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Right Effort

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by Sangharakshita

... just reading about other people's efforts, but being prepared to make at least a minimum effort of our own. One may say quite frankly that for a long time in this country, in the Buddhist movement, a wrong sort of image of Buddhism prevailed. For quite a while the impression as it were got around that Buddhism was intended primarily for `old ladies', and when I say `old ladies' I'm not being disrespectful to our senior citizens. When I say `old ladies' I mean of course `old ladies' of both sexes and all ages! And the impression did certainly seem to get around that Buddhism was meant for people more of this description. Whereas instead we may say that Buddhism, which is a very demanding and very exacting sort of path is really for the young and for the vigorous - either for those who are physically and mentally young or at least who are mentally and spiritually young, whatever the age, or whatever the state of their bodies may be.

Now Perfect Effort is twofold. There's a general Perfect Effort and also there's a specific Perfect Effort. Perfect Effort, or at least some degree of effort, is necessary at all stages of the Path. We shouldn't think that just because one particular stage of the Eightfold Path is labelled as Perfect Effort you can accomplish, you can traverse, the preceding stages without any effort at all - that is not the impression that is intended to be conveyed. The sixth stage may be labelled the stage of Perfect Effort, but that's the specific Perfect Effort; but a general Perfect Effort, some element of effort and exertion and striving is necessary from the very beginning. Now this specific Perfect Effort, which the Perfect Effort as the sixth stage of the path represents, consists of a certain set of exercises, as we may call them, which are to be practised at this stage. And these exercises are known as the Fourfold Perfect Effort and it's these which we have to study if we want to get some idea of what Perfect Effort, the sixth stage of the Path, is all about.

These four, as we may call them, Perfect Efforts are, or rather they consist in: 1. Preventing 2. Eradicating 3. Developing 4. Maintaining.

Now preventing, eradicating and so on - what? Well, primarily thoughts, thoughts good, thoughts bad, skilful, unskilful. I think I mentioned about two talks ago that in Buddhism we don't use the words `good' and `bad'; we use instead the words `skilful' and `unskilful'. So the effort which consists in preventing means the effort to prevent the arising within our minds of those unskilful mental states which have not yet arisen. This is preventing.

Similarly eradicating means eradicating within our minds those unskilful states which already are present therein.

Developing means developing within our minds those skilful states which are not there already. And in the same way maintaining means maintaining within our minds those skilful states which already exist there. This is the fourfold right effort. Preventing, eradicating, developing, and maintaining.

So in this sense we may say Perfect Effort is primarily a psychological thing. Perfect Effort consists obviously in a sort of unremitting work on oneself, on one's own mind - preventing, eradicating, developing, maintaining. And this sort of emphasis is given, this sort of classification is given, as an incentive and as a reminder because it's so very easy to slacken off. People start with lots of enthusiasm. They're all for Buddhism or all for meditation, all for spiritual life, but it very often quickly wears off, enthusiasm wanes, and after a while it's as though it all had not been at all. And this is because, we may say, the forces of inertia within ourselves, the forces holding us back, the forces keeping us down, are very, very strong indeed. Even in simple matters like getting up early in the morning to meditate - you might make a good resolution that you're going to get up half an hour earlier. Well, you might succeed once or twice or even three times, but certainly by the third or fourth morning temptation will have begun to set in. And it will be a matter of a quite serious moral struggle and conflict whether you get up or whether you stay a little longer, one minute longer, two minutes, three minutes, in that warm and cosy bed, and you're nearly always, of course, the loser. And this is because, as I say, these forces of inertia within ourselves are so very strong. It's so very easy for enthusiasm to wane and dwindle and vanish.

Now before we discuss these four Perfect Efforts or this fourfold Perfect Effort in detail, there's an important observation to be made, and that is that the fourfold Perfect Effort, if we are to make it at all, presupposes something without which it isn't possible. And this thing, this very important thing, this very important factor is simply self-knowledge. We can't even begin to prevent or eradicate, develop or maintain, unless, to begin with, we know ourselves, unless we know which way our minds are going, unless we know what the contents of our minds are. And to know this, to know ourselves, requires very great honesty indeed - at least honesty with ourselves - it's not expected that we should be completely honest always with other people but at least so far as this fourfold Perfect Effort is concerned we should be honest with ourselves. I notice one or two people sort of looking up as I say it's not altogether necessary that we should be honest with other people always but does one realise how difficult this is? I remember someone once writing that anybody who sat down to write his own autobiography at once became conscious of all the things he was not going to tell! And this is very true.

It's difficult enough to be honest with ourselves, not to speak of being honest with other people. But if we want to practise this fourfold Perfect Effort we must at least be honest with ourselves, about ourselves, try to see ourselves truly, try to see ourselves as we are so that we know what has to be prevented, what there is to prevent, what there is to eradicate, develop, and so on. Most of us, of course, have got our own private dream picture of ourselves. We close our eyes, we see ourselves as it were in a mirror, how beautiful, how noble. This is how we see ourselves most of the time - highly idealised, and not endowed perhaps with all the virtues, not quite perfect but a really warm, lovable, intelligent, sympathetic, intelligent, kind, well intentioned, honest, industrious, human being - that is what we usually see. So what we have to try to develop, what we have to demand almost, what we have almost to pray for in the words of the poet is that `O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us'. And to see ourselves as others see us is of course not very easy - we have to undertake a sort of stock-taking, a mental, a personal stock-taking of our own good and bad, skilful and unskilful, thoughts and mental states, our own, in a word, `vices' and `virtues', and I've got these words in my notes in single inverted commas just to suggest there are no moral absolutes involved here, but at least we have to understand ourselves, our minds, our mental states, our mental qualities, very seriously and honestly first before we can even think of applying this fourfold Perfect Effort. So in other words we just won't know how to proceed and no real improvement, no real development, will be possible.

So let us turn finally to each of the four Perfect Efforts in turn. Study them, try to understand what they mean, what they involve.

First of all the effort to prevent the arising of the unarisen bad or unskilful thoughts. Now what do we mean by that? As we saw a little while ago in one of the previous talks, bad or unskilful means contaminated by craving, by selfish desire, by hatred and by delusion, mental confusion, bewilderment, lack of perspective and so on. So any mental state, any thought, is said to be unskilful or bad when it arises in association with one or more of these unskilful mental states or factors - craving, hatred, delusion, and so on. Now where do these unskilful thoughts come from? If we want to prevent them from entering our minds we just have to know where they come from.

We're not concerned at the moment with tracing their senses - there are the five physical senses and the sixth sense is the mind, the ordinary mind which we usually employ, with which we conduct our lives. For instance, as you are walking along the street you happen to see, you happen to notice, something attractive, something pleasant, something colourful, and at once you think - I'd like to have that, I'd like to enjoy that. And in this way through the organ of the eye greed or craving arises. Or sometimes it happens that we just happen to remember something - we are just sitting quietly by ourselves and a recollection of something we had or enjoyed or thought before floats, we know not whence, into our mind and before we know what has happened we've been ensnared by craving or hatred or fear and so on. So in order to prevent the unarisen unskilful thoughts entering the mind, taking possession of the mind, dominating the mind, what is necessary is what is known in Buddhism is watchfulness or awareness with regard to the senses, especially watchfulness of the mind. And this is again traditionally known as `guarding the doors of the senses'. The senses are as it were pictured as doors of a house - so if you want to stop someone getting into the house you post a guard at the gate to examine the credentials of everyone who presents himself. So in the same way you remain watchful - you watch the doors of the senses, whether those of the physical body or the mind, and you just try to see what impressions, what thoughts, what ideas are as it were presenting themselves for admission, ...

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