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Right Effort

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by Sangharakshita

The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path

Lecture 52: The Conscious Evolution of Man: Right Effort Mr Chairman and Friends, At present, week by week we are following, or trying to follow at least in imagination, the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. And it is hoped that as we proceed, as the weeks go by, this very important aspect of the Buddha's teaching does become clearer and clearer. Now though as we go on week by week the teaching may become clearer certain difficulties at the same time do in fact arise, difficulties at least from the point of view of the speaker if not of the point of view of the audience. One difficulty is that every week, every time we begin a new talk, a new lecture, it becomes increasingly difficult to recapitulate. Some of you, those who have been coming regularly, might have observed that every week I start off with a short résumé of the ground that we have covered before - I recapitulate very briefly the content of all the previous talks. But, as I say, as the weeks go by that does become more and more and more difficult because obviously the further we get along in the series the more there is to repeat and recapitulate. It's just like a snowball - you start off with a very small ball of snow, containing a very small quantity of snow, and when it's small it's very easy to push it along the ground but as it is pushed along the ground, as it rolls over and over it of course gathers accretions of more and more snow and it gets bigger and bigger. So the bigger it becomes the more difficult it becomes to push it along. Recapitulation is rather like that - the further we progress in the series, the more material we accumulate, the more difficult it becomes at the beginning of every talk to go over all that ground even briefly again. So I should perhaps warn you that from now onwards, as from this week, when we reach our sixth talk, there will be in fact no detailed recapitulation of the ground that we have covered before, of the stages of the path that we have so far traversed. Instead there'll be just a very brief reminder and this should be, at least for those who have come along regularly, quite enough. So far as others are concerned, so far as those who have come along for perhaps the second time or perhaps even the first time, so far as they are concerned tonight's talk I hope, is sufficiently self-contained to be intelligible by itself even if you haven't heard any of the previous talks. And of course, in any case, if difficulties do arise all the talks are being recorded and the complete set of talks will in due course be available after the completion of the last talk.

Now we know, most of us already, that the Noble Eightfold Path consists, as its name in fact suggests, of eight steps, they're usually called, but it would be more accurate to speak, as I have been speaking, of stages or aspects.

And this Eightfold Path is also divided into two main sections. The first section is known as the Path of Vision and the second section is known as the Path of Transformation. The first section, the Path of Vision, contains only one stage of the Path, that is to say Perfect Vision and the second section of the Path contains all the other stages, all the other aspects, all seven of them. Perfect Vision, this first step or first stage of the path, consists in what we may describe as a direct insight into the nature, the ultimate nature, of existence itself. We may say it corresponds to a sort of initial glimpse of reality above and beyond all concepts, above and beyond the limitations of the relative mind. And this vision, this insight, this glimpse, is not just something intellectual, not something theoretical, it is more of the nature of what we may describe as a spiritual experience.

Now all the other stages of the path - those that comprise the second section of the Path - represent the transformation or if you like the transmutation of different aspects of one's own being, one's own nature, one's own consciousness, in the light of that Perfect Vision, in the light of that initial insight, that initial spiritual experience. The second stage of the path, you may recall, is Perfect Emotion, the third is Perfect Speech, the fourth is Perfect Action, and these three represent the transformation in the light of Perfect Vision of different aspects of our individual nature, our individual existence. Fifthly came, of course, Perfect Livelihood with which we dealt last week, and Perfect Livelihood, as we then saw, represents the transformation not only of the individual but even of the collective existence, the transformation of our whole social life, our political life and our economic life.

So thus far we have come in this Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. And today we come to what is known in Sanskrit as samyak vyayama, the sixth stage or sixth aspect of this Noble Eightfold Path, and as we have already instituted the precedent we shall speak of samyak as `perfect', not as `right'. We shall speak of Perfect Effort, not Right Effort. Now this word vyayama in samyak vyayama is usually translated as `effort' so we shall continue that practice or that custom and speak of Perfect Effort. This is what we're primarily concerned with this evening. Now what this term samyak vyayama or Perfect Effort really means or really connotes we shall see in a minute or two.

First of all, I want to say just a few words about the context of this Perfect Effort. You may remember, as I mentioned or as I reminded you just now, the second, the third, and the fourth stages of the Path deal mainly with the transformation of the individual - transformation of his emotional life, his communication with other people, and with his behaviour, his actions. The fifth stage, Perfect Livelihood, deals with the transformation of the community, of society as a whole, as we saw in fact last week. Now this sixth step with which we're concerned today, Perfect Effort, deals, like the second, third and fourth stages with the transformation of the individual - and we may say that it deals specifically with the transformation of the individual will or individual volition. But it does this, it effects this transformation and transmutation of the will, against a very wide background indeed. The background of Perfect Livelihood, as we saw last week, was sufficiently wide - its background is the whole human community, society at large. But the background of Perfect Effort is even larger, even wider, even more comprehensive. The background of Perfect Effort is nothing less than the whole range of sentient existence, the whole of life, the whole of organic existence, or we may say the whole process of the evolution of organic life. So against this background, within this context, we may say that Perfect Effort represents, within the general structure or the general framework of the path - the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path - the fact that the spiritual life can be regarded as being in a sense the continuation, even the culmination, if you like the consummation, of the entire process of evolution. And it's for this reason that in our main title for today's talk we speak of the Conscious Evolution of man with the Perfect Effort or the Right Effort just in brackets. Now what this all means we shall try to see, we shall try to understand towards the end of the talk. Meanwhile let us direct our attention to Perfect Effort itself.

The English word effort represents, as we've seen, the Sanskrit word vyayama, and we find that in the modern Indian languages, that is to say the languages of Northern India like Hindi and Gujerati, Marathi, this word vyayama still is current, and it means `exercise', ordinary physical exercise, especially in the sense of gymnastics.

They usually say vya or vyam, so exercise or gymnastics. And when they want to translate this English word, or rather Greek word, gymnasium into the Indian languages they say vyamshala, so you can begin to get some idea of what the word really connotes.

Now this stage, this stage of samyak vyayama or Perfect Effort, draws our attention to a very important aspect of the spiritual life, and that is that the spiritual life is an active life. The spiritual life is not an armchair life, it's active, if you like it's dynamic. Now this activity, this action, is not necessarily physical. Spiritual life being active doesn't mean that you must always be rushing around doing things in a crude, external physical sense. But it certainly means that one should be mentally, spiritually, even aesthetically active. In fact we may say that this step or this stage of the Eightfold Path stands for the element of what we may call spiritual athleticism, which is a very characteristic and very prominent feature of Buddhism. We may say, generalising that Buddhism is for the active.

We may say Buddhism is not for the mentally crippled or the spiritually bedridden. It's not for people of this description, it's for people who are prepared to make an effort, for people who are prepared to try. You may fail, of course, you'll fail ten times, you'll fail twenty times, you'll fail a hundred times, but that doesn't matter so much, the thing is that you should make the effort, that you should try. So Buddhism is for those who are prepared to make that effort, not for those who are prepared only to sit back in their armchairs comfortably and read all about the efforts of other people. Well, you know the sort of thing, you take the life of Milarepa and you ensconce yourselves by the side of the fire, with perhaps a cup of tea and a plate of muffins or a box of chocolates and you munch your muffins and nibble your chocolates, and you're all warm and cosy and you read about the austerities of Milarepa and you think how fine and how wonderful! So not like that, not ...

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