11/11/2012 Right Effort and The Truth of the Path

This dharma talk is Part of Lama Yeshe Jinpa’s series of talks on the Four Noble Truths given throughout 2012.

Lama Jinpa: Hmmmm, it’s cool in here, I think I need a zen –is there one here?

I also often need a zen at home and over at Middle Way Health- my therapy offices. It can be handy to have a prayer shawl, a robe; mine are very warm, they’re made from raw silk, so they’re nice when it’s chilly. Of course they can be made of other fabric, too, it doesn’t have to be silk.
Several years ago people became very interested in robes here at Lion’s Roar – they were asking can they wear a robe? What kind of robe can they wear? Robes can have a lot of significance, a lot of different meanings, so you can’t just do whatever you want. In the past I’ve said if people have taken lay ordination, taken Refuge, then they can wear the white zen, the white prayer shawl.

You can also tell the different monastics by their robes – where they’re from, which school they’re from, different colors, different trims. You can see whether they’re a householder or not, if you know what to look for. You can tell. In the past, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s school had no householder Lamas, but now they do.

I’m a householder Lama, most of you here know that. Atisha’s own main student Dromtön was a householder, he was the Lama who started the Kadampa School. Those teachings became absorbed into all the schools, including ours, the Gelug school of Lama Tsong Khapa, who founded Ganden monastery in Tibet. I don’t know of another householder Lama in the Dalai Lama’s tradition.

In America we’re a little unique, walking around in skirts! (laughs) Next time I’ll try to bring my zen, I’ll try to remember. Who else has one? Deb… Michael… Marie… They’re very functional, sort of multi-purpose too you know? You can put it over your head like a hood so no one can see you sleeping during a long teaching. They’re very useful. (laughter)

So, today we’re talking about the Fourth Noble Truths, specifically the Truth of the Path – the Noble Eight-fold Path. Sometimes when people are taking refuge I put them on the spot, and I ask them to come up with five of them! (laughs) So this is called the Truth of the Path.
I think it’s really interesting that the Buddha presented it in this way—sort of circular, cyclical. It starts with right understanding, and then ends with right concentration. To us, to our beginner’s minds, it seems like it should start with right concentration and end with right view, like a natural progression, doesn’t it? The way Shakyamuni presented it seems backwards to us.

As we progress along the Eightfold Path, we eventually, finally, develop Right Effort – like we’re putting all of our training and practice over the years in order. Your actions become more consistent with who you really are, who you’re trying to become – you start saying nicer things to people, for example. You become more skillful; your activities become more refined.

In ancient India or the modern US or even just in general, in just plain human nature, people like to hear the result first. They always want to skip to the ending, right? What’s going to happen? But in presenting Dharma you have to talk about everything – action, speech, mindfulness, livelihood, effort, view, intention and concentration, all of them. You have to talk about everything at once; it’s not along a straight line. That’s why I like to think of it as circular, as a cycle.

Generally here at Lion’s Roar, everyone’s doing a lot of reading and studying, that kind of effort – it’s good! So you’re working things out, and you’re thinking things out, you invest that time, and then finally you’re ready to sit. That’s weird – you have to go a little way to get ready to really start out.
People often come to this path because they’re thinking, “My life isn’t working out.” Something’s going wrong. If you felt like things were fine, why would you need to think about it? Most people have to work out a lot of stuff just to be able to sit still for a few minutes. But you need to have a little understanding to start with—so we start with thinking about it.

With time and training, concentration can go very, very deep; ultimately we want to develop the ability to unify our awareness and be present with the wisdom mind. So we train to cultivate mindfulness – simply put, moment-to-moment awareness. We have to develop the skill to notice when we’re distracted and to come back.

Most of us are working on right effort. To be honest, most people work really hard for a few years and then get discouraged; they’ve worked so hard but they’re not recognized as the teacher- oh no! (laughs)

When we’re starting out, we idolize people and ourselves, it’s like a honeymoon phase. It isn’t realistic, so we can get discouraged when reality doesn’t match the fantasy. We have to find the right long term effort—that’s huge!!! This is absolutely key, it’s really important to understand this aspect of the Path – persistence, diligence, longevity. It isn’t enough to just show up occasionally at big teachings or empowerments.
Going to empowerments without a daily practice is like going to weddings to see what marriage is like – they’re wonderful, but they aren’t the same as the daily work, you don’t get the whole picture. Right effort, when you’re really doing the training, will eventually show results; you can have complete confidence in that.

I want everyone here to be a lifer – I want you all to become irreversible bodhisattvas!

Why do some people quit the Path? Good question. I don’t know. I really don’t. Why do some people have twenty years of recovery and then start drinking again? It’s interesting to think about.

I think the most interesting dharma talks are about right effort. How do great teachers keep going? How do they persist with their training? How do they integrate it into their lives, into practice? Right effort. Right livelihood. It’s completely relevant to all of us.
So, how do you know when all of that effort is working?

Your life becomes more stable. Your confidence grows. You become more joyful.

It’s interesting, when people veer off they often do sound confident, “I’m doing the right thing, I’m practicing every day,” but internally everything is off the rails—this is bad. It’s very difficult; you have to be very honest with yourself, and with your teacher. Is it right effort? Is it just spinning my wheels?

We have to put in the effort. We have to build up our merit and our positive qualities. All the opportunities for giving and working on projects to help perpetuate the dharma are built on effort. What keeps us going is the merit stream, our positive potential, from this lifetime and others. Samsara is very strong, and often we feel like maybe I screwed up, despite my best efforts. Right effort doesn’t always mean right intentionality because many times in Dharma practice we’re going to become lunatics – you’re doing the right thing but maybe your mind isn’t really stable.

There’s no way you can be on it all the time, most of the time we’re a little off. Merit includes this whole stream, sometimes called devotion, of invested positive energy and positive potential. The effort isn’t always push, push – sometimes it’s gently following you along. It’s one of the paramitas; we know that effort is really important. Generally, with dharma in everyday life, from my point of view, I’m looking at effort.
Everyone in this room is really clever, everyone has read many books, but the reality is that effort is the key piece.

So, what is wrong effort? What does that look like? Things done from a compulsion, or out of guilt, or from strong emotions like jealousy and competiveness, they’re usually behind wrong effort. It’s when you’re doing things with a sense of push, of panic or competiveness. Maybe we think we’re too old and the motivation is related to comfort.

In context of the Lam Rim, it’s related to small scope view, individual liberation view. The wrong effort that my old teacher Chögyam Trungpa wrote about in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is when our practice is co-opted by wrong motivation – but that’s a whole other talk.
Personally… I want to be liked, I want to be right, I want to be comfortable. (laughs)

We want pleasure, we don’t want pain, that’s spiritual materialism—that’s important!! We need to give the correct place to our worldly dharmas – so we can see them. We like nice cushions, even if they are whoopies. (laughs) (When I studied with Chögyam Trungpa we would put out whoopie cushions as a joke. Back when things were first starting up, we could get away with that.)

When people get on some perfectionistic dharma thing, then we’re in real trouble. You’re not more spiritual by denying yourself something nice. Would you rather sit in a warm room in the winter, or a cold one? We can become dharma phonies by denying our basic preferences, thinking that’s real practice.

We want to create causes and conditions that allow us to see the path, which means we are going to be challenged. The time that people really get pissed is when they go on a retreat – it doesn’t meet their expectations.

Advice for going on retreat: become really clear about your preferences ahead of time!

Most of the time, we want to be in a comfortable setting with nice people, and this is where dharma practice really gets interesting – will you get what you want? Effort is always the most interesting part of the path, transcending our self-cherishing view. If you could meet the Buddha and your coffee was cold, would that be okay?

You want to be able to see – you see the vastness and you also see your own limitations, you’re completely honest. We don’t want to be in pain- and we want to help all beings. When someone is in pain we don’t say, “Well, it’s good for your practice.” We want people not to suffer, we want them to heal and be well.

Question: It sounds like you’re talking about being who you are?

Lama Jinpa: That’s right; you’re not going to become a different person.

Right effort puts space around our preferences. Also, you won’t become better by not being tuned into other people’s preferences, because then you can’t really help them.

It’s so nice when people pay attention to our preferences. We become satisfied when we become totally aware of our preferences – then we won’t say we can’t cope if we eat really good chocolate or a Hershey bar. It’s okay if I get what I want.

Where I work on right effort is fashion. If someone asks me about fashion, e.g “Do you like what I’m wearing?” I’ll tell the truth, so if you don’t want my opinion about fashion, then don’t ask me!

We work with people. We meet them where they’re at.