Effort is a mind that delights in engaging in virtue. It is not “hard work”, rather it is enjoying, like a child at play, engaging in virtue. If there is no joy, there is no effort, even if we are working very hard. Effort principally overcome laziness. There are three types: the laziness of procrastination, which puts off virtue until later; the laziness of attraction to what is meaningless or non-virtuous, or generally become distracted by samsaric activities; and the laziness of discouragement, which feels no matter how hard we try we will never accomplish anything. There are three types of effort: armour-like effort, which has the strength to persevere no matter how significant the obstacles; the effort of gathering virtuous Dharmas is when we put energy into actually engaging in virtuous actions; and the effort of benefiting others, which is when we put energy into actually benefiting others. The lamrim teachings explain there are four methods for increasing our effort: the power of aspiration, which is the wish to engage in virtue understanding its benefits; the power of steadfastness is the ability to sustain our practice for as long as it takes; the power of joy is having a calm and joyful mind when we engage in virtue; and the power of rest is learning to relax so that we don’t become overtired and can recharge our batteries so that we can return fresh to our practice.
Any of these practices engaged in with a bodhichitta motivation is the perfection of effort. Basically, this means we understand the relationship between our effort and our attainment of Buddhahood, and so we train in effort knowing it is essential for our attaining enlightenment. Just as giving is the cause of wealth, moral discipline the cause of higher rebirth and patience the cause of beauty, effort is the cause of attainments. This is pretty easy to understand – effort is mental action which enjoys engaging in virtue, so the karmic result of that will be the result of our practice, namely attainments. Attainments come in all sizes. I tend to think of them like spiritual legos, where we put together smaller ones to create bigger ones, and we can piece them together in all sorts of different combinations to make all sorts of different spiritual creations. I view the progression of attainments on the path like two funnels connected by their open mouths. In the beginning, we have small initial experiences. We build on these and gradually our understanding broadens more and more. Once we have a good grasp of the full horizontal scope of the Dharma we have reached the point where the two funnels are connected. Then we start to put together all that we have learned and we realize that as we do so the Dharma becomes simpler and simpler. A few key ideas start to function to capture more and more breadth of Dharma. We continue to simplify and synthesize our Dharma understanding more and more until it becomes extremely simple and clear. All of the Dharma gets captured in a few notions like ultimate bodhichitta or bliss and emptiness or the union of the two truths. What is truly amazing about the book Modern Buddhism is it is simultaneously the ultimate book for beginners in terms of introducing the initial ideas of the Dharma and the most advanced of Venerable Geshe-la’s books in that it is the simplified essence of all of his other books. We start with Modern Buddhism, then expand into FP, then TTP, and then we start simplifying more and more until we are eventually led back to Modern Buddhism – it is both our first and last book.
The ultimate perfection of effort is engaging in the perfection of effort understanding emptiness. While normally I use the analogy of the ocean of our mind, in this context the analogy of Play Dough works better. Many of our practices are called “yogas”, such as the 11 yogas of generation stage, the Yoga of Buddha Heruka, etc. Normally when we think of yoga we think about people who put their body in all sorts of very strange and uncomfortable positions. Why do they do this? When they put their body in an uncomfortable position, but learn how to relax into that position until it becomes even blissful they loosen the knots that build up in their body and mind, and thereby become much more balanced and equilibrated. In exactly the same way, all of our Dharma practices can correctly be understood as “mental yogas”, where we put our mind in all sorts of initially strange and sometimes uncomfortable mental positions (such as cherishing only others, taking, fear of the lower realms, etc.) and then we learn how to relax into these mental positions until they even become blissful. Our mind is like Play Dough that is currently shaped in the aspect of a samsara. But through the force of our effort at the various mental yogas of the Kadampa path, we reshape the Play Dough of our mind into a Pure Land. The Play Dough of our mind itself is the emptiness of our mind of great bliss. Milarepa said we should understand all phenomena as being the nature of mind (of great bliss) and the nature of mind is emptiness. If we realize this, we realize how all phenomena are by nature our mind of bliss and emptiness in the aspect of whatever is appearing. Right now, what is appearing (in other words the shape of our mind) is samsara, but with training we can reshape it as nirvana. Every time we engage in a spiritual practice we are reshaping our mind in some way. When we understand what we are doing, namely undoing the samsara we have created and reshaping our mind as a pure land, how can we not help but generate joy when we apply effort?