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Exploring Effort

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 The custom here at IMS, is to take whatever posture is comfortable for you. As you do that, see if this can become just a continuous part of your practice. We stress continuity in practice; that's what really brings this work alive. And it gives us something to inquire into a little bit―so how does this form become practice for us as well? Can listening also be our practice?

 What I am going to talk about this evening is “right effort.” And, if you can kind of go into this yourselves with me, then we'll be doing this a little bit together. Speaking like this is a form of communication that has rather severe limitations: it's an inefficient form of communication, I think. So, to include your own interest and your own inquiry can liven it up a little bit.

We're going to begin talking about right effort and wrong effort and maybe get to the point where we ask the question, “Is any effort at all, right effort?” Effort is something that has been talked about for years and years. It's quite prominent; in terms of the Buddha's teachings, it occupies a place, a step, on the Noble Eightfold Path; it's found as one of the Five Spiritual Faculties; and it shows up as one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.

It's a burning question that almost all of us have at one time or another. How shall I practice? What effort do I put into this that facilitates my own growth and journey on this path?

“ORDINARY MIND IS THE WAY” - Mumonkan, Case 18

Around the year 796 or so, in China, a young man of about eighteen wandered off into the mountains and came to a monastery of a very well known teacher named Nanchuan. This eighteen year-old's name was Chao Chou and he would stay with his teacher for forty years until his teacher died. His teacher was probably in his late forties when Chao Chou entered the monastery. Chao Chou then traveled around China with the attitude of “If I come across someone who is quite well along the path and has questions, I'll do my best to answer them. If I find a child who seems to have something to offer, I'll immediately become his or her ardent student.” And this he did for about twenty years. He finally settled down at the age of eighty and taught for another forty years. He is revered as one of the best-loved teachers in Chinese history.

 This conversation took place shortly after Chao Chou entered the monastery. The living arrangement was such that teachers and students mingled together; they lived together and worked together; and it was quite acceptable to walk up to a teacher at any time and ask him a question. So Chao Chou approached Nanchuan and asked, “What is the Tao?” To which Nonchuan replied, “Ordinary mind is the Tao.” Chao Chou then asked, “Shall I try to direct myself towards it?” Nanchuan replied, “If you try to direct yourself, you betray your practice.” To which Chao Chou said, “Well, if I don't direct myself, how shall I know it?” Nanchuan replied, “The Tao is not subject to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is blankness. When you truly come upon the genuine Tao, you will find it vast and boundless like outer space. How can this be talked about in terms of affirmation or denial?” And at this, Chao Chou had a profound awakening, and then spent another forty years with his teacher developing and deepening his understanding.

Chinese Buddhism, as many of you probably know, incorporated much of Taoist terminology. And the word tao came to mean bodhi, enlightenment, wisdom, buddhadharma, the Buddha way. So Chao Chou is asking essentially, “What's the most fundamental truth? What is most real?” And Nanchuan replies in a way that was probably quite unexpected by Chao Chou. He says, “Ordinary mind is the way.”

Now, “ordinary mind” has several meanings. One is just your usual, common, day-to-day mind. The other meaning of ordinary is, constant or eternal. So it's pointing to something pretty interesting. Something that is ordinary, that's quite common, and yet is fundamentally true, eternal, constant. And then we get to what Chao Chou's real agenda is, which is, “So, how do I get there?”

I would guess that most of us have a similar question at one time or another. Probably no one in this room...I'll speak for myself...I didn't come to this practice because my life was just great; my relationships were wonderful, I was happy, everything was going swimmingly. I came to this practice, as I think most of you probably have, because something hurt; something felt unsatisfactory. We're deeply troubled in some fundamental way; something about our life presents a question that we can't answer. And it sticks in our craw and it eats at us. It could be something that manifests itself behaviorally―Why can't I ever have a good relationship with a partner? Why can't I hold a job? Why does it seem like I'm always getting myself into hassles with people? How come I'm so scared all the time?

 So these questions come up for all of us and we don't come to this practice lightly. For most of us, this is not a game. This is, in some ways, a matter of life and death. This is the only life we've got as far as we can tell; whether you believe in reincarnation, in other lives or not, right now this is it. And so, this is the one that we have to make count. And we know that it will end. We don't know where or how or when. It's one of the great mysteries that this could end at any moment.

So Chao Chou wants to know, “How do I work with this? How do I practice? What sort of effort should I make?” And Nanchuan says, (and imagine for yourselves that if you approached one of us and you've said, “Well how should I practice? What effort should I make?” and we say to you,) “Any effort you make misses the mark. There's no such thing as right effort.” Where do you go from there? Well, Chao Chou went pursuing and pushing his teacher, “Well, if I don't practice it, if I don't direct myself, what am I to do? How am I to find freedom from this condition that is so deeply troubling to me?” And that takes us into the realm of effort.

 In some ways it can be useful to look at what right effort is not, because as we begin to identify that, we can be alert to when we're off the mark and much of this work is about that. It's about seeing where we're off the mark and, in that moment of seeing, we're back on the mark. It's in the seeing that we are re-anchored. And it's in the seeing that there's a potential for real freedom. The Buddha in the Bahiya Sutta, which is a favorite of all three of us (teaching the retreat), gives a very, very brief summation of his Dharma to a man named Bahiya. And he says, “Bahiya, when in the seeing there's only the seen, in the hearing only the heard, in the touching only the touched, in the smelling only the smelled, and so on, then you are neither here nor there nor in between. And if you're neither here nor there nor in between, there is no 'you' and there is no suffering.” That's the kind of intimacy that is possible when we're seeing when we're not clear and present in the moment.


So, wrong effort―wrong effort is fairly easily identified by certain looks on the face. In Zen, they say three things are required: great faith, great doubt and great effort. In most of the pictures and paintings that you see of Japanese Zen teachers and monastics in the Thai Forest tradition, folks are looking pretty grim. There's a series of pictures of Thai Forest masters, and the first impression you get is, they've not had their prunes in a long time; and yet, from what I've heard, they often have a wonderful sense of humor. So, what you see is not necessarily what you get!

 But, in this great effort, this tremendous striving, we can hurt ourselves. It's not only uncomfortable, but we can actually damage ourselves, and if we're working already with some sort of physical injury―a back a hip or a neck problem, or just the simple aches and pains that come from putting the body in a position and keeping it there for long periods of time, and gravity doing its work―the striving against that can only make it worse. It just adds tension to the body, tension to the mind and, tension added to pain and discomfort―at least in my experience―doesn't seem to help much. So, the hard muscular effort―that's one pretty clear give-away to when we're off the mark.

 Effort can become just more “selfing”. One of the things that Nanchuan is saying to Chao Chou is, “You're setting up an artificial distinction. You think there's some place to get to and you think that if you just do it right, you'll get there.” Common? Yes? I think if we all took a lie detector test, we'd have a certain blip on that screen. None of us come into this without wanting something out of it; that's what gets us on the path and it can keep us on the path but at some point it becomes a major obstruction. “I want...” and that's just more selfing.

As we've been teaching, a certain ability to focus the mind and allow body and mind to begin to settle around the breath is really important. Otherwise, sitting, many of us would just run screaming from the hall and be done with it. So, a certain amount of focused practic is important. We can develop great powers of concentration, which helps the mind be stable; we can also develop natural concentration. Those of you who are using sharp objects in the kitchen, without a certain amount of focus and concentration you might unwittingly add a little extra protein to the salad. Not a good idea―for you or the salad!

 So, this natural concentration is also important. However, concentration and deep samadhi states are not wisdom, and those states don't teach us how to live. These states are quite dependent on certain controlled conditions. You know, we've all experienced what we would call a “good sitting”, a wonderful sitting, calm, clear. And the car goes by or the lawnmower starts up, or somebody walks in the hall and the whole thing comes down like a house of cards. And then we're grumbling about it, “oh, why did this go away? Why do they come late to the sitting?” I'm not singling anyone out here―but, we ask, “Why did they come late to the sitting?” and we get all revved up about it. Well, where did our calmness go?

 How many of us have had a nice sitting in the morning, go get in the car, and in five minutes we're a raging demon behind the steering wheel? If you live in the Boston area, this is a common experience-I've had it frequently. But, if learning how to live is of high value to us, then we must wonder how or if deep concentration contributes to that. Concentration can begin to help the mind be fit, be toned a bit, to bear up under the rigors of bare attention―because bare attention is a rigorous practice. And in some ways it is a very austere practice; it's a beautiful practice that has great joy in it and we develop an appreciation of things as they are that is quite lovely, and it's quite austere and quite rigorous. Facing ourselves in this bare way, moment-to-moment, over the course of a seven-day retreat, and being willing to do that at home, in the care, everywhere―that's a steep practice.

Concentration practice can also create division between the object of concentration and the mind that's concentrating (the concentrator), and it is fertile ground for more judgmental selfing: good concentrator, bad concentrator; good meditator, bad meditator. “Well, if I'm able to get to these deep states of calm, I must be doing it right.”―more selfing. The Buddha said at one point that, “Under no circumstances cling to anything as me or mine. If you've heard that, you've heard the whole teaching. If you've practiced that, you've practiced the whole teaching. If you've understood that and actualized it, you've understood and actualized the whole teaching.”

 It's very easy to cling to concentration states as me and mine; just as easy as it is to cling to anything else as me and mine. Because they are often very pleasant, the mind is a little more tenacious, and doesn't want to come to terms with how things are, which is impermanent, fragile, falls apart, and is ultimately unsatisfactory. I'm trying to think of other areas that will let us know if we're sort of tilting toward a less useful direction in terms of effort. If you can think of some yourself, I hope you're keeping them in mind throughout the talk.


 So what is right effort? For me, it gets a little slippery. I prefer to think of right effort in terms of interest and, if you will, in terms of love. If we're really interested in something, is there effort there? Sure, we may have to look at not wanting to get to our writing tablet every day; we may have to meet the resistance to that. We may have a certain form of exercise that we just love, and there will be days―you know, where “I don't want to do it” and that has to be met. But, for the most part, if we love it and we're interested in it, there's an ease and there's a natural interest. That becomes our “effort”.

 If we're with someone we love―there are times that it can be difficult, the practice of relationship stirs things up invariably, but, if we're with someone we love or if we're doing something we love, there's often an ease, an effortlessness, a rightness that just simply flows. Now, the “me” will get in the way of that. The “me” is jealous; it's very possessive. It does not want freedom. Fundamentally, it doesn't want ease―real ease. It's powerfully conditioned to maintain its own separate, “unique” status. It's somehow hard-wired for survival. You look at the body, the body's hard-wired for survival. The body will do what it needs to do to survive. It knows what it needs in terms of water, in terms of exercise, food, etc., whatever it needs to do to protect itself, the body will do that. You would think that the mind, the thinking, the “I” would also get it, since its dependent on the body for its survival. If the body's gone, then, where's the “I”? The “I” will do things that profoundly damage the body. Right? We've all had intimate experience with that. So, the “I”―when it works its way into what we love, it creates that kind of separation and things can begin to go off the track.

 So, the effort that this practice requires, in some ways, has great ease to it. As you're listening right now, you have no difficulty distinguishing between the sound of the voice, the sound of somebody moving, the sound of a bird. That takes no effort at all. There's a direct, immediate, intimate, non-separated knowing that's neither easy nor difficult. It just is. If I were to ask you, “What's your name?”―right before that, were you conscious of your name? No. I wouldn't think you'd be sitting there thinking, “I'm Bob. I'm Susan. I'm Doug.” There's a stimulus that calls forth that conditioned response. Prior to that, there was no sense of a Doug, a “me”. There's just listening. Were you aware before I ask you right now, “Are you male or female?” I'm not sitting here saying, “I'm a man!” And you're probably not sitting there thinking, “I'm a woman.” Those distinctions are useful; they're important. But they are not fundamentally true. What's fundamentally true, who we most fundamentally are, is that presence of awareness that knows immediately. How can that be practiced? We can begin to recognize it. And, as we recognize it, it seems to appear with greater frequency. What's there all the time, we begin to know more and more.

When Nanchuan commented on Chao Chou's question, “Well, if I don't direct myself, how can I know it?” In addition to saying that you are creating an unnecessary and misleading separation based in delusion, he's also alluding to something vast and boundless that's not subject to the mind's discrimination, the choosing, the for or against.

How can what is vast and boundless like outer space be talked about at all? I mean, if we're really interested in having some direct knowing of what's most fundamentally true, interested in finding if there really is something beyond thought, deeply interested in knowing who we really are, interested in directly knowing the deathless, the unborn, buddha-nature―as more than just concepts, if we're interested in freedom, then thinking has profound and clear limits; thought cannot go there. Can thought take in vast, boundless space? Can thought know God? Can the conditioned have a relationship with the unconditioned? I personally don't see how that's possible.

 So, we watch Nanchuan walk through this really wonderful teaching, not answering Chao Chou in the way the student expects to be answered, continuously pointing to something that is literally under Chao Chou's feet. What is ordinary mind? Vast and boundless―how do these two connect? Vast and boundless exclude nothing, it's vast and boundless because it includes everything. Awareness itself dos not discriminate, it just simply knows. It doesn't choose for or against anything. There's an intelligence in that awareness that immediately knows; there's a clarity in that intelligence, which, if it's not clouded by the mind's toxins, results in clear action, what could be called right action. Ordinary mind: vast and boundless.

 Nanchuan's saying, “What you are looking for is right here. Don't look any further.” Don't think you have come to become somebody through great effort. Or that somehow, you're not already complete as you are. It's what each of us, as teachers of the Dharma, is pointing to. You don't need anything. Complete and perfect exactly as we are―and maybe each of us needs a little work. There's a balance there always. But, as Nanchuan points to what's most fundamental―this is what we need. This moment is complete exactly as it is; it holds everything we need to be free, and if we're not going to be free now, when is it going to happen?

 I had the good fortune to speak with Vimala Thakar, a woman of about eighty-six, this past summer, and she really got my attention in a very fierce but wonderfully loving way. She made it very clear that any effort at all was off the mark, and she made it clear in a way that absolutely stopped me in my tracks. “You've been doing this for 30 years, why are you not yet free?” It's a good question, isn't it? What is it that's holding us back? Why is it that we don't trust the completeness, the wholeness of this present moment? Why are we looking always for something else? Because it's a fool's errand; there is nothing else. And yet, the “I” is always looking to confirm itself. And, if it gets that it's work is done in a deep and complete way, that it has no other service to render―this is a fundamental insult to the thinking mind. But it's a question that each of us can ask ourselves. It's a wonderful inquiry: ”Why am I not free right now?” What is it that gets in the way? How am I not living the understanding that I've already got, that in and of itself is freeing? This inquiry holds us up against an edge of interest that has energy, and the right effort to meet that will be there.

So we're working with this balance depending on where we are in our journey, and no one, no one can tell us what is most wise or skillful for us in this moment. We can make suggestions; we can all make suggestions to one another. We can point, but it's a wisdom that cannot be learned by way of someone else's authority. It's learned by confronting those fundamental questions, one of which is: “Why am I not free now?”

At the end of Chao Chou's conversation he had a deep realization. He worked on that for another forty years. Beautiful, huh?

I'll end with a poem that's attached to this story:

Spring comes with flowers,
Summer with the breeze,
Autumn with the moon,
Winter with snow.
When idle concerns
    don't hang in the mind,