Viriya, effort, is an essential quality for anyone who sincerely seeks liberation. It is one of the Five Friends, one of the seven Factors of Enlightenment, and one of the Ten Paramis which have to be developed by every meditator. However, it must be right effort, otherwise, we may work very hard but without any benefits.
In the Eightfold Noble Path, the Buddha defined the four aspects of Right Effort:
- to avoid the arising of mental impurities
- to eradicate mental impurities that have arisen
- to arouse mental purity that has not yet arisen
- to maintain, fulfil and develop to perfection mental purity that has arisen.
To do this, the meditator ‘generates will, makes effort, stirs up his energy, applies his mind, and strives.’
The purpose of this effort is to control and purify our mind. This is the greatest battle. It is said we may win a thousand battles against a thousand warriors, and come out victorious each time, but the greatest victory is to control our own mind.
We have to build a great structure of Dhamma: sīla is the foundation, samādhi the walls, and pañña the roof. Effort is one of our tools to establish this structure, and then it becomes part of the path.
To maintain sīla, we make efforts to control our speech and actions. This avoids the arising of new mental impurities and is a necessary precondition for the practice of meditation.
When developing samādhi, we make efforts to concentrate the mind on a particular object, preventing the mind from wandering to unwholesome objects and generating mental impurities.
To establish pañña we practice Vipassana and then all four aspects of right effort are fulfilled together.
For instance, suppose someone insults me. I am angry and want to answer back. But I manage to stay silent. I keep my sīla avoiding an argument and so don’t generate new impurities. However, my anger is still there inside. When I sit to meditate the incident keeps coming to mind and soon I am immersed in angry thoughts. I might try more Ānāpāna, that is samādhi - it helps, but only for as long as I can maintain it. Ultimately, the only way I can reduce the anger is by observing my sensations equanimously, allowing them to come up and pass away.
Another example. I meet someone who I find very attractive, but I know that an intimate relationship with that person would be wrong. If I keep my sīla and avoid further involvement I won’t generate further impurities. When I sit, the memory this person comes up – the craving is still there. Ānāpāna, or even generating right thoughts, may help temporarily. But in the end, I have to observe the sensations equanimously and allow them to pass away. This is pañña, this is Vipassana.
The Buddha said we should be: ātāpi sampajāno satimā - ardent, with awareness and understanding. Our effort is to keep bringing the mind back to the awareness of body sensations, with the understanding of anicca, - arising and passing. Each time the mind wanders, into a thought, dream, or fantasy, generating craving or aversion, we bring it back to the sensations, and the awareness of anicca. This is hard work, but right effort keeps us on the path, and ultimately niccaṃ kayā gatā sati, the awareness is continuously on the body.
Right effort avoids extremes. Gotama, before becoming Buddha, had tried self-torture and various ascetic practices. He discovered he gained nothing: the impurities remained. Similarly, if our meditation turns into an ascetic practice, taking long vows, or tormenting the body, we develop tension – and all awareness of anicca is lost. We gain nothing. Although this sounds simple it is very difficult not to react, to maintain awareness and the understanding of anicca as continuously as possible.
Right effort is balanced. In the Buddha’s time, a young man called Soṇa, from a wealthy family and unused to any hard work, took robes and was given a technique: to sit and meditate. If he felt drowsy or tired, from time to time he could walk with awareness. But he misinterpreted his effort and began continuous walking. Day and night, he walked on hard, rocky ground, even as his legs and feet started bleeding. When the Buddha saw him, he explained that this was an extreme. Soṇa used to play a string instrument called a veena, so the Buddha used this as an example. If the strings of his veena were too loose, he could not play. If they were so tight that they broke, again he could not play. Similarly, effort had to be there but without losing the balance of the mind, or going to extremes.
Like cutting a precious gem, if the pressure of the drill is too light, it makes no impression, if the pressure is too strong, the jewel shatters. Nothing is achieved.
Right effort is without craving. It does not set goals: to try and achieve a certain state, a certain stage, a certain experience, within a certain time – this is not Vipassana, but mere craving.
Right effort is without ego. Otherwise, a person is not balanced, not equanimous, and there will be no good result. Ānanda, Buddha’s personal secretary for 25 years, was always close to Buddha and knew Dhamma so well. Thousands taught by him were arahants. Yet he himself was only a sotāpanna. He had been busy serving Buddha, with no time to progress himself.
After Buddha passed away, a great conference of 500 arahants was organised to recite, memorise and compile the teachings. Clearly Ānanda would be invaluable, but he was not an arahant. So Mahākassapa, the conference leader advised him to work so he could become an arahant and qualify to join the gathering. Ānanda gladly agreed.
As a teacher he always advised others not to develop ego – it was a dangerous obstacle. But he forgot his own advice, and started working vigorously, aiming to become an arahant, and made no progress. The night before the conference, he worked hard the whole night, aiming to become an arahant, with no result. Exhausted, as day broke, he gave up, accepting the fact that he was not an arahant. Now his mind was balanced, the ego was gone. As he lay down, just aware of sensations arising and passing, with the reality of the present moment, before his head reached the pillow, he became an arahant. Ānanda joined the conference.
The Buddha’s advice was simple:
Sato, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajāno, kālam āgameyya. Ayam vo amhākam anusāsan.
Meditators be aware, be with thorough understanding, and wait for the time to ripen: this is our instruction to you.
The entire practice is contained in these words: maintain awareness, maintain the understanding of anicca, and allow Dhamma to work, peeling off layer after layer of saṇkhāras. The mind becomes calm, balanced and the results are always good.