Beginners motivation in Mahayana Buddhism

I’ve decided to translate what I learned over the past two weeks at an FPMT Lam Rim retreat into blog posts by simply explaining to you all my understanding of some basic concepts from those teachings. I am of course merely a beginner on this path, so please take this as no more than what it is: a few hints on where your path might go.

We studied the Middle Length Lam Rim by Lama Tsong Khapa, which isn’t yet out in an official translation yet, as far as I know. There is the Lam Rim Chenmo – The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, in three volumes, also by Tsong Khapa: the long Lam Rim. There is also a short Lam Rim by the same author (which I can’t find on Amazon), and other lam rim texts by other authors.
Be warned: the Lam Rim Chenmo was illegible to me a few years ago. I think most people will need help understanding it even in translation.

Anyhow, back on topic…

In the stages on the path to enlightenment there are three motivations listed – a fourth is implicit (perhaps explicit in more elaborate dealings with the topic than I had). The fourth is the one that most of us are familiar with: a worldly attitude, looking for pleasure and happiness in this world. Though I have something of a Bodhisattva motivation in my system, my basic motivation to go on this retreat was simply that I was dissatisfied with my life, I wanted to be happier and find my way back to my spiritual side, find some peace of mind, a spiritual path to follow.

The beginners motivation, also called ‘the small scope’ goes beyond that worldly motivation. It’s the first step on the spiritual path, from the Buddhist perspective: it assumes a belief in karma and reincarnation and the consequent wish to at least get a decent rebirth as a fortunate human being. After all: who wants to be reincarnated as an animal or into the suffering of war, starvation etc?

This beginners motivation is actually quite selfish, even if legitimate in a Buddhist context: it’s the ‘first take care of myself’ attitude. It may be healthy emotionally, but it’s hardly satisfying.

We would all like to skip right through to the highest motivation, the large scope, which is Bodhicitta: the wish to gain enlightenment to be able to help all sentient beings get released from Samsara. Our teacher, Geshe Sonam Gyaltsen, started out by saying that everybody needs to do the practices associated with the small scope – even the highest lamas. However, he later made it clear we need to set our motivation as high as is natural for us: don’t set your motivation at individual liberation or merely a good rebirth if your motivation is already basically unselfish.

The issue seems to be about the difference between practice and motivation: start at the beginning when it comes to practice, while the motivation should be as pure as possible to you from the start.

This makes sense: as I started out saying, it’s quite possible to have a thread of compassion for all sentient beings and yet have doubts about reincarnation and karma. I certainly have both in my system. Your practice should reflect that reality.

So what should you meditate on when it comes to the beginners motivation?

You should contemplate dying, the suffering of hell beings, obsessed spirits and animals. You should also contemplate karma. The result of these thoughts should be that the wish for a good rebirth is as real as possible to you. After all: you don’t want to end up a hell being, or an obsessed spirit, or an animal who can’t walk the spiritual path.

These are all what’s called ‘analytic’ meditations: meditation on a topic, instead of merely focusing on the breath and emptying the mind. In Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhism analytic meditation and concentration meditation (as the latter is called) are seen as complementary.

In writing this post I used an overview on the Lam rim on one sheet of paper (in Dutch). I don’t know where this is available online. The shortest Lam Rim overview on Amazon seems to be this one: Lam Rim Outlines: Beginners Meditation Guide

I almost forgot – but one of the basic aspects of this first stage on the Buddhist path is taking refuge: relying on the Buddha, his teachings and the spiritual community of enlightened beings on your path. If you want you can take the Buddha to be your own Buddha Nature.

8 thoughts on “Beginners motivation in Mahayana Buddhism”

  1. It sounds like this path focuses heavily on the ego and gradually trying to smash it out or broaden it. That’s probably the basis of all spiritual traditions at some point or another. Cool that you got to learn up on it.

    1. A lot of ego? No, that’s not something I recognize in this tradition. On the contrary, because there’s so much stress on learning – and so MUCH to learn – the people there all realize just how little they do know, and are appropriately humble as a result. That’s the advantage of a real geshe (highly educated Tibetan Lama) as a teacher.

      Also – the main stay of this path is the Bodhisattva motivation: the motivation to become a Buddha in order to be able to save all sentient beings from the rounds of rebirth. That’s the highest motivation, the third in the list of three motivations. I haven’t gotten around to writing about it yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an essential part of this path. In fact, it’s the main reason I choose a Mahayana Buddhist path.

      But yes, I share your sense that the beginners motivation is a tad on the egoistic side. I would not have been able to accept it as a valid motivation a few months ago: but now I realize quite deeply that it’s true what they say: you can only give what you’ve got, and you have to take care of yourself a bit first.

      Ultimately the motivation people try to create in themselves in this tradition is quite complex:
      – let me (1) not create negative karma so I can be reborn as a human being (1b) so that I can keep on practicing on the path of subduing disturbing emotions and (2) find release from the cycle of rebirth so that (3) I can become a Buddha and help sentient beings like myself also free themselves from this cycle of frustration, disease and death.

  2. When I began my spiritual journey I was also in a dissatisfied place in my life.

    It was only a beginning phase of my journey and anyone who has gone through it knows that it involves releasing negative energy/thoughts that we carry about ourselves.

    I see the world as a place to contribute and express myself in.

  3. Moving into an analytic meditation would either be extremely helpful or hurtful to what I personally would be trying to achieve. Being extremely analytic by nature it could be pulled one way or the other!

  4. Katrinka,

    Thanks for your posting, I found it interesting. I’d like to add a comment. When one learns first about the small scope, or how important it is to practice it in a timely manner, and your also a beginner; well, that can be a tall order to begin practice on something appearing daunting! Perhaps high lamas do come back to it because of that very reason, that it is key to continual mind growth.

    When you stated: “You should contemplate dying, the suffering of hell beings, obsessed spirits and animals. You should also contemplate karma. The result of these thoughts should be that the wish for a good rebirth is as real as possible to you. After all: you don’t want to end up a hell being, or an obsessed spirit, or an animal who can’t walk the spiritual path. ”

    When I read this, the first thing I thought was, “My gosh, it’s been tough trying to accept the idea of impermanence, and now I have to investigate death, or worse, with all the gruesome details?” Well, anyway, the conclusion to this story is, that newbies better hope they are ready enough in the first place, to even look at this stuff and be okay with it.

    I think there’s a message in here for us; if the motivation for enlightenment, to become a Buddha is pure; then, these fearful questions are extinguished automatically! wow! (thanks dakinis)!

    Again thanks, I could continue as I like to write; but maybe some other time. Stay well vajra sister!

    Janey Scott

    Thanks for your post, we are fellow students too. Stay well. I’ll go dedicate this communication right now. 🙂

Comments are closed.