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Joyful Effort

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In this blog post, I am going to discuss some ways to cultivate and practice the perfection of joyful effort, or just effort, for short. Effort, as well as the other five perfections, is called a 'perfection' rather than merely a 'virtue,' because all perfections differ in an important way from ordinary virtuous acts. Perfections are motivated by the aspiration to become a Buddha for the benefit of all living beings -- Bodhicitta. All of the perfections are practiced with the belief that each act of effort, generosity, patience and so forth is a step on the path to becoming a Buddha, and they are chosen with that in mind. The combined practice of all six of the perfections is the path to Buddhahood. Each perfection is as important as any other on the path to Buddhahood, because each must be brought to full fruition in order to become a Buddha. A perfection is brought to full fruition only when a Bodhisattva flawlessly acts in the manner the perfection calls for in each situation that calls for this type of action. However, from another point of view, we may say that effort is the best of the perfections, because when effort accompanies all the other perfect types of action, it greatly intensifies the motivation to act in the other five perfect ways. I begin the chapter in Ocean of Compassion on the perfection of effort by defining it and stating that it is often considered to be the best of all the perfections. Here is how it begins:

Sages have said that, among the perfections,
Effort is thought to be best.
When we take delight in acting with virtue,
We will achieve all the rest.

The perfection of effort is the virtuous state of mind of experiencing joy whenever regarding oneself as having taken a step on the path to Buddhahood. Obviously, if we find an activity causes us to experience joy, we are much more likely to repeat this activity than if it does not. In order to develop the perfection of effort we use Lojong meditation to train our minds to think about what we are doing from the Bodhisattva point of view. I explained, in general, how to do Lojong meditation in my blog, "Lojong Meditation: The Bodhisattva's Mind-Training Practice." The following passage of Ocean of Compassion expresses the Bodhisattva point of view that we need to develop using Lojong meditation:

Athletes are elated when scoring a goal;
This prize is proudly held dear,
But the virtuous deeds of a Bodhisattva
Score the True Goal -- ending fear.

There is nothing intrinsically valuable about running across a white line holding a football while others are trying to prevent you from crossing that line. Yet, grown men become extremely joyful when they accomplish this feat. Why? They have become convinced that it is very worthwhile to do this because it brings them relatively large sums of money and the cheering admiration of people who ardently hope they will succeed. Both the football player and the fans are convinced that they are experiencing true happiness when a play occurs that they view as a step toward the goal of winning the contest. Of course they are not experiencing true happiness; they are experiencing just another merely fleeting pleasure that soon fades. For the football player, all his struggles to achieve these fleeting pleasures could very likely result in a broken and suffering body in the not-too-distant future. On the other hand, Buddhas do experience true and lasting happiness. In order to cultivate the perfection of effort, a Bodhisattva works on developing the deep conviction that each step of the path brings him or her closer to complete and final victory over suffering and true and lasting happiness. Once one has successfully employed Lojong meditation to cultivate this conviction, one will naturally experience joy when regarding oneself as having taken a step on the path to Buddhahood. At this point, only temporary blockages arise that sometimes get in the way of experiencing the joy of effort. Two examples of temporary blockages to the joy of effort are mental exhaustion from overexertion and blockages arising as a result of dysfunctional patterns of thought and behavior that have not been completely eradicated. We can avoid the hindrance of mental exhaustion by practicing in a steady, calm, relaxed fashion. The dysfunctional patterns of thought that get in the way of joyful, calm, steady effort can be classified into three main types. They are:

• Procrastination
• Meaningless and non-virtuous actions
• Discouraging doubt

Procrastination occurs when we view non-spiritual activities as having priority over spiritual activities. For example, we may think, "I don't have time for spiritual practice right now because I am too busy at work. I'll return to my spiritual practice as soon as I am not so busy." Actually, a Bodhisattva can turn practically any activity -- other than a vicious activity such as stealing -- into a spiritual practice. All a Bodhisattva has to do to turn a mundane activity into a spiritual activity is to think about what he or she is doing from the Bodhisattva point of view. For example, work typically benefits others in many ways, and so we can think of our work as an opportunity to develop and practice the perfection of generosity. The practice of viewing seemingly mundane activities in a spiritual way is a type of mind training. Ideally one should use Lojong meditation to develop the capacity to see, for example, one's work as a form of giving, and then integrate this capacity into one's daily life by actually remembering that one is being generous as one works. By using meditation to help us rethink and reshape in spiritual ways our daily activities outside of meditation, we will find our daily activities far more enjoyable, and these joyful experiences will strengthen our commitment to extending the scope of our practice into more and more of our daily life. However, bear in mind that procrastination can be a result of not really deeply believing that spiritual practice is the path to true and lasting happiness, so procrastination may have to be overcome by working on deepening one's conviction that only Buddhas experience true and lasting happiness.

Since Bodhisattvas are not perfect, they can trip up and engage in meaningless and non-virtuous acts -- thinking that they are doing something that will make them happy instead of something that will only perpetuate their suffering. Only Buddhas are perfect. By being mindful of what you are thinking or doing and alert to whether it is non-virtuous and/or meaningless, you can learn to quickly recognize when you have fallen into the trap of acting non-virtuously out of habit and ignorance. When an experienced Bodhisattva recognizes he or she has fallen into a trap and then climbs out of the trap, joy is experienced. Everyone can develop this capacity by meditating on the fact that true and lasting happiness is found at the end of the Bodhisattva path. Over time, you will find that you can avoid the traps altogether, because your perfection of effort will cause you to experience joy when you have recognized and avoided a trap before falling into it in the first place.

Discouraging doubts can arise when we are expecting too much of ourselves and think, "I'm no good at being a Bodhisattva, I may as well give up; I'll never become a Buddha." These thoughts will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we do not counter them. When we have thoughts like this, we have to stop, take a deep breath and tell ourselves that it may take longer than we would like to become a Buddha, but we can do it. Then, put the sparkle back into your eyes by remembering that the joyful effort of being a Bodhisattva is not the pure bliss of Buddhahood, but it is the purest form of joy possible this side of enlightenment.

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