Friday, November 6, 2009

Diligence, Part Three: Put Your Heart into It

This is Part Three 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).

Aspiration: The Power of the Mind

Aspiration has to do with how we hold our minds and where we direct our intentions. The human mind, in its concentrated form, is tremendously powerful, and wherever we direct our minds our actions usually follow, exerting a force that creates positive or negative effects. The root of the power of aspiration is really understanding, at a deep and personal level, how the law of cause and effect -- which we call karma -- really works. In Buddhist terminology, it means knowing what to adopt and what to reject, really understanding what brings happiness and what brings suffering. When we understand this in our bones, then we can put the full force of our minds behind the intention to adopt what is beneficial and to reject what is harmful.

Sometimes cause and effect is difficult to see at work in our own lives, because it's hard for us to be objective about ourselves. If our state of mind is negative and we're suffering, we feel like the victim of circumstances and we tend to look outside ourselves for the reasons why we feel the way we do. But it can be easy, at times, to see the law of karma at work in other people's lives -- we're on the outside looking in, and it's easier to be objective and to see clearly which causes are leading to which effects. Sometimes we look at other people and think, "Well, it's so obvious that what he's doing is causing him to experience this suffering he's experiencing. I wonder why he can't see it. If only he could see what I see, he wouldn't continue doing what he's doing." But we should try to apply the same, objective scrutiny to ourselves and our own actions. Once we really, deeply understand how cause and effect operate in our lives and what leads to happiness, then the strength of Aspiration to practice virtue naturally begins to grow in us. Once we've burned our hands on the stove a few times, we begin to develop strong awareness, and a strong motivation to stop doing that.

Steadfastness: Stand By Your Mind

Once we know what to do and we've made up our minds to do it, then it's a matter of sticking by our intention and not giving up when the first little challenge comes along. Shantideva says that it might be better not to begin, than to begin but give up when we're only halfway through. Doing that only creates the karma of being wishy-washy and half-hearted about the path of awakening, which isn't going to get us there. Before we set out on the road, he says, we should honestly consider our resources and accurately judge what we're capable of doing, and not bite off more than we can chew. Being open-minded but realistic about what we can do helps us develop steadfastness in our practice.

At the point where we've made a realistic assessment of what we can do and we've decided to do it, then we should rouse all our confidence and devote ourselves to it wholeheartedly. With great determination and courage, we should fearlessly meet whatever negativity arises in our minds or in the external situation, and remember that it's workable. Nothing is as solid and monolithic as we think it is.

Being realistic about our limitations sometimes involves an action that many of us on this path seem to find rather difficult, which is saying "No" when it's appropriate. Among aspiring Bodhisattvas I've met in the American Buddhist community, there seems to be an unspoken belief that to train as a Bodhisattva means to say "Yes" to whatever you're asked to do, particularly within the sangha. This can lead to people taking on more responsibility or more roles than they can reasonably handle, and to mental or physical burnout. Sometimes saying "No" is actually more beneficial in the long run; learning when to say "Yes" and when to say "No" is one of the Bodhisattva's skillful means.

Steadfastness also means setting appropriate boundaries for ourselves and others; we should not let ourselves get distracted from our intentions by people who might be pursuing less wholesome ones. Just as a drug addict in recovery cannot reasonably expect to be able to stay clean if he's hanging around with the same old crowd of drug users, so each one of us has certain people who trigger our less wholesome qualities and we can't help getting dragged down into a pit of neurosis. There's a saying in the 12-Step world: "If you hang around the barber shop, sooner or later you're gonna get a haircut." But Shantideva also points out that, while we would do better to avoid those kinds of people, we shouldn't be arrogant or condescending about it; recognizing the equality of self and other, we shouldn't cop an attitude of moral superiority to others just because they're confused and suffering.

Arrogance is a dangerous poison for anyone, but it's especially poisonous for the spiritual practitioner. If we use our practices and our experiences on the spiritual path to inflate our egos or hold ourselves as being superior to those who are not practicing as we do, then we are completely misguided. Chogyam Trungpa was once asked, along with several other Tibetan teachers, how a student could measure the success of his or her own practice. All of the other teachers gave long, somewhat formulaic answers, but Chogyam Trungpa went right to the point: basically, he said, you know your practice is successful if you're becoming less arrogant and less opinionated.

Joy: Put Your Heart into It

We devote ourselves wholeheartedly and joyfully to the acquisition of external things that promise to make us comfortable and happy: money, possessions, relationships, careers, hobbies, and so on. Yet we know how hollow those promises are; we've studied the Buddha's teachings on the suffering of impermanence. So why do we not pursue the causes of true and lasting happiness -- enlightenment itself -- with the same joy and zeal?

Pema Chodron puts it like this: Imagine what might happen if we pursued enlightenment, and engaged in all our spiritual practices, with the same enthusiasm as we feel for, say, going swimming, or for eating popcorn and watching a good movie. We would probably be there already!

The problem is that we apply our joy and enthusiasm to the wrong things. There's nothing wrong with the things themselves, or with having them and enjoying them -- but when we believe that they contain real and lasting happiness and we spend too much of our time and energy in pursuing them, then we have led ourselves astray. We're putting our faith in temporary, fleeting pleasures, and in things that will only abandon us in the long run. Our priorities have become mixed up.

Shantideva says it's like we're licking honey from a razor blade. We're so drawn to the honey because it tastes so good; yet we don't realize that our attachment to the pleasure of tasting the honey is leading us to shred our own tongues on the razor blade.

Once we sort out our confusion and realize where our true priorities lie, we can't help but take great joy in pursuing the ultimate goal, because we know where it will lead us.

Letting Go: Knowing When to Walk Away

The fourth strength that supports our practice of Joyful Exertion is "mukti" (or "moksha"), a loaded word in Sanskrit that is a bit difficult to render in English. It has been translated as "relinquishment" and as "moderation," among other things, and it means releasing or letting go, or a spirit of sacrifice. In ancient India, "mukti" and "moksha" (from the root "muc" meaning "to let loose, let go") also referred to the state of Nirvana or transcendent liberation itself, and a "mukta" was a renunciant, someone who had let go of worldly pursuits in favor of the spiritual life and ultimate freedom.

Shantideva explains the power of letting go in terms of knowing when we need to set aside our work and our practices and simply get some rest, so that we can come back to it refreshed and ready to continue. Knowing when to call it a day and how to avoid burning ourselves out is a skillful means that we sometimes have to learn through trial and error.

Letting go could also mean something like the notion that is often expressed in 12-Step literature, of taking the right action and then letting go of the results. We can simply do what we know is the right thing to do in a situation, then turn over the results to forces that are larger than ourselves. When we take an action but don't let go -- when we continue trying to micro-manage the situation and control the results even after it's out of our hands -- then we are playing God. This usually undermines the beneficial effects of our actions.

Finally, applying the power of letting go could also be knowing when to walk away from a situation altogether -- knowing when remaining in a situation is no longer beneficial to you or to the other person, and will only be harmful. If you're in an abusive relationship, or involved with someone who's stealing from you or manipulating you, or if you're part of a community where one individual consistently causes trouble for the whole community and you know the situation isn't going to improve despite your best efforts to work with it, then the most beneficial thing to do is perhaps to cut your losses and walk away. You can still hold the aspiration that at some point in the future -- in this lifetime or a future one -- circumstances will change enough so that you could once again work with and benefit this person and resolve the negative karma between you, but wisdom in this case means knowing that, right now, that isn't possible.

As the great sage Kenny Rogers put it:

"You gotta know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run."

This is another skillful means that is potentially difficult for us to learn, as aspiring Bodhisattvas. We sometimes don't know where to draw healthy boundaries. We might think that our commitment to work with the neurosis of other sentient beings means that we have to just take whatever abuse the other person may inflict upon us. Slogans such as "All victory and gain to others, all loss and defeat to myself" might reinforce this idea. But the Bodhisattva ideal is not about making ourselves into a doormat; if someone is trampling all over us, they're really creating negative karma for themselves, and we're reinforcing the karma of being a doormat -- and to allow that kind of situation to continue past a certain point is what we call "idiot compassion."

Alert! Alert! Yet, relax! Relax!

To close chapter seven, Shantideva presents a series of pith reminders about how to practice Joyful Exertion or Diligence. Like Suzuki Roshi, he reminds us that although what we are doing is very important, we should also not take it -- or ourselves -- too seriously. Our path will be more successful and more enjoyable if we can be a bit more light-hearted about the whole thing and maintain a sense of humor. And when we realize that we've totally lost it, which is inevitable -- when we've dropped our sword in the middle of battle -- the only thing to do is to pick it up as quickly as possible and continue. It's no use (to mix metaphors) crying over spilt milk. When we rise to meet whatever challenges present themselves with this spirit of lightness and joy and delight in virtue, then it's like a cool breeze that enlivens all our actions and makes every situation we encounter much more workable and relaxed.

But not too relaxed! To sustain our path over the long haul, we need to apply constant mindfulness and guard against sneak attacks from the enemy within, who is always waiting in ambush. If we give our lesser nature an opening and allow our kleshas to go unchecked, they will quickly overwhelm us, and even small, petty emotions will get the better of us. Shantideva says that we should watch our minds with the same urgency and one-pointedness as someone would watch a snake that had crawled into their lap. Through maintaining this mindfulness in every situation and never wavering in our commitment to benefit all sentient beings, we can travel the path to enlightenment without unnecessary detours and swiftly arrive at the mind of absolute Bodhicitta -- mind that is absolutely, 100% awakened, fully manifesting all its positive qualities of wisdom and compassion, with no further obscurations to hinder it.

That's what they say, anyway...the ones who've been there. Frankly, it sounds like a better game plan to me than anything I've been able to come up with. What about you?

Dedication of Merit

By whatever boundless merit we have attained
Through hearing, studying and communicating the Dharma,
May beings everywhere who suffer from addiction and attachment
Be liberated into great bliss wisdom.
May beings tormented by anger and aggression
Be liberated through love and equanimity.
May beings trapped in ignorance and denial
Be liberated into transcendent knowledge and see true reality.
And as beings travel the path to enlightenment,
May all forms of laziness be swept away by the great wind of Joyful Exertion.

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