Motivation or intention precedes any activity, even if we don’t realize or acknowledge it. According to traditional Buddhist teachings, the initial motivation really determines whether action is virtuous or non-virtuous.  Giving rise to the right motivation or intention guarantees that we will accumulate a lot of merit and that our activity will be virtuous. 

In this clip from Khenpo Gyaltsen’s teaching tour in Singapore from 2015, he discusses motivation.  And here he reminds us that motivation matters for both spiritual practice and for happiness and success in daily life. Khenpo teaches here mostly in Tibetan and we provide translation into English.

Vast Motivation or Intention of Bodhicitta

The scriptures speak of the vast intention of the bodhisattva and the profound aspect of the Vajrayana path. But when we begin, we first set our intention by bringing to mind the mind set on benefiting all sentient beings–bringing them to complete and full awakening.  It is easy to recite the words that we are going to act for the service of all sentient beings–but to actually bring this wish into our hearts is difficult, but important.

Inside Motivation or Intention

Tibetan, we use the word “nang pa” to refer to ourselves as Buddhists–meaning an “insider” . This actually means that we are searching for truth within–concentrating on the  inside–on the internal aspects or internal life. When we speak of other religious practitioners, Tibetan texts refer to those people as “outsiders”–and the texts generally here spoke of Indian Hindu followers. 

So we need to begin by looking inside ourselves at our intention and our motivation.  We know from our own practical experience in daily life that having a good intention is important.  For Buddhist practice, developing the intention is the heart of the matter. We say in the scriptures that the root of Dharma is faith and refuge, but the heart of the Dharma is bodhicitta. If we lose the heart of the spiritual practice, then we cannot call it Buddhist practice.  If we lose our physical heart, we lose our life, right? Likewise, we need to develop this spiritual heart of bodhicitta.

In ordinary life, we value people who repay the kindness of others who have helped them.  We call these people upstanding people, don’t we? We consider this conduct excellent. And similarly, in Buddhist practice, we pay the highest respect to those who seek to repay the kindness of all sentient beings. But if someone tries to harm others, especially those who have helped us, we consider that behavior very poor.

If someone has good motivation, but the person acts unskillfully, people still like and respect the person.  But if someone has poor motivation and pretends to act well, people will lose respect and avoid the person. We need to think about this in terms of our families, our small groups and communities. So even when we consider happiness in this single lifetime, we can understand that good intention is important.

Motivation or Intention as Ground

For spiritual practice, motivation is like the ground, the plowed field of everything. 

We frequently use this traditional metaphor because we can all relate to growing things. If we plant seeds in a well-prepared field, the crops will grow stronger and healthier, right? If we want beautiful flowers or fruit, we know we need to do some preliminary work.

But if we have negative intentions, we might instead compare that to a hard, unwatered, dry ground. Even if we plant something wonderful in there, it will not bear fruit.  Without the moisture of bodhicitta, the crop of good deeds or virtue will not flourish.

And these days we need to take this very seriously. Now we are so busy in our daily lives, and so we need to remember to take the time to change our motivation. Otherwise, we suffer from unhappiness. When we don’t take time to open up our minds, we’ll see the people around us as uptight and unhappy.  Everyone we meet will appear to us as stressed or angry. And even if we have lots of material possessions, or stay in a beautiful place, we will feel dissatisfied. But if we can learn to change our own motivation, we can loosen up. And this will make us live more happily, and gain results easily. So whether we speak of mundane or spiritual life, we can reflect carefully and realize that good intention or motivation makes a tremendous difference.

Reflection Exercises on Motivation

In the next several weeks, try to set a few extra moments aside before starting any large project–either at home, at work–but especially before you begin whatever your formal meditation may be.  During this time, consciously think about what you are going to do and check internally.  Are you motivated from a virtuous or helpful place?  If not, don’t judge–but simply notice that–and make the decision to change your intention. 

Let’s say you’re about to begin a business meeting.  Can you take just a few minutes to remind yourself to be open, caring, honest, and work for the benefit of others?  Or if you’re about to cook a meal–before you start, consider how so many people worked hard to get the food to you.  And set the intention to thank them and to prepare the food with love and with care for those who will enjoy it. 

There are many ways to work setting motivation into your daily life.  Some people may find they benefit from writing down these motivational moments–that’s up to you.  Regardless, see how this habit of checking in with your intention can become a pattern in your life.  That mindfulness of intention can change the way we interpret others, and the world around us.  Can you catch that happening? What do you observe?

In your formal Buddhist practice, whatever that may be–please also spend just a few additional moments to remember motivation.  This is a wise investment–it means that whatever merit we might produce from our activities will not go to waste.  If we start our day with meditation practice we can generate the motivation that whatever we do that day may benefit all beings. 

Take just a few more seconds than usual to let that warm and open feeling develop in your heart.  How does that change your practice? And your day?