In our last article, we looked at various realms of psychological fixation. In examining them, we gained some insight into why the realm of human beings is the best one in which to hear wisdom, take it to heart and actually practice it. However, as the old saying goes: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him (or her!) drink. Even a brief glance at human history—and our 21st century world in particular—makes it clear that while the human realm providethe best opportunity for hearing the teachings and putting them into practice, relatively few of us do so. Very few, in fact.
Why is this?
Especially now, the world of human beings is dominated almost entirely by materialism. As pointed out in a previous article, this materialistic outlook occurs on every level of human life—physical, psychological and spiritual. Materialism is a universal human impulse and a natural one. Therefore we could be curious about it, rather than rejecting it out of hand on the way to some loftier and purer idea about spirituality.
That we human beings are materialistic is not a judgment on us. It’s simply a clear aerial view of the limitations of our ordinary consciousness. We all begin at the same level—survival. We need to have a secure life on this basic level. We need to have enough to eat, enough to wear, a roof over our heads. And when we have those things, we want more. We would like to have the best possible life. All of us are concerned first with survival, and then with enhancing that. The plot thickens, so to speak, when that becomes the pre-occupation of our lives.
In the face of this underlying challenge of survival, no matter how relatively secure and comfortable our lives may seem compared to others, all of us without exception are motivated by hope and fear. Depending on the level of our materialism, our hope and fear have different objects. We hope that we will survive, and fear that we will perish. We hope that we will succeed in our worldly aims, and fear that we will fail. We hope that we will find love, and fear that we will be left lonely and bereft. We hope that we will become enlightened, and fear that we will ultimately find that life is empty and meaningless. In this sense, the survival instinct is always operating and it is always conditioned by hope and fear.
The Buddha’s teaching on the five levels of motivation in human life sheds light on this play of hope and fear in our lives. And I would ask, dear reader, that as you read this, try to take it to heart. Think about your own life and think about your own motivation. Really be honest with yourself. I know that when I study or teach this, and when I’m really honest with myself, it’s humbling. Perhaps you too will recognize a little of yourself in each of these levels of motivation.
The Buddha called these levels of motivation Small, Medium and Great. The first level, Small, has three levels—the Small of the Small, the Medium of the Small and the Great of the Small.
If our motivation is the Small of the Small, we are interested only in happiness and comfort in this life. We’ve never heard the Dharma and we probably wouldn’t be interested in it even if we did. Our vision of life may include some religious belief, some simple idea that if we develop good karma we’ll get a good rebirth, or if we’re good we can go to heaven. Our religious belief may assume the reality of an external savior of some kind—someone who is looking out especially for our loved ones and us. Or we may think this life we are now living is the only life there is and that we would like to make it as comfortable as we possibly can, as happy as we can in the short time we have. As the old beer ad proclaims, “You only go around once, so grab for all the gusto you can get.”
At this level, we are being conditioned entirely by a crude, even childish level of hope and fear. We never think to ourselves, “Wow, I am really on the treadmill of hope and fear.” It doesn’t come up because we don’t look that deeply. We don’t look that deeply because we are so earnestly involved with our project of happiness and comfort, and our hope and fear are embedded in it, even camouflaged by it. Of course we have hope and fear, we would say if it were pointed out to us. So what? It’s reminiscent of the psychology of the animal realm.
In the Medium of the Small motivation, we still want material happiness and comfort in this life, but we also want wisdom. The Dharma sounds good and true. When we hear the Dharma we feel that it is wholesome and we want to be associated with it. We can see that it will make our life better in many ways. We’ll meditate 20 minutes a day and our daily grind will go better as a result. We incorporate the Dharma into our fundamental hope that our life will become more comfortable, happy and successful.
Even when we learn that the Buddha said there is no external savior, but that it’s up to us, we tell ourselves, “That’s alright. I can take responsibility! I’m going to bring the Dharma into my life routine and that will make the whole thing better.” Sit 20 minutes a day, sleep better at night—it’s a good bargain. Maybe we take Level One of Shambhala Training, and decide we’ll stop there. We know a little about meditation now and it’s working for us. From now on it’s all a matter of good scheduling. There is nothing bad about this motivation. This is about expanding and deepening our awareness of life as it is. With each level of motivation, we penetrate further into how things truly are. The less we are driven by hope and fear, the clearer our vision of life becomes.
In the Great of the Small motivation, we’re concerned for the first time about the possibility of a future life. We have a growing appreciation of karma because our awareness has expanded and we have noticed that there is actually a lot of suffering in the world. Our project of making ourselves as comfortable as possible is still there, but it now unfolds against the background of suffering in our own life and in the lives of others. We see that some people suffer incredibly, and we ask questions about that. Why are some people’s lives relatively easy, while some people’s lives so difficult? It makes sense to us that if we study and practice Dharma, we can improve our karmic situation. Generally, we understand that virtuous actions will have positive long-term consequences and that harmful, selfish ones will only bring more suffering.
The dialectic of hope and fear sharpens, because the contrast between our own desire to be happy and the suffering we see all around us sharpens. We can’t ignore the bigger picture any more. The welfare of others begins to affect our own happiness, and we’re more curious. We ask questions.
From the point of view of what the Buddha taught, we haven’t yet really entered the Dharma. This occurs at the level of Medium motivation. Medium motivation is the path of looking for freedom from suffering altogether. We seek freedom from the endless chain of karmic cause and effect that the Buddha taught goes on from life to life. We are looking for total liberation from that. But we’re looking for it for ourselves alone.
We’re no longer hypnotized by the promise that the aim of life is merely to make ourselves as happy and comfortable as we can. We’ve seen through that. We’ve looked more closely and honestly at how life actually is. We’ve looked more deeply at the reality of suffering and impermanence. We realize that even the greatest kings, the wealthiest people, and the most fortunate people who have come before us in this wide world have died. No exceptions. The immovable truth of this cannot be ignored. Our hopes of permanent security and happiness begin to look like childish fantasies.
This is the level at which we see that our ego’s dreams of becoming enlightened are hopeless. Ego itself is the engine for the suffering. And if it’s the engine for suffering, it can’t possibly also be the agent of liberation! It’s like chasing a mirage. As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same mind that created them.” From the perspective of the medium motivation, where we enter the Dharma fully for the first time, we have to give up ego’s hope, the hope that has survived all the levels of small motivation. We have to face our fear of the reality that we are truly alone, and that our liberation is totally up to us.
The realization that the ego’s dream of happiness is hopeless is called the truth of samsara, Sanskrit for “spinning” or, more formally, “cyclic existence.” Samsara is the reality that as long as we believe the dream of ego we are endlessly propelled from one karmic situation to the next. We’re motivated by our hope that we’ll find permanence, pleasure and security and our fear that we will not. If samsara is the whirlpool of suffering based on hope and fear, then the first step on the path of becoming an Awakened One lies in seeing the fruitlessness of that effort to find some permanent security and happiness within samsara. We have to stop spinning, and sit still.
All genuine teachers begin by challenging our attempts to co-opt the Dharma with our agendas of hope and fear. “Do you really want to learn the Dharma?” they ask,“Or do you just want to try to use the Dharma to interior decorate your cocoon?” Genuine teachers remind us that we cannot rely only on their lectures or books to get to the real meaning of the Dharma. We must practice meditation. We must learn to look at ourselves directly and without self-deception. We must face our fears, unmask and come as we are.
The Medium motivation—being inspired to attain freedom from samsara for ourselves and by ourselves—is a necessary foundation for the great motivation. The Great or ultimate motivation arises from our realization that not only we, but all beings everywhere suffer, and will as long as we’re in samsara. Therefore the ultimate aim of existence is to free ourselves and all others from cyclic suffering. That’s it.
Our attitude at this level is one of unbiased love, kindness, compassion and wisdom. We rest imperturbably in the truth of things as they are—all the time. We never waver from that, but abide there continuously, calmly, playfully, joyfully and sympathetically. We are totally at the disposal of all other beings, because we no longer have any personal agenda whatsoever. We have no more agenda—except for waking up fully and helping others to do the same. This is a Buddha’s full-time occupation. As the Dalai Lama said, “My religion is kindness.”
The great motivation is utterly free from hope and fear. A Buddha doesn’t hope that she can save everybody or fear that she might not be able to do so. She just says, “Well, there’s a lot to do, so let’s get started.” She isn’t daunted by the hopelessly huge numbers involved. She says, “Although sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them all.” She says this not out of hope, but out of her unshakeable confidence that there’s nothing else to do that really matters in the long run. It’s the work of “the great warriors, the great mighty ones, those who have transcended the pain of existence.” In other words, it’s the only game in town.
Next time, we will look at the teaching that has helped lead Dharma practitioners to the great motivation for more than a thousand years: The Four Reminders.