(This post is from the September newsletter; to see the whole newsletter, go here.)
As the days shorten and the activity of summer slows down, my mind, as it usually does at this time of year, begins to turn within. Perhaps this is the natural course of things in the cyclic rhythm of the seasons or maybe just long conditioning, I don’t know. In any case, I do try to make use of this movement within to become a bit more intentional about my practice: I try to be a bit more regular about my sitting and to put a little more effort into being still and kind in my day to day activities. And I try to listen a little more carefully to the promptings of the heart or conscience about what might be good to do, both to promote general well-being in myself and others, and to encourage and support my practice.
We all come to practice for different reasons and these reasons are important, if only to us. While the reasons may shift and change with time and deepening wisdom, there is an essential part of our reason that does not have to change. That is the sense, or intuition, or belief, that there is something more to life, or that there is a better way of being in this life. This intuition is true: there is something more to life and we can find it, or create it, through the effort of doing practice. Each little bit of practice that we do helps us on our path and helps to create peace; it is a positive contribution to the world and it would be sad to loose track of that intuition or to give up on it. Happily we can just take the next step, which is how we keep that intuition alive until we know for certain that that “something more” really does exist.
What follows is a short piece on the factor of the Eightfold Path, right effort. It is excerpted with permission from a longer essay on the Eightfold Path written by Reverend Master Daizui MacPhillamy and is available on the OBC website.
The right application of effort to Buddhist training is a bit of a paradox. If we do not try to make some changes in our lives, what is the point of undertaking training in the first place? But letting go of things such as “trying” is itself one of the changes that we need to make! What are we to do?
We read in Zen texts about “effortless effort” or the “goal of goallessness”, and sometimes that sounds like all we need to do is “what comes naturally”. And in a sense that is true, but what is needed is not the “what comes naturally” to our self, for this would simply be to indulge impulsiveness. Instead, we need to do what comes naturally to our Unborn Buddha Nature. And finding that is what training is all about. This situation is actually not as much of a paradox as it seems, because there are different sorts of effort. The one which we are used to is one in which “we” are in control: we have a goal or ideal and direct our behavior in ways which we think will achieve it. There are difficulties with this in several places. There’s really no “me” in the first place; secondly, goals and ideals may be nice thoughts, but they are lousy descriptions of how the world really works; the same is true for my ideas about what will achieve change; and finally, whatever “we” may be, we don’t seem to be wise enough to direct or control a life. With all of these difficulties, is it any wonder that our attempts to “reform ourselves” generally end up somewhere other than where we hoped they would?
But there is another type of effort entirely. It is more “willingness” than “will”. It is the willingness to let go of things moment-by-moment: ideas, opinions, wants, fears, ideals, judgments, … everything. It is the willingness at all times to learn, to be open to seeing new ways, as Dogen Zenji put it “to be disturbed by the Truth”. And it is the willingness to do whatever comes next. “Doing what comes next” is more a matter of honesty and courage than of will. The honesty is that of looking straight at what lies before us, at what is shown to us simply and clearly by the Unborn at all times. And this involves trust: trust that a wise and compassionate Buddha Nature really does exist, trust that It can do Its work without us having to control or direct anything, and trust that we can perceive Its teachings directly from the experience of our senses without analyzing, fearing, judging, or worrying about what we perceive. The courage is that of doing what is obviously to be done and of abstaining from what is obviously to be abstained from. This, then, is the “effortless effort”. No “I” is involved, no ideals, no thinking or planning of how, no control, no direction. The work is that of the Unborn; the direction is that of the Unborn; the trust is placed in the Unborn. And, simply there are things which are to be done, and things which are to be abstained from.