This is the final talk on the Noble Eightfold Path. Today I’m going to talk about the Concentration group, which consists of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation, the last three factors of the Path. The Buddha spoke about Right Effort as the effort to abandon unwholesome states and to encourage wholesome states. It very much has to do with what we do with our minds, a turning within and resting in faith. It is not the effort we would normally think of in terms of the effort needed to get something done or to learn a skill. It is not a goal-oriented effort. We can be trying to get something done that is good to do. We may try to get a lot of things done that need to be done, or so we think, and still not be practicing the Right Effort that the Buddha was talking about, the Right Effort that leads us to the Truth and is based in that Truth, the effort that leads to the cessation of suffering. It’s not about getting things done, about being a good person and definitely not about being perfect and doing all the right things. It’s a soft, open effort, not something that is closed and possibly hard. There are things we need to do and we can do them while practicing Right Effort, not being attached to what we are doing or to the outcome. Not easy.
There’s an invocation that we sing at the Eve of the Festival of the Buddha’s Enlightenment called “Constant Let Thine Effort Be.”
Constant let thine effort be
From delusion’s slavery,
By the Truth, thy mind to free,
Wisdom to attain.
Break the bonds of sense-desire
Holding thee in error’s mire,
And with all thine heart aspire
Purity to know.
Strive the ego to deny
Let all selfish cravings die,
To all beings low and high
Love and kindness show.
The effort to be made is in letting go. When we make the effort to be mindful in daily life and when we’re formally meditating, we can allow the thoughts that arise to go of themselves without getting involved with them. This can take a lot of effort, first to be mindful and look at what’s arising and then to not get involved with what is arising, which may be something difficult, disturbing, or interesting and pleasant, or just plain distracting. We need to make the effort to keep bringing ourselves back to the present over and over again if need be. When we do this, we aren’t a slave to our delusions and then Wisdom can arise of itself. We aren’t striving to be wise, the effort made is in letting go, which is the same as not holding on, since we aren’t trying to push anything away. We are no longer basing our speech and actions on greed, anger and delusion, when we are simply letting them come and go and not giving them so much importance. Then we can know the purity, the Immaculacy of our Buddha Nature. As I mentioned in one of my previous talks, my experience has been that when I let go of unwholesome states like the critical mind, the wholesome states like compassion and loving kindness can arise of themselves. This effort takes courage and faith, and the longing to know what is Real, perhaps being tired of what we are like, of how we keep getting caught in the same kind of thing that doesn’t bring any lasting happiness or peace. I can sometimes see through my cravings and know them for what they are and sometimes they grab hold of me and it’s not so easy to do the right thing. And over time, I’m learning how to do better.
This effort also includes what I spoke about as Right Action — “doing that which needs to be done” in the sense of what truly needs to be done at this moment. When I was the guestmaster and had an awful lot of work to do and seemingly not enough time to do it, I would get stressed and sit down at my computer focused on trying to get all the e-mails answered. And then someone would come by and want to talk with me. I didn’t want to be bothered by anyone—my focus was strictly on getting the work done. This is not Right Effort. I needed to stop and see what was being asked of me at that moment. It’s a matter of letting go of the self, of my agenda, and being willing to turn. And it could be that what I’m doing needs to be done right then and the person can wait a bit. I can ask them in a kind way if they can wait a few minutes or whatever. It would have been easier and less stressful if I had started my work on answering the e-mails with a different attitude. It’s about abandoning these unwholesome habits and acting from wholesome states. “To all beings low and high, love and kindness show.” I have heard that when the Dalai Lama is talking with someone, he is completely present with that person; he or she is the most important person to him at that moment. How compassionate that is and how helpful it must be for that person.
Rev. Master Daizui talks about Right Effort in Buddhism From Within: “It is more a matter of willingness than of will.… It is the willingness to do whatever comes next. ‘Doing what comes next’ seems to come from honesty and courage rather than from will. The honesty is that of looking straight at what lies before us, at what is shown to us simply and clearly by the ‘something else.’ [Rev. Master Daizui is using the words ‘something else’ for the Unborn, the Buddha Nature.] And this, in turn, involves trust: trust that wisdom and compassion really do exist somewhere within ourselves, trust that they can do their work without us having to control or direct anything, and trust that we can perceive their teachings directly from the experience of our senses without analyzing, fearing, judging, doubting, or worrying about what we discern. The courage involved in this type of effort is the courage to do what is obviously to be done and to abstain from what is obviously to be abstained from. This, then, is the ‘effortless effort.’ No ‘me’ is involved, no ideals, no thinking or planning, no control, no direction. The work is that of the ‘something else’; the direction appears naturally when we stop chattering to ourselves and let the ‘something else’ get a word in edgewise; the trust is placed in the wisdom of the ‘something else.’ For each individual, there are just things which are clearly to be done and things which are clearly not to be done: it’s that simple.”
Now to quote from Zen is Eternal Life, Great Master Dogen’s chapter on “Shoji”: “When the Buddha does all, and you follow this doing effortlessly and without worrying about it, you gain freedom from suffering and become, yourself, Buddha.”
Right Mindfulness is the 7th Path factor and is needed for all the other aspects of the Path. Rev. Master Daizui summarizes Right Mindfulness in five steps:
- Do one thing at a time.
- Pay full attention to what you are doing.
- When your mind wanders to something else, bring it back.
- Repeat step number three a few hundred thousand times.
- And if your mind keeps wandering to the same thing over and over, stop for a minute and pay attention to the distraction; maybe it’s trying to tell you something.
Doing one thing at a time is helpful in practicing Right Mindfulness and sometimes it’s good to talk and relax with others while eating a meal, going for a walk, etc. And we don’t have to lose our mindfulness in doing so.
I would describe Right Mindfulness as being present with whatever you are doing. If you are sweeping a path, just sweep the path. When your mind wanders off, bring yourself back to just sweeping. If you’re chopping vegetables, just chop the vegetables, and the same for when you’re going for a walk or eating a meal. Do your best in whatever you are doing, taking care with all beings and all things. This is not the same as concentration. You are not so focused on something, like computer work for instance, to the exclusion of everything else. You are aware and yet not locked into anything. Your senses are still operating. You are aware of your thoughts and feelings and you try not to get pulled off by them. This awareness allows you to change course if you need to. I sometimes get locked into my computer work if it is very engrossing like designing our yearly calendar, and it isn’t very pleasant in the long run. I can feel kind of groggy, a bit like being drugged and certainly not fully present, alive and awake as in Right Mindfulness. For me it is almost like an escape from life, from what is going on around me. We probably all do this from time to time, or perhaps more often depending on what kind of work we are doing. The work then can become the important thing and not our training. It isn’t so easy to practice Right Mindfulness. It can take a lot of effort. It shows us what our mind is like outside of formal meditation and it’s not always pleasant to look at. It shows us how we react in different situations. If you’re staying at the Abbey, you might be asked to work in the kitchen, which you may or may not want to do, and then told how to chop the carrots. You may think: “I know how to chop carrots! I probably know more about cooking than they do! Why are they treating me like an ignorant child! I’d much rather be outside stacking wood anyway!” If you aren’t being mindful, you can believe these thoughts and suffer as a result. You may be surprised by your reaction to a simple instruction. You may even say something negative or act on your anger. Our minds do this and more! Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to stop ourselves from reacting to everything. This is where Right Effort comes in. With faith in this practice, we can make the effort to refrain from saying and doing that which creates suffering and causes harm. We can be willing to just be with whatever is going on, which can be quite uncomfortable. However, this kind of discomfort is the suffering that leads to the cessation of suffering. With time and experience we do see the benefit of self-restraint and know that we can do this practice.
Something that can discourage us from being mindful is the fear that being in the present moment, being with whatever is going on in the mind isn’t enough, that we need to fill this space with something else. When you’re doing one thing, you may be thinking about the next thing and waiting to get there, and then when you get to the next thing, that doesn’t seem like enough either and on and on. In this way, we’re never fully present with ourselves as we are right now. We never know the completeness of each moment until we change course and trust that it is enough and that it is okay to be with whatever is going on. It is only by being in the present moment that we can open our hearts to the Truth and change the course of our karma, change our habitual way of doing things. Ajahn Sumedho talks about welcoming whatever is going on in the mind with loving kindness and not taking your thoughts, feelings, worries, fears, doubts too seriously. In his book, Don’t Take Your Life Personally, he says: “ Awareness, then, is just noticing the way it is—the way your body is for one thing, and the way your mental state is—so it is embracing, welcoming, noticing, but not critically. So being aware is being alert, awake, and intelligent; it is an alive sense of being, yet it is not passive or a negative acceptance of life through any kind of resignation to fate. You might have denied and rejected things in the past, but in awareness you include and open to them. Awareness includes even feeling that ‘it shouldn’t be like this’ — it also includes that! There is nothing you can think or say or do that doesn’t belong in this moment. No matter what state your body is in or your emotional state — whether you feel successful and happy or depressed and a failure—it all belongs.” We can welcome and embrace the dark aspects of ourselves as well as the brighter aspects, without holding on to them or pushing them away. I was listening to some talks by Rev. Master Daishin Morgan on Dogen’s Shobogenzo. He talked about Dogen saying there is no problem with whatever arises in your mind, no matter how dark or negative it might be, because underneath it all is Compassion. So you don’t have to worry that you’re a bad person when hatred, cruelty, despair, greed or any negative thought or feeling arise. Keep on going through them and you will come to the source of Great Compassion. We are all part of this Compassion.
I don’t think it’s possible to be mindful all the time unless you are very advanced in your training, so don’t expect that or judge yourself. I found it reassuring to see that Ajahn Sumedho said that he no longer judges himself when he is not mindful and is grateful instead for the times when he can be mindful.
Right Meditation is the eighth Path factor and can’t be separated from Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. It is the core of our practice. “The means of training are thousandfold, but pure meditation must be done.” We make the effort to meditate each day if we can. We may be tired, have something we’d rather do or just not want to “sit.” Sometimes this is because the meditation is difficult, something is stirring that we don’t want to see or experience. I’ve heard this a number of times: someone is having a difficult time and when I ask them if they’ve kept up their meditation, they say no. They don’t yet know or have the faith that it is the meditation that will help them get through the difficult time. It will be their anchor. As I’m sure you all know, meditation isn’t always pleasant or peaceful. Meditation is about being with what’s there. It’s in being with, welcoming and facing the suffering, that we can know its cessation. We make the effort to meditate consistently no matter what the self is telling us. Some people find it fairly easy to stay present and not get pulled off by what is arising and these people can get attached to the meditation and have more difficulty with daily life. Some people find meditation difficult, and their mind is constantly wandering off and easily distracted. The important thing is not whether we get distracted, but that we bring ourselves back over and over again when we notice this. All meditation is beneficial when we make the effort to do our best. If we persevere in our training, then we can find our way through the difficulties we are having with attachment or aversion towards meditation or daily life. I have seen people who have been attached to their meditation see that training in daily life is just as important and must be done. I have seen people who have been bothered by their easily distracted mind learn to accept it for what it is and do the best they can with their practice, both in formal meditation and in their daily lives. And their lives are transformed despite their difficulty with the meditation practice. Rev. Master Meian has mentioned to us many times that she felt badly about her meditation because she was always distracted, but she knew that she could always practice kindness. I have seen her blossom into a very kind, generous, content and even joyful monk.
Another aspect of meditation is how it is very much affected by our training in moral discipline. See what your meditation is like when you’ve just broken a Precept — your mind may be agitated, worried, unable to focus or settle down, angry, discouraged, judgmental of oneself. We can only be with what’s there and this suffering can teach us to try to do better. When you are trying to do your best to keep the Precepts, then you can go to meditation with a clear conscience and not fear what might arise in the meditation. You aren’t carrying a heavy weight and your mind can feel lighter and more positive even when something difficult is arising. I’m sure our training in moral discipline affects meditation in more subtle ways as well. I don’t see how meditation alone would work in the way we want unless we practice the other aspects of the Path. It doesn’t do any lasting good to meditate each morning and evening and then get up and do whatever you want the rest of the day. You might experience some quiet, some escape from your difficulties in daily life, but not the benefits of serene reflection meditation.
I’ll end with a quote from Great Master Keizan’s Instructions on How to Do Pure Meditation:
“Pure meditation opens us so that we may dwell content within our own Buddha Nature.”