Initial Level Motivation

Initial level motivation

The Three Levels of Motivation for Real Thing Dharma

The lam-rim presents three levels of motivation:

  • Initial level – we think in terms of ensuring that we have one of the better types of rebirths, not just in our next lifetime, but in all future lifetimes.
  • Intermediate level – our motivation is to gain total liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth; we want to become liberated.
  • Advanced level – we aim to reach the state of a fully enlightened Buddha, in order to help everyone else also become free of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

It’s quite obvious that each of the levels is based on the assumption of rebirth. Still, as we discussed earlier, each of the methods that’s presented in the material for these three levels can be applied on the Dharma-Lite level as well. These motivations are not something we should trivialize, because they’re really quite remarkable if we can develop them in a sincere way.

Overcoming Feeling Sorry for Ourselves by Appreciating Our Precious Human Life

With an initial-level motivation, the first thing we need to realize is an appreciation of what we call the “precious human life” that we have. Even on a Dharma-Lite level, this is very useful for overcoming the feelings of “poor me” and the depressed feelings that come from that. We reflect on all of the terrible situations we could be in, and try to appreciate how wonderful it is that we are not in those situations.

There is a big list of terrible situations found in the standard presentation, but it’s not necessary to go through it, because we can think in general terms. For instance, we think about how fortunate it is that we are not living in a war zone, nor are we in the midst of a famine, starving to death and unable to feed our children. We think of the good fortune that we’re not living under a severe dictatorship in a restrictive society. This one might be easier for older people to relate to here in Romania. How fortunate that we are not severely handicapped, either mentally, physically, or emotionally. Obviously, from a Buddhist point of view, we also consider how fortunate it is that we aren’t a cockroach that everyone just wants to step on and kill.

There are so many extensions of this type of thinking, and when we really look at ourselves objectively, we really are incredibly fortunate that we have these freedoms. Not only do we have the freedom from these things, we need to understand that we could lose it at any time, for instance with Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, there’s a terrible economic crisis and things could get even worse than they are. The word that is actually used to describe the state we’re in is a “respite,” which means it’s just a break from the really bad situations. This respite could be over at any time.

Aside from these freedoms, we need to look at the various factors that enrich our life. For instance, most of us are relatively healthy. Of course, many of us may become sick, but at this moment now we’re able to function. Buddha taught and these teachings have been passed down and are still available to us. There are many teachers and books out there for us to learn from. Clearly we have many opportunities available to us. In this situation, we need to recognize the freedoms and enrichments that we have, and really deeply appreciate how fortunate we are.

Thinking about Death and Impermanence So As Not to Waste Our Precious Opportunities

The next point in the initial scope is to really understand that the precious life we have is not going to last forever. This isn’t limited to the fact that situations change during our lives, but that we will all actually die. Therefore, we find a lot of meditations about death. Many people, in many societies, try to ignore death, which is often a taboo topic. We really don’t accept the reality that at some point we are all going to die. This includes our loved ones, everyone we know, and ourselves. This is reality.

There are many reasons to support the fact that we are definitely going to die. Everybody who has ever lived has died, so why are we special or any different from them? The ultimate cause of death is having been born, so if we’ve been born, we are going to die. The body is quite weak and starts to fall apart as we get older. It is not as strong as we often think it is, but can get harmed and injured very easily. We need to convince ourselves of this logically so that it slowly sinks in on an emotional level.

In addition to the fact that we are definitely going to die, the second point is that we can never know when. We don’t need to be old or sick to die; many young and healthy people die long before old and sick people. Recently there was a big plane accident, but nobody expected when they got on that plane that it would crash. We could get hit by a bus anytime. My closest friend, who was 54 and in perfectly good health, died suddenly of a heart attack just two weeks ago.

There are so many reasons that support that death can come at any moment. Death is not going to wait for us to finish our work or our meal or whatever we’re doing. We can’t say to death, “Wait a minute, let me just finish this.” When death comes, it comes, and our life will be finished. When our time is over, there’s not much we can do to extend it. You can’t bribe death. We could have our body sustained on a life-support machine, but what would be the point of staying in a vegetable-like state, because even then, our life will end at some point.

The third point about death is to examine what will be of help to us when we’re at the point of death. We can’t take any money, friends or family with us. Even if we build a pyramid and stick them all in there with us when we die, they’re not actually going to come with us. From the Buddhist point of view, we say that what is actually of assistance to us when we die are the positive habits we’ve built up on our mental continuum.

Maybe we’ve done a lot of positive work and helped others, or perhaps we’ve made a great deal of progress on the spiritual path in regard to lessening our anger, selfishness and so on. This will make a deep impression on our mental continuum. From the Dharma-Lite point of view, we can then die without regrets and feel that we’ve led a worthwhile, positive life, especially if we’ve taken care of loved ones or, on a greater scale, made some contribution to society. We’ll have that peace of mind, feeling and thinking, “I led a good, worthwhile life.”

In terms of Real Thing Dharma, then we can die with some confidence that these positive habits, tendencies and instincts on our mental continuum will continue into future lives. We’ll die, feeling that, “In future lives, I will continue to have a precious human rebirth. I will be born as a child with very positive instincts.” We can see this ourselves with children. Some children, when very young, are always crying and angry, while others are calm and kind to others. This is a result of positive habits that they have built up in previous lives. When we have a peaceful state of mind as we die, it will be of great help. The amount of money that we have in the bank is not going to give us any comfort, because at death that will just be numbers on a computer screen.

Meditation on Death

Because of the above, we have death meditation, where we can imagine that today is our last day. We ask ourselves, are we ready to die at any time? Would I have regrets about how I’ve led my life if I die today? The point of this is definitely not to just get depressed, but to encourage us to take advantage of this precious human life and all the opportunities that we have now. That’s the whole aim of this meditation. It’s not just that I’m getting older every day, but I’m constantly getting closer to my death. As every day ends, that’s one day less we have to live. Time is running out and we have no idea how much time we have left. Therefore, we really want to make the best use of our lives and not just waste our time. To die with a state of mind in which we realize that we have really wasted our lives and could have achieved so much more, is an absolutely terrible state of mind to die in.

We have to establish this “I’m not going to waste my opportunities” state of mind in a balanced way. We must avoid becoming fanatics, living in a state of fear, always afraid to ever stop working or meditating. We need to relax and take a break if we really need one, so that we get the strength to continue later on. My favorite Zen koan is: “Death can come at any time. Relax.” If you think about this, it actually makes a lot of sense. Yes, we can die at any time, but being uptight and fanatical about it is self-defeating.f

The main message is to take advantage of this amazingly precious human life that we have, but to do it in a balanced way. We can relax when we need to, and be honest with ourselves when we’re not really tired, we’re just being lazy. We should try to keep in mind our motivation.

Obviously, death awareness meditations can be applied for both Dharma-Lite and Real Thing Dharma. For instance, when there are things we’ve left undone, like telling someone you love them and appreciate what they’ve done, or apologizing and making up with someone, then don’t wait. That person might not be around tomorrow, and we might not be around tomorrow. This is the Dharma-Lite lesson we can gain from death awareness. It’s very beneficial and helpful on any level; don’t deny death, but be prepared for it. We can even visualize our own deaths and funerals, which might help to make it a little bit more real to us. Just be sure not to dwell on just that and become morbid or depressed!

Developing Dread at Experiencing Worse States of Rebirth That Could Follow Our Deaths

We then move on with an examination of what happens after we die. Here, there is a presentation of the worst rebirth states that we could possibly experience, and how this needs to be taken seriously. Again, it’s not easy at all because the presentation in Buddhism includes not just animal rebirths that are worse than our present one, but also forms that we can’t actually see.

When we consider animal rebirth, we need to remember that it includes all types of insects and fish and every single species and type available. There are many examples of how terrible it would be to be reborn in the animal kingdom, with all of the fear and suffering they endure. When we think of animal rebirths, we don’t imagine the life of a poodle with nail polish in a mansion. Rather we think of cockroaches and rats that most people are disgusted by, and small insects and fish that are eaten alive by larger animals, and of course the animals industrially raised and slaughtered by humans.

The emotion generated here regarding such prospects in the future is often translated as “fear,” but I’m not sure if it’s the best word, because it implies hopelessness, as though there’s nothing we can do about it. However, we can do something to avoid it, and so I prefer the word “dread,” which means we really, very strongly don’t want it to happen.

For example, suppose we’ve got a really boring business meeting that we have to attend. We dread going to it. It’s going to be boring and terrible, but we’re not afraid of going. This is the emotion we should generate. We have this precious life that can be lost at any moment, so we want to take advantage of it to ensure that we’re not a cockroach in our next one. It would really be awful to be a cockroach and we really wouldn’t like that to happen, so we have to do something to avoid that.

In Real Thing Dharma, we speak not only of animal and insect rebirths, but also of ghost and hell realm rebirths. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to include these; it’s not fair to Buddhism to just hide these descriptions in the closet. Instead, we can be open-minded and say, “I don’t really understand it.”

How to Understand Non-Human Rebirth States

We can relate to this in terms of mental activity, or in other words, each moment of experiencing something. With each moment, we have the arising of a mental hologram, which is what it means to see, know or think of something, and so on. Accompanying each moment of experience, there is some sort of feeling of happiness or unhappiness. This actually seems to be what differentiates us from computers. There is information within the computer, which it deals with and in a sense, knows. But the computer doesn’t feel happy or unhappy, and it doesn’t really experience the information. That we have happy and unhappy feelings is what defines experience, and the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness is extremely vast. The amount of that spectrum we’re able to experience is dependent on our hardware; in other words, the type of body we have.

This can be understood in terms of not just happiness and unhappiness, but with each of our various senses. Some people can see further than others, some people can hear better than others, and some people are more tolerant to heat and cold than others. In regard to animals, a dog can hear much higher frequencies than a human because it has a different type of body, and thus different hardware. An eagle can see much further with eagle eyes than we can with human eyes. If this is so with the various senses, then why could it also not be true with the spectrum of feeling happy and unhappy?

We could include pleasure and pain in this discussion, although they’re not exactly the same. Happiness and unhappiness are experienced mentally, while pleasure and pain, at least with the words we have in English, are mostly physical. Regarding our human hardware, when physical suffering becomes too strong, we become unconscious. With emotional pain, we experience shock and our body can just shut down.

Pleasure, on the other side, is interesting. If you analyze an itch, it’s actually intense pleasure. It’s not painful at all, but is in fact too pleasurable and therefore we instinctively destroy it by scratching. That’s a way to deal with chronic skin disorders with intense itchiness, which is to regard the itch as pleasure. It’s very advanced and very difficult to just try and relax and enjoy it, especially if scratching is going to cause damage. It is possible, though. In any case, if we think in terms of sexual pleasure, the more intense it gets, the more quickly we want to reach orgasm and climax, to destroy it.

So we can see that this human hardware we have is only able to experience a certain part of the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness, and pleasure and pain. We’ve also established that animals can experience more on different sensory spectrums such as sight and sound. It’s therefore logically possible that there could be other types of hardware that are capable of experiencing more on the spectrums of pain, pleasure, happiness and unhappiness. Why not?

It is this mental activity that we talk about in terms of continuity from life to life. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be able to experience the entire spectrum from severe suffering and pain to super intense pleasure and happiness. It is just a matter of the hardware that we have in each lifetime. This is a logical way to try and at least be open-minded enough to consider these other life forms that are described in Buddhism, which we cannot see. We can’t see amoebas, but nevertheless with scientific developments of microscopes, we can see and accept them as a life form. Similarly, we might not be able to see ghosts, but with the development of the mind, perhaps it is possible.

The Dharma-Lite version reduces all of the other realms to types of human experiences. For instance, someone could be so mentally disturbed, it’s as if they were living in a hell. This can also help us to generate sympathy for them, and the wish not to be like that in the future. That’s fine as a function on the Dharma-Lite level. However, Real Thing Dharma is not talking just about human experience, but rather about experiences that we and everyone can have, on the basis of having a mental continuum. This mental activity can be accompanied by anything on the spectrum of happy to unhappy, pleasure to pain. We certainly don’t want to have some basis that is limited and can only support horrible painful experiences in the future. This is clear.

Is there a way to avoid that? This is the important question! First, we have to put a certain positive direction in our life, which will enable us to avoid these worse rebirths. In fact it won’t only do this, but will also lead us to liberation and enlightenment.

Putting a Safe Direction in Our Lives: Taking Refuge

I’m not so keen on the term “refuge,” which seems a little misleading by sounding too passive, as though we go to the Buddha as a savior, “Oh Buddha, save me!” Nor is it like we’re animals being taken to a wildlife refuge. We’re talking about something very active, and not passive at all. I describe this as putting a “safe direction” into our lives; if we go in this direction, then we protect ourselves from experiencing worse rebirths, uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether, as well as the inability to help others as effectively as possible.

“Dharma,” the word that is usually translated as the teachings of Buddha, actually refers to a preventative measure. It’s something we incorporate in ourselves so as to prevent or avoid future problems and suffering. We put these measures in our lives, in order to avoid the three problems of worse rebirths, rebirth altogether, and the inability to help others fully.

What is this direction that is indicated by Buddha? The direction is actually what Buddha himself achieved, which is a complete stopping of all hindrances, shortcomings, confusion and disturbing emotions. At the same time, Buddha has realized all of the positive potentials that the mind has. This is the direction we’re talking about. This is actually what we mean when we talk of the safe direction of the Precious and Rare Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Dharma is what Buddha has actually accomplished and his teachings on how we can all achieve the same. The Buddha indicates someone who has attained it in full. The Sangha is not just people in the monastery or in our Buddhist center, but rather the monastic community. In fact, even this is not really our safe direction. The Sangha, as part of the Three Jewels, refers to those highly realized beings, who have achieved part of what a Buddha has achieved in full.

Accordingly, this is what we need to do first. We have to sincerely put a safe direction in our life; that’s what we are working toward. We work to achieve what a Buddha has achieved, the way a Buddha has done in full, and the way that the Sangha has done in part. Putting this direction in our lives makes an incredibly huge difference on every level, because now our life really has meaning and a direction. We are working on ourselves to get rid of our shortcomings and realize our potentials. If we do so, then generally we’ll be emotionally happier, because we won’t think, “I don’t know what life is all about. I don’t know what I’m doing here; my life is meaningless.” That’s a terrible state of mind, and when people have this, it often means their life revolves around money. As cliché as it is, the truth is that “money cannot buy us happiness.”

Avoiding Destructive Behavior

Now, we’ve got this safe direction in our life. On this basis, what is the way to avoid worse rebirths? The method is to avoid acting in destructive ways, either physically, verbally, or mentally. It means that we try to avoid any of these three under the influence of a disturbing emotion such as anger, greed, attachment, naivety, jealousy, arrogance, and a whole long list of others. The best way to take advantage of this precious human life right now, on the initial level, is to avoid acting, speaking, and thinking in destructive ways.

However, we need to do this within a Buddhist framework. In general, all religions teach not to act destructively, like killing and stealing, but the distinctively Buddhist basis is that it is not some law. There’s no law created by some divine being or by a legislature or government. Buddhist ethics is not based on obedience to the law as in, “Obey the law, otherwise you’re going to be punished.” In regards to civil law, we can offer bribes or perhaps hire a good lawyer to escape punishment. Also, it’s not that when we obey the law we’re a good person, and if we don’t we’re bad or a criminal. Obedience is not the basis of Buddhist ethics.

Engaging in Constructive Behavior

It’s important to know what is meant by constructive behavior in Buddhism. We can do this by looking at it in terms of destructive behaviors. For instance, one way of killing or taking life would be hunting. But if we never hunted and had no interest in hunting, then the fact that we don’t hunt is not counted as constructive behavior, even if it is a good thing. Constructive behavior refers to when we feel like swatting a mosquito to kill it, we don’t act on our feeling. We understand that if we act it out, we’re acting out of anger, thinking just of me, me, me. In addition, we know that if we kill the mosquito, it will create a strong habit where with anything we don’t like, we’ll try to deal with it by killing it. So instead of swatting the mosquito, we find a peaceful way of dealing with it, like catching it in a cup and taking it outside. The constructive action is to refrain from killing another being when we really want to kill it. We refrain because we understand cause and effect. This type of constructive action builds up strong positive potentials in our mind.

There are even stronger levels of constructive action, which would be not only to not kill the mosquito, but to feed it. We can let it have a little taste of our blood. After all, we have a lot. There are a few people I have actually met who are able to do that. Just the fact that we don’t hunt is not as strong a positive action as we might think.

The Basis of Buddhist Ethics Is Understanding Behavioral Cause and Effect

In Buddhism, then, the entire basis of ethics is understanding that acting in certain ways will create certain types of results, and discriminating between what will be harmful and what will be helpful. For instance, if we act in destructive ways, it’s going to create an unhappy or disturbed state of mind for ourselves. We act like this because of our basic confusion. Firstly, we might not know that acting destructively is actually self-destructive, like when we become addicted to a drug or alcohol. Additionally, we might think in an inverted way that if we get high or drunk all the time, we’ll be able to avoid our problems.

So, with an understanding of the basis for ethical behavior, we realize that when we act destructively, it’s not because we’re bad, it’s because we’re confused. When others act destructively, it’s not that they’re bad and deserve to be punished, it’s because they’re very confused and disturbed. They become objects of compassion, where we want to help them get rid of their confusion. Yes, we might need to lock them up if there’s a possibility they’ll continue to harm other people, but it should be done with a different mentality. We don’t need to punish or hurt them, but in a sense try to help. They have a mental continuum that will continue forever and if we don’t somehow try to rehabilitate them now, they’ll just carry on acting in very destructive ways in the future.

However, at this initial level, we’re focused mainly on ourselves and wanting to avoid terrible situations in the future, which is either in this lifetime for the Dharma-Lite approach, or in future lives for the Real Thing Dharma approach. At this level, this is how we use this precious human life, by finding a safe direction. We come to value this life because we know we’re going to lose it, and we want to ensure that we continue to have precious human lives in the future. We need these human lives because it’s going to take a long time to reach the goals of liberation and enlightenment. Just as Dharma-Lite is a stepping stone to Real Thing Dharma, this initial level we’ve looked at is a stepping stone to the intermediate and advanced levels.


The initial motivation starts with appreciating this incredibly precious human life that we have. We have this body, we have opportunities, and above all, we have our human intelligence; there is almost nothing we can’t achieve if we put our minds to it.

This amazing situation we’re now in won’t last forever, because nothing does. It doesn’t matter how rich we are, or how famous we are, or how many friends we have, or how strong our body is, we will die. Not only is there nothing that can stop this, there is also no way of knowing when our time will be up. It has been said that if we truly realize death, then it will be impossible for us to lead an ordinary life.

When we see that this life is fragile and can be over at any moment, we’ll start to think about what lies beyond death. Because there are so many possible states, many of which are terrifying, in which we could be reborn, we put a safe direction into our lives.

This safe direction urges us to refrain from destructive actions, which cause future suffering, and engage in constructive actions, which cause future happiness. In this way, we ensure our own future rebirths in better states.