Constructing the Right Effort | Daily News

Constructing the Right Effort

The purification of conduct established by the prior three factors serves as the basis for the next division of the path, the division of concentration (samadhikkhandha). This present phase of practice, which advances from moral restraint to direct mental training, comprises the three factors of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. It gains its name from the goal to which it aspires, the power of sustained concentration, itself required as the support for insight-wisdom.

Wisdom is the primary tool for deliverance, but the penetrating vision it yields can only open up when the mind has been composed and collected. Right concentration brings the requisite stillness to the mind by unifying it with undistracted focus on a suitable object. To do so, however, the factor of concentration needs the aid of effort and mindfulness. Right effort provides the energy demanded by the task, right mindfulness the steadying points for awareness.

Shoulder for support

The commentators illustrate the interdependence of the three factors within the concentration group with a simple simile. Three boys go to a park to play. While walking along they see a tree with flowering tops and decide they want to gather the flowers. But the flowers are beyond the reach even of the tallest boy. Then one friend bends down and offers his back. The tall boy climbs up, but still hesitates to reach for the flowers from fear of falling. So the third boy comes over and offers his shoulder for support. The first boy, standing on the back of the second boy, then leans on the shoulder of the third boy, reaches up, and gathers the flowers.

In this simile the tall boy who picks the flowers represents concentration with its function of unifying the mind. But to unify the mind concentration needs support: the energy provided by right effort, which is like the boy who offers his back. It also requires the stabilizing awareness provided by mindfulness, which is like the boy who offers his shoulder. When right concentration receives this support, then empowered by right effort and balanced by right mindfulness it can draw in the scattered strands of thought and fix the mind firmly on its object.

Energy (viriya), the mental factor behind right effort, can appear in either wholesome or unwholesome forms. The same factor fuels desire, aggression, violence, and ambition on the one hand, and generosity, self-discipline, kindness, concentration, and understanding on the other. The exertion involved in right effort is a wholesome form of energy, but it is something more specific, namely, the energy in wholesome states of consciousness directed to liberation from suffering. This last qualifying phrase is especially important. For wholesome energy to become a contributor to the path it has to be guided by right view and right intention, and to work in association with the other path factors. Otherwise, as the energy in ordinary wholesome states of mind, it merely engenders an accumulation of merit that ripens within the round of birth and death; it does not issue in liberation from the round.

Time and again the Buddha has stressed the need for effort, for diligence, exertion, and unflagging perseverance. The reason why effort is so crucial is that each person has to work out his or her own deliverance. The Buddha does what he can by pointing out the path to liberation; the rest involves putting the path into practice, a task that demands energy. This energy is to be applied to the cultivation of the mind, which forms the focus of the entire path. The starting point is the defiled mind, afflicted and deluded; the goal is the liberated mind, purified and illuminated by wisdom.


What comes in between is the unremitting effort to transform the defiled mind into the liberated mind. The work of self-cultivation is not easy - there is no one who can do it for us but ourselves - but it is not impossible. The Buddha himself and his accomplished disciples provide the living proof that the task is not beyond our reach. They assure us, too, that anyone who follows the path can accomplish the same goal. But what is needed is effort, the work of practice taken up with the determination: "I shall not give up my efforts until I have attained whatever is attainable by manly perseverance, energy, and endeavor."

The nature of the mental process effects a division of right effort into four "great endeavors":

1. to prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states;

2. to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen;

3. to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen;

4. to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen.

The unwholesome states (akusala dhamma) are the defilements, and the thoughts, emotions, and intentions derived from them, whether breaking forth into action or remaining confined within. The wholesome states (kusala dhamma) are states of mind untainted by defilements, especially those conducing to deliverance. Each of the two kinds of mental states imposes a double task. The unwholesome side requires that the defilements lying dormant be prevented from erupting and that the active defilements already present be expelled. The wholesome side requires that the undeveloped liberating factors first be brought into being, then persistently developed to the point of full maturity. Now we will examine each of these four divisions of right effort, giving special attention to their most fertile field of application, the cultivation of the mind through meditation.

The first side of right effort aims at overcoming unwholesome states, states of mind tainted by defilements. Insofar as they impede concentration the defilements are usually presented in a fivefold set called the "five hindrances" (pañcanivarana): sensual desire, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and doubt. They receive the name "hindrances" because they block the path to liberation; they grow up and over the mind preventing calm and insight, the primary instruments for progress. The first two hindrances, sensual desire and ill will, are the strongest of the set, the most formidable barriers to meditative growth, representing, respectively, the unwholesome roots of greed and aversion. The other three hindrances, less toxic but still obstructive, are offshoots of delusion, usually in association with other defilements.

Broader interpretation

Sensual desire is interpreted in two ways. Sometimes it is understood in a narrow sense as lust for the "five strands of sense pleasure," i.e., agreeable sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches; sometimes a broader interpretation is given, by which the term becomes inclusive of craving in all its modes, whether for sense pleasures, wealth, power, position, fame, or anything else it can settle upon.

The second hindrance, ill will, is a synonym for aversion. It comprises hatred, anger, resentment, repulsion of every shade, whether directed towards other people, towards oneself, towards objects, or towards situations. The third hindrance, dullness and drowsiness, is a compound of two factors linked together by their common feature of mental unwieldiness. One is dullness (thina), manifest as mental inertia; the other is drowsiness (middha), seen in mental sinking, heaviness of mind, or excessive inclination to sleep. At the opposite extreme is the fourth hindrance, restlessness and worry.

This too is a compound with its two members linked by their common feature of disquietude. Restlessness (uddhacca) is agitation or excitement, which drives the mind from thought to thought with speed and frenzy; worry (kukkucca) is remorse over past mistakes and anxiety about their possible undesired consequences. The fifth hindrance, doubt, signifies a chronic indecisiveness and lack of resolution: not the probing of critical intelligence, an attitude encouraged by the Buddha, but a persistent inability to commit oneself to the course of spiritual training due to lingering doubts concerning the Buddha, his doctrine, and his path.

The first effort to be made regarding the hindrances is the effort to prevent the unarisen hindrances from arising; this is also called the endeavor to restrain (samvarappadhana). The effort to hold the hindrances in check is imperative both at the start of meditative training and throughout the course of its development. For when the hindrances arise, they disperse attention and darken the quality of awareness, to the detriment of calm and clarity. The hindrances do not come from outside the mind but from within. They appear through the activation of certain tendencies constantly lying dormant in the deep recesses of the mental continuum, awaiting the opportunity to surface.

Physical organism

Generally what sparks the hindrances into activity is the input afforded by sense experience. The physical organism is equipped with five sense faculties each receptive to its own specific kind of data - the eye to forms, the ear to sounds, the nose to smells, the tongue to tastes, the body to tangibles.

Sense objects continuously impinge on the senses, which relay the information they receive to the mind, where it is processed, evaluated, and accorded an appropriate response. But the mind can deal with the impressions it receives in different ways, governed in the first place by the manner in which it attends to them. When the mind adverts to the incoming data carelessly, with unwise consideration (ayoniso manasikara), the sense objects tend to stir up unwholesome states.

They do this either directly, through their immediate impact, or else indirectly by depositing memory traces which later may swell up as the objects of defiled thoughts, images, and fantasies. As a general rule the defilement that is activated corresponds to the object: attractive objects provoke desire, disagreeable objects provoke ill will, and indeterminate objects provoke the defilements connected with delusion.