What’s Your Motivation @kdlang?

I always feel just a little bit sorry for k.d. when she is put on the “Buddhism” Hot Seat like she was at Royce Hall June 20, 2015. While it is true that she is a practicing Buddhist, talking about her own spiritual journey is not something she seems to really enjoy. Of course, I have no idea what kd really  thinks about it. But I notice that her demeanor is just a tad out of sync with that of someone like, say Pema Chodron, who has spent the bulk of their adult life talking about their own inner experiences. And yet, k.d. trots out practically every time she is asked anyway. So kudos to you there, k.d. Not sure I could appear on the scene and talk about something I don’t really like to, like the devastatingly empty relationship with my mother.

Anyway, she did make one comment that I wanted to expand upon. kd kind of “blew through” it, as if everyone knew what she was talking about. Maybe they do. But just in case, I wanted to try and explain what I think she was alluding to.  k.d. was explaining to Tami Simon how the first meeting with Lama Gyatso, her root guru, went..paraphrasing what I can remember she said, “He asked, ‘What’s your motivation?’ and I said, ‘to sing, to make people happy’. And he said “What’s your motivation’? And so, there it started”.

If you are like me, you may have thought, “But wait, wanting to sing and make people happy is a motivation, so what gives with this lama Gyatso person?”. What gives is the the difference between limited and expansive motivation. Now, I am no expert at all, but I can try to share with you what I know about this distinction from my own Buddhist journey thus far.

Probably the biggest tenet in Buddhism is the desire and supporting actions for all sentient beings to be happy. You may see often the signature line on Buddhist emails “May all sentient beings be happy”.  This is because this is the ultimate motivation any of us can have. If you get up every day, and everything you do is motivated by this desire, then you are filled with epic expansive motivation. So, people like Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, in some ways even Jimmy Carter come to mind as famous people who seem have or had  a lot of this ultimate motivation. Of course, there are likely millions of others who we don’t ever hear about.

But if you are like most of us, you get up every day and you motivations, while not harmful per se, are limited. You are concerned for you and your family, your paycheck, going on vacation, helping your friend move, getting rest and relaxation, being a good parent and so forth. On the Buddhist view, if your motivations are expansive, then so too will your actions work to lead to the cause of happiness of all sentient beings. And if your motivations are limited, then your actions will work to lead to the cause of limited happiness; not ALL sentient beings, but the select few who you focus on.

So when kd told Lama Gyatso “my motivation is to sing and make people happy”, these were very limited motivations. The kind of happiness k.d.’s voice brings, no matter how awesome a voice she has, is extremely limited. It is short-lived. In fact, in some ways, her voice causes suffering. Her fans beg and implore her to come to their country, to make a new album, or to record this or that song. They miss her. The hope she will make more music, and fear that she won’t. That’s suffering.

Now, k.d. did not expand on this idea of limited versus expansive motivation at all. We can only guess that she has different, more expansive motivations today, and I think it is fair to say that Tools For Peace is her way of working to cause happiness for all sentient beings.

So, this is what I think k.d  meant when she told the “What’s your motivation?” story.


  1. Mother Teresa was motivated by suffering, not love and she was one of the most evil and vile women who ever lived, she warehoused people to die and when she died – she went to a real hospital with medicine and doctors – not the places she ran on blood money.


  2. I sometimes think that k.d. doesn’t have *enough* touch with her own ego. She strikes me often as not believing in herself as much as I wish she did. As Kath has said, we do need to cut her some slack here and there; she after all is human and by definition imperfect, as are we all. k.d. is a very private person and does not say out loud very much about herself–I do have to give her credit that she gives us as much as she does about herself.


    1. Yeah…kd sings really well, but…hmm…other skills, like interviews, are not her forte, in my opinion. Just kinda fluffy. And that’s certainly one way to go. I mean, not everyone is like I am and looking for intensive permeating discussions on the imponderables of life!


  3. Did you see my other post Zen, a Toilet and kdlang? I think I mention many of the things you do here too. I still recommend you see the whole interview. Just have patience with kd. She may not be the best teacher, or give the best interview, but her heart shines through nonetheless.
    I do believe that her ultimate motivations are quite laudable. But I also recognize she struggles with talking about it. That’s OK, and I think, as fans, we need to cut her some slack. It’s not so easy to be the poster child for something that you really don’t like to talk about. Awkward.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. agreed but we all have our singular perceptions of others. nothing is ever meant to be critical but rather observatory in the most objective way possible – if indeed that ever is attainable, given the Heisenberg principle. my observation of kd’s awkwardness with chodron is subjective and impacted by my interpretation of her body language and verbiage – or lack thereof. yes, my impressions of her are based on minimal information as well as her role in relation to my past experiences with her as an observer and admirer as well as the context of the situation in which I have found her as well as my own personal traits. I don’t know if her heart shines through or not and I know nothing of her ultimate motivations. In fact, i admire her delving into and struggling with Buddhism, a world view that seems to bring deep relief from the materialism and egocentrism of the West. what I have always had difficulty with is watching a star shed his/her sense of projected self while I still recognize my own to be autonomous and individualized even if I see myself as part of a greater whole. I could just as easily argue, along with critical theorist Slavoj Zizek, that Buddhism is a perfect spiritual tradition to be co-opted by our self-absorbed, destructive, and consumeristic society and that in that culture, individuals might believe they are transforming their minds without actually changing the conditions of suffering that shape societies. This represents a dangerous type of inner peace, one based not on true insight into the interdependent nature of reality but on withdrawal into a personal oasis isolated from the turmoil of the outside world. this is what I struggle with when I try to understand kd as a Buddhist rather than a singer – not because I’m tough on her or that I don’t like her but because I genuinely want to understand her and her intentions. I do lean toward her actuality because there seems to be evidence of her spiritual influence in such areas as Tools for Peace and want to believe that her radical transformation is the result of mindfulness and acceptance. practice appears to follow theory. it is my hope that her spiritual self exists and is not equivalent to any material fabrication of her celebrity. better yet, perhaps I need to abandon my ultimate dependence on reason and nudge myself into gaining greater intuitive enlightenment. best, virginia


  4. okay, i need to chime in here. first, thanks for your thoughts kath. always love your exquisite syntheses, honesty and reflections. i woke up early this morning and realized that i had missed streaming the chodron-lang discussion last night and so immediately opened it up. as i sat back to watch, i found myself mesmerized by pema, really not knowing how she was going to respond to some deeply tantalizing questions. i learned from her experiences, wisdom and buddhist tenets that she seems to know the human condition well and, given her particular world view, be able to pass on some valuable beliefs. i found myself relaxing and wanting to learn more (so i actually purchased her ‘when things fall apart’) as this is all so very new to me. my mood shifted, however, when kd came on stage and began to participate. i became uncomfortable with her own uncomfortableness and sense of awkwardness and honestly didn’t want to finish the program. i don’t think i would have if i didn’t adore her so much. so i held on for the ride but at the end felt sad, disappointed and unfulfilled. even though pema was ever so mindful of her, i had a difficult time believing her beliefs. something seemed contrived, unreal and forced. and yes there was an intent of entertainment that i thought was untimely or at times inappropriate, bringing me back to her ego which i assume is exactly what should not happen. it was as if i left buddhism behind and instead, as palatable as she is, was faced with an actor who was on script. indeed, what was her motivation? best, virginia

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think just the opposite of you …. I think her singing IS expansive and life changing for many people!! She puts her soul into her art which exposes her inner feeling for all to see and hear. I would love to have her tour again, but I really don’t care or focus on that fact at all. Her music is available on recording whenever you need it … Wether live or recorded, Her music transforms me to another level of consciousness!! Just her sensitivity and willingness to bare her soul publicly, has changed MY life and made it much more enriched than I could have ever imagined. Thru kd’s singing, I have found my true soulmate and partner in life! Her music is pure bliss in any form!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this. I was trying to say that her motivation was not expansive not so much that her singing is not moving. But even given all the good things that result..they are limited and impermanent in the Buddhist sense. That’s what I was attempting to clarify..why her lama hept asking what her motivation was. Thanks for commenting. It’s awesome.


  6. I thought she looked uncomfortable, too. Glad it wasn’t just me thinking that.

    I took it as what’s your motivation for wanting to sing and make people happy. Yes, that’s a motivation to have that career, but is it for others truly or to make yourself feel good, feed the ego, etc.? I think (I should have watched it twice) that she talked about service to others not long after that. Right? Maybe it’s related and that’s what she meant — that her motivation is serving others.

    The parts about compassion, for self and others, were a lot easier to follow. 🙂


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