Thursday, November 5, 2009

Diligence, Part Two: The Enemy Within

This is Part Two 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).

Laziness: The Enemy of Diligence

In the opening verses of chapter seven, Shantideva defines Diligence as "joy in virtuous ways," or "delight in virtue." What this means is that, because we really understand the Dharma, we know what's going to add up to real happiness and what isn't. We have a sense of delight or joy in doing what we know will lead to ultimate happiness -- not only for ourselves, but for everyone we may encounter. This is like a patient who trusts the doctor's instructions, and diligently but happily takes the medicine because she knows it will help her get better.

The opposite of Diligence or Joyful Exertion is laziness, which comes in several flavors. The most obvious is what Shantideva calls "an inclination for unwholesomeness," which includes things like being attached to sleep and laying around all the time. Pema Chodron calls this kind of laziness "comfort orientation," which is basically the philosophy of life that posits "bobbing in the hot tub" as the solution to suffering.

Another kind of laziness Shantideva describes is despondency and self-contempt. Despondency is a loss of heart, like giving up on ourselves -- feeling we're not capable of meeting the circumstances of our lives or the challenges that come up on the spiritual path. Self-contempt is like despondency that has hardened into an intractable, "I don't care anymore" kind of attitude -- a feeling that none of it matters, it's not worth trying. Ani Pema says this attitude is like giving the world the finger.

And then there's our favorite modern form of laziness, which is just being too busy. When we get caught in the rat race of life and are just running from one activity to the next and never pausing to make time for our practice of the Paramitas, then we can't gain much traction on our Bodhisattva path. This kind of laziness doesn't happen only in big cities where people are overstimulated by their environments -- it can happen even in the countryside, or in a monastery.

Shantideva reminds us again and again in this chapter that life is short, and there's really no time for laziness if we hope to make any headway on our Bodhisattva journey in this lifetime. Death certainly lurks for each one of us somewhere up ahead, inescapably, and we don't know where -- for all we know it may be lurking around the next corner. When we really absorb this knowledge and let it sink in, it becomes more difficult for us to justify wallowing in any form of laziness.

Hellfire and Brimstone

Shantideva uses a lot of evangelical "fire and brimstone" language and fear tactics to try to scare us into realizing this, but his basic point here is very simple: Don't waste time. We need to get to the real point and take full advantage of this human life while it lasts. And what this really means is working with our minds, and using our own thoughts and emotions as the very vehicle of awakening. Otherwise, if we're not doing that, our practice is pointless. If we think we're going to get enlightened because we're walking in circles around a stupa or doing prostrations or ringing our little bell and drum and mouthing words from a chant book or raising our kundalini and getting in touch with our chakras, but we're not working with our minds and our own afflictive emotions, then I think Shantideva would say that our practice is a joke. He might even say, "See you in the next eon, after you get released from hell."

The problem is that we want something for nothing. We want enlightenment, but we want it handed to us in the form of an ice cream sundae with a cherry on top, or zapped into our innermost being through a kind of Vulcan Mind-Meld with our guru, or maybe we're holding out for the day when enlightenment finally comes in pharmaceutical form. The idea of working for it really doesn't appeal to us very much.

I have often listened to a talk I have on CD by Tenzin Palmo -- someone who knows a thing or two about Diligence. After becoming one of the first Westerners ever to ordain as a Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition, in the early 1960s, Tenzin Palmo spent 12 years in solitary retreat, living and practicing night and day in an isolated cave high up in the snow-covered Himalaya mountains. In this particular talk, she was addressing an audience in Sydney, Australia at the time of the Olympic Games there; she was talking about the athletes who were competing in the games, and what great role models of Diligence they are. They wake up in the wee hours of the night to start training, and they train all day long; they change their diets; they give up relationships and leave their families and move to strange cities to train with the best coaches; they work tirelessly night and day toward their goal. Which is what? A medal -- if they're lucky. And here *we* are, Tenzin Palmo pointed out, aiming for the greatest prize in the whole universe -- enlightenment itself, not only for ourselves but for all beings everywhere -- and if you suggest to us that we wake up half an hour earlier to practice, suddenly we hem and haw and offer all kinds of excuses why we can't do that. Basically, she says, the problem is very simple: we're lazy.

So, for the kinds of laziness that show up as a habitual pattern of sleeping or lying around idly, or as being too busy all the time (which masquerades as the opposite of laziness, but it's really the same in terms of how it affects our spiritual path), the antidote is to reflect on impermanence and remember that we have no idea how much time we have left -- and, even in the best-case scenario, it's not very much. We should utilize whatever time we do have wisely.

For the kinds of laziness that manifest as despondency and self-contempt, Shantideva says that we should simply marshal our strength and invoke a feeling of confidence: remind yourself about the Dharma and remember that whatever situation or frame of mind in which you find yourself, it's workable. We should also take responsibility for our own actions and our state of mind, and stop giving away our power by blaming other people or circumstances for the way we feel or act. And we should practice putting ourselves in other people's shoes: seeing the equality of self and other, and then doing as much as we can to exchange self and other -- which cuts right through our self-absorption. Shantideva reminds us that the little hardships we face on the spiritual path are temporary and minor compared to the alternative -- which is continuing to flail about for years (or a lifetime, or multiple lifetimes) in a spider's web of confusion and suffering from which we can't seem to escape.

Extreme Tenderness

Shantideva makes the point several times in this chapter that, while we should always strive to overcome our laziness, we should also be realistic and know where our limitations are. He reminds us that the Buddha teaches not through austerity but through ways of "extreme tenderness." While there is, of course, much work to be done on the spiritual path, we need to remain gentle and friendly to ourselves. One of the keys to this is finding the level at which we can practice with enthusiasm and joy, rather than feeling like practice is an austerity. Pema Chodron says in her commentary that if your practice feels like an austerity, then something is wrong -- it's too tight -- and you should look at what you're doing. As Suzuki Roshi reminds us, when we find that our practice as aspiring Bodhisattvas is getting just a little too heavy and we're taking things "too seriously," we should look at how to bring some relaxation and tenderness and humor back into the situation.

Our Bodhisattva activities really only become the transcendent practice of the Six Paramitas when we can engage in them with this attitude of openness and letting go. Giving, for example, becomes Generosity only when accompanied by a genuine attitude of Generosity. If you're giving someone a dollar but mumbling to yourself about what an ungrateful slob he is, or copping a resentment about it, that's not the Paramita of Generosity.

When we find ourselves getting "too serious" about things, it might be helpful to turn the flame down a little bit on the stove, and let our practice simmer at a more reasonable pace rather than boiling over. The challenge for us as baby Bodhisattvas, or the balancing act, is in really honestly knowing our own limits, and working at the level where we can have enthusiasm -- and then knowing when we can really push ourselves beyond what's comfortable, and go a little further. "We can never underestimate our aversion to discomfort," says Pema Chodron. "Often, it's only life itself that pulls the rug out, and you find yourself thrown into the next level."

Styles of Imprisonment

The see-saw of happiness and suffering pivots around the way in which we work with our minds. Shantideva goes to great lengths in this chapter to explain how our motivation and attitude shape our actions, speech and thoughts -- and how these things, in turn, shape our experience in the world. When we create habitual ways of thinking, speaking and behaving, then over time these habits tend to harden into what Chogyam Trungpa called "styles of imprisonment": we find ourselves trapped in a world that is a mirror of our own minds and our actions. If we habitually act with aggression and anger, we find ourselves living in a hell realm, where everything seems to be against us and life itself becomes warfare. If we habitually act with craving and attachment, we find ourselves living in a hungry ghost realm, where we never seem to be able to get enough of what we desire and we're constantly starving for more, locked in poverty mentality. If we constantly dull out or space out, we find ourselves living in an animal realm, where existence is just about getting through the day and meeting basic needs without getting eaten by someone else, and we tune out and lose interest in anything that might challenge us to go beyond our comfort zone.

When he taught in New York City in 2008, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa said:

"It is important for us to empower our positive mental tendencies. We always value empowerment and individual rights, but we should pay attention to the manner in which we are allocating freedoms and privileges within our own minds. Whether we're aware of it or not, we are continually empowering certain qualities and tendencies of the mind over others. Sometimes we empower and give greater privileges to our positive mental tendencies; sometimes we more greatly empower our negative tendencies. However, most of the time we are not mindful of this process, so this is something we would do well to consider."

-- His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

The way Shantideva phrases it is that we should "abandon sin." The word "sin," when it appears in Buddhist texts, often provokes a strong negative reaction among those who come from a Judaeo-Christian background. But once we strip away the associations of Original Sin and Divine Judgment and so forth, we're left with a very basic sense of what the Karmapa seems to be referring to as "negative tendencies," and the harmful actions that spring from them and cause further suffering for ourselves and other beings.

The Enemy Within

Shantideva continually exhorts us not to be downcast or gloomy when things seem to be lined up against us, but to leap into our practice of virtue with a mind of great joy. Often we tend to think that our obstacles and enemies are on the outside, in the shape of people or circumstances that challenge us. For instance, we might get very worked up thinking about the George Bushes and the Dick Cheneys of the world, and the Wall Street manipulators and the overpaid and corrupt CEOs, and the lords of the military-industrial complex. We might get very enthusiastic about pointing the finger of blame at those people for many of the problems we see in the world today.

But in terms of what hinders our practice on the spiritual path, what stymies our awakening, it's not the George Bushes and the Dick Cheneys of the world, or any other external figure, no matter how misguided or corrupt or irritating they may be. In fact, no one outside of ourselves really has the slightest power to hinder our awakening. What hinders our awakening is the enemy within -- what Shantideva calls our "mournful weariness." This enemy shows up in our minds as laziness, discouragement, despair, depression and fatigue -- all the internal enemies that deprive us of joyful exertion and make us withdraw fearfully into our protective shell.

For Shantideva, the real enemy is always within. An external enemy might damage our bodies, but from Shantideva's point of view that's of little consequence. What does real damage, what causes us lifetime after lifetime of suffering -- and what usually gets us involved with external enemies in the first place -- is our own tangle of kleshas or afflictive emotions: our anger and jealousy and craving and denial, and so on. When we act and live under the spell of our kleshas, we become our own worst enemies.

So what helps us overcome the enemy within? Shantideva presents Four Strengths or four skillful means -- Aspiration, Steadfastness, Joy, and Letting Go -- that dispel our mournful weariness and empower our practice of Joyful Exertion.

-- Click here for Part Three, "Put Your Heart into It" --

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