The Buddha said that when we meet to teach, listen to or discuss the Dharma it is very important that we have the best possible motivation for doing so. Whether what we do is good or bad depends almost entirely on our reason for doing it—in other words, our motivation. And while this is true in general, it is especially important to have the purest possible motivation when teaching or listening to the particular thought transformation practice we are discussing here. From the side of both teacher and student a virtuous motivation is critical, otherwise they risk putting much effort into something that has no chance of a positive result.
It is extremely negative if the teacher is teaching to enhance his or her reputation, win new followers, receive many offerings or become highly venerated or the student is listening with competitive thoughts or to gain fame, a good reputation, wealth or a big following. The great Indian practitioner and scholar Atisha said that anything done merely for this life is not a Dharma practice. Moreover, while the motivations to avoid rebirth in the three lower realms or achieve complete personal liberation from cyclic existence are not negative, they are still not the best.
When your motivation for giving or listening to teachings, meditating, helping others and so forth is simply to avoid rebirth in the lower realms it is called small scope motivation. When it is longer term and greater than that and aimed at complete liberation from the whole of cyclic existence it is called middle scope motivation.
When your motivation is even greater than that and aimed at benefiting every single sentient being and if, in order to do that, you are determined to achieve the state of full enlightenment—which is completely free of all faults and has all good qualities fully developed to their highest potential—it is the supreme motivation and called that of the great scope. When this is your motivation, every activity in which you engage—giving, listening to or meditating on teachings and so forth— becomes a practice of the great scope and is the best and highest kind of practice you can possibly do.
What about practices associated with deities such as Medicine Buddha, Tara or Saraswati? For example, certain Medicine Buddha practices can help you overcome obstacles and illness and have a long life. Are such practices considered spiritual? It depends on your motivation.
If you genuinely feel that a long life will help you be of greater benefit to others and with that kind of attitude engage in practices for overcoming obstacles, ill health and so forth, they will definitely be spiritual because you will not be doing them merely for this life.
Engaging in such practices after you have recognized that you possess the many characteristics and supportive conditions needed for engaging in meaningful and powerful spiritual practice in this life is completely different from simply doing them for worldly purposes. A life completely free from adverse conditions that prevent such practice provides exceptional opportunities. Therefore, not only should you engage in practices that allow you to keep your life conducive to Dharma practice but you should also abandon any urge to waste it and, instead, feel compelled to use your life to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of others.
In fact, the kind of life we presently have is so exceptional that even the gods, who appear to have extraordinarily good fortune, actually have nothing like the good fortune that we do because they have no opportunity to practice Dharma.
Therefore, we should use this opportunity to pursue enlightenment for the sake of others because not only is it the very best way of using our life, it’s also because all beings are basically the same as us in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering.
We all want the greatest, longest lasting and best possible happiness; we utterly dislike suffering, problems and even the slightest difficulty. That we abhor even one or two problems let alone many shows that we all want happiness and freedom from suffering, and the best way of getting what we want and avoiding that which we don’t is the practice of Dharma.
We might think that even though it’s important to practice Dharma, it’s not essential to do so just yet because we can always do it in future lives. However, that’s a very mistaken way to think because our present human life has exceptional opportunities and attributes. There are eighteen advantages to this human life—the eight freedoms and the ten richnesses—and a life like this is very difficult to find.
The perfect human rebirth is difficult to find because its causes are very difficult to create. Furthermore, it combines many different characteristics, attributes and qualities that very rarely come together and therefore there’s no certainty that we’ll be able to enjoy this kind of opportunity again in future. Certain things almost never happen3 and this human life is even more difficult to acquire than those. Therefore we should definitely practice Dharma in this very life.
We might also think, “Yes, I should practice Dharma in this life but not right now—maybe next month, next year or some other time in future.” This, too, is a big mistake because there’s no guarantee that we’ll be around that long. Our lifespan is not fixed. If we could be sure of living for, say, a hundred years, it might be reasonable to put things off for a while, but in fact our time of death is totally unfixed. We have no idea at all when we’ll die. Therefore we should resolve to practice immediately.
As long as we’re ignorant of such things it’s quite understandable that we don’t feel responsible for our future but once we do know, it’s vital that we start making our life meaningful. As the Buddha taught, we are our own protector; the responsibility is ours. Nobody else can practice for us. We have to practice and take responsibility for ourselves, especially for our future lives. It’s the same as when we’re ill—the doctor makes the diagnosis and prescribes the appropriate medicine but it’s our responsibility to actually follow the advice given and take the medicine prescribed. Nobody else can do it for us.
Over the centuries many practitioners from all four major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism have attained enlightenment in a single lifetime but it’s not easy to do. It takes hard work and great intelligence. Therefore we should expect it to take many lifetimes for us to do so. But if we devote our life to developing qualities such as love and compassion and avoid actions that harm ourselves and others as much as we possibly can there’s reason to hope that in our next life we’ll be able to continue from where we left off. In this way, over a series of lives, we’ll gradually progress to buddhahood.
The Buddha said that all he could do was to teach the path to liberation and enlightenment and that it was then up to us whether or not we reached those states. To do so, therefore, we have to follow his advice and live according to his teachings. There’s no other way. He said, “I can’t pour my wisdom and compassion into your mind, wash away your negativities or remove your suffering by hand, like pulling out a thorn. All I can do is to explain what you have to do to achieve the freedom from suffering, realizations and qualities that I did.”
Therefore, please generate the highest motivation for studying these teachings by thinking, “I must help all sentient beings as much as I possibly can. In order to do so, I must attain enlightenment. Then I will definitely be able to benefit others in the highest possible way.”
Even if you don’t have an extensive understanding of Buddhism, if you generate that kind of motivation you will ensure that your time is not wasted, and as you discover and read more about the Dharma, your understanding will gradually increase.
3The teachings mention such things as stars shining at noon and rice grains thrown against a wall adhering to it. See also Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, p. 319 ff. [Return to text]