Clear Motivation

"Be kind whenever possible. It's always possible" – The Dalai Lama

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Never Too Old to Create Positive Habits

The young man who I take care of took notice when I began to remove ants from our room last fall and usher them outside. He heard my outcry when a co-worker stepped on a wasp. Then, when on one of the first beautiful days this spring a beetle walked towards us as we sat on a bench in the garden, he said, “Oh Jon, I won’t step on him. I know that’s against your principles.”

When I asked if he would’ve normally stepped on it, he said, “Well, probably. I used to do that.” When I reminded him that it wouldn’t help him any to step on it and it certainly wouldn’t help the bug, he said, “Yeah, that’s true.”

Then, while walking down the path, he called out, “Oh, there goes an ant! We’ll let him go by. Okay, there he goes.” He continued to point out insects in our path, almost as if it had become a game to avoid stepping on them.
What was this? This was ahimsa – the practice of non-harming. This was a virtue. Though the size of the beings may make it seem like a small thing, when I remember that each insect is a living being – who has a mind like I do, who has the exact same wish for happiness as I do, who has been my loving mother in previous lives – then I can really rejoice in what a marvelous thing he did. Consciously protecting the lives of living beings is a wonderful thing! (“A person’s a person, no matter how small!”)

Seeing a 95-year-old vet who enjoyed fishing for his whole life refrain from killing showed me that we’re never too old to adopt positive attitudes and constructive actions. It also showed me that goodness is contagious.

When the co-worker who stepped on the wasp came to me later that day saying that he was sorry to do it in front of me and explaining that he was scared because he’s allergic to bees, I assured him that I wanted him to be safe and told him that I just want to respect the lives of all living beings and wished our culture had ways to keep insects away without killing them. I highly doubt that he’ll stop killing, but perhaps he’ll at least think about why someone would.

Today, I’ll keep my eyes open for opportunities to practice kindness, to deepen my resources of goodness, and to share them in a natural, unimposing way with others. When I see others practice kindness, I’ll rejoice in their actions and in the happiness that shadows positive actions, seeking the means to emulate whatever goodness I discover.


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Unclear Motivation? Don’t Worry!

Today I take a full, deep breath as the final of the “courses” (MOOC’s) I eagerly began several months ago comes to a close. I’d been holding my breath, nearly all the while, because I didn’t clearly understand why I decided to take these courses.


Was I doing the right thing? Was I wasting my time? What’s the point of gaining knowledge if it doesn’t help to effect a positive inner transformation, if afflictive emotions are still ruling my every thought and action?


When I spoke to a dear Dharma sister about this, she gave me some perspective. She told me, “Jonathan, I think you worry too much!”


She reminded me that as long as we’re not harming anyone, then we’re doing okay.


She gave me a sobering reality check: How often do I have genuine Dharma motivations? So far, I haven’t even had one yet, ever! There’s always mixed in, with whatever thought of compassion I can muster, at least some desire, some attachment to sense pleasures, some pride, some animosity or tension or disregard for the effects of my actions.


The main difference here was that I was trying something different, something that would require following through on a commitment and, just maybe, something that would challenge me.


I was clear about a few things. Basically, I wanted to learn and overcome long-standing poor study habits – ostensibly, there’s no harmful intent in that motivation.


I didn’t achieve all of my goals. I still have the obstacles of procrastination and not seeing commitments through to the end. The burning itch to learn more from “my own tradition” (science and Western philosophy) with which I entered into this period of study has all but vanished. So it goes – we change, and as always before and certain to remain true, expectations do not pare well with reality. But, with great gratitude, I must say that I did learn.


Now, I’m rejoicing with relief in the efforts and kindness of the people who put together the courses I took and offered them freely, through the miracle interdependent arising of altruistic thinking meeting modern technology.


And even though I didn’t complete every assignment and let two courses go altogether, I can rejoice in what I did do. I can embrace the whole process with the aspiration that it will help to expand my understanding of reality. Wishing that whatever I take with me from my learning may sharpen my ability to think clearly, make me more open-minded, and strengthen my ability to be of benefit to others will give it deeper meaning than simply learning facts and concepts.


Today I recommit myself to focus on the transformation of my mind, so that my motivation becomes one of pure compassion. Then, whatever I do – even if it may seem “mundane” – will bring benefit to living beings.

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You Have to Live a Normal Life?

I ran into an aide who cares for a man down the hall in the laundry room the other day and she asked me about my intentions for the future. When I told her of my aspiration for ordination, to live a spiritual life, she responded, “Why? You are young – you have to live a normal life! You have to go to college, have a wife, have kids, like a normal life.”

When I asked her why I had to do that, she answered, “It’s normal! It’s what everyone does!”

Now, I’ve heard a bit of skepticism and confusion from people when I mention my interest in the monastic life, but I hadn’t yet heard someone voice their opposition so squarely until I heard her statement.

To put her logic in the form of a syllogism:

A life including going to college and having a wife and kids has to be lived because it is normal and what everyone does.


I don’t know what the causes were that led me to have absolutely no faith in this statement whatsoever. Whatever they were, I’m infinitely grateful for them. Actually, because of the education I’ve received, I saw why this syllogism is entirely faulty.

By being exposed to different cultures and ways of life, I learned that it actually isn’t true that everyone goes to college, gets married, and has kids. I also learned, especially driven into me through my post-Holocaust Jewish upbringing, that being a thing that everyone does is not at all a valid reason for having to do something. Slavery has been quite normal in certain places at certain times. Raping women who are lesbians is normal in some places.

Actually, if I think about it, the sentiment expressed by words like “have to,” “should,” and “must” don’t apply to real life. They deny personal responsibility and personal efficacy. To orient one’s whole life directed by one of those terms would be a horrible imprisonment!

The conversation I had with this aide reminded me of the importance to question. If there is any single habit that I think will bring stable happiness to oneself and to others, it would be to smile at others with a mind of love. But a second habit that’s necessary for the welfare of the world is to question.

Today, I will not only question the story that mainstream culture tells about the purpose of life, but I will question my own perceptions and the stories I make up myself. I’ll be vigilantly on guard, watching for when my own disturbing attitudes like anger and desirous attachment overshadow my good sense.

I won’t just accept my judgments and thoughts about others and I won’t just latch onto my own opinions and views. I’ll question my thoughts, knowing that doing so will make me wiser and kinder in the long run.



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Television Vortex

Last night I experienced the deepest meditative concentration I can remember… while watching a TV show.

It’s shocking to me how readily my mind becomes absorbed in total television fantasy, even after repeated  examination of its barren value and years of abstinence from it. Alas, I have not for a day gone sober from my own day dreams, so it should come as no surprise that I get hooked in to the imagination of another.

I wonder what great use of my life I could make if I engaged my thoughts in understanding the nature of reality or developing love and compassion with as much gusto as I think about the characters and plot of the newest detective thriller?

What if I give up on, “Oh, where’s he going? What’s that shiny thing in the clock!? No way, look at that!!!” Then follows all my proliferation, imagining what I would do were I the protagonist (and of course, I’m always the lead star).

What if I focus instead on, “How wonderful it would be if everyone in the universe had everything they desired and experienced unceasing joy and peace of mind! What are all of my fellow beings experiencing right now? What are Congresspersons feeling? What are the birds and critters in hibernation feeling?

“What is going on with the mother in poverty watching her twin babies starve to death? What is going on with the mother in spiritual poverty, so obsessed with being the best and acquiring the best that she barely has a moment to watch her children? May all of these people and all beings be free of every form of suffering!”

Today, I’ll reflect that I myself am a conditioned phenomena. I will exert myself to not succumb to the easy path of hypnotic boob-tube trance. I’ll use my capacities for the path of intelligence and altruism. I do not want my mind to atrophy!

And if I become skillful in reflecting on the dependently arisen nature of phenomena, then even an activity as mundane as watching TV becomes cultivation of wisdom.

I won’t just see the show. I’ll see producers, writers, directors, actors, cameras, lightboxes, computers. I’ll see inventors and engineers, laborers in China and Korea, miners digging up metals, and workers extracting and refining petroleum. I’ll see trends coming and going and blends of humor getting concocted. I’ll see bands of light entering an iris and projecting colored wavelengths onto rods and cones, and the meeting of the object, the sense organ, and the consciousness, producing a subjective perception.

Today, I’ll bring this type of awareness to bear on whatever my mind encounters. This will allow me to avoid getting sucked into the vortex – and it’s not the vortex on the TV screen that’s really a problem; those are just shapes and colors. It’s the vortex of my own delusion and unawareness that grasps appearances as existing independently, from their own side, that I seek to demolish.


Relaxing into Big Sky Mind

Sometimes when I get stressed and tense or just have too much jumpy conceptual thinking, it’s helpful t0 just look at my mind. Not doing logical analysis or theorizing, but just looking. What is going on the mind right now? What is this very thought, disintegrating the moment it arises and making way for the next one?

Watching in this way allows the mind to relax. Instead of getting caught up in every little idea or feeling that bubbles up, grasping after it and identifying myself with it, they’re seen to be like passing clouds. The mind takes on a relaxed, space-like quality of openness, like the sky. Ahhhhh….

Tonight, I’ll spend a few minutes watching my mind like this. I’ll recognize that my thoughts, which seem so real and solid and meaningful, are just formless thoughts briefly passing by. This will allow me to step back from the contents of my thoughts so I do not get caught up in them, taking myself too seriously and taking everything that happens to me so personally.

This is a relief. It’s a type of wisdom that will give me perspective and allow me to better understand the causes of my states of mind. Thus, I’ll be better able to abandon mistaken, destructive mental states and to encourage the development of constructive mental factors, such as the altruistic intention to benefit others, the fortitude that does not respond to painful things with anger, and the loving-kindness that warmly holds others dear.

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What Are the Important Questions?

I’m having an interesting time taking an Introduction to Philosophy course from the University of Edinburgh offered through Coursera. The opening lectures suggested that philosophy is concerned with addressing questions that matter to us and working out the right way to think about important things.

Reading and listening to the material on epistemology (theories of what constitutes knowledge and how knowledge is gained) illuminated for me that there are really different ways of thinking. Different questions matter to different people. For myself, the question of what constitutes propositional knowledge doesn’t seem that important; at least not important to start with.

Siddhartha Gautama, before embarking on his spiritual search for awakening, asked himself this question:

Why should I, myself being subject to birth, aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, seek what is also subject to birth, aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement? … Suppose that, being myself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, I seek the unborn, the supreme security from bondage – Nirvana. Suppose that, being myself subject to aging, sickness and death, to sorrow and defilement, I seek the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless and undefiled state, the supreme security from bondage – Nirvana.

It seems like presuppositions of “Western thought” prevented that question from having arisen in the span of Western philosophy. I mean, our worldview doesn’t even have a place for this to be considered. But I think it’s a darn good question!

This then inspires many other questions – What are the causes of birth, aging, sickness, death, etc.? Is the unborn, deathless, sorrowless state of nirvana really possible? What are its causes?

Then, it makes more sense to start to ask questions about the nature of my perception, about how I relate to and apprehend my self and other objects, about how to discern deceptive appearances from true knowledge.

This type of investigation, then, has a very clear goal – happiness. Overcoming an unsatisfactory existence of repetition and delusion and stress.

I haven’t yet gotten clear about the goal of the field of epistemology. Perhaps there is no clear destination, but people just want to know what’s going on for the sake of knowing. That’s fine, too.

Tonight, I’ll reflect on what the important questions are to me and why. I’ll try to see the perspectives of others, not just to understand where others are coming from, but to be able to really learn from them. Hopefully, this will help to expand my awareness of how other people think and to increase my own wisdom, so that I may be able to relate to others in a harmonious, meaningful, and constructive way.

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The Buddha’s Caring

The following is from the section on the good qualities of Buddha’s mind from Lama Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment .  Tonight, I’ll allow these words to touch my heart and let the meaning sink in. I’ll rest in a space of wonderment and admiration for compassion and the Buddha’s perfect embodiment of it.

“(ii) The good qualities of caring

In the same way that living beings are bound inescapably by the afflictions, so is the Sage bound by great compassion, which thus arises continuously as he beholds the suffering of living beings. You should reflect on this as set forth in the Praise in One Hundred and Fifty Verses:

The afflictions bind all

These beings without exception.

You, in order to release them from the afflictoins,

Are eternally bound by compassion.

Should I first make obeisance to you,

Or to the great compassion that causes you

To dwell for so long in cyclic existence

Despite knowing its faults?

Also, the Chapter of the Truth Speaker says:

The Supreme Sage feels great compassion

When he sees beings whose minds

Are constantly obscured by the dark gloom of ignorance,

Locked in the prison of cyclic existence.

And also:

The Conqueror feels great compassion when he sees beings

Whose minds are overwhelmed by attachment,

Who have great craving and always long for sensory objects,

And who have fallen into the ocean of craving’s attachment.

The One Possessing the Ten Powers feels compassion

Which seeks to dispel all suffering

When he sees the afflictions of beings

Harmed by a multitude of illnesses and miseries.

The Sage’s compassion arises constantly;

It it impossible for it not to do so.

The Buddha is free of faults because he is concerned

With the needs of all living beings.”