Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Diligence, Part One: Learning to Swim

This is Part One of a three-part article, a commentary on the seventh chapter of Shantideva's 8th-century text called the Bodhicharyavatara or Bodhisattvacharyavatara ("The Way of the Bodhisattva"). The seventh chapter deals with the topic of Diligence (or Joyful Exertion) on the spiritual path. Diligence is one of the Six Paramitas (Generosity, Ethical Conduct, Patience, Diligence, Meditation, and Wisdom), which are regarded in the Mahayana school of Buddhism as the six factors that develop the mind of awakening (or Bodhicitta) and ultimately bring it to its fruition of full enlightenment or Buddhahood.

To listen to the original talk in audio format, use the controls embedded below. (If you're reading this via email subscription and the controls do not show up in your email client, click on the title above to view the page online. Or, to download the talk, click here (and pardon the advertising on the download page).


First things first. I'd like to offer a disclaimer right up front, before I actually say anything about the topic at hand. The backstory here is that I was recently asked to give a talk as part of a course focusing on Shantideva's Bodhicharyavatara; this article is adapted from my notes for that talk. I was very happy to accept the invitation -- but, then, when I found out which chapter I was being asked to focus on, my next thought was: "Oh no! Not that one!" It's not simply that I find the topic of Diligence somewhat less inherently interesting than, say, Patience or Meditation (although I do); more significantly, it's that I don't really consider myself a very good example of Diligence, and I suspect that whatever I might have to say on the subject is largely second-hand knowledge and speculation on my part. In fact, I think I'm one of the least diligent Buddist practitioners I know, and if left to my own devices, I might have nothing at all to say about the subject. Fortunately, I'm not left to my own devices: lots of qualified teachers have given commentaries on this text, and I've studied a few of them and hopefully picked up something here and there that will be beneficial to others if I pass it along.

The Awakening Mind

So before diving into the seventh chapter, a bit of review of what leads up to that point in the text would be in order. I've been thinking about the structure of Shantideva's text in relation to a short verse that appears in the ngondro liturgy that was taught last year in Seattle by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa ("Brief Recitations for the Four Preliminary Practices"), which was translated by my friend Tyler Dewar:

May precious and supreme Bodhicitta
Arise where it has not arisen
Not diminish where it has arisen
And continually increase and increase.

The first line of this verse is what Shantideva's first chapter was all about: explaining the excellence and benefits of Bodhicitta, the mind of awakening, which is also sometimes called awakened heart (in Buddhism there's not really that much difference between "mind" and "heart"). I won't go into an explanation here of what Bodhicitta is, but if you don't have some familiarity with the concept then I doubt that the rest of this article will make much sense. But here's a basic definition, from Wikipedia:

In Buddhism, bodhicitta (Ch. 菩提心, pudixin, Jp. bodaishin, Tibetan jang chub sem, Mongolian бодь сэтгэл) is the wish to attain complete enlightenment (that is, Buddhahood) in order to be of benefit to all sentient beings trapped in cyclic existence (samsāra) who have not yet reached Buddhahood. One who has bodhicitta as the primary motivation for all of his or her activities is called a bodhisattva.

Shantideva's second and third chapters talk about how to clear the obstacles in one's mind to the generation of Bodhicitta, and how to actually give rise to that frame of mind -- which is like the second line of the verse, causing Bodhicitta to "arise where it has not arisen." The third chapter deals a lot with the first of the Six Paramitas, which is Generosity, and subsequent chapters in the text deal with the rest of the Paramitas, in sequence.

The Six Paramitas always appear in a particular order -- Generosity, Ethical Conduct, Patience, Diligence, Meditation, and Wisdom -- and this order is not accidental. They proceed from gross to subtle, or from easy to difficult, and each one builds a foundation for the next. We start with Generosity because it's the easiest and the most accessible: anyone can practice generosity. It doesn't require any degree of learning or discernment, it only takes an open heart. Even animals practice generosity at times. As you progress through the Paramitas, though, they become more and more subtle, until you reach the Prajna-Paramita, the Paramita of Transcendent Wisdom, which sees emptiness -- the true nature of reality. I don't think there are animals practicing the Prajna-Paramita, but who knows? Often, to judge by external appearances, cats do look like they're absorbed in deep meditation -- which may be why so many Buddhists love cats.

The third line of the verse is what Shantideva's fourth, fifth and sixth chapters are concerned with: preventing Bodhicitta from diminishing where it has arisen. This means developing strong mindfulness and vigilant introspection, so that we bring out minds and our conduct into line with what is ethical and conducive to true happiness, and learning to apply the antidote of patience when anger strikes so that we don't blow it all in a moment of aggression. Of all the afflictive emotions, anger is the most destructive to our Bodhisattva intentions, which is why Patience gets its own Paramita. It is said in one of the Sutras that we could spend years or lifetimes indulging in passion and desire, and this still wouldn't be as destructive as a single act of anger and aggression. This is because even when we're lustful we can still hold the welfare of other beings in mind -- we can wish someone happiness and well-being even as we're mentally undressing them and drooling over them. Now, don't get confused: this is not advocating that we get carried away in lust or attachment, and it's not praising the mind of craving -- it's just saying it's not as bad as anger. Because when we mindlessly express anger and aggression towards other beings, we are directly going against their welfare and bringing suffering upon them -- which runs counter to everything the Bodhisattva stands for.

Shantideva's seventh chapter begins the third section of the text, which corresponds to the fourth line of the verse: what to do in order to make Bodhicitta increase and increase. This means conducting one's Bodhisattva business with a joyful and determined mind (Diligence), practicing Meditative Concentration, and finally opening into the Transcendent Knowledge or Wisdom that realizes emptiness as the true nature of reality.

Learning to Swim

So in order for Bodhicitta, or the mind of awakening, to increase and increase, we need to apply a certain effort and perseverance. To borrow an analogy from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, we've gotten in the water, now we have to learn to swim -- we can't just float there forever. But I think the other side of this analogy is that, in order to swim, you also have to be somewhat relaxed, somewhat open to the joy of being in the water. You can't just be flapping about wildly, in a panic -- you'll only drown yourself that way. So this element of joy and relaxation, in the midst of effort and perseverance, is the key.

This key point comes out pretty clearly in the course of Shantideva's seventh chapter, but the fact that it takes a whole chapter to really get it across illustrates the difficulty of finding in the English language one word, or even two words, that accurately and satisfyingly communicate the fullness of what this Paramita that we usually call "Diligence" is really about. The Sanskrit word, Virya (and Virya-Paramita) -- the root of our English words "virile" and "vigor" and "virtue," among others -- implies a mind that is strong and determined and won't give up in the face of adversity. But explanations of the Virya-Paramita's meaning almost always emphasize this other aspect of joy or delight in the practice of virtue. This has led to our present situation, in which we have seen translators use literally dozens of different words and word combinations in their efforts to get at the essence of the Virya-Paramita. Here are a few examples I've seen in different texts:

  1. Diligence
  2. Exertion
  3. Joyful Exertion
  4. Energy
  5. Enthusiasm
  6. Perseverance
  7. Heroic Perseverance
  8. Enthusiastic Perseverance
  9. Effort
  10. Intelligent Effort
  11. Balanced Effort
  12. Cheerful Effort
  13. Joyful Effort
  14. Vigor
  15. Zeal
  16. Energetic Zeal
  17. Endurance
  18. Courage
  19. Endeavor
  20. Exuberance
  21. Boldness
  22. Fearlessness
  23. Vitality
  24. Heroism
  25. Bravery

Imagine if we had 25 different ways of saying "Patience" or "Generosity." Given such a wide range of translations for the Virya-Paramita in English, you would not be alone if you find yourself wondering: what exactly *are* we talking about? To get some clarity, let's go back to our good friend, Wikipedia, which offers the following definition of Virya:

In Buddhism, vīrya is one of the five controlling faculties (indriya), one of the five powers (bala), one of the six or ten paramitas, one of the seven factors of enlightenment (bodhyaṅga) and is identical with right effort of the Noble Eightfold Path (Pali: aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo; Skt.: aṣṭāṅga mārga). It stands for strenuous and sustained effort to overcome unskillful ways (akusala dhamma), such as indulging in sensuality, ill will and harmfulness (see, e.g., ahimsa, nekkhamma). It stands for the right endeavour to attain meditative concentration (dhyāna). Vīrya does not stand for physical strength. It signifies strength of character and the persistent effort for the well-being of others. In the absence of sustained efforts in practicing meditation, craving creeps in and the meditator comes under its influence. Right effort known as vīryabala is, thus, required to overcome unskillful mental factors and deviation from dhyāna.

Joyful Exertion

One of the aspects of Virya that's most emphasized in Shantideva's seventh chapter is having a sense of joy or delight in one's Bodhisattva activities. This is why I prefer translations of Virya such as Joyful Exertion, or Cheerful Effort.

I'll just say it: I don't like "Diligence." It's a dry word devoid of feeling, and for me it evokes a picture of a classroom or a study hall full of good little boys and girls diligently studying for their exams. Words like "exertion" or "perseverance" or "endurance," by themselves, are equally flat and disappointing. "Endurance" even sounds like you're white-knuckling your way through something unpleasant, a "grin and bear it" type of outlook. But I think that conjoined terms like Joyful Exertion or Enthusiastic Perseverance begin to get closer to the real meaning of this Paramita.

When you look at the living Bodhisattvas (with a capital "B") that we have among us -- I'm thinking of the Karmapa, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others like them -- you don't see people who are gritting their teeth and "enduring" or just flatly "persevering" through the hardships and challenges that come their way. You certainly don't see people who slog through their work with a sense of weariness or a chip on their shoulders, or who end up copping a resentment about the burdens they have to carry and the things they're asked to do for others -- which is what I often do. Instead, you see people who embody so much cheerfulness and joy and relaxation, even in the midst of very difficult circumstances. When you look at them, they're always smiling and laughing -- and not in a Pollyannish or frivolous way, but in a way that is united with their tremendous heart of compassion and this sense of joy in practicing virtue to benefit others. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual head of a people that has been so brutalized, for so long, and every single day people wait in line to come and lay their troubles and their sorrows at his feet. He carries so much responsibility, and almost never has time to do anything that could be even vaguely construed as being just for himself. And yet, when you look at him, he's always finding humor all around him. Once, in New York City, I saw him stop in the middle of a teaching (perhaps even mid-sentence, although I didn't understand the Tibetan) and he cried for several minutes, apparently overwhelmed by compassion for suffering beings. Then, just as suddenly, with no additional comment, he recovered himself and continued teaching, and then he was laughing and joking again.

So I think that words like "Joyful Exertion" do a much better job of conveying the true spirit of awakening mind than "Diligence" or "Perseverance." But I'll use all of these terms somewhat interchangeably here.

Don't Take the Whole Thing Too Seriously

Ani Pema Chodron, in her commentary on Shantideva's seventh chapter, offers a quote from Suzuki Roshi that I think serves as a sort of key to interpreting this whole chapter on Diligence:

"What we're doing here is so important -- so important that we might as well not take it too seriously."

This is classic Suzuki Roshi: it stops your mind and makes you do a double-take to ensure that you didn't mis-read what he said. And then it makes you think, and wonder what exactly he could have meant by such a strange statement.

If you think of this statement in terms of Joyful Exertion, you can see how the first half of the quote gets at the Exertion part: the work in which we're engaged as Bodhisattvas -- the process of waking up from our own delusion and manifesting complete wisdom and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings -- is (perhaps it's an understatement) so important. And the second half of the quote gets at the Joyful part: we won't get very far on this path if we take ourselves or the situations we encounter too seriously or try to make things too solid. Our habit, of course, is to get very locked into a heavy, oppressive sense of how fixed and stuck things are -- whether it's other people and their neurotic behavior, or just our own minds. But when we bring in this feeling of lightness and joy and not taking things too seriously, then it transforms our experience. Everything becomes much more workable, and we're able to relax right in the midst of chaos.

Sometimes when I catch myself getting very stuck in a solid, heavy sense of things being a certain way -- and usually it's the *wrong* way, and something needs to be done about it -- then, if I can remember, I try to do what I call the "100 Years from Now" practice. This is simply to remind myself that, however big of a deal this situation -- and my role in it -- seems to me right now, 100 years from now there won't be a single human being left on planet Earth who remembers it. So does it really matter *that* much, in the grand scheme of things? Should I really be taking it *that* seriously? This perspective might sound bleak or lonely, but it serves its purpose well, which is to puncture the outer membrane of the "big-deal" mind that is painfully fixated on its concepts of how things are or how they should be, and takes things too seriously.

-- Click here for Part Two, "The Enemy Within" --

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