Diligence and Right Effort in Spiritual Practice

National Headquarters  |  June 28, 2019
Photo by Peter Lin

According to Buddhist teachings, Diligence (Sanskrit: viriya) and Right Effort are vital on the path of spiritual cultivation. Diligence is one of the Six Perfections (Sanskrit: pāramitās) that Buddhists strive to practice, and Right Effort is part of the Noble Eightfold Path towards liberation that the Buddha presented when he taught the Four Noble Truths after attaining enlightenment.

Diligence can also be defined as joyful endeavor, perseverance, zeal, effort, or exertion. Dharma Master Cheng Yen defines what this means in terms of spiritual practice:

It means being wholeheartedly committed to the practice, without letting distractions or inner impurities arise and without turning away from our practice. We need to carefully look after our heart, so that it stays very clean and pure.

There are three kinds of diligence described in Buddhist scriptures:

  • Armour-like diligence:  
    Founded on a heart-felt aspiration and commitment to work for the benefit of others, referred to as bodhicitta (awakening mind) of aspiration, this is a strength that protects from laziness. Three types of laziness are described: idleness, as in constantly putting things off; the tendency towards negative habits and unwholesome activity; and the laziness of defeatism and putting oneself down.
  • The zeal of application:
    Referred to as the bodhicitta of application, this relentless exertion and quality of not turning back is expressed in one’s effort to practice the teachings daily in everyday life. While accumulating what is positive through the joyful endeavor of doing what is beneficial for others, one steers clear of negative influences out of a sincere sense of being fed up and repulsed by non-virtuous ways.
  • Insatiable perseverance:
    This aspect of diligence refers to never being satisfied with our accumulation of positive activities that benefit others. It means taking hold of each and every opportunity to be of benefit or protect others from harm. The teachings state that, “Even if you were to die tomorrow morning, you should still learn more. Even if you have helped everybody, still you should help them once more.”

With regard to Right Effort in spiritual practice, the Buddha taught four aspects:

  • The effort to prevent unwholesome qualities from arising.
  • The effort to extinguish unwholesome qualities that have already arisen.
  • The effort to cultivate wholesome qualities that have not yet arisen.
  • The effort to strengthen the wholesome qualities that have already arisen.

Master Cheng Yen explains what’s involved as follows:

As an ordinary person, we give rise to all sorts of thoughts. They enter and exit our mind constantly. When we give rise to a kind thought, we may act on it and do a good deed to help others. When we give rise to an unwholesome thought, we may say or do something mean. Our actions are greatly influenced by our thoughts. 

Cultivating ourselves is about learning to actively do all the good we can and to refrain from doing anything bad. To do this, we need to watch our thoughts and practice diligently to nurture a mind of good thoughts. This practice is called the Four Right Efforts, and it can help us stay on the right path.

The first of the Four Right Efforts tells us that when we detect unwholesome thoughts, we need to quickly transform our state of mind to put a stop to them. For example, when someone does something that displeases us and we get angry, that’s an unwholesome thought. Or, when we get tempted by something and craving arises, that’s also an unwholesome thought. If we can quickly change our mindset so that the unwholesome thoughts don’t take hold, we can prevent ourselves from doing wrong things and creating negative karma. 

After we’ve put a stop to unwholesome thoughts, we have to take care to maintain this and guard against new unwholesome thoughts. As we go about our daily life, our mind can be thrown off balance by the people around us and the things we have to handle, causing anger, craving, and delusion to arise in our minds. If we keep our minds calm, centered, and peaceful, we won’t react so easily. This is called looking after our heart and mind. 

Yet it isn’t enough just to keep our minds free of unwholesome thoughts. We need to take it further and develop wholesome, good thoughts. When we hear inspiring stories about people caring for those in need, or witness this ourselves, we can learn to do the same, starting by bringing forth kind, altruistic thoughts.

Still, as we go about our life, a wholesome thought may arise, but we often just let it flicker by without paying much attention. Or, we may dismiss the wholesome thought, feeling that the good deed we thought of  isn’t worth doing. Actually, no good deed is too small to matter.

In our day to day life, we need to be self-reflective and always aware of our state of mind. The Four Right Efforts can help us do this while cultivating a wholesome mind. By practicing them, we can focus our thoughts in the right direction and keep them from going astray, enabling us to progress steadily on the path of spiritual cultivation. This is why the Four Right Efforts serve as a foundation in spiritual practice. Let’s all be mindful and practice them diligently in our daily life.

The sections in italics consist of edited excerpts of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks.

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