Ambition (icchana) is an eagerness to acquire personal advantage wealth, power, status or fame – while aspiration (patthāna) is a gentle but firm determination to achieve something. The English word ambition comes from the Latin ambitionem meaning ‘going around’ while aspiration is related to the Latin spiritus, breath, and comes from the French aspirare meaning ‘to breathe out.’ Ambition is not necessarily negative, but it does have a tendency to override integrity in its drive to get what it wants. And when it does get what it wants, it sometimes misuses it. Successful actors who end up becoming drug addicts, star athletes who cheat in order to win yet another medal, and wealthy businessmen who dodge taxes or steal from their shareholders in order to accumulate even more, would be examples of this. As the Buddha said: ‘Because of his craving for riches, the fool undermines himself.’ (Dhp.355). All too often, ambition just keeps us ‘going round,’ i.e. it further entangles us in samsara. The so-called Self-Improvement Movement in the US would be a good example of a philosophy of life based on ambition. Behind all the talk of ‘the passion for excellence,’ ‘being the best you can be’ and ‘contributing to society,’ usually lies raw greed and selfishness.
Aspiration is a form of desire tempered by thoughtfulness, integrity and a self-interest that takes into account the interests of others too. While ambition is focused totally on the goal, aspiration never loses sight of either the goal or the means used to attain it. Aspiration allows us to ‘breathe freely’ (assāsa, M.I,64) after we have achieved our goal, because we know we have done it without compromising our values or disadvantaging others. Aspiration also understands that, while mundane goals may be useful in this life, spiritual goals benefit us in both this and the next life and will eventually lead to the state of complete fulfilment where we no longer strive for any goal, i.e. Nirvana. The Buddha said one should, ‘put forth his whole desire, exert himself, make a strong effort, apply his mind and resolve’ to attain such goals (A.IV,364). And when he said that one practising Dhamma should be ‘moderate in his desires,’ he meant we should aspire towards worthwhile goals without allowing our aspiration to degenerate into ambition.