Are Buddhists ambitious?

When people first begin Dharma practice, they often ask: “Buddhism says clinging attachment is a disturbing attitude. If I diminish my clinging attachment, what will happen to my ambition? Will I be listless and lack motivation to do anything? What will happen to my career?” Similarly, they wonder: “What role does ambition play when we organize Dharma events and volunteer work in a Dharma center? How do we know if our efforts are positive?”

Young man wearing black t-shirt with the word 'Ambitious' on it.

Ambition, like desire, can have two aspects, depending upon the motivation and the object sought. (Photo by Tika Gregory)

These are good questions and to answer them we must distinguish between constructive ambition and destructive ambition. Ambition, like desire, can have two aspects, depending upon the motivation and the object sought. Negative ambition pursues worldly success and worldly pleasures with a self-centered motivation. Positive ambition seeks beneficial goals with one of the three kinds of Dharma motivation: to have a good rebirth in the future, to be liberated from the difficulties of cyclic existence, and to attain full enlightenment in order to benefit all beings most effectively.

When speaking of the first hindrance to genuine Dharma practice—attachment to the happiness of only this life—the Buddha spoke of the desire or ambition for material possessions, money, fame, praise, approval, and sensory pleasures such as food, music, and sex. Due to our strong desire to have the pleasure we think these things will bring, we often harm, manipulate, or deceive others to obtain them. Even if we strive for these things without directly ill-treating others, our mind is still locked into a narrow state, seeking happiness from external people and objects that do not have the ability to bring us lasting happiness. Thus, the time we could spend developing unbiased love, compassion and wisdom is diverted into seeking things that do not satisfy us in the long term. To bring about lasting happiness, we need to decrease this kind of ambition by first, seeing its disadvantages—these actions create problems in our relationships with others and also plant negative karmic imprints on our mindstream—and second, recognizing that the things worldly ambition seek lack the ability to bring us long-term happiness. There are many rich and famous people who are miserable and suffer from emotional problems and alcoholism.

As we gradually decrease our worldly ambition, space opens up in our mind to act with compassion and wisdom. This is positive ambition. Compassion—the wish that living beings be free of suffering—can be a powerful motivator for action. It can replace the anger that previously motivated us when we saw social injustice, and inspire us to act to help others. Similarly, constructive ambition is imbued with the skillful wisdom that reflects carefully on the long- and short-term effects of our actions. In short, through consistent practice, the energy of our selfish ambitions for worldly pleasures is transformed into the energy of practicing the Dharma and benefiting others.

For example, let’s say Sam is very attached to his reputation. He wants people to think well of him and speak well of him to others, not because he really cares about people, but because he wants people to give him things, to do things for him, and to introduce him to famous and powerful people. With this motivation, he may lie, cover up his shortcomings, pretend to have qualities he doesn’t have, or to have contacts which are, in fact, bogus. Or, he may even do something seemingly nice, such as speak sweetly to someone, but his intention is solely to fulfill his selfish wish.

If he stops and reflects, “What is the result of such an attitude and actions? Will attaining what my ambition seeks really bring me happiness?” Sam would realize that, in fact, he is creating more problems for himself and others through his deceit and manipulation. Although at the beginning he may be able to fool people, eventually he will give himself away and they will discover his base motives and lose faith in him. Even if he succeeds in getting the things he wants and initially feels good, these things will not leave him totally satisfied and will bring with them a new set of problems. In addition, he is creating negative karma, which is the cause to have problems in future lifetimes. By thinking in this way, his worldly ambition will die down and there will be now space to think clearly. Reflecting on his interdependence with all beings, Sam will understand that his own and others’ happiness are not separate. How could he be happy if those around him are miserable? How could he bring about others’ happiness if he neglects himself? He could then engage in various projects with this new, more realistic motivation of care and concern for self and others.

As we leave behind worldly ambitions, we can approach our job and career with a new motivation. With worldly ambition, we grasp at our paycheck and everything we want to buy with it, and are concerned with our reputation in the workplace and getting the promotions we seek. When we recognize that even if we got those things they would not make us everlastingly happy, nor would they give ultimate meaning to our lives, then we can relax. This relaxation is not laziness, however, for now there is room in our minds for more altruistic and far-reaching attitudes which motivate our work. For example, in the morning before going to work, we can think, “I want to offer service to my clients and colleagues. My purpose in working is to benefit these people and to treat them with kindness and respect.” Imagine how different our working environment would be if even one person—us—acted with that intention as much as we could! We can also think, “Whatever happens today—even if I get criticized or stressed out—I will use it to learn about my mind and to practice the Dharma.” Then, if unpleasant things happen at work, we can observe our minds and try to apply the Dharma antidotes to disturbing emotions such as anger. If we are not successful with quieting our mind down on the spot, when we come home we can review what happened and apply the Dharma antidotes, in this example, by doing one of the meditations to generate patience. In this way, we can see that giving up worldly ambition will actually make us kinder, more relaxed, and thus more efficient at our work. And curiously, those are the qualities that will naturally bring us a better reputation and even a promotion, although we may not directly be seeking them!

Sometimes, if we are not careful, our worldly ambitions become involved with Dharma projects. For example, we may become attached to being someone important in the eyes of our spiritual master and become jealous of or compete with fellow disciples for our teacher’s attention. We may seek to be powerful in our Dharma center so that things are done according to our ideas and we get the credit for the center’s achievements. We may want to have many expensive and beautiful Buddha statues, Dharma books, and photographs of spiritual masters so that we can show them off to our Buddhist friends. We may want to have the reputation of being a good meditator or one who has taken many initiations and done several retreats.

In such cases, although the objects and people we are around are Buddhist, our motivation is not. It is the same worldly ambition, only now it is more deadly because it focuses on Dharma objects. It is easy to get caught in this trap. We think that just because we work in Dharma groups, go to teachings, or have Buddhist objects, that we are practicing Dharma. This is not necessarily the case. A motivation seeking reputation, possessions and so forth for the happiness of only this life contaminates our actions It is only by repeatedly looking at our motivation that we can discern whether or not it is worldly or Dharmic. Often, we discover our motivations are mixed: we do care about the Dharma and want to serve others, but we also want our efforts to be noticed and appreciated and to receive some recognition or remuneration in return. It is normal to find such mixed motivations, for we are not yet realized beings. Should we discover a mixed motivation or one tainted by worldly concern, then we need to contemplate its disadvantages as explained before and deliberately generate one of the three Dharma motivations.

The purpose of our practice is not to look like we are practicing Dharma, but to actually practice it. Practicing Dharma means transforming our minds. This occurs in our own minds. Statues, books, Dharma centers, and so forth help us to do this. They are the tools which help us actualize our purpose; they are not the practice itself. Thus, to progress along the path, we continuously have to be aware of our internal thoughts and feelings and examine if they concern worldly ambitions and desires, which are by nature self-centered and narrow. If they do, we can transform them into the positive ambition and desire for more noble aims such as the happiness of others, liberation from cyclic existence, and the full enlightenment of a Buddha. As we gradually do so, the benefit to ourselves and others will be apparent.

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