Four Ennobling Truths.

Dharma of the Individual

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhism in the West must find a way to skillfully harness the power of the individualistic view and action of those who choose the Noble Path. In each person is a reservoir of imagination, skills, gifts, compassion and the Buddha-element. These are reservoirs that can be tapped for the benefit of all. Their attitude might begin with the ideal of what’s in it for me. What does Buddhist philosophy and practice offer that will improve my situation? Each practitioner must be guided to the gradual realization that while expression is unique, suffering in some form is not. Awareness of the effects of the practitioners intent and action beyond themselves must be developed and nurtured so the realization that whatever the thought or action there are causal consequences.

There are practitioners who view Judeo/Christian beliefs as the cultural aspect of the West that Buddhism must come to terms with. In the West it is the dominant religious and social framework, especially in America. However, there is a prevailing psychological phenomena endemic to the majority of Americans regardless of religious or secular identity. Individualism. Finding skillful means of transforming perceptions of “what’s in it for me” to “what’s in it for all beings” is a major challenge for Western Buddhists.

We must first come to an understanding of individualism as a moral view and a social view common in the West. People who hold this worldview believe that the interests, wants and needs of the individual should come before that of any government or group. They resist all attempts by society or groups to interfere with their individual goals. The results of their individual actions might have some benefit to others but it is not their intention. Means of transforming individualism to an individual aware of the discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish of others and themselves equally, transforming individualism to an individual mindful of their own discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish.

In the Raga-vinaya Sutta: The Subduing of Passion (Anguttara Nikaya), the Buddha describes four types of individuals. There is one who practices only for their own benefit, one who practices only for the benefit of others, one who practices neither for their own benefit or the benefit of others, and one who practice for both their own benefit and that of others. The individualist tendency in the West is the first one described. That tendency is often what brings a Westerner to the practice of Buddhism, some want or need they hope that Buddhism can provide for them. The Buddha was clear that a Buddhist practice begins with development of the individual. He was equally clear that it must not end there. Skillful means must be found to lead the practitioner along a path to the fourth type of individual, one who practices for the benefit of self and others.

The lesson in the Lekha Sutta: Inscriptions (Anguttara Nikaya) offers a glimpse of that path. It describes three types of individuals based on their perceptions of their ability to transform. There is the individual that is like an inscription on rock, one that is like an inscription in soil, and one like an inscription in water. Each can be viewed as metaphor for the stages of bodymind in Buddhist practice.

An individualistic worldview combines the first type of person in each sutta. They will practice for only for their own benefit believing that like an inscription in rock their worldview is permanent. They hold to the ‘what’s in it for me’ mode of thinking and acting. Initially Buddhist practice can seem to verify this view. Emphasis is on personal transformation that begins with how that practice can improve the state of the individual bodymind. One learns to sit in meditation among a sangha, yet the bulk of that practice is done at home, alone, individually. One learns that emotions and habitual reactivities that plague the bodymind are transient phenomena, a view that the individual must come to realize. For a ‘what’s in it for me’ state of bodymind the serenity, the equanimity and the sense of personal accomplishment are enough, just what they were looking for. It is written in stone.

Siddhartha began his journey of personal spiritual transformation with the goal of understanding the forms of suffering he witnessed but never experienced. Prior to his achieving awareness of the plight of some human beings he was like an inscription in stone. In accordance with Hindu beliefs his personal and social actions were taken that would positively affect his rebirth. When he chose to leave his wife and child behind, to seek answers, he did so for his own benefit.

The next two types of individual present a danger to the bodymind and the view of an inscription in soil is a skillful way of getting beyond that danger. The view and action of one who practices only for the benefit of others misses entirely a critical aspect of Buddhism. The Buddha teaches that only with equanimity of focus on self and others can the value of the dharma be experienced. The person who practices neither for their own benefit or the benefit of others is going through the motions of being a Buddhist without any intent to engage the dharma in themselves or the world around them.

My nephew is an example of an individual who practices neither for himself or for others. He labels himself a Buddhist on forms for the United States Military because it allows him avoid particular requirements put on people of other faiths.

These views can seem to written in stone. In time and with effort any stone can be turned into soil. Buddhists are farmers and soil is where the unwholesome views and actions are weeded out and wholesome seeds planted and nurtured. Unwholesome views that are inscribed in a bodymind of soil can be transformed as the wind and water of the dharma wear them away allowing the planted seeds of appropriate view and intent to grow.

The fourth type of individual offered in the Raga-vinaya Sutta is the bodhisattva-in-training ideal, one who practices for the benefit of self and others. An individual that is like an inscription on water is most capable of reaching this view and intent, and taking the actions that arise as a result. They experience the current of the dharma from individualistic intent, to social intent, flow around the obstruction of neither self or social intent, to the realization that the dharma, when applied equally to self and other has its greatest value in the promotion of human flourishing.

Siddhartha transformed from one who practiced for their own benefit to one who practiced for the benefit of self and other. He awakened and stood up under the branches of the bodhi tree it is said he doubted his ability to teach others what he had come to realize as a Middle Path that could relieve the suffering of human beings. Siddhartha hesitated, and for that moment he was still practicing for himself. In the next moment he made the decision to try and transformed into one who would practice for self and others.

It takes skillful means to guide an individualistic Westerner along a path that not only accepts the benefit of the dharma to the individual but encourages it . . . in the beginning of practice, to the realization that practice of dharma is most valuable when equally engaged in service of the individual and society as that practice matures. This skillful means cannot just be the efforts and mentoring of a teacher. It must also arise in the thoughts and actions of the practitioner. To develop a mature Buddhist practice it takes both external and internal skillful means or one may find themselves inscribed in rock and fail to engaged the opportunities of soil and water to grow wholesome dispositions and habits.

 

A Squirrel and the Dharma: Pragmatism in Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Pragmatism is not a modern phenomena. It is a multi-layered philosophical concept with Charles Sandford Pierce and William James as its roots, and the growth of the Neo-pragmatist ideas of Richard Rorty as its branch into contemporary thought and action. There is thee realization that pragmatism did not begin with Pierce’s labeling it, that other philosophers and teachers practiced it before it was named. Big names like Socrates, Aristotle and Hume . . . and Siddhartha engaged the pragmatic method. It was a method of thought without a label.

William James, an early American pragmatic philosopher used an anecdote to explain the pragmatic method. Some years before he had been on a camping trip with a group of friends. Returning from a solitary hike in the surrounding woods he found a hot dispute going on among the men gathered around the camp fire. At the center of the argument was a squirrel – a live squirrel clinging to a nearby tree trunk. A human trying to get a glimpse of the squirrel would move around the tree in a clockwise direction. With each step around the squirrel would also move keeping the trunk between it and its pursuer. No matter how fast the man moved, the squirrel moved in the same direction always keeping the trunk between them. The dispute involved this question, “Does the man go round the squirrel or not?”

It was agreed by all that the man does go round the tree. The squirrel is on the tree. Does the man go round the squirrel, or only around the tree? Opinions were equally split. His friends looked to him to break the tie.

James’ response began with, “Which party is right depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel.” He went on to illustrate. One view is of the man moving north to east to south to west, and then north again as the squirrel circles the tree south to west to north to east, and then south again. In this the man is going around. A view that going around the squirrel means to first be in front of, to the right of, behind, to the left of, and finally in front again means that the man did not go round the animal because as it circles the tree it’s belly is always toward the man. The answer lies in the practical perception of the concept of going around.

This is James’ example of the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method, when applied to Buddhist philosophy and practice is to view each purposed thought through a lens of its probably causal consequences. James’ focus for the pragmatic method was its application to philosophical disputes. He experienced that those disputes became insignificant the moment they were subjected to the simple act of tracing the possible concrete consequences.

Siddhartha engaged the pragmatic method whenever he remained silent regarding metaphysical questions. The realization that any answer would be theoretical meant it would have no practical value in moment-to-moment engagement with the world.

Siddhartha practiced pragmatism. He set aside the habitual reactivities of the Hindu faith and beliefs of his culture. He set aside any metaphysical questions, dogmatic principles, the closed caste system, the concept of absolutes, and the search for how it all began. Instead he turned toward what thoughts and actions could make a positive concrete difference in how human beings engaged themselves and the world around them. He applied the pragmatic method to action, not only to thought.

The pragmatic method arises in the traditional parable of the “The Monks at the River”.

The Monks at the River”

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.

The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The senior monk was silent.

They continued on and soon the junior monk said, “But what will you tell the Master?”

The senior monk was silent.

It was against the rules.”

The senior monk said, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.” He engaged the pragmatic method. The senior monk set aside the dogma that declared “no touching women” and I can imagine the sequences of thoughts he processed. ‘The rule says no touching women’ but the Three Pure Precepts tell me to do good. Leaving the woman in fear on the bank of the river, with the possibility she might drown trying to cross on her own would do nothing to alleviate suffering. Assisting her in crossing will have the consequence of alleviating some of her suffering and will become a lesson for the younger monk. Considering the possible karmic consequences I choose to carry her across. I choose an appropriate view of the situation, a view that reveals the probable concrete consequences. I choose practical application of the ‘rule’ rather than a dogmatic one.

The aspect of pragmatism that arises in the parable is making practical decisions and taking practical actions in a unique situation. This requires a practitioner to set aside any dogma that declares “there is only one way” and respond to each unique situation in whatever manner will result in positive karmic consequences. To put it simply acting pragmatically is doing what is useful and productive in each moment.

Buddhist philosophy and American Pragmatic philosophy places a high degree of importance on direct experience (experiential verification) rather than on theory, and it focuses is “what we can do right now to make things better”. In the West it is important that prevalent worldviews such as pragmatism be brought to the foreground of Buddhist philosophy so that parallels in approach can be recognized. At the core of the American psyche is the drive to “do what is best”. In Buddhism the same is true. The American psyche readily applies this to the self, “do what is best” . . . for me”. Most Americans, either through family, school or friends, arrive at the worldview that all things they do must benefit themselves in some way . . . even those actions taken to help others. This is why donors get their names in the paper, and gold medals for outstanding non-profit work are given out. In Buddhism this idea of positive self-development is the first steps on the Noble Path, later to become selfless acts performed for the benefit of all beings. This is pragmatism in action and thought.

 

The story of the Buddha, and the teachings that followed his Awakening shows that the Buddha was pragmatist, he used skillful means, whatever practical method a situation called for to present the dharma and guide others on the Middle Path.

The Eightfold Path is an example of the Buddha’s use of pragmatism. The Eightfold Path isn’t a dogmatic blueprint of what we must do in given situations, instead each of the eight are guidelines that we must engage as part of how we are, be mindful of our experiences when doing so, and then use that knowledge to determine if those actions were useful and practically valuable. What works in one situation may not work in a similar situation. Each time this is done a practitioner comes closer and closer to the arising of wisdom. Such is the challenge that a Universe of co-dependent arising presents us with.

 

Whether a Buddhist practitioner looks to View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration . . . it is the responsibility of the individual to make an honest assessment of the situation and determine the most practical response. We want to take the most useful and productive course that leads to human flourishing. This is skillful pragmatism.

 

Does this mean we always make the right decision? Being human beings, no! And here is where pragmatism in the form of skillful means arises again. We shouldn’t berate ourselves for making the wrong choice . . . there is no sin, gilt or shame involved . . . instead we make another honest assessment of our actions and thoughts and DO BETTER NEXT TIME.

 

The pragmatic method, both in thought or action requires a practitioner to be situational. There is practical value in developing an appropriate view of each situation and taking actions appropriate to the promotion of human flourishing. Whether one is ‘going around a squirrel’ or ‘carrying a woman across a river’ a Buddhist practitioner must always strive to take whatever action will have the most practical value, whatever action leads to the most positive causal consequences.