Are Buddhists Ambitious?
by Venerable Thubten Chodron©
When people first begin Dharma practice, they often
ask, "Buddhism says clinging attachment is a disturbing attitude.
If I diminish my clinging attachment, what will happen to my ambition?
Will I be listless and lack motivation to do anything? What will
happen to my career?" Similarly, they wonder, "What role
does ambition play when we organize Dharma events and volunteer
work in a Dharma center? How do we know if our efforts are positive?"
These are good questions and to answer them
we must distinguish between constructive ambition and destructive
ambition. Ambition, like desire, can have two aspects, depending
upon the motivation and the object sought. Negative ambition pursues
worldly success and worldly pleasures with a self-centered motivation.
Positive ambition seeks beneficial goals with one of the three kinds
of Dharma motivation: to have a good rebirth in the future, to be
liberated from the difficulties of cyclic existence, and to attain
full enlightenment in order to benefit all beings most effectively.
When speaking of the first hindrance to genuine
Dharma practice -- attachment to the happiness of only this life
-- the Buddha spoke of the desire or ambition for material possessions,
money, fame, praise, approval, and sensory pleasures such as food,
music, and sex. Due to our strong desire to have the pleasure we
think these things will bring, we often harm, manipulate, or deceive
others to obtain them. Even if we strive for these things without
directly ill-treating others, our mind is still locked into a narrow
state, seeking happiness from external people and objects that do
not have the ability to bring us lasting happiness. Thus, the time
we could spend developing unbiased love, compassion and wisdom is
diverted into seeking things that do not satisfy us in the long
term. To bring about lasting happiness, we need to decrease this
kind of ambition by first, seeing its disadvantages -- these actions
create problems in our relationships with others and also plant
negative karmic imprints on our mindstream -- and second, recognizing
that the things worldly ambition seek lack the ability to bring
us long-term happiness. There are many rich and famous people who
are miserable and suffer from emotional problems and alcoholism.
As we gradually decrease our worldly ambition,
space opens up in our mind to act with compassion and wisdom. This
is positive ambition. Compassion -- the wish that living beings
be free of suffering -- can be a powerful motivator for action.
It can replace the anger that previously motivated us when we saw
social injustice, and inspire us to act to help others. Similarly,
constructive ambition is imbued with the skillful wisdom that reflects
carefully on the long- and short-term effects of our actions. In
short, through consistent practice, the energy of our selfish ambitions
for worldly pleasures is transformed into the energy of practicing
the Dharma and benefiting others.
For example, let's say Sam is very attached
to his reputation. He wants people to think well of him and speak
well of him to others, not because he really cares about people,
but because he wants people to give him things, to do things for
him, and to introduce him to famous and powerful people. With this
motivation, he may lie, cover up his shortcomings, pretend to have
qualities he doesn't have, or to have contacts which are, in fact, bogus.
Or, he may even do something seemingly nice, such as speak sweetly
to someone, but his intention is solely to fulfill his selfish wish.
If he stops and reflects, "What is the
result of such an attitude and actions? Will attaining what my ambition
seeks really bring me happiness?" Sam would realize that, in
fact, he is creating more problems for himself and others through
his deceit and manipulation. Although at the beginning he may be
able to fool people, eventually he will give himself away and they
will discover his base motives and lose faith in him. Even if he
succeeds in getting the things he wants and initially feels good,
these things will not leave him totally satisfied and will bring
with them a new set of problems. In addition, he is creating negative
karma, which is the cause to have problems in future lifetimes.
By thinking in this way, his worldly ambition will die down and
there will be now space to think clearly. Reflecting on his interdependence
with all beings, Sam will understand that his own and others' happiness
are not separate. How could he be happy if those around him are
miserable? How could he bring about others' happiness if he neglects
himself? He could then engage in various projects with this new,
more realistic motivation of care and concern for self and others.
As we leave behind worldly ambitions, we can
approach our job and career with a new motivation. With worldly
ambition, we grasp at our paycheck and everything we want to buy
with it, and are concerned with our reputation in the workplace
and getting the promotions we seek. When we recognize that even
if we got those things they would not make us everlastingly happy,
nor would they give ultimate meaning to our lives, then we can relax.
This relaxation is not laziness, however, for now there is room
in our minds for more altruistic and far-reaching attitudes which
motivate our work. For example, in the morning before going to work,
we can think, "I want to offer service to my clients and colleagues.
My purpose in working is to benefit these people and to treat them
with kindness and respect." Imagine how different our working
environment would be if even one person -- us -- acted with that
intention as much as we could! We can also think, "Whatever
happens today -- even if I get criticized or stressed out -- I will
use it to learn about my mind and to practice the Dharma."
Then, if unpleasant things happen at work, we can observe our minds
and try to apply the Dharma antidotes to disturbing emotions such
as anger. If we are not successful with quieting our mind down on
the spot, when we come home we can review what happened and apply
the Dharma antidotes, in this example, by doing one of the meditations
to generate patience. In this way, we can see that giving up worldly
ambition will actually make us kinder, more relaxed, and thus more
efficient at our work. And curiously, those are the qualities that
will naturally bring us a better reputation and even a promotion,
although we may not directly be seeking them!
Sometimes, if we are not careful, our worldly
ambitions become involved with Dharma projects. For example, we
may become attached to being someone important in the eyes of our
spiritual master and become jealous of or compete with fellow disciples
for our teacher's attention. We may seek to be powerful in our Dharma
center so that things are done according to our ideas and we get
the credit for the center's achievements. We may want to have many
expensive and beautiful Buddha statues, Dharma books, and photographs
of spiritual masters so that we can show them off to our Buddhist
friends. We may want to have the reputation of being a good meditator
or one who has taken many initiations and done several retreats.
In such cases, although the objects and people
we are around are Buddhist, our motivation is not. It is the same
worldly ambition, only now it is more deadly because it focuses
on Dharma objects. It is easy to get caught in this trap. We think
that just because we work in Dharma groups, go to teachings, or
have Buddhist objects, that we are practicing Dharma. This is not
necessarily the case. A motivation seeking reputation, possessions
and so forth for the happiness of only this life contaminates our
actions It is only by repeatedly looking at our motivation that
we can discern whether or not it is worldly or Dharmic. Often, we
discover our motivations are mixed: we do care about the Dharma
and want to serve others, but we also want our efforts to be noticed
and appreciated and to receive some recognition or remuneration
in return. It is normal to find such mixed motivations, for we are
not yet realized beings. Should we discover a mixed motivation or
one tainted by worldly concern, then we need to contemplate its
disadvantages as explained before and deliberately generate one
of the three Dharma motivations.
The purpose of our practice is not to look like
we are practicing Dharma, but to actually practice it. Practicing
Dharma means transforming our minds. This occurs in our own minds.
Statues, books, Dharma centers, and so forth help us to do this.
They are the tools which help us actualize our purpose; they are
not the practice itself. Thus, to progress along the path, we continuously
have to be aware of our internal thoughts and feelings and examine
if they concern worldly ambitions and desires, which are by nature
self-centered and narrow. If they do, we can transform them into
the positive ambition and desire for more noble aims such as the
happiness of others, liberation from cyclic existence, and the full
enlightenment of a Buddha. As we gradually do so, the benefit to
ourselves and others will be apparent.