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The Connection Between Atta and Dukkha
Buddhist Analysis of Human Experience and the Ways to Transcend Unsatisfactoriness

Bhikkhuni Dhammanandā
(Ven. Pham. T. Minh Hoa)

Colombo, Sri Lanka 2007

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Chapter VI. On Motivation – From a Buddhist Perspective

 Among the many beautiful verses of the Dhammapāda, the most popular Buddhist collection of Buddhist Suttas, we can find several passages that explore how our states of mind influence our experiences. State of mind (citta-dhammā) is also called mano- mind contents. What is in our mind actively participates in the cognitive process and influences the final image of the object that is then perceived differently. We have discussed on feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā) and volitional activities (saṅkhārā) in the chapter on khandhas as different aspects of human experiences that are considered to be functional, rather than substantial. Herein, I feel a need to clarify on the motivational aspect in human experiences more as it is founded in early Buddhist texts. In line with many other Buddhist treatises, the following verses in Dhammapāda, a practical guide to right living, we can see this psychological orientation of human experiences. In other words, it emphasizes the influence of the mind-content or motivational factors on human experiences.

Mind is the forerunner in all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
If with a corrupt mind one speaks or acts,
Suffering follows one like the wheel
That follows the foot of the ox...
If with a pure mind one speaks or acts,

Happiness follows him, like his never-departing shadow.

Mano pubbaṅgamā dhammā
Manoseṭṭhā, manomayā
Manasā ce paduṭṭhena - bhāsati vā karoti vā,
Tato naṃ dukkhamanveti- cakkhaṃ’va vaharo padaṃ.
Mano pubbaṅgamā dhammā.
... Manasā ce pasannena - bhāsati vā karoti vā,
Tato naṃ sukhamveti – chāyā’va anapāyinī. [1]

I. Terminology

The word motivation comes from the Latin term ‘motivus’ meanng ‘a moving cause’. The Webster English Dictionary defines the word as “a mental process that arouses an organism to action”. From the Latin root, motivation and motive are synonyms. Motivation is a driving force or forces responsible for the initiation, persistence, direction, and vigor of goal-directed behavior[2]. Another common use of the word in psychology is ‘drive’. According to the Dictionary of Psychology (Oxford 2001), drive (n) denotes any internal source of motivation that impels an organism to pursue a goal or to satisfy a need, such as sex, hunger, or self-preservation. A primary drive is an innate physiological urge or need, such as hunger or thirst; a secondary drive is an acquired non-physiological urge, such as the need for achievement, or the need for affiliation. In psychoanalysis, drive is another name for instinct[3]. More generally, motivation is a person’s energy and determination to achieve something.

Motivation and behavior have a causal relationship. From a particular behavior, one can guess the motive of an action, and being driven by a certain motive or need one acts in a certain way. There are three major areas in the study of motivation: biological, behavioristic, and cognitive psychology. The latter is a branch of psychology concerned with all forms of cognition, including attention, perception, learning, memory, thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and language. According to Padmasiri de Silva (1984), there is a remarkable similarity between Buddhist psychology and the established techniques of modern behavioral therapy. There is also a striking similarity in Buddhist mindfulness therapy and cognitive therapy, which are the techniques applied for altering or modifying people’s beliefs, expectancies, assumptions, and styles of thinking based on the study that psychological problems often stem from erroneous patterns of thinking and distorted perceptions of reality. The four opening verses of the Dhammapada directly point to this[4]. There are also many other verses in the same text directly or indirectly ascertaining the importance of a correct (or incorrect) cognitive process leading to right (or wrong) thinking, and in turn, thinking plays a chief influence on one’s experiences[5].

Biological approaches to motivation explain the biological changes caused when an organism moves in a direction that adjusts or fulfills a particular need. For example, when one’s blood sugar is down, one feels hungry and weak, causing one to search for food. Besides that, the way one eats also suggests how much hungry one is; this is the behavioral approach. A cognitive explanation as advocated by Abraham Maslow proposes that human motivation can be understood as resulting from a hierarchy of needs, from the most basic physiological demands progressing upwards to safety needs, belonging needs, esteem-seeking to grandiosity. In a practical observation, we can identify at least five major stages in motivations. They are: (1) biological need that are the most fundamental requirements for the survival of organisms; (2) security needs such as house, family, job, etc; (3) social needs such as relationship and association; (4) esteem-needs such as having a good personality, a good name and fame; (5) self-actualization needs such as the need for success, attainment etc.

We can divide motivation into different levels: (1) primitive drives or instinctive needs such as thirst, hunger, the need to rest, and sex; (2) secondary or emotive needs, to satisfy our emotions such as love and hate, to care and to be cared for in relationships; (3) rational needs, to adjust ourselves in family or social relationships or environment, job, etc. This is somewhat similar to Sigmund Freud’s classification of personality into ‘the id’- primitive impulses, ‘ego’- the ‘I’ as a dynamic shaped in relationships and conflicts, and ‘the superego’- an agent that controls impulses and supervises the adjustment of the ‘I’. There is another aspect of personality which is termed “defense mechanism”, i.e., certain reaction patterns developed in order to cope with frustrations. The most well-known of these are rationalization, regression, projection, pretension, etc.

Interestingly, the above analyses fall into two majors classifications of developed Buddhist thought: (1) the innate self-grasping (sahaj’ātmangāha) and (2) intellectually- constructed-self-grasping (parikalpit’ātmangrāha). The first type is what we were born with (sahajā).[6] This instinct, in the early Buddhist terms, is called the resultant karma or the inherited habitual tendency. The second type is what we have constructed in this very life in interaction with the environment that we live in such as parental influence, the educational system, the cultural, social and religious environment. This process goes with self-consciousness, though it is based on the innate life instinct, nevertheless, it is strengthened through the articulation of theory and dogmas. Due to the limited space, hereafter we will only focus on the cognitive approach grounded in early Buddhist psychological and terminological contents, while examining this theme from three angles: psychological, ethical and soteriological approaches.

II. Motivation is a Complex Psychological Force

The terms for motivations are rich in Buddhist psychology. The most common of them are cetanā- volition/intention; manasikāra-attention/ reflection; chanda- wish, want; saddha, faith or confidence, rāga- lust after, infatuated by; taṇhā- craving, thirst; sankappa or vitakka- thought, intention, āsava- influx, canker, intoxication. There is a group of mental factors termed anusāya, or the latent tendencies, also worth to mention.

Concerning driven forces, Buddhist terminology classifies them into six roots which bear much ethical connotation. They are: greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), ignorance (moha) belong to the immoral causes [7] ; and non-greed (alobha), non-hatred (adosa), and free from delusion (amoha) are the moral causes. Another set of motivations is mentioned in Sigālaka sutta (D.31) as fourfold: act motivated by partiality (chandāgataṃ), act motivated by hate (dosāgataṃ), act motivated by confuse (mohāgataṃ), and act motivated by fear (bhayāgataṃ); all of them are considered as unskillful acts which ultimately lead to downfall.

Intention (cetanā) as one of the mental factors is a common factor in every activity of the mind; it is morally neutral. Good intention springs from moral roots such as generosity (alobha), benevolence (adosa), and wisdom (amoha), or impartiality or justice, kind-hearted, clear-minded, and intrepidity. Bad intention is generated in immoral roots and unskillful states of mind. Bad intentions generate bad kamma, such intentions are rooted in greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and ignorance (moha). They are also called micchāsaṅkappā- wrong thoughts, which are generally spoken of in three forms, to wit: kāmavitakka- thought of sensuous, byāpāda vitakka- thought of hurting, harming, vihiṃsā vitakka- thought of cruelty.[8]

In Buddhist psychology a more complex mental constructions are discussed such are vitakka- initial thought and vicāra- sustained thought that make up verbal activities (vācī saṅkhāra)[9] for before one speaks one has to articulate it first. And before one acts, there is a very decisive mental factor called cetanā- volition or will. Volition is called kamma- the driven force behind actions, and its quality is considered very important factor in Buddhist psychology and morality.

Monks, I say that volition is karma; having motivated one act by body, speech, mind. (cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vādāmi; cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti kāyena vācāya mānasaṃ. [A. II , 415]

Vitakka, vicāra, and manasikāra are very difficult to differentiate one from the other though the Abhidhamma works try to group them in different groups. Vitakka and vicara are absorbed factors (jhāṅga) but not the manasikāra, perhaps the kind of intention in manasikāra is a spontaneous attention without any focused that need a certain amount of will (cetanā). A text in Aṅguttara Nikāya states that “All things are rooted in desire (chandamūlaka sabbe dhammā). They come in actual existence through attention (manasikārasambhavā sabbe dhammā).”[10] Manasikāra as a mental factor participates in five sense-consciousnesses. In this context ‘all things’ denote whatever perceivable, and attention is the drive that bends the mind toward the object so that it is perceived or ‘comes into existence’ (sambhāva). Manasikāra bears no moral responsibility; however, a kind of reflection that occurs at mind-door (mano viññāṇa) which relives the sense impressions in different ways is worth to mention in details. It is two kinds of motivations that literally called “making in the mind” (maṇasikāra). They are yoniso manasikāra- which means wise attention or proper consideration, and ayoniso manasikāra- unwise attention or improper consideration. Wise attention is the root of all wholesome states[11], and in contrary, unwise attention is the root of all unwholesome states. Commentaries modified wise attention is: (1) paying attention at the unattractiveness of things (asubha) in order to prevent and reduce greed and lust after sense pleasures; (2) paying attention at the impermanent nature of things (anicca) in order to reduce and prevent conceit or distress with regards to the vicissitudes of life; (3) paying attention at unsatisfactoriness or distress (dukkha) that is inherent in compounded things in order to inculcate disenchantment in sense pleasures; (4) paying attention to the non-self nature of things (anatta) in order to give up egoism and vanity. And unwise attention is those considerations that lead to infatuation, craving, grasping and clinging, conceit, envy and feeling of grandeur.

Chanda, want, desire or wishing is another term for motivations, even it is considered as “all things are rooted in chanda- sabbe dhammā chandamūlakā)[12]. Thus, chanda is apparently the motive force that forms all actions or ‘every thing’ (sabbe dhammā). E.A. Johanson translated chanda as ‘ambition’; this can only partially convey what is meant by the Pāli term chanda. The word chanda in this context is interchangeable with taṇhā- craving, desire which is identified as ‘samudaya sacca - the truth of origin’. However, In Nettippakaraṇa, craving is classified as two kinds, wholesome and unwholesome. While the unwholesome kinds go with the unsatisfactory worldling existence, the wholesome kinds lead to the abandonment of craving[13]. We will see this clearer in the following cited text and its context.

Usually the word chanda bears no ethical connotation, except when it appears in a compound with the word rāga- lust, infatuation. In the above instance, it bears more psychological significance then ethical sense. There might be evil want or wish such as wishing for the downfall of other (motivated by jealousy or enmity), wanting objects not belong to oneself such as other’s wives or husbands which in the case of liaison lead to adultery, wanting other’s properties which would lead to stilling, robbing, killing, etc. There might be proper want or wish which when realizing is legal and does not harming anybody. When we see that some one is happy and successful in life, we may aspire to be like that person, and we try hard, motivated by that aspiration to achieve all conditions that conducive to making one happy and successful. Even in the religious field a neutral element or negative quality can use as a means to motivate one to a nobler goat. We find a massage in Aṅguttara Nikaya asfollows:

Sister, this body has come into being through food; yet based on food, food can be abandoned. This body has come into being through craving (taṇhā); yet based on craving, craving can be abandoned. This body has come into being through conceit; yet based on conceit, conceit can be abandoned...[14]

Food is a neutral element to satisfy our hungry and sustained our body; wisely partaking of food helps us to stay healthy, but greed and without any restraint in taking of foods may cause many diseases. Motivated by craving for existence (bhavataṇhā) we come to this world, the force that sent us to this world is called desire (taṇhā or chanda); this can be transformed into a motivation called saṃvegha [15] -- a kind of religious sentiment to strike for the higher and nobler life. But samvegha is often used in the contexts that a religious practitioner is stirred up by seeing or reflecting on the suffering of samsāra, or is reminded by a Deity about the insecurity of life. On seeing others attain such and such state in the religious life, one thinks: I’m endowing with many qualities like these persons, why not I strike for the higher goat? This thought which is a comparison usually rooted in conceit, makes him strike hard and attain Arahantship in which there is no more conceit.

Taṇhā (Sansk. Tṛṣṇa) is often translated as desire, craving, or attachment. Taṇhā is the cause of suffering (dukkha samudaya), and it is to be eliminated (pahātabbaṃ). There are three kinds of tanhā, to wit: (1) kāma-taṇhā, craving or thirst for sensualities (libido); (2) bhava-taṇhā, craving for existence, self-preservation, to be known (the ego or constructive desire); (3) vibhava-taṇhā, craving for non-existence (destructive desire or death instinct). The above mentioned passage of AN first refers to kāma-taṇhā (libido), then one can use bhava-taṇhā which motivates one on the higher form of life until finally one attains Arahantship in which all taṇhā are eliminated.

Taṇhā is a positive element for ‘to be’[16], however, in Buddhism it is always denotes a derogatory connotation, the negative quality called defilement (kilesa). According to M.M. Agrawal “a state of total desirelessness is humanly impossible”. He argued that “we must satisfy our many primitive and non-primitive desires in order to survive as a living being and to survive as a member of human society”[17].

Taṇhā as an activated factor or a motivating force of existence is affirmed in many suttas, the most frequently is this phrase: “Idaṃ kho pana bhikkhave dukkhasamudayaṃ ariyasaccaṃ: yāyaṃ taṇhā ponobhavikā nandirāgasahagatā, tatratatrābhinandini seyyathīdaṃ: kāmataṇhā, bhavataṇhā, vibhavataṇhā[18]. And in S..I, 208, it is stated: “The world is led by craving; by craving it’s dragged here and there. Craving is the one thing that has all under it control.”[19] Whereas in A.III, 76, Taṇhā is only one of three factors, to wit: karma, viññāṇa, and taṇhā. Herein taṇhā is called the moisture that nourishes life, viññāṇa as seed, and karma as field. In D. 22, D. 15, and S.II, etc, taṇhā is a very decisive link of the Dependent Origination; originated in feeling, taṇhā arises in regards to the six objects of senses, then it is intensified in upādāna- grasping, and further manifested in becoming (uppatti-bhava). It should be mentioned that until feeling (in the chains of dependent origination), it is the resultant (vipāka vatta) but the mind activated at this point as reaction (saṅkhāra) toward the sense contact(s) and its associated feeling to made kamma. In this sense, taṇhā is called “the house-builder”, the ‘maker’ of the five aggregates. Therefore, taṇhā, upādāna, and kammabhava are the present causes of existence, and they pertain to the round of defilements (kilesa vatta). A passage in Mahānidānasutta (DN) portraits craving (taṇhā) as the cause of all defilements and unwholesome actions as follows: feeling > craving > pursuit > gain > decision making > desire and lust > attachment > possessiveness > stinginess > safe-guarding > taking up of clubs and weapons, conflicts, quarrels, disputes, insulting speak, slander and falsehoods[20]. A similar list of behaviors started from craving is given in A. IX, 23.

Sense-impressions are usually associated with neutral feeling (upekkhā vedanā). At the same time many objects of the senses may present within the fields of our senses, but we do not respond to all of them. Only a few impressive objects draw our attentions. We respond to these with like (lobha), indifferent (moha) or dislike (dosa). A passage in SN illustrates the progressive reactions of human beings to the objective world as follows: kāmadhātu > kāmasaññā > kāmasankappo > kāmachando > kāmaparilāho > kāmapariyesanā > micchā-paṭipajjati kāyena vācāya manāsā.

In dependence on sensual element, arises sensual perception. In dependence on sensual perception, arises sensual intention. In dependence on sensual intention arises sensual desire. In dependence on sensual desire, arises sensual passion. In dependence on sensual passion, arises sensual search. In searching for sensualities one engages in wrong bodily actions, wrong verbal actions, and wrong mental actions.[21]

The same course of motivational behavior is repeated for ill-will element (byāpādadhātu), harmful element (vihimsādhātu), renunciation (nekkhamma or alobha), benevolence (abyāpāda or metta), and compassion (avihiṃsa or karuna). Thus there are six basis of motivation which are originate in the mind, three from wholesome factors (renunciation, benevolence, and compassion), and three from unwholesome factors (sensual desire, ill-will, and harmful thought). This is another way to articulate how six kinds of thoughts (vitakka - I mentioned earlier) motivate and govern one’s actions in which kāmadhātu is equal to kāmavitakka- thought of sensuality, byāpādadhātu is equal to byāpādavitakka- thought of ill-will, vihiṃsadhātu is equal to vihiṃsavitakka- harmful thought, and the three wholesome thoughts respectively. According to this passage, motivation must base on perceptual. In the context, the sutta illustrates how thought (vitakka) lead to action. I will return to this later.

How can sensual perceptions turn into the element of desire and repulsive perceptions turn into loath, hate or ill-will element? This is explained in the texts as being governed by latent tendencies (anusaya kilesa). The term comes from prefix anu, meaning following or beneath, and root -/sī, meaning lying. The English translations of the term thus range from ‘bias’, to ‘predisposition’, or more literally as ‘bend on’, or ‘inclination’. There are seven kinds of latent tendencies in the unenlightened persons. They are kāma-rāga, sensuous or sexual tendency, paṭigha, grudge or resentful, diṭṭhi, speculative or opinioned, vicikicchā, skeptical, māna, conceit or vanity, bhavarāga, preservative desire, and avijjā, ignorance. These latent tendencies govern one’s feeling, perception, view and the actual experience of oneself as well as the objective world. Anusaya kilesas are something that we are born with. In MN, the Buddha is reported to cite out that even in an infant, these tendencies are there, only they have not a chance to manifest. We can see this from an empirical observation. For instance, when an infant get wet, the discomfort feeling causes the child to cry (paṭighānusaya), when the baby is hungry, it attaches to the mother’s breast (bhava-rāganusaya). These instinctive reactions help the infant to survive, and call for the attention of the mother or the caretaker. In SN, it is said that when one experiences a pleasant feeling without mindfulness and clear comprehension, this would trigger the sensuous tendency. Contrarily, when one experiences an unpleasant feeling, the latent tendency of grudge arises and turns one into aversion. It is necessary to cite here again the passage in Madhupiṇdika sutta (MN) in order to see the cognitive map in Buddhist psychology.

Because of the eye and visible form, eye-consciousness arises; the meeting of the three is contact; contact arouses feeling. What one feels, one perceives; what one perceives, one reason about; what one reasons about, one turn into papañca, because of that, the man is assailed in regards to the visible forms recognized by the eye belong to the past, the future and the present”.[22]

Papañca (fr. Papañceti) is the final stage of the sense-cognitive process. This is a very difficult Pāli term, and many scholars have attempted to decrypt it. From the above passage, this can be understood as the proliferation of ideas. “As a result, the person is no longer the perceiver who is in control, but one who is assailed by concepts and linguistic conventions”[23]. According to the commentary on the term, papañca turn what perceived into “I” under the influence of mānānusaya, latent tendency of conceit, into ‘mine’ due to taṇhā, or craving tendency, and ‘my-self’ under the influence of predisposition to view (diṭṭhānusaya)[24]. Thus, the passage portraits a very clear what we call the “I- insertion”, or the egocentric attitude in the cognitive process.

Another term for motivation should be brought into notice is āsava (Sansk. asravas) from the root -/sru that means ‘to flow’; the term is often translated as cankers, taints, ‘bias’, corruptions, or ‘influx’ or ‘intoxication’ because under the influence of āsava, the mind can not rise to a higher state. There are three or four types of āsava, to wit: kāmāsava- intoxication of sensuality, bhavāsava- intoxication of self-preservation, avijjāsava- intoxication of ignorance and diṭṭhāsava- intoxication of view. Referring to these influenced mental defilements, Prof. De Silva writes “They color one’s attitude and thwart one’ insight”.[25] In the Buddhist psychology and cosmology, the world is consists of three spheres: kāmadhātu- the sphere of sensuous, rūpadhātu- the sphere of fine materiality, and arūpadhātu- the sphere of non-materiality. All the three spheres are under the spell of āsava. All formative activities (puṇṇābhisaṅkhāra, apuṇṇābhisaṅkhāra, anejñābhisaṅkhāra) are soaked in āsava, therefore we can say that āsava is the fuel for the continuity of samsāra.

Monks, I say that there are two types of right thought. There is right thought impassioned with the expectation of partaking (worldly) merit, (and) there is right thought which is noble, without fermentation (of becoming), pertain to supramundane path. (Sammāsankappaṃpahaṃ bhikkhave dvayaṃ vadāmi. Atthi bhikkhave sammāsankappo sāsavo puññabhāgiyo upadhivepakko, atthi bhikkhave sammāsankappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggango.[26].

The Arahants and Buddhas are called khīnāsavo, the one who has extinguished all passions for life. Another term is āsavakkhāya, extinction of passion; this is a condition for making an end of unsatisfactoriness (sabbā dukkhā vimuccanti).

III. Buddhist Ethical View on Motivation

A verse in the Dhammapāda employs different term for motivation; it is called paṇihitaṃ that may be micchā paṇihitam cittaṃ- ill-directed mind, or sammā paṇihitaṃ cittaṃ- well-directed mind. The text read: “Whatever harm a foe may do to a foe, or an enemy to an enemy, an ill-directed mind can do one even a greater harm.” And “What neither mother, nor father, nor any other relative can do, a well-directed mind does and therefore evolutes him”. (Dhp 42, 43). The word paṇihitaṃ come from paṇidahati meant resolves, determines, or intents. Appaṇihito is another word for absorption (jhāna or samādhi) which is free from all disturbances and is sometimes considered as liberation (vimokkha). According to R.C. Childers the author of Pāḷi Dictionary, appaṇihito is free from three paṇidhis-aspiration, wish, and resolution spring from rāga-lust, dosa-hate, and moha- delusion. In Abhidhamaṭṭhasangaha, appaṇihito is one of the three doors of deliverance; and the contemplation of desirelessness or disinterestedness (appaṇihitānupassanā) is a means to achieve Nibbāna [27].

What is “ill-directed mind” and what is” well-directed mind” is very significant to be discussed here. An ordinary man with an egoistic attitude often view thing as ‘I’, ‘mine’, or ‘for me’. He does not know that things are ‘in itself’ and ‘of itself’[28], i.e., things are objectives that they come and go according to their own courses, not under any body commends; or in other word, things are impersonal phenomena (sabbe dhammā anattā). But a deluded mind always sees things from the self-centered point of view (sakkāya diṭṭhi).

An ill-directed mind often has improper reflection (ayoniso manasikāra) which is a kind of subjective judgment, irrational feelings which cause irritations, discontent and out bust of anger causing unpleasant situation; and greed, infatuated, illusory and unrealistic state in case of self-deceived. (It considers: this is beautiful, this is permanent, this is myself, I am better, I am inferior and so on.) An ill-directed mind comes from a distorted perception (saññā vipallāso). Whatever it sees, the object is always colored via personal preference, subjected judgment and emotional respond which lead to false valuation of the object. A text from Aṅguttara Nikāya gives us a glimpse of how ayoniso manasikāra is the root of all evil state as stated previously. The causal chains of ignorance which is the root of all misperception and suffering (due to subjective judgment and emotional respond) as follows: associating with bad people leads one to lose the opportunities to listen to dhamma; due to not hearing the good dhamma one lack of conviction and faith (saddha); lacking of conviction makes one prefer the inappropriate attention (ayoniso marasikāra); inappropriate attention leads to heedlessness and thoughtlessness; this careless attitude and behavior is the cause of lack of restraint as regard to senses; unrestrained leads to misbehaviors (three kinds of misconduct); and this bring hindrances to oneself; hindrances muddle one’s vision, this is ignorance[29]. From this passage, we can see a vicious circle of a life without any guidance. Herein, the guidance is good teachings or Dhamma that can arouse faith or confidence in the good or righteous life.

Again, an ill-directed mind is a mind that is overwhelming by defilements such as lust, hate, envy, arrogant, jealousy, fear, slothfulness, delusion, doubt, etc. With such a negative qualities in mind, the person is driven by his primitive impulses without any restrain; he would speak or act unskillfully and bring ill-fame, woe and downfall upon himself. Under the light of psychoanalysis, the process is not as simple as that. Narcissism, for example, apparently is the exceeding love for oneself. We might say that he is infatuate with his own body, thus being obsessed by lust after pleasurable, he is a pleasure-seeking with a very strong sense of self-interest. To fulfill his instinctive drives, he might assail pleasant objects belong to other. If his impulse is not satisfied, he would have very frustrated, even gone mad or he might hates the person who possesses the object that he is longing for; tormented by envy and jealousy, he makes a scheme to slander the other person; he even went so far as to kill the other.

The Self-Interest Principle

It is interesting to cite here a passage in Samyutta Nikāya in which the Buddha affirmed that most of the worldlings do not go beyond the self-interest principle. This is a very realistic view of human motivation. The context of the passage is that: one day, a king named Pasenadi had a private talk with his favorite queen, Mallikā, he asked his beloved: “Is there any one dearer to you than yourself?” An astonishing reply from the intelligent and bold queen was: “There is no one, great king, dearer to me than myself.” This reply appeared to be a selfish attitude amounting to narcissism of the queen (and most of us, frankly speaking!), but the Buddha confirmed this as a truth, common to everybody in which the king confessed that it is true for him, too.

“Having traversed all quarters with the mind,
One finds none anywhere dearer to oneself.
Likewise, each person holds himself most dear;
Hence one who loves himself should not harm others.”

This verse reveals a reality that Freudians called ‘self-interest principle’, but the Buddha in no means to encourage the selfish and egoistic tendency in ordinary man. The Teacher sees that men’s thoughts and actions are usually govern by self-motives, or in other words, everybody has a self-image, a sense of self-respect, and is motivated by self-interest. On the other hand, human being is a social species; this requires man to co-operate with others in relationships rather then to competition which would expand the ego. If one holds himself the dearest, likewise, the other does to his self, one should be careful not to hurt the other’s feeling. The Teacher reminds them to respect others for the sake of harmonious living. We see: how skillful he is to divert the attention from self-motive to a sense of reasoning and morality.

The motive of self is always “self-seeking”. The following three categories of motive are presented in three phases: motives, actions, and results.


Desires (motive)

Acts (means to achieve)


Associated feelings

(1) Self/ personal promotion (impure motive or egoistic attitude)

Resource to any means, including evil, unlawful one in order to achieve desirable object.




Happy, elated, joyful, conceit

Unhappy,depressed, frustrated, sorrow...

(2) For the benefit of others or for common good (pure motive or altruistic)

Resource to only righteous means, lawful pursuits





(3) Act for the act itself without attachment or expectation for the desirable result (transcendental motive).

Any means which would consider as good, not necessary follow a rigid course of any established institution.

Success or Failures do not affect the operator.




With the impure motive, one might resort to even unlawful, evil means to achieve one’s projected result. The associated emotions are varieties which depend on circumstances as indicated above. With a pure motive one is able to resist from unlawful and evil means nevertheless, one is still concern to the result(s), therefore one is not free from agitations and expectations and their associated emotions. The emotion associated with pure motive if often calm or joyful: if the action is successful, one feels joy, happy, contented; if the action if failure, one might feel sad and disappointed.

With a transcendental move one is free to act with a librated mind beyond conventional notion of moral and immoral. The feeling associated with the process is always equanimity (upekkhā) for s/he acts without concern for any projected result; his/her state of mind is not pre-occupied by any notion of self or other(s) or the results of action (in the sense of self-interest). This is true spirit of Prajña paramita, especially as described in Hadayaprajñāparamita Sūtra and Vajraprajñāparamita Sūtra. However, we should not confuse this point (which if wrongly grasped would lead to amoral) with the existentialist view which negates the value of morality.

From a Buddhist perspective, all defilements are rooted in craving (taṇhā) and ignorance (avijjā). Acting under the influence of defilement(s) which often spring from the egoistic attitude, some times give satisfaction (in the case of success), some time give frustrations (when one meets with failure). Because of there are satisfaction and gratification, people are attracted to this world[31]. In Cūladukkhakkhandha sutta[32] the Buddha said: with sensuous as cause, with pleasure-seeking as motive people flung into all kinds of activities, they quarrel and fight with each other, they live in discord, they resort to rods and weapons, killing each other, being injured they suffer as dying or die in agony.

IV. Buddhist Way to Transform Motivation

In the session of how to control motivation, E.A.Johansons writes: “because of the double standard of Buddhism referred to above, the attitude to motivation and motivated activities is ambivalent”[33] The ‘double standard’ he referred to are motivated oneself to be better by performing meritorious deeds (puññābhisaṅkhārā); and ‘not to be reborn again’, disinterested with all formations (asaṅkhātam cittam). This remark is not justifiable, but it reflects the skeptical attitude of many western scholars on the practical path of Buddhism. He is right when he states: “the motive are secondary products, just our way of reacting, we can manage to control them”. However, the next sentence reflects his confusion of the Buddhist Path. “How this is done is the chief problem of Buddhism”. We will see this in the following analyses on motives and course of actions presented from a Buddhist perspective.

First we must know that the Buddha taught Dhamma to different people. Most people are infatuated with sensual pleasures (kāmarāga), they are blinded by sensuous feeling, sensuous things (kāmaguṇa), ever searching for new sensations (kāmataṇhā). To these dispositions, the Buddha teaches them a better way, a moral course of actions to have a better life by performing meritorious deeds. The motivation toward a better way of living in Buddhist standards is termed Upaya-kausala or skillful means, or puññāpathavatthu consists of ten meritorious acts starting from Dāna, Sīla, and Bhāvanā, etc. The teaching to cope with ordinary dispositions is also called ‘a progressive talk’, that is a talk on charity (dāna), morality (sīla), heavenly enjoyment (sagga). Only when the listeners have been prepared, the Buddha proceeds to a more difficult thing to hear: the danger, the disadvantage of sense pleasures (ādīnāva), and finally, the Four Noble Truths. When one sees the danger in sense pleasures, he might motivate to search for something subtler to be enjoyed; this kind of motivational activity is called āneñjābhisaṅkhārā, the unperturbed bliss of mental absorption (jhāna). Only when the listener is at an advanced level of understanding, he is able to comprehend the Four Noble Truths, the teaching is to motivate him to be disenchantment (nibbindati) with all kind of enjoyment, whether they are gross or subtle, one is dispassionate (virāga); forsaking every will of becoming, one is liberated (vimutti). The Path to reach this lofty ideal is called the Noble Eightfold Path starts from right view (sammādiṭṭhi).

As we see from the above analysis, motivation bases on perception, therefore sammāditthi work with this very first point to guide perceptive process. Right thought (sammāsankappo) is the next step that effectively deals with motivation, guides it in proper course. Right speech (sammāvācā), right action (sammākammantā), and right livelihood (sammājīva) are categorized as morality. This implicates that the means to achieve one’s motive must be right, i.e. not going against the universal standard of morality. In order to achieve these (i.e. right motives and moral means) there are three complement factors are required. They are termed right effort (sammāvāyāma), right mindfulness (sammāsati), and right concentration (sammāsamādhi). Thus, we see, there is definitely a very clear and practical way in theory as well as in practice of Buddhism to guide and transform one’s motives.

We can see from the early discourses of the Buddha offer different methods to channel or alter the pattern of thinking and clarify the thoughts. From these discourses, it is essential to be aware of one’s thoughts or mind-content in any given moment, and honestly identify its quality. Many early discourse give the impression that Buddhist psychology is akin to modern humanistic, transpersonal and existential psychologies in view of it emphasizes on the individual, his problems and anxieties, his predicament, and his ability to overcome all problems through spiritual development via personal effort.[34] Cited from MN, Dvedhāvitakka and Vitakkasaṇṭhāna suttas, De Silva shows that Buddhist methods to channel and improve human motivation have a clear affinity to the present-day behavioral psychology in view of these explicitly behavioral techniques. This theme also have explored and discussed by Mikulas (1983), these similar, according to this author are:

1) The rejection of the notion of an unchanging self or soul;

2) Focus on observable phenomena (five aggregates or psychophysical complex, mind and body);

3) Emphasis on testability or verifiable experience;

4) Stress on techniques of awareness of the certain bodily responses (kāyanupassanā and Vedanānupassanā);

5) For here and now.

We will return to this subject in the next chapter, the Buddhist Path to transcend human unsatisfactory experiences.

Another way to master over one’s unruly, natural reactions such as averse to pain and unpleasant object, and crave to, hang on with pleasant objects or feeling is called “the power of the noble ones (ariya-iddhi) in which one can regard the repulsive as non-repulsive and the attractive as repulsive, and view both with equanimity. By developing loving kindness (metta bhāvanā) one pervades all living beings with a loving heart free from enmity, hostile and ill-will; seeing only good quality in oneself as well as in others. By practicing reflection on the repulsive nature of food and body (paṭikulanussati), one prevents greed to the food, or lust toward the body. [S. V, 52:1]. I will continue on this topic in the next chapter on the Buddhist Path to transform unsatisfactoriness.

We have discussed earlier that taṇhā is the main force of existence. Taṇhā, in the psychological term is the two principles that have accepted as the instinct nature of all animate bodies. They are the repulsive to pains and the attraction to pleasures. In a degree, it is the survival factor; but taṇhā as reactions to the experience (in the term of feeling) is the self-builder, the saṅkhāra that is conditioned by ignorance (avijjā) in the Dependent Origination formula. The nature of desire (chanda) and attachment (taṇhā) is something non-stopping, insatiate; from primitive needs, one finds the way to satisfy appetite such as when being hungry one seeks for food, but this process would not stop here. When his basic needs are fulfilled he might desire for certain kind of food that is desirable to him, and further, he might get addicted to that particular food or drink and cannot stay without it even it prove unhealthy to him. This is corruption of desire when it is not checked.[35]

Aversion and attraction are the motive for some further actions, instinctive or sophisticated. All reactions are categorized in saṅkhārā- kammic formations or genetic activity. In order to nullify the kammic process and emotive reactions, a disciple may follow a systematical method called Threefold Training (tisso sikkhā), another way of organizing the Noble Eightfold Path mentioned above. Sīla, is a code of behaviors that trains practitioner to eliminate the gross, disgraceful, immoral behaviors that are unacceptable to the common standards of morality. A second step on the Path is training in samādhi, purifying the mind from hindrances which are less gross but which muddled the mind and hindrance to the spiritual progress such as hankering after sense pleasures, nourishing ill-will, entertaining doubt, etc. And the last stage on the Path is paññā or wisdom which is the discerning knowledge and the power to chop off the arising of ‘self-motive’. Thus the Noble Eightfold Path or the Threefold Training is the means to cultivate motivation and behaviors, not only to be virtuous and graceful, but to the higher and nobler goat: liberation from the bondage of emotional conflicts, and deliverance from subjective and psychological suffering.


[1] Dhp.1, 2.

[2] Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (2001 edition), by Andrew M. Colman; Oxford University Press, pp 464.

[3] Ibid, pp 221.

[4] Dhp 3, 4: “He abuses me, he struck me, he overpowered me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.... Those who do not harbor such thoughts, their hatred are appeased.

[5] Dhp 11, 12: Those who mistake the unessential (asāra) to be essential (sāra), resorting to wrong thoughts, never arrive at the essential (sāra). Those who know the essential to be essential, dwelling in right thoughts, arrive at the essential.

[6] Ref. Void and Fulness in Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian tradition – Ed. by Bettina Bauman and John R. Douche; New Delhi 2005, pp. 89.

[7] A.III , 33: There are, monks, three causes of action. What three? Greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha)...

[8] M. III, sutta 117, Mahācattārīsaka sutta.

[9] M I, sutta 44, Culavedalla sutta.

[10] Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. P. 251. Vistaar, New Delhi 2000.

[11]S.v. 46: 32:2. Ye keci bhikkhave, dhammā kusalā kusalabhāgiyā kusalapakkhiyā, sabbe te yonisomanasikāramūlakā yonisomanasikārasamosaraõā yonisomanasikāro tesaṃ dhammānaṃ aggamakkhāyati.

[12] A X, 58; The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. P. 251.

[13] KN, 16, The Guide to the Teachings.

[14] A iv, 159; The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. P.111.

[15] Samveghā-vatthu- the sources of arousing a sense of urgency, such as birth, old age, disease, death, misery in the lower realms of existence, misery in this very life rooted in searching for food, misery of the repetition of birth and rebirth. ( Vism. III).

[16] Dhp 154. The Buddha called taṇhā the “house-builder”. And in many other suttas, tanhā is identified as the main factor leads to rebirth here and there.

[17] M.M. Agrawal: The philosophy of non-attachment. P. 44.

[18] S.IV, Bhadraka sutta, Dhammacakkapavattanasutta; Vin.III; M.i, 9, 28, ...

[19] S.I. 2208. Bhikkhu Bodhi translation. P. 131. Wisdom 2000.

[20] D. I, 59: Iti kho panetaṃ ānanda vedanaṃ paṭicca taṇhā, taṇhaṃ paṭicca pariyesanā, pariyesanaṃ paṭicca lābho, lābhaṃ paṭicca vinicchayo, vinicchayaṃ paṭiccachandarāgo, chandarāgaṃ paṭicca ajjhosānaṃ, ajjhosānaṃ paṭicca pariggaho, pariggahaṃ paṭicca macchariyaṃ, macchariyaṃ [PTS Page 059] paṭicca ārakkho, ārakkhādhikaraṇaṃ paṭicca daṇdādāna satthādānakalahaviggahavivādatuvaṃtuvaṃ pesuññamusāvādā aneke pāpakā akusalā dhammā sambhavanti.

[21] S II. 14: 12: Kāmadhātuṃ bhikkhave, paṭicca uppajjati kāmasaññā. Kāmasaññaṃ paṭicca uppajjati kāmasaṅkappo. Kāmasaṅkappaṃ paṭicca uppajjati kāmacchando. Kāmacchandaṃ paṭicca uppajjati kāmapariḷāho. Kāmapariḷāhṃ paṭicca uppajjati kāmapariyesanā. Kāmapariyesanaṃ bhikkhave, pariyesamāno assutavā puphujjano tīhi ṭhānehi micchā paṭipajjati: kāyena vācāya manasā.

[22] M.18: Cakkhuñca paticca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññānaṃ; tiṇṇaṃ sanghati phasso; phassa paccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānati, yaṃ sañjānati taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti, yaṃ papañceti tatonidānaṃ purisaṃ papañcasaññāsaṅkhā samudācaranti atītānāgatapaccuppannesu...

[23] De Silva, Padmasiri: Buddhist Psychology in the Theravada theory and practice; Horizons in Buddhist Psychology, Taos Institute Publication 2006, p. 59

[24] Mahāniddesa I.

[25], Ibid, p 58.

[26] Mahācattārīsakasutta, M. III, p117.

[27] Abhi. IX, S.26, 27.

[28] I borrow the term used by Thanissara Bhikkhu in his book entitled: The Wings to Awakening.

[29] A. II, 31, 32

[30] S.I, 3:8.

[31] S. I, 3: 8, Kosalasamyutta, Mallikā sutta: Sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci, Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ, Tasmā na hiṃse paraṃ attakāmoti.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation. P. 171.

[31] A. III, 101, 102. The Numberical Discourses of the Buddha. P. 76.

[32] M. I, sutta 14.

[33] E.A. Johansons 1978: The dynamic psychology in Early Buddhism. P. 122

[34] Ref. De Silva and Samarasinghe 1988.

[35] M.M. Agrawal, The Philosophy of non-attachment. P. 26


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Sincere thanks to Venerable Nguyen Huong Dhammananda for giving the digital files (Binh Anson, 01-2009).

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