Over the past weeks, we have discussed the first three paramitas (perfections) of Generosity, Ethics and Patience. Tonight we’ll examine the perfection of Joyous Effort or Enthusiastic Perseverance (Virya Paramita), which allows us, even in the face of difficulties, to practice the other paramitas.
This fourth paramita refers to the enlightened qualities of energy, vigor, vitality, endurance, diligence, enthusiasm, as well as continuous and persistent effort. The essence of this paramita of joyous effort is the courage, energy, and steadfastness to practice the Dharma consistently and to pursue the goal of awakening, for the highest good of all beings.
A feeling of deep compassion for the suffering of all sentient beings is what motivates us to expend persistent effort. Ideally, we use our body, mind and speech mindfully to work for the benefit of others, without expecting personal recognition or reward. To the best of our ability, we prepare ourselves to be of service. With joyous effort, devoted energy, and the power of sustained application, we’re less likely to be sidetracked by distractions or laziness.
Without Virya Paramita, we may stop practicing whenever we meet with challenging conditions. The word virya means persistence and perseverance in the face of disillusionment. Cultivating this kind of diligence helps us develop a strong, healthy mind. Through enthusiastic perseverance, we learn to regard failure as simply a step toward success, danger as an inspiration for courage, and affliction as an opportunity to practice wisdom and compassion.
The Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh models this kind of persistent effort. Refusing to take sides during the Vietnam war, he led community efforts to build schools and hospitals. When he had to leave his war-torn country, he founded a meditation center called Plum Village in France, where monks, nuns and lay practitioners find a welcome refuge. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings and numerous books about peace have touched people around the world.
An excerpt from the Dhammapada reads: “One person on the battlefield conquers an army of a thousand persons. Another conquers himself, and that is greater. Conquer yourself and not others, discipline yourself, and thereupon learn freedom.”
Jack Kornfield says it takes ongoing effort to generate or cultivate what is skillful — which means awareness, loving-kindness, caring for the world around us, and living more in the present moment. We need to expend effort to abandon old habits and fears of suffering as well as to sustain new, positive patterns.
Joyous effort does not come from will power but from sincerity and faith that steady practice will produce benefits for oneself and for the world. We’re not responsible for thoughts that arise, but we can make an effort to return to the present moment whenever we notice that our mind is wandering.
I’ll paraphrase the way Jack’s teacher Ajahn Chah spoke about different approaches to spiritual practice:
One way of practice is to be comfortable. You sit for a short period each day and develop some inner tranquility. You keep the precepts, so you don’t harm people, and they like you. You chant a little before you eat. Everything becomes more pleasant in your life, and you’re peaceful. With joyous effort, you start paying attention to how fortunate you are.
Some meditation practitioners are attracted to a gentle spiritual path that is not goal-oriented. Soto Zen masters teach that we’re already enlightened and that what blocks our realization of it are merely thoughts, such as, “This isn’t enough,” or “I want life to be different.” If we can learn to live with things as they are, nothing else will be necessary. Krishnamurti shared this philosophy: “It’s the truth which liberates and not your efforts to be free.”
Paradoxically, even in the gentlest approach, it takes ongoing effort to be attentive to what is true in the present moment. Ramana Maharshi spoke about making an effort to surrender and let go into each moment rather than trying to attain a goal. When we’re aware of what’s unfolding here right now without trying to change it, we start to see the truth of its impermanence—that it’s not “I, me, or mine”; it’s not self; and we’re not separate from it.
By dedicating effort to be here again and again and again, we see that all things arise and pass away, and that we don’t own or control anything, especially our thoughts. In the end we all have to let go. According to this outlook, it’s not strenuous effort that makes us free but our discovery of what’s true about life’s changing nature; by coming into harmony with the truth of natural laws, we find freedom.
Another approach to spiritual practice is to make a concerted effort to be liberated. This way has nothing to do with comfort, which may or may not traspire. In the Rinzai school of Zen, enlightenment is a goal, and practitioners work very hard to achieve enlightenment.
For spiritual warriors like Gurdjieff, pleasure may be wonderful, but it can become boring after awhile. He considered it more valuable to develop our potential as conscious human beings. Gurdjieff taught:
If people give way to all their desires, or pander to them, there will be no inner struggle, no friction, and no fire. But if for the sake of attaining liberation, people struggle with habits that hinder them, they’ll create a fire which will gradually transform their inner world into a single whole.
When we look at how powerful our habits are, and how much we go to sleep, we realize how much the world needs people to have the courage to say “no” or “stop” or “wake up.” You may have heard of a woman who walked all over the United States for 20 years, carrying only a toothbrush, and wearing a blue jogging suit displaying the insignia “Peace Pilgrim.” She spoke to everyone she met about the need to create inner peace and to bring peace to the world. The Peace Pilgrim fasted unless food was offered to her and slept along the roadside when no housing was available. She just walked and talked about peace. According to her, “Spiritual growth is not easily attained, but it is well worth the effort. It takes time, just as any growth takes time.”
Jack Kornfield asks his students some useful questions about effort. (I’ll pause after each one to give you a chance to reflect):
Where are you making too much effort in your life?
Where do you try too hard or grasp too much?
And where do you make too little effort in your life?
Where are you lazy or habitual?
What aspects of your life could be ennobled or awakened with more effort?
Where is your life too internally focused? Do you shy away from engaging with people or events, out of fear of possible failure?
Where is your life too external, when you don’t sit enough or you don’t have enough silence to listen inside to your heart and to what you care about in life?
Jack reminds us that we actually know the answers to these questions. We just forget to ask, or we don’t want to ask because we might have to rearrange our lives. But it doesn’t really matter, because everything gets rearranged anyway. Either you can rearrange it, or you can wait for it to be rearranged.
Ajahn Chah’s meditation instructions embody principles of joyous effort:
Try to keep your mind in the present. Whatever arises in the mind or the heart, just watch it and let go of it. Don’t even wish to be rid of thought; then the mind will reach a natural state, with no discriminating between good and bad, hot and cold, fast and slow, no “me” and no “you”, no self at all, just what there is. When you walk, there’s no need to do anything special; simply walk and see what there is. There’s no need to go to a cave or cling to isolation. Wherever you are, know yourself by being natural and watching. If doubts arise, watch them come and go. It’s very simple. Hold on to nothing. It’s as though you’re walking down a road; periodically you run into obstacles. When you meet difficulties, see them and overcome them by letting go. Don’t think about the obstacles you’ve passed already, and don’t worry about the ones you haven’t seen yet. Stay in the present. Don’t worry about the length of the road or the destination either. Everything is changing. Whatever you pass, do not cling to it, and eventually the mind will reach its natural balance where practice becomes automatic and effort becomes effortless. All things will come and go of themselves. Sitting hours on end is not necessary. Some people think that the longer you sit the wiser you must be. I’ve seen chickens sit on their nests for days on end. Wisdom comes from being mindful in all postures. Your practice should begin as you awaken in the morning and continue until you fall asleep. What is important is only that you keep aware….
We need this kind of enthusiastic perseverance to develop strength of character, self-reliance, and the next paramita, concentration.