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Kannon (Guan Yin)

Right Effort

Sixth Step on the Path

Upon reaching this particular step, most Buddhist texts usually deliver a little sermon on willpower. Says Walpola Rahula (quoting scripture, I believe) "Right Effort is the energetic will (l) to prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind from arising, and (2) to get rid of such evil and unwholesome states that have already arisen within a man, and also (3) to produce, to cause to arise, good and wholesome states of mind not yet arisen, and (4) to develop and bring to perfection the good and wholesome states of mind already present in a man."

The Reverend Dr. Rahula, having begun and concluded his remarks on Right Effort, moves on to the next step in the Path. We are left wondering how we can use the information provided in this four-part definition. A definition is not a plan.

Right Effort requires us to simplify our life and to restructure it in ways that conduce to the performance of our Chan practice. We create an environment in which our practice can thrive.

Right Effort, then, enables us to establish a positive feedback loop: success in meditation makes us feel better emotionally and physically, and feeling better makes us enthusiastic about keeping our Chan practice. Willpower is not something we will ourselves to have. We are motivated to act only when we desire the rewards of our actions. It is possible to be motivated to act in order to avoid pain, discomfort or the descent into a former, failed way of life; but this negative kind of motivation is never very strong. A merciful providence consigns pain to oblivion. We quickly forget how really awful life can be, how very injurious to us certain people, places and things actually are. We get sloppy and backslide.

In the fables of Hinduism and Buddhism, a recurring character appears: the purchased devil. How important it is to maintain our practice is illustrated in one particular story:

A man is walking through the marketplace when he suddenly sees a caged devil for sale. He wonders why anyone would want to buy a devil but the merchant assures him that the devil is well worth the investment. The devil can perform any and all domestic tasks assigned to him. All that is necessary, says the merchant, is that the devil faithfully be told each morning what his duties for the day will be. His owner will then be free to leave the house and attend to his own work, knowing that each night, when he returns, all the household chores will be done. The man, who happens to be a bachelor, has a definite need for housekeeping help; and so he buys the devil. Everything goes well for several weeks. The man rises, instructs his devil and goes to work sanguine in the knowledge that when he returns in the evening the house will be clean, his laundry done, the garden tended, and his dinner prepared. But one day he meets some friends after work, gets drunk with them, and stays in town overnight. The next morning he goes directly to his job. That evening when he finally returns home, he enters his house and discovers his devil dismembering a neighbor's child.

In other words, the very first time we break with our Chan routine, we invite disaster. But this is true of any routine that we swear on our mother's aorta we will keep faithfully. We are like alcoholics who think sobriety can be resumed after we enjoy just one martini. It can't. To break any routine is almost to forget that we ever had one.

Right Effort keeps us on the Path. We simplify our lives in order to lower our stress levels. By minimizing our interactions with others we minimize conflicts or other ego-energizing involvements. By taking the conditions of our body and mind seriously, we eliminate deleterious habits such as smoking, drinking, drug dependency and even addictive personal relationships, eliminations which can be ended easily, providing we grasp the power that meditation and Chan psychology and philosophy offer. We do and we think. We meditate and we gain insight.

Willpower is not a creature that spontaneously generates in our brains. We develop good habits only when their performance pleases us. If we like the result, we continue.

1. Creating a meditation space.

A sanctuary is a sacred place. In it a necessary mood of spiritual well-being is evoked, creating a feedback loop. We like the feeling we get from entering the sanctuary and this motivates us to engage in our meditation practice. Success in the practice heightens the mood of the sanctuary. We can acquire the habit of entering this mood as we acquire the habit of entering the sanctuary.

Beginners require a meditation space. If we have a whole house to ourselves, we can select a bedroom, throw all of the furniture and junk out of it, take down the drapes or other window treatments that inhibit the passage of light into it, paint the walls a soft white, clean the rugs, create an altar out of a narrow table, put pictures of the Buddha and our teachers on the altar and a cushion on the floor in front of it, add some flowers and incense, and we are ready to go.

What if we don't have a whole house to ourselves? No problem. We use whatever space we have. Finding a quiet time is usually, in such cramped environments, a much greater problem.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 15: Right Effort: Page 1 of 3