Archive for March, 2009


Are Buddhists Ambitious?

by Ven. 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 being 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

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 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

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 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 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 though 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 to
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.


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