New Moon Uposatha Day index to series
Buddhist practice often seems extremely austere to those, like myself, who grew up in the self-indulgent, instant-gratification West. However we should remind ourselves that this practice is already the Middle Way, and itself the product of backing away from a more extreme austerity. This particularly applies to Right Effort. Right Effort, it will be recalled, has to do with the cultivation of what in the mind is wholesome, like truthfulness, and the inhibition of what is unwholesome, like deceit. The Buddha once admonished a monk, who had as a lay person been a fiddle-player, or a player of some stringed instrument, but as a monk was putting too much push into his practice:
“Now what do you think, Sona. Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vina?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune & playable?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune & playable?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune and playable?”
“In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the faculties, and there pick up your theme.”
– Sona Sutta, AN 6.55
Apparently the effort of the Bodhisattva had been very tight indeed, suppressing any hint of bodily or mental pleasure. It was recalling his experience of bliss in spontaneous jhana as a boy under the rose-apple tree that he recognized the error in this.
Why am I afraid of the bliss which has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unbeneficial qualities? It occurred to me, ‘I am not afraid of the bliss since it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unbeneficial qualities. – MN 36
Meditation has never been the same since. Right Samadhi is in fact built upon a bed of delight (piti) and pleasure (sukkha) that naturally arises not through pursuit of sensual stimulation, but through seclusion and virtue. The lowest level of jhana, the first jhana, is defined as containing four jhana factors and implicitly a fifth: thought, discursiveness, delight, pleasure and then unification of mind, and to be born of seclusion. The emphasis on delight and pleasure, according to the Suttas, encourages the practice of samadhi, encourages renunciation of wordly pleasures as these turn out to be shoddier than spiritual delight and pleasure, and gives us the opportunity to examine refined levels of pleasure and resultant stress while in samadhi. [AN 5.3]
This gets interesting: Although initially encouraged, each of the first four factors still introduces a tiny bit of disturbance into the hyper-stillness of samadhi. As samadhi begins to deepen the most wildly disruptive factors are lost first, that is, not surprisingly, thought and discursiveness. The result is called the second jhana. In the stillness of the second jhana, even delight becomes a bit irksome. When that is lost the result is called the third jhana. In the even greater stillness of the third jhana, pleasure itself is revealed as a disturbing racket in the mind, that when lost brings us to the highest and imperturbable fourth jhana. In short, the levels of jhana are no more than the operation of Right Effort operating at increasingly refined levels of samadhi. In practice not much effort needs to be involved: just as a fire begins to dry out and improve the woodpile used to feed it, samadhi has a tendency given enough time to settle into deeper jhanas of its own accord.
More generally, Right Effort is the ongoing practice that directly purifies the mind. It is a natural continuation at the mental level of the practice of virtue at the level of bodily and verbal action. It is itself based in mindfulness, a careful monitoring of thought and intention that turns toward the skillful, the beneficial qualities of mind and away from that which vexes and harms. Every time there is resistance to Right Anything, then Right Effort is called for. If it is time to meditate and you are just too lazy, laziness is to be weeded out and ardency needs to be watered. If you really want to eat Ted’s cookie and are about to snatch it when he is not looking, greed is to be weeded out, contentment watered. Often the effort required is enormous; you may be dealing with ingrained habits or natural instinctive behaviors capable of destroying marriages or causing bodily injury.
There are some standard mental techniques involved in Right Effort, but you will probably discover some of your own, from substituting another thought for the one you are unskillfully entertaining, to deconstructing your present thought, from changing your perspective or conceptualization of the situation, to bringing the thought into the focus of attention until it dissipates of itself. Buddhism also makes use of visualization practices, for instance, metta (loving-kindness) meditations and contemplations of the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, to inspire the development of wholesome qualities of mind, along with Buddhist ritual and devotional practices. A reliable guide to the arising of the unwholesome is the simultaneous arising of stress, anxiety, the edginess that through practice you become finely attuned to. Right Effort is karmically beneficial; its regular application shapes your character in beneficial ways. It is recommended that every Buddhist develop the skill of Right Effort to the point that it becomes a thread woven into the length and breadth of everyday life. It is Right Effort that also twists the strand of virtue into our meditation practice, that leads to the bright purity of mind required in Right Samadhi.
Approaching meditation per se, that is, the development that results in samadhi, attention turns particularly to the five hindrances, which serve as a checklist for establishing the immediate preconditions of meditation, which are essentially mental seclusion from most of the things that are normally playing out in your head to one degree or another. The five hindrances are:
- Lust. “Hubba-hubba.”
- Ill-will. “That darn %&$*@!”
- Sloth and torpor. “Zzzzzz.”
- Restlessness and remorse. “If only I had …, I know, I’ll …”
- Doubt. “What do I think I’m doing here anyway?”
The hindrances pretty much cover the major factors likely to intrude into samadhi in a blatant way, and should they later intrude anyway, Right Effort is braced to drive them away.
If the mind is freed of these five hindrances, it will be pliant and supple, will have radiant lucidity and firmness, and will concentrate well upon the eradication of the taints. – AN 3:17-18
Although Right Effort can be viewed as a kind of mindfulness itself, it is Right Mindfulness that weaves the strand of wisdom into our samadhi. We will look at Right Mindfulness next week.