The Paramita of Enthusiasm

In early May, Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi came to Clouds in Water for a sesshin. On the 3rd night, he gave a spontaneous talk on enthusiasm during the last sitting of the day. It was a great boost. I became enthusiastic about enthusiasm, one of the Paramitas or Perfections in Buddhism. Enthusiasm has been translated with many words such as, Right effort, vigor, determination, energy, diligence etc.

Reb’s main message was that it’s part of our practice to be enthusiastic about practice. It’s our job to make sure our energy and passion for the dharma is refreshed and stays alive. That matches what I have been experiencing lately after a period of burn out. I have come to see that my passion for keeping the dharma alive in me, is my responsibility. I have to look for and enhance where I find the joy in the dharma. I have to make sure that in each day or each week, there is a part of sitting or studying or service that really connects to my passion and to my excitement for Spiritual life. If we let this fade, or the flame burn down, or even breed resentment towards practice, our whole attitude towards spiritual life becomes a burden not a resource. This is a compromised position for a robust wholehearted life. We have to let “our bodhichitta grow and flourish ever more and more” as Nagarjuna said.

Of course, it goes without saying that there needs to be a lot of effort in order to experience freedom from or within the bondage of egotistical ordinary life. But as we study “energy” or “diligence” which is necessary for our practice, there are a number of more subtle understandings that can help our ability to SUSTAIN our direction towards freedom or enlightenment.

One of the most difficult of the obstacles to enthusiasm is the tendency we all have to be lazy. The three types of laziness are:

  1. Our inherent tendency to want ease in our life. Our love of sleeping and taking the easier, softer way.
  2. Our attachment to worldly activity takes a way from our focus on spiritual practice and is a kind of laziness. It’s easier to go along with meaningless or frivolous activity, to go with the flow of our habituated patterns, and to involve ourselves, as one author put it, in “general worldly nonsense.”
  3. The laziness of discouragement. This is allowing our self-evaluation, our sense of unworthiness or inability to dampen down our enthusiasm for practice. We can lose all pleasure in our practice through our shame or self-denigration. 

The counter balance to our tendency to be lazy is the Four Powers that increase our Effort:

  1. The Power of Aspiration — our intention, aspiration, desire for freedom can help our enthusiasm stay strong. Our original reason for practicing can be brought forth as energy to keep going.
  2. The Power of Steadfastness — We need to strengthen our determination and follow through. The more we follow through on our difficult tasks and our endurance, the more those qualities of determination are enhanced. I vow to follow through. We need to take our study and learning about dharma and really apply them to our day-to-day lives. (application) The repetitive aspects of ritual can be seen as steadfastness. Sitting zazen everyday can be seen as steadfastness.
  3. The Power of Joy — Noticing, finding and paying attention to the Joy in living is very powerful. To notice Joy, we place our minds on beauty, on gratitude, on the great mystery of being. We must remember our precious human birth! Certainly we can also find joy within meditation practice. The peace, rapture, quiet, insight that can come from meditation are all ways to keep our enthusiasm energized. Thich Nhat Hann has a wonderful admonition that I use often amidst the stresses of our ordinary life, He says, “plant the seeds of joy in each day.”
  4. 4. The Power of Rest — I’m so happy that resting is including in effort. Without rejuvenation, we cannot just keep going endlessly. I find, in American, the power of rest is basically ignored or we go to an addictive patterning for a false sense of nurturance. What does it mean to truly rest? To let the field actually lay fallow. To be so patient that we can actually endure a field where nothing is happening. This has been one of the harder practices for me in the Zen training system. In the Japanese Zen training system, there is very little emphasis on Rest and when I do finally rest, I often feel guilty. I’m trying to change this within myself. Compulsive over-working, I don’t believe, is the Buddha Way. To the contrary.

Pema Chodron has a aphorism “Not too tight and not too loose” for Right Effort which has a very balanced sense. Jizo Bodhisattva’s characteristic of “unflagging optimism” has enhanced my understanding of Enthusiasm. Somehow, I think, to have a vow without a goal, and to let go of the results of our effort, is to learn how to live with ease. This sense of balanced ease is what will enhance our commitment to live life after life in vow.