by Nina van Gorkom | 1999 | 122,172 words

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Chapter 10 - Right Effort Of The Eightfold Path

As we have seen in chapter 9, there are several aspects to kusala viriya, right effort. It is a factor of the eightfold Path when it accompanies right understanding and right mindfulness of the eightfold Path and as such it is called samma-vayama. This type of effort or energy is not energy for mindfulness in the future, but energy for mindfulness right now. When there is right mindfulness of any characteristic which appears right now, there is also right effort accompanying the citta at that moment.

We may find that mindfulness does not arise very often. It seems that we lack a true "sense of urgency", which is according to the Atthasalini and the Visuddhimagga the proximate cause of right effort.

The Visuddhimagga ( IV, 63j explains how there can be a greater sense of urgency and how the mind should be encouraged. We read:

How does he encourage the mind on an occasion when it should be encouraged? When his mind is listless owing to sluggishness in the
exercise of understanding or the failure to attain the bliss of peace, then he should stimulate it by receiving the eight grounds for a sense of urgency. These are the four, namely, birth, ageing, sickness and death, with the suffering of the states of loss as the fifth, and also the suffering in the past rooted in the round (of rebirth), the suffering in the future rooted in the round (of rebirth), and the suffering in the present rooted in the search for nutriment. And he creates confidence by recollecting the special qualities of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. This is how he encourages the mind on an occasion when it should be encouraged.

The "states of loss" mentioned by the Visuddhimagga are the rebirths which are "removed from the happy destiny'' (XIX, 92, 93), they are rebirth in the animal world, in the "ghost world", in the world of demons (asuras) or in hell planes.

Mindfulness right now can eventually lead to freedom from the danger of rebirth. We may think with fear of unhappy rebirth and then there is akusala citta with dosa, not mindfulness. However, we should remember that even fear can be object of mindfulness. Shortly after the dosa-mula-citta has fallen away sati may arise and it can be aware of whatever characteristic appears at that moment, no matter it is an unpleasant object or akusala citta. when there is mindfulness there is also fight effort.

We may think time and again of the urgency of mindfulness, but in spite of that we can notice that sati very seldom arises. We are impatient and we find it difficult to persevere with the development of satipatthana. The suttas mention several factors which hinder "exertion, application, striving". we read in the Gradual sayIngs (Book of the Tens, chapter lI, 4, Obstruction) about five mental obstructions which cause wholesome qualities to decline:

Herein a monk has doubts and waverings about the Teacher. He is not drawn to him, he is not sure about him...
Again, monks, a monk has doubts about the Dhamma, about the Sangha (the Order of monks), about the training... he is vexed with his comrades in the brahma-life, displeased, troubled in mind, come to a stop. In a monk who is thus, his mind inclines not to exertion, to application, to perseverance, to striving...

We may doubt whether there can be an "ariyan Sangha", people who have developed the eightfold Path and attained enlightenment. we may have doubts about the usefulness of sati right now, of mindfulness of visible object, sound or any other reality which appears. At the moment of doubt there cannot be right effort.

There will be less doubt and more confidence if we listen to the Dhamma as it is explained by the right person, if we read the scriptures, if we consider what we learnt and test the meaning of it ourselves. we can prove the truth of what we learnt by the application of the Dhamma in daily life.

The above-quoted sutta also mentions five "bondages of the heart" which hinder the development of good qualities:

... Herein a monk is not dispassionate in things sensual;
desire, affections, thirsting, distress and craving have not gone from him...

Again in body a monk is not dispassionate;
he is not dispassionate in the matter of material shapes;
having eaten his bellyful he lives given to the pleasure of lying down on back or side, a prey to torpor;
or he leads the brahma-life with a view to join some order of devas, with the thought:

By virtue of this way of life or practice or austerity or brahma-life I shall become some deva or other.

Whatsoever monk

....has such an object in view, his mind inclines not to exertion, to application, to perseverance and striving...

We are infatuated by all the pleasant things of life. At such moments we forget to develop satipatthana. we read in the same sutta that in the monk who has abandoned the mental obstructions and "bondages of the heart", "growth, not decline, in good states may be looked for." However, we should realize that not all obstruction can be overcome at once. Even the sotapanna who has eradicated doubt and who has an unshakeable confidence in the Triple Gem is still attached to sense-pleasures. But he has no wrong view, he does not take attachment or any other reality for self. He has developed right understanding of all realities, also of akusala dhammas, by being aware of them when they appear.

The sotapanna cannot deviate from the eightfold Path anymore. Since he has realized the truth that all conditioned realities are impermanent and dukkha, his urgency to be freed from dukkha does not stem from theoretical understanding of the truth of dukkha, but from the direct realization of the truth of dukkha. He has a true sense of urgency which makes him persevere with the development of the eightfold Path.

When one has just started to develop satipatthana, sati does not often arise. one may wonder how many years it will take before there can be any progress, when we think of the goal with desire or when we are afraid of failure there is akusala citta. We may not notice that there is any progress, but even if there sometimes one moment of mindfulness of a reality appearing through one of the six doors, right understanding can develop little by little. sati which arises falls away, but it is never lost, it conditions the arising again of sati later on. Instead of having desire for enlightenment we should see the value of right understanding at this moment.

When sati arises it is accompanied by kusala viriya, right effort, which performs its function of strengthening and supporting citta and the accompanying cetasikas, and in that way there can be perseverance to develop right understanding. It takes great patience and courage, even heroic fortitude, to persevere with mindfulness of all kinds of realities which appear, also of akusala dhammas we would rather shun as object of mindfulness.

Right understanding cannot be developed within a short time. The Buddha, when he was still a Bodhisatta, had to develop wisdom for aeons. He developed satipatthana with great patience and an unshakeable energy. Energy was one of the "perfections" he developed together with satipatthana. He was willing to struggle and strive for an extremely long time, without becoming disenchanted with all the hardship and suffering he had to endure, all for the sake of the welfare of other beings.

The Dhammasangani (13), in its description of the "faculty (indriya) of energy'', speaks about "zeal and ardour, vigour and fortitude, the state of unfaltering effort ", "the state of unflinching endurance and solid grip of the burden." The Bodhisatta, when he in his last life was sitting under the Bodhi-tree, had unflinching endurance, he did not let go of the task he had to fulfil. His vigour and fortitude were unsurpassed. We read in the Gradual Sayings (Book of the Twos, chapter 1, 5) that the Buddha said to the monks that he did not shrink back from the struggle and struggled on thus:

"Gladly would I have my shin and sinews and bones wither and my body's flesh and blood dry up, if only I may hold out until I win what may be won by human strength, by human energy, by human striving". By my earnest endeavour, monks, I won enlightenment, I won the unrivalled freedom from the bond.

Many of the Buddha's disciples developed the eightfold Path and attained enlightenment as well. However, they also had to accumulate right understanding during countless lives in order to attain enlightenment. When we read about the lives of the Buddha's disciples in the Thera-theri-gatha(Psalms of the Brothers and Sisters) we see that they also, like we, had periods of slackness with regard to the development of satipatthana. However, ordinary events in their daily lives could stir them and remind them of the urgency to develop right understanding.

We read that the Thera Uttiya (Thera-gatha 30) had no purity of sila and could not attain enlightenment. The Buddha taught him in brief the purification of sila and the purification of view.[1] Uttiya developed insight and then he became ill. The commentary to the 'Thera-gatha" ( the Paramatthadipani) relates: "In his anxiety he put forth every effort and attained arahatship". He spoke the following verse with reference to the event which, stirred him to continue to develop insight until he had reached the goal:

Since sickness has befallen me. O now
Let there arise in me true mindfulness.
Sickness has now befallen me 't is time
For me no more to dally or delay.

Sickness can remind us that we are not master of our body. What we take for "our body'' and for "our mind" are only conditioned rupas and namas which are beyond control. If we merely think of nama and rupa we will not know them as they are. Mindfulness of the reality which appears now is the only way to eventually know the true nature of realities.

The Buddha knew the accumulations of beings and thus whenever he preached to someone he could remind him in the way which was most suitable for him. He often reminded people of the foulness of "this short-lived body", in order to stir them to develop satipatthana. The Thera Kimbila (Thera-gatha 118) was stirred when the Buddha, by his supernatural power, conjured up the image of a beautiful woman and showed her passing to old age. The commentary relates that he was greatly shaken by this image. He spoke this verse:

As bidden by some power age over her falls.
Her shape is as another, yet the same.
Now this myself who never has left myself
Seems other than the self I recollect.

Kimbila realized that what he took for self are ever-changing phenomena. Although what we call in conventional terms the "present personality'' has developed from the "past personality'', there isn't any reality which is self. The phenomena of the present moment fall away immediately as soon as they have arisen and are completely gone. The commentary relates that Kimbila, while he considered the truth of impermanence, was yet more strongly agitated. He listened to the Buddha, became a monk and attained arahatship.

There are time and again signs of foulness and decay in our body. Our body is susceptible to decay, and death can come at any moment. We do not know when the last citta of our life, the dying-consciousness, will arise. For those who have accumulated conditions for sati the thought of death can remind them to be aware.

We read that the Buddha's disciples, when they were stirred by an event in their life, "put forth energy and strove with passionate ardour''. We read, for example, in the ''Therigatha (29) that Sama could not find peace of mind during the twenty five years she was a nun. In her old age she heard a sermon of the Buddha which stirred her, and she attained arahatship.

We read that she said:

"To free my path from all that causes dukkha, I strove with passionate ardour, and I won!"

When we read these words we may misunderstand them. We are so used to thinking of effort as effort exerted by a self that we can hardly imagine how there can be effort arising because of its own conditions.

Realities appear already through the five senses and through the mind-door- visible object, for example, appears rime and again. We could begin to investigate its characteristic until it is realized as just visible object appearing through eyesense, not something or somebody. There can be striving without the concept of self who strives.

Even though we are only startng to develop the Path events in our life can remind us to be aware now, just as they reminded the Buddha's disciples. At times we may have doubts about the benefit of sati, or it may happen that we are absorbed by our work or our circle of friends, or we may be infatuated by all the pleasant things of life, without mindfulness of such moments. Although we know in theory that any reality can be object of mindfulness, there may be a long period of sluggishness in our life.

However, a painful event such as the loss of someone who is dear to us may remind us of the true nature of reality; this can become our "goad" which stirs us. If we truly see that even one moment of right understanding is beneficial we will have courage to continue with the development of satipatthana and then there is right effort which arises because of its own conditions. We can come to understand that life without the development of right understanding is utterly meaningless.


  1. What can obstruct right effort?
  2. When we are thinking of the goal with discouragement, what can be done to persevere?
  3. How can signs of foulness and decay in the body be reminders of awareness of the present reality?
  4. Why is listening to the Dhamma as it is explained by the right person helpful for the arising of sati?

June 20, 2001

Footnotes and references:


See Kindred Sayings V, kindred Sayings on the Applications of MindfuIness, Chapter I, 3, 5, 6.

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