Lately I been thinking a lot about what right effort is in Buddhist practice. Right effort is, of course, one of the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path. Regardless of what some others may teach or say, the Buddha taught that liberation requires effort, but not just any effort, but right effort. Just what is right effort?
I was delighted this morning to find help from the Buddha himself. During my dharma study, I came across this helpful commentary on the Devadaha Sutta by Andrew Olendzki, the editor of Insight Journal . The Devadha Sutta is one of the Buddha’s core teachings on the subject. Here is an excerpt from the article, which I hope you will find helpful in your practice:
“On one occasion, when he was visiting his homeland among the Sakya clans, the Buddha is said to have given a lengthy discourse on the nature of exertion and striving. The context of the discussion was his criticism of the Jain ascetic practices, so common in ancient India, but his remarks on the subject are of immense importance to the contemporary practice of insight meditation.
And how is exertion fruitful, bhikkhus, how is striving fruitful? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu is not overwhelmed by suffering and does not overwhelm himself with suffering; and he does not give up the pleasure that accords with Dhamma, yet he is not infatuated with that pleasure.
He knows thus: ‘When I strive with determination, this particular source of suffering fades away in me because of that determined striving; and when I look on with equanimity, this particular source of suffering fades away in me while I develop equanimity.’
He strives with determination in regard to that particular source of suffering which fades away in him because of that determined striving; and he develops equanimity in regard to that particular source of suffering which fades away in him while he is developing equanimity.
When he strives with determination, such and such a source of suffering fades away in him because of that determined striving; thus that suffering is exhausted in him. When he looks on with equanimity, such and such a source of suffering fades away in him while he develops equanimity; thus that suffering is exhausted in him.
“This is the dilemma: If we ‘try’ too hard to practice meditation, if we deliberately exert ourselves to ‘succeed’ at the task, then we may tap into an entire complex of unwholesome conditioning so prevalent among Western students. ‘Striving mind’ can be extremely counterproductive, unleashing a crippling self-judgment if we don’t match up to the goals we have set for ourselves. On the other hand, if we do not strive at all, and merely ‘go along’ with whatever is arising in all situations, then we may simply drift to wherever the ‘monkey mind’ happens to take us. Our underlying tendency to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, left to its own devices, can result in our mindfully avoiding any significant transformation.
The Buddha’s profound teaching of the middle way, applied particularly to the dynamics of meditation practice, is the theme of this passage from the Devadaha Sutta. The point is finding the right balance between ‘striving with determination’ and ‘looking on with equanimity.’ Neither approach is correct all the time, but each can be used as a skillful technique for addressing certain mental states. The two approaches complete one another.”
Practicing the Middle Way
Majjhima Nikaya 101
You can read the full article here: