Editor’s Note: The following is the seventh in a series of posts by Nora Murphy about the “10 paramis,” or qualities of heart-mind. With these posts, she’ll take an informal, personal approach to each of the paramis, in an effort to reveal the simple, everyday lesson in each.
Viriya, the fifth of the Buddha’s paramis, is translated as energy, diligence, vigor, or effort. Unlike the first four paramis—generosity, morality, renunciation, and wisdom—viriya is never a stranger in our lives. We can’t survive without effort.
Even in this electro-techno 21st century world, we have to expend energy just to keep our animal bodies alive. We call on it to shop for groceries, renew license tabs, change diapers, shovel the sidewalk, chew our supper, work to pay the bills and offer dana, oh and relax. Can you believe it? Many of us are so busy that we have be diligent about scheduling time to relax!
Sometimes we put out so much effort that it’s exhausting. But that’s not a problem in this age. If we run out of steam, we call on supports—from Power Bars and Powerade, to power strips and power chargers. In fact, our country has become so addicted to power that we Americans make up just 5% of the world’s population, but we use 25% of the world’s total energy.
Why in the world would we need to cultivate any more effort?
Maybe this isn’t quite the right question to ask in contemplating viriya in daily life. Better to ask, if we want to realize the end of suffering in our lives, what kind of effort do we need to cultivate? To answer that, we can look at the earth and investigate the different cloaks of effort she wears.
Studying the world in early March, signs of renewed effort in nature are slowly emerging. There’s growing sunlight at both ends of the day. Unpleasant smells formerly trapped by the cold explode in mini-bursts when the temperature rises above freezing. Birds sing loudly announcing their return. This effort is the effort used to jump-start new things—like learning more about a singer we just discovered or looking for a new job.
It won’t be long before the signs of flaming effort emerge, sizzling like the blazing sun at the summer solstice. This is radioactive kinetic energy—the kind our economy runs on and the kind we need to make it through the days that require back-up batteries and power bars.
We can observe both kinds of effort play out in our daily lives. For me waking up in the morning when it’s still dark requires a jump start, spring-stirring kind of energy. Demanding respectful language and behavior from my 13-year-old son requires a heat wave of effort. But I wouldn’t be able to exert these two kinds of efforts for the long haul.
Fortunately, by harvest time and the beginning of fall, a letting go energy arises in the earth. Letting an old emotional entanglement rise and fall away uses this soft autumnal energy. Winter in our northern landscape is a time of rest to gather potential energy. A nap or cup of chamomile tea on a sleepy chilly afternoon applies winter’s diligent conservation.
No matter the conditions, effort is a friend to the earth. For without effort and energy, the wisdom of each season would be lost. The same might be said of effort and the path to ending suffering that the Buddha taught. In each moment, we can identify what kind of effort is needed to end suffering.
To realize the deepest awakening, the Buddha was very specific about what kind of viriya is needed. Buddhist scholar Ajahn Thanissaro points out that in the Anguttara Nikaya Sutra (4.13), the Buddha instructed us to use four kinds of effort, “(1) the effort to eradicate evils that have arisen in the mind; (2) the effort to prevent the arising of unarisen evil; (3) the effort to develop unarisen good; (4) the effort to promote the further growth of good already arisen.”
Evil is not a popular word in this century, but try replacing it with “unskillfulness.” Then we can see that the Buddha is asking us to exert effort to clear the heart-mind for liberation. To eradicate unskillfulness already present in the mind (1), we can train a blazing light of radioactive summer energy to really see what’s going on. Yet, other times, we need to exert a letting go autumnal energy to watch an unskillful entanglement fade away (2). To help develop ‘unarisen good’ (3), we could use the effort of winter’s gentle fields of fallow. To promote further growth of ‘good already arisen’ (4), we may want to jump-start our morality with the enthusiasm of cardinals gathering back at the lilac bush in spring.
Just as the earth knows what kind of effort is needed to realize the deep beauty within each season, so too does the heart-mind. I imagine a woman tending the fire of the heart-mind, adjusting the mix of heat and wood and air required in each moment. She doesn’t always add more wood to keep the fire blazing, like the crazed energy we call on to make it through so many of our busy 21st century days. Constant blazing energy like that isn’t sustainable, for planet earth or for our hearts. Instead, she gently adjusts the fire—sometimes letting it die down and other times adding a new log to renew the heat. With her tender, ever changing, but constant effort, the wisdom and compassion of the heart-mind stays lit.