4th Paramita—Joyous Effort
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 (Víriya Paramita), which allows us, even in the midst of crises like a global pandemic, to carry on.
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.
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 sustained application, we’re less likely to be sidetracked by distractions.
Without Viriya Paramita, we may stop practicing whenever we meet with challenging conditions. The word viriya means persistence in the face of disillusionment. Cultivating this kind of diligence helps us develop a strong, healthy mind. Through enthusiastic perseverance, we learn to regard failures as steps toward success, obstacles as inspiration for courage, and afflictions as opportunities to practice wisdom and compassion.
People on the front lines of social action often demonstrate this kind of courageous energy. John Lewis, who died on July 17, was known as the fiery conscience of the US Congress. With passionate commitment to the civil rights movement, he led freedom marches in spite of being beaten and jailed. His steadfast adherence to nonviolence and his persistent calls for justice provided a model for current leaders of Black Lives Matter.
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—such as awareness, loving-kindness, caring for others, and living in the present moment. We need to expend effort to abandon old habits and fear 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 when we notice that the mind is wandering.
Joseph Goldstein writes about his own experience with what he calls “efforting”—an unskillful forcing of mind—early in his meditation practice. After meditating in India for several years, his body’s energy system opened into an effortless flow of light, and he enjoyed sitting for hours at a time.
Joseph interrupted his practice to visit the States for several months, and he longed to return to those blissful sits. When he returned to Bodh Gaya and resumed intensive meditation practice, however, his body felt like twisted steel, rigid and stuck. For two years he struggled to recreate the pleasant flow of energy—striving for something other than what was happening. Finally, Joseph let go and accepted what was actually presenting itself—a flow of phenomena, sometimes pleasant and sometimes unpleasant, arising and passing in each moment. His lesson was to be aware of how he was making effort.
As Joseph says, cultivating viriya is a refined art of sensing and adjusting the practice when the mind is too tight or too loose. The Buddha compared the art of right effort to tuning the strings of a lute. Strings that are too tight or too loose cannot produce harmonious sounds. From time to time we need to tune the instrument of the mind by tending to the quality of effort. When we have a strong agenda, it’s skillful to open and relax the mind, softening the quality of effort. Yet if the mind is continuously drifting off, the remedy is to strengthen the effort factor enough to investigate what is underlying such restless thoughts.
We have a choice about how much effort we dedicate to Dharma practice. Some meditation practitioners are drawn 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 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.
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 impermanence.
By dedicating effort to be here 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.
Recently, a hospice patient told me that he was preparing to die. He reminisced about deceased people he had loved and said that he was ready to be with them. He admitted, “I have no control over when that will be.” But by inclining his mind towards loving thoughts, he was laying the groundwork for a peaceful death.
A different 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 transpire. In the Rinzai school of Zen, enlightenment is a goal, and practitioners work very hard to achieve enlightenment. Every Buddhist lineage has its spiritual warriors.
Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Tejaniya taught, “Avoiding difficult situations or running away from them does not usually take much skill or effort. But doing so prevents you from testing your own limits and from growing. The ability to face difficulties can be crucial for your growth. However, if you are faced with a situation in which the difficulties are simply overwhelming, you should step back for the time being and wait until you have built up enough strength to deal with it skillfully.”
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 your true priorities?
Jack reminds us that we actually know the answers to these questions. We just forget to ask, or we avoid asking 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.