The Power of Intention: A Handful of Dust

“What makes an action good or bad?

Not how it looks, nor whether it is big or small,

But the good or evil motivation behind it.”

–Buddhist saying.


In Tibetan lore there is a well known and well loved character named Geshe Ben, a foolish monk whose anecdotes teach us much about the foibles that befall us along the spiritual path. One such story applies to the importance of checking our motivation carefully, even when engaging in seemingly positive actions.


One day Geshe Ben was expecting a visit from his patrons. That morning, he made a special effort to tidy up his shrine more beautifully than usual by making special offerings. Examining his intentions, he saw that they were motivated out of the desire to impress his patrons so he immediately picked up a handful of dust and threw it all over his shrine, saying, “Monk, just stay where you are and don’t put on airs!”


Later, when the great teacher, Padampa Sangye, heard this story, he said, “That handful of dust Geshe Ben threw on his shrine is the best offering in all of Tibet!”


This story illustrates the importance of introspection and being honest with our selves. We should always watch our mind carefully. If our intention is good, then act. But if our intention is based on ambition or greed, then we should work to change it and infuse it with bodhicitta, the heartfelt motivation to benefit our self and others.


Bodhi means ‘awakened’ or ‘enlightened’ and citta means ‘mind’ or ‘heart.’ When combined the two words mean ‘enlightened heart’ or ‘spirit of awakening.’ Historically, the teachings on bodhicitta arose in India at the same time Jesus’ teachings on love were taking hold in the Mediterranean around the turn of the millennium. Some suggest that this reflects a larger shift in the collective unconscious toward love and humanity and less emphasis on doctrinal hierarchy that had become prominent in both the Judeo and Buddhist traditions at that time. In both spheres, we see a shift away from what one does to how one does it. For example, in Buddhism it is said that one mantra uttered with the heartfelt motivation of bodhicitta is immensely more powerful than 100,000 mantras uttered without it. Therefore examine your mind and reveal your true intentions. And don’t waste your precious time pretending to be doing one thing while doing another.


This anecdote about Geshe Ben reveals, in a humorous way, a fundamental human tendency to put on airs in order to be special. This is an aspect of our human nature that is based on the false notion that we are separate from others. This misunderstanding leads us to believe that if we accumulate power, money, admiration, and so on, then we will be happy. But without caring relationships, without connection based on mutual love and respect, all the money in the world won’t bring us what we ultimately seek.


The Buddha taught that it is important not to be motivated by what he called the eight mundane concerns: gain and loss, pleasure and pain, praise and criticism, fame and infamy. These eight concerns address our tendency to desire the good and push away the bad. This locks us in a continual cycle of ups and downs that leave us unsatisfied because we are always rocking on the surface waves of the deeper ocean of our experience. We are fooled into thinking that we can find happiness through gain, pleasure, praise, fame and so on. For example, if we give a gift to someone, it is important to look at our motivation, is it for some kind of gain? Do we engage in our actions for praise or fame? Do we pursue romantic relationships only for our own pleasure? When you notice you are motivated by mundane concerns, remember Geshe Ben, and release the ambition and give rise to the intention to act for the benefit of self and others.


When we act with the eight mundane concerns as our primary motivating power, our actions are based on expectations and fear. This moves us farther away from awakening to our innate nature. Ultimately, bodhicitta, the awakened mind, is our innate nature. Bodhicitta is not simply a recipe for doing good; it is a way to enkindle the spiritual energies that make our actions both effective and liberating.  Acting from this intention we become more focused and attentive to the quality of our actions rather than the outcome.  Indeed, as Krishna taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, one must act, but it is futile to be attached to the outcome of ones actions. Or as we say in the West, if you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.


Similarly, if our sadhana (spiritual practice) is fueled by mundane ambitions, we will never find the truth we seek. Instead we waste time pursuing aesthetic ideals or blissful states while rejecting the difficult yet essential aspects of our spiritual maturation. For example, when a woman is in labor, she must move directly through the center of the pain in order to birth her child. The mother’s love for the unborn child creates a powerful intention that transcends her personal concerns for comfort or ease and makes the birthing experience a rite of passage. If she cannot surrender to the intensity, she may need to resort to drugs or cesarean. Of course, there are times when intervention is necessary, but many women take this option too soon, robbing themselves of the profound initiation birth offers. There are times in our lives when avoiding pain is appropriate, but inevitably, there will be situations in which we have no choice but to be with the physical or emotional discomfort in order to move toward a place of healing and awakening.


Both the Yogic and the Buddhist paths teach us to move beyond our limited sense of who we are, but instead many of us fall into the trap of reinforcing our neuroses and fabricating our identity with our spiritual practice. The dharmic lifestyle then becomes one more fashionable thing to do, one more way to prop up a false sense of self.


As our practice matures, bodhicitta becomes a natural way of being in relationship with self and others. We see that acting for the good of all is in our own highest interest, and there need not be contradiction between the two. This maturity opens us to the understanding of why such great teachers like the Buddha and Jesus taught that love and humility are the greatest offerings of all.


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