Tag Archives: right effort

Who’s Effort?

Virya paramita, or the practice of the perfection of effort, is the fourth in a series of six practices of an awakening being. It tends to balance the aspects of wisdom and compassion, and it is in close relationship to the third practice, kshanti, patience or allowing. The subject of effort is one which also relates particularly to the relationship between body and mind.

To further explore this topic, have a listen to this unedited talk, given on Memorial Day 2015 at Empty Hand Zen Center.

The Practice of a Flower

In many Buddhist traditions there are established practices that focus energy on well-being for ourselves and others. One of these practices is known as “metta” or loving-kindness. In a typical metta practice, you might begin by expressing the wish for your own happiness, peace and well-being, and then move on to sharing the same sentiments for someone you like; someone to whom you feel neutral; and someone you dislike; culminating in offering metta to all beings. While there are many ways to practice metta, one way is simply to speak the words. It might sound something like this, “May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from physical and mental suffering. May all beings awaken to their True Nature.”

However, some years ago, in a class on the fundamentals of Buddhism at San Francisco Zen Center, the instructor Ingen Breen said something that was quite meaningful to me. He suggested that one traditional way of offering the last intention was to wish for one’s own or for others’ “spiritual success.” When asked by another student more specifically about what spiritual success might look like, he replied, “like a flower.” Oh, I thought, be successful the way a flower is successful. Lovely!

Successful Flowers

To me this is a wonderful expression of right effort. As far as I can tell, the flower does not have a plan to improve itself, or to become something other than what it is, or to compare itself to the flower next door and try to be more humble. The flower is simply, completely, fully flower in each moment. It bursts forth, fulfilling its flower nature without any hesitation or ulterior motive. It is the complete expression of flower in each instant and it cannot be anything else but, by simply being what it is, it is also a complete expression of Buddha Nature. It displays, in a way that can be heartbreaking, the truths of impermanence, no fixed self, and emptiness.

Perhaps this is why practitioners in the Zen tradition enjoy recounting the story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s transmission to Mahakashyapa. In this traditional tale, the Buddha is said to be sitting before a large gathering of monks on Vulture Peak. He is expected to give a Dharma talk but, instead, picks up a flower and twirls it. Only Mahakashyapa is said to have smiled, indicating his understanding. What was it that Mahakshyapa came to know? At that moment the Buddha could have tried to explain what he meant by holding up the flower, or he could have tried to elicit some explanation from Mahakashyapa. But instead he said only, “I have the eye of the true Dharma, and I now transmit it to Mahakashyapa.”

To find our own true expression, complete in this moment, free of preconceived ideas, and notions of progress or impediment, that is the Buddha Way. Yet this is not an exhortation “to let it all hang out” or “to go with the flow” or “to let everything go.” If anything, right effort requires that we stop seeing our lives as a flow, and instead meet each instant directly and skillfully, letting each thing take its dharma position. In fact, “letting” is already extra, because each thing is already in its dharma position. So it’s up to me, as a practitioner, to experience my own dharma position in relationship to each thing. Then I may find myself fully expressing that which the flower already knows.