Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1996

Who We Really Are; Ajahn Sumedo
Sutta Class: Punna & Papa; Venerable Asabho
Right Effort: Making It Work; Ajahn Siripanna
Going Forth - From Three Insiders
Sharing the Blessings; Venerable Thanuttaro
The Dalai Lama at the Barbican; Ajahn Sobhano
High on Black Turtle; Yatiko Bhikkhu
Sign of Change:


Right Effort: Making It Work
From a talk given by Ajahn Siripanna at the Insight Meditation Centre, Barre, Massachsetts, in April 1996.

If we want good results from our practice we need to make an effort. A central aspect is the effort to develop wholesome mind states - qualities which bring benefit to ourselves and others and which support the movement towards peacefulness, towards ease, towards liberation.

The idea of making the effort to develop needs to be very cautiously handled because this sense of self-improvement is at the root of an enormous amount of suffering in 'spiritual practice'. We can understandably want to become a better person, someone who cares, who is helpful, wise and compassionate. The trouble is that if we attach to that way of thinking, there is an implicit judgment that the way we are now is not good enough. Do you think that way yourself? "I'm just not good enough the way I am and I have to change. You know I'm rotten to the core. Everyone says so, even my best friends. And if I don't make the effort to change, how is anything going to get any better? Don't tell me I shouldn't develop myself."

Of course, there is a logic to this; but if you do think in this way - will you ever be good enough? Is that possible? Our minds have this infinite capacity to conceive, to create images and ideals. I can conceive of myself as absolutely perfect, a combination of the Dalai Lama, the Buddha and Mother Theresa all rolled into one - and a bit of the Zen master in there somewhere. Infinitely wise, infinitely compassionate. People would cry, their hearts would just rip open when they saw me. It's easy to think like that. But am I ever going to be that way? Does this mean that the way I am now is just hopelessly inadequate? Obviously I'm exaggerating a little bit to make a point. But I think many of us can recognize this tendency to be so lacking in compassion, so merciless; unable to open to the way we are now.

Alternatively, perhaps we don't feel the need to improve ourselves - we're pretty nice already. But, even so, attaching to niceness or goodness is still creating a sense of 'me' in here, relating to the world out there. It creates a sense of pressure, something that we've got to uphold and defend; an image which we have to keep polished and not let any cracks appear in it, or if they do, quickly get out the epoxy resin - fill them in! Being a good person can be a very stressful experience too.
In developing wholesome mind states we are simply cultivating the Eightfold Path.

Fortunately, nothing we can conceive of becoming is actually worth being, it's not the Truth. It's not worth being anybody, good, bad or indifferent. Now what does this mean? "First of all she's saying we've got to develop ourselves, and now she's saying we shouldn't bother." I'm not saying that, but I am saying that the effort to develop skilful, wholesome qualities needs to be held within the light of awareness so that the desire to change is transformed into aspiration. Effort driven by desire creates a sense of me-ness with the constriction and stress that that involves; whereas aspiration is the deepest desire of the heart to move beyond self-need, beyond the need to be someone - even someone really wonderful.

When we look deeply at experience, we can clearly see that all states of mind are conditions that are due to accumulated causes; they have a time of existence and then end; they're not me, not mine. Understanding this, we can let go of making something personal out of either wholesomeness or unwholesomeness. We have to understand the ultimate emptiness of it all, if we are to be able to freely move through this suffering world.

So, we do need to make the effort to develop the mind through skilful use of precepts, religious forms, meditation practices, restraint - but at the same time recognising their limitations. The Buddha gave a very clear teaching on this. He said, "Monks, I do not say you can attain purity by views, traditions, insight, morality or conventions. Nor will you attain purity without these. But by using them for abandonment, rather than as positions to hold onto, you will come to be at peace without the need to be anything."
Bearing these points in mind, I'd like to reflect on how we can incline the mind in a wholesome direction; and on some of the factors that support this endeavour.

In developing wholesome mind states we are simply cultivating the Eightfold Path. Right View has to come first because if we don't understand the cause of suffering, our intentions or thoughts are going to be wrong, or at best muddled; whereas in any moment of clear-sighted awareness Right Intention can arise. Its first aspect is the intention of renunciation: letting go of grasping at the sense realm in an attempt to extract a security it can't offer. Renunciation really encompasses all aspects of Right Intention, but specifically highlights the aspiration which arises naturally when we understand the Four Noble Truths in the context of ourselves. When we understand the Four Noble Truths in relation to how we relate to others, then the other aspects of Right Intention naturally evolve: - the intention to cultivate thoughts of non-ill will and non- cruelty, non-aggression. Notice it's not saying "thoughts of goodwill", it's saying, "non-ill will". This is significant, because it's pointing to the heart of cultivation of Right Intention, which is to let go of unwholesome intention.

In a sense, the distinction between abandoning and developing is artificial, because we can develop wholesome qualities through letting go of what is unwholesome. Then we start to rest in the natural state of the mind which is undeluded. It's not tainted by negativity or self-concern, so it's just naturally wholesome.

Tere is a very simple logic to the development of Right Intention which the Buddha explained with startling clarity: "Whatever one frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of the mind. So if one frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of renunciation, one has abandoned thoughts of sensual desire and the mind inclines towards renunciation... towards non-ill... towards non-cruelty." That's the mechanics of it.

The Buddha also said that even the thought of wishing to develop renunciation, non-ill will or non-aggression is of great benefit - even if we don't act upon it - because of the tremendous power of thought. We can verify if it's true or not in our own experience. For myself, just to have a thought of well-wishing makes me feel good, even though I don't usually have a clue whether it's helping anyone. I'd rather be sitting there thinking, "May you abide in well-being" than, "You make me feel sick!" Which one feels better?
We need to support our efforts to cultivate Right Intention through reflection. We can feel that practice is just a matter of being aware, or noting: "Lifting, lifting, lifting." Of course, that's the beginning - knowing what we're experiencing - but in itself that isn't enough. Life doesn't just automatically fall into place through watching ourselves overeat again and again and again... and noting that we are getting fatter. Or noticing ourselves arguing again and again with a friend who pushes our buttons, and hating ourselves for it afterwards. There also needs to be wise reflection, yoniso manasikara. I love this word because it so vividly points us towards what reflection is really aiming at.

The meaning of the word 'yoni' is womb, or origin. Yoniso manasikara can literally be translated as tracing things back to the origin; going to the heart of the matter. To do that we have to move back from experience so that we can see the whole situation, looking in a fresh way; waking up out of the mind's habitual ruts. We use intelligent consideration to question: "Why did I say that? What will the results of this action be? What really matters in life?"

As we become more aware of the motivating forces in the mind and we are clearer about what we really want, there's a natural sense of not wanting to get caught any more in unwholesome, harmful thoughts and intentions, and of wanting to make much of those which are wholesome. This is possible. We always have the choice... but we need to make the effort.

If we're not actually aware, awake, attentive to what's happening, then there's no possibility of understanding it or being free in relationship to it. So mindfulness - this open and all- embracing state of receptivity to experience - is obviously central to every aspect of the Path, and to Right Effort.

Sati, or mindfulness, literally means 'remembering'; remembering to be awake to the way things are. And the way things are is changing constantly, flowing, unstable. So it's primarily a quality that we associate with knowing change - which doesn't fit in with the idea we might have about it as something that arises in a mind which is totally concentrated and stuck in some delightful state. Mindfulness doesn't need a lot of particular things to support it. It doesn't need a great deal of tranquillity. I don't know if you believe that, but it's true. The very transformative power of mindfulness comes from its ability to see change; to shatter, through close attention, the illusory solidity of experience.

In the scriptures, mindfulness is seldom mentioned without its companion, sampajanna, or clear comprehension. Mindfulness in itself has no wisdom, it is just an attentive receptivity; it needs to have the support of its active partner, sampajanna, which connects our awareness with the natural wisdom of the awakened mind. We can think we're being very mindful and yet sometimes, what we're thinking or doing is not really taking everything into account, there is not this clear comprehension. For instance, you might go to your Grandma's for dinner the night you leave this retreat, and you think "I felt so good on retreat I'll try and hold on to that sense of stillness I had here." And you keep your eyes downcast and eat your soup v-e-r-y mindfully. Your poor Granny's going to freak out: "What's happened to my boy? What have they done to him?" So you can be totally aware of what you're doing, but it's not suitable, is it? Poor Granny! Clear comprehension is something very practical, and we can laugh, but really, holding on to an idea of being mindful can make us complete twits. But when mindfulness is supported by clear comprehension, we know what's appropriate.

The practice of mindfulness leads naturally to the development of Right Concentration. Now concentration needs to be balanced with mindfulness and reflection, if it is to support the insight which allows Right Intention to arise. If there's too much willful one-pointedness on a calming object, such as the breath, the mind may become very still and calm but it's quite a fixed state with a very narrow focus and little flexibility. It's not a state where there's a lot of mindfulness, and it's not a state where insight tends to arise.

However, with a slightly different emphasis, the mind can also come to one-pointedness through relaxing, resting with the flow of the breath and the mind states. In this approach, it's the knowing that is the place of stillness. The absolute point is that still place of knowing continuous change, rather than feeling that the mind itself has to be still. It's a relaxed state of receptivity, and it can accommodate everything. One starts to realise that all these ghastly moods and feelings and unskilful thoughts and restlessness, which are coming along to hinder my practice, are the field of practice. Everything can be accommodated within this understanding of Right Concentration; and on the way we develop insight too. I'm really pandering to your greed here - this is the way you can get everything! Seeing all thoughts and moods and obsessions clearly for what they are - ceaselessly changing, painful if taken personally and ultimately ownerless - we can develop all the qualities of mind which support insight, letting go, abandonment, complete relinquishment, complete peace.

The Seven Factors of Enlightenment are one way of summarising these qualities. Where the scriptures give examples to define Right Effort, these are actually what is chosen to represent the development of the wholesome qualities of mind. The term 'Factors of Enlightenment' can sound a bit daunting: "Not me, I haven't got any Factors of Enlightenment. That's for my next lifetime." But I'd like to de-mystify them a bit. You do have these qualities within you, and they're something you can continue to develop; don't imagine they're so far from you. The seven factors are: sati, mindfulness; dhamma-vicaya, investigation of dhamma; viriya, energy; piti, delight; passadhi, tranquillity; samadhi, concentration; and upekkha, equanimity. These are the factors of mind which support liberation.

My understanding is that these are qualities which one can quite clearly see and develop first of all in formal meditation, and then extending into our whole life. Using the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we see that any time we simply know body as body, feeling as feeling, mind states as mind states, mind objects as mind objects, then we are developing the enlightenment factor of mindfulness, bringing it to full fruition. With mindfulness, a natural interest arises in investigating the objects of mindfulness. This is dhamma-vicaya - investigation of dhamma, investigation of objects. (Dhamma with a small 'd' has the meaning of objects, things; Dhamma as Truth has a capital 'D'.) That investigation brings energy to the practice - viriya, energy, arises. So that is developing the enlightenment factor of energy. When we see things clearly: for example, we experience a feeling clearly, there's a natural relaxation because there's no struggle going on. This releases a great deal of energy. One is fully with experience, not reacting to it. The result of that is a sense of increasing ease of body and mind. Once the body and mind relax, a natural fullness and energy develop; it literally manifests as a sense of brightness, energy - filling the body, filling the mind. That in turn brings with it a sense of delight, piti. As one lets go of that sense of delight it turns into a cooler sense of well-being, serenity, tranquillity, passadhi. When there is that well-being the mind naturally comes to a state of concentration, samadhi. It's like having a pet. If you want it to sleep in a particular place you think, "Well, what would it like?" A cosy blanket, a few biscuits, a bowl of water, a human being nearby to meet its every need. If your pet's got any sense, it will go and lie down in that place. You've created somewhere comfortable so it's going to go there. Well, it's the same with the mind. When the body and mind feel comfortable then the concentration is just natural. The mind doesn't need to go anywhere. Within the sense of collectedness of mind, experience can be viewed with a sense of balance, with equanimity, upekkha. So the Factors of Enlightenment aren't something extraordinarily mysterious or far away. We can develop them right now. I've talked for long enough, so I'll just stop - making the effort to develop stopping!