The Question of Motivation: Framing Buddhist Ethics

by Annie Heckman

In Chapter 6 of Introducing Tibetan Buddhism, Geoffrey Samuel begins an analysis of Tibetan Buddhist ethics in relation to the everyday morality of Tibetan groups. Samuel looks at scholarship from the 1960s to begin his argument; anthropologist Fürer-Haimendorf had claimed that people of Tibetan societies follow Buddhist ethics and behave altruistically as a result of this close adherence, based on his observations of the people of Khumbu in Nepal (1964). Samuel, citing separate studies from following years by Sherry Ortner, Barbara Aziz, and Nancy Levine, argues that it’s not possible to say that Tibetans all behave as model Buddhists, but that we should likewise not paint Tibetan societies as winner-take-all. Rather he suggests that while Buddhist ethical standards certainly make an impact on everyday morality, Tibetan societies also demonstrate other normative practices, with both individual and small group interests at play. These initial descriptions are brought to bear on such aspects of Tibetan life as the hanging of lungta (prayer-flags), explored further below.

Motivation. To what extent can we know another’s motivation? It forms the basis for so many great mysteries — Hercule Poirot’s detective work in Agatha Christie novels emerges through his discernment of a motive as much as through the organization of physical clues. It’s a natural tendency to try to root out motivations; data are only descriptive, but setting up the reasons behind the data allows us to interpret people’s lives and wishes and dreams. This is far more interesting.

Where does an analysis of motivation take shape? Throughout this book, Samuel presents a vast background on Tibetan Buddhism, with a knowledgeably respectful voice that balances out Buddhist teachings and history. I admit to a sort of blind spot in my reading of the book – Samuel offers a general knowledge here, seemingly from extensive study and from being embedded in social groups, in dharma practice settings, without citation, and I’m finding that in my responses to the text I’m drawing on my own general knowledge, and probably swapping out certain terms and mistaking certain aspects of the presentation Samuel offers when it differs with my own background. Samuel takes on the project of presenting teachings with some degree of detail and variety, serving as an interlocutor to World Religions students, with a firm foot in varied but broad presentation of Tibetan Buddhist teachings from different schools, and a steady gap kept between knowledge and practice. Somewhat to nurture this healthy gap, this space for the student as observer (I imagine the student as a visitor with a notebook hanging back to see what happens at a dharma center), Samuel examines the motivations of his actors throughout the book. Because of this examination of motivations, at some moments our author sets this project of great detective work into play, questioning who is really practicing the teachings described, and how, and why, and what do they hope to get for it? Our author implies these questions in various iterations, comparisons of what is taught and how it is practiced, of who practices and who doesn’t, of what we can see as the value objects (Latour, The Making of Law) held by people in different roles in Tibetan religion and society. What do various social actors hold in play while they participate in, for example, the hanging of lungta (prayer-flags) or the recitation of prayers?

Asking these questions may help provide an understanding of how Buddhist teachings may or may not be lived out by people of various standings. Samuel questions the motives of kings, lamas, and villagers in turn. But this project of carving out the true motivations of large groups of people, across a network of systems and examples (the position of a reincarnate lama, village life in several different locations and times, an off-handed remark regarding the donation of an anthropologists’ lamp, and so forth) leads to some odd conclusions in the text. If we take it as a given that full, consistent, and joyful compliance with Buddhist ethics would be an exceptional occurrence, we might still find that the conclusions drawn from the writings of the anthropologists selected by Samuel cannot incorporate some important reflections on motivation that emerge from Tibetan Buddhist teachings and literature; that is to say, the question of motivation and how lazy, conflicted, and devious one can be in practicing virtuous activity is already posed and answered in Buddhist practice and verse, and it would be worthwhile to look there alongside these other etic approaches.

Let’s first examine the prayer-flag example that Samuel offers on page 120: the text on the flags reads “‘[M]ay life-force (sok), bodily health (), power (wangtang), good fortune (lungta), life-duration (tshe), merit (sönam) and prosperity (paljor) increase!’” Samuel writes: “In invocations such as this, sönam or good karma is treated as simply one more positive quantity that can be increased by ritual action. This does not mean that the Buddhist teachings on the effects of karma are irrelevant in Tibet, but it points to a contextual and situational element in their deployment.” There are prayer-flags going up with some of this orientation toward virtue, but the other items on the list are worldly and we should note the proportions.

We would need to look a bit more closely at the qualities of Tibetan Buddhist ritual in order to see the problem with this conclusion. Our author highlights earlier in the book that practitioners commence a practice by going for refuge and engendering bodhicitta (p. 59). There is also, unmentioned in this text, the closing phase of practice, the dedication. Refuge with bodhicitta near the beginning of a practice, and dedication at the end, appear like bookends – one starts by going for refuge and setting the motivation to benefit all beings, and ends with the dedication of all the merit of any practice to the benefit of all beings. It would be unusual in a Tibetan Buddhist gathering to hear the closing of a practice of any sort without the full group reciting sönam di yi tamché zik pa nyi and so forth, the lines expressing this dedication. So the process our author highlights here, with the limited proportion of sönam in the list, would likely be followed by these four well-known lines, with the dedication of merit for the enlightenment of all beings, which at least formally characterizes the practice in terms of virtuous motivation. This is not to say that all practices ever performed in Tibetan groups will fit this example (Samuel offers a notable counter-example to emphasis on Buddhist practice in village life, p. 121), but this particular example of worldly gain seems out of context to me.

This regularity of the opening and closing recitations in practice underscores the importance of motivation in Buddhist ethics – the list that Samuel shares regarding the 10 non-virtuous actions is indeed widely taught, but is also often accompanied by nuanced descriptions of the conditions required for a negative action to ripen with full karmic consequences, the most crucial factor being one’s motivation or intention. Samuel does point out the question of motivation in ethics at the beginning of Chapter 6, but uses it to establish differences in the types of conventional ethical responsibilities for enlightened and ordinary beings. But this notion of motivation carries out broadly to offer nuance to the ethical consequences of the actions of any being: the person hanging prayer-flags may make wishes for these various forms of worldly prosperity, but with an aspiration to share such boons with all beings, he or she would be engendering a positive motivation. With a wish to use such benefits for the support of dharma practice (for example, for the support of stupa construction), likewise our imagined participant would be engaging with great generosity. If the person hanging the prayer flags does so with an understanding that the riches, their givers, and their recipients are without inherent essence, then he or she is engaging in all these actions with the flavor of wisdom. The list of potential motivations could go on. Or, on the other hand, the participant could be engaging thoughtlessly, or crafting a harmful plan against someone else, or thinking “I want all the merit for myself, for future riches.” How are we to know this? In an ethic based on inner motivations, how can we look at this question thoughtfully? These are some of the distinctions that can accompany teachings on Buddhist ethics, and a closer examination of these nuances would inform the analysis pursued in Chapter 6.

This is not so say that Samuel should not bring up these questions about the application of Buddhist ethics in everyday life, but rather to point out that questions of motivation, and noting contradictions among the content of teachings, what is actually understood to be correct, and what is practiced, are already extensively present in reflections by Tibetan Buddhist thinkers. Consider this example, 4 short selections from Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye’s text known as “Calling the Guru from Afar” (here translated from Tibetan to English by Rangjung Yeshe Translations and Publications in 1998):

 For the sake of food and clothing I abandon what has lasting value.
Although I have all that is needed, I crave for more and more.
When practicing the Dharma, I fall prey to dullness and sleep.
When involved in non-Dharma, my senses are clear and sharp.
Although it is said that buddhahood is accomplished by wanting to help others,
Though I engender bodhichitta, secretly my aims are selfish.
Although the law of karma is certainly true, I don’t discriminate correctly.
Although mindfulness is surely needed, I don’t apply it and am carried away by distraction.

 Here I am pointing to this one example as a well-known reflection on the human condition in the context of Buddhist devotional language, an appeal based on reflection on one’s shortcomings even when one has access to an ethical view. This is not to suggest that this text replaces the observations brought to light in Samuel’s book – a more extensive analysis of this prayer’s context would certainly be needed here to elaborate at all on this text in relation to the specific communities mentioned there – but to suggest that sources like this one may be read alongside any later reflections by Western scholars to give some basis for the nature of the comparisons being made, some context for questioning how ethics has looked in theory and practice.

Looking closely at how Samuel and the other scholars cited in his text write about Tibetan societies makes me reflect on my own limitations, my difficulties in understanding even my own motivations. How often have I taken actions thinking that they’re for a good purpose only to find that I was blinded by ambition or a wish to please others and fit in? When have I assumed that others were acting out of ill will towards me, when their motivations were nothing but kind? Surely we can allow this nuance, the changeability of intentions, this dimension of inner contemplation and reflection, whenever we write about any person’s inner world.