Vows, commitments and modern life:  Learning to enjoy virtue

We continue with our discussion of the three non-degenerations.  The second non-degeneration is effort in our practice of Dharma.  With faith, effort comes naturally.  It is helpful to dig a little deeper to understand what is faith, and what is its relationship to effort.  We can take as an example the instruction to put others first.  It begins with believing faith.  Believing faith is not blind faith, rather it is faith based on a valid reason.  Valid reasons can be logical reasonings or personal experience.  So we contemplate from our own experience all of the different disadvantages of self-cherishing and all of the advantages of cherishing others.  Considering these things, we can then come to a belief that being selfish is the cause of all suffering and cherishing others is the cause of all happiness.  We don’t know this yet with direct wisdom, but we believe it to be true based on valid reasons.  Believing faith then transforms into admiring faith.  Admiring faith is an appreciation of the good qualities we believe in.  We can admire those who cherish only others, and admire how the world would be different if everybody did so.  This admiring faith naturally leads to wishing faith.  Wishing faith is wishing that we ourself possessed the good qualities we are admiring.  We think, “wouldn’t it be great if I could completely abandon my self-cherishing and cherish only others.  I really want this.”  This wishing faith naturally leads to effort.  Wanting this good quality, we then naturally put effort into the practices that lead to such qualities.  We are happy and eager to do so.  On the basis of this joyful effort, we then gain personal experience of the truth of the instructions.  We see for ourself that it works and it is great.  This personal experience then gives us an additional valid reason for reinforcing our believing faith, and so the cycle continues at ever deeper levels.

It is important to remind ourselves again and again that effort, by definition, is taking delight in virtue.  It is enjoying training in virtue.  If we have no enjoyment, but are instead practicing motivated by guilt, then even if we do intense retreat for many years, we actually have no effort.  And without genuine effort, we will have no results.  Many many people practice motivated by feelings of “I really should do this” or guilt thinking, “I took commitments, but I am doing nothing about them.”  In France, for example, the entire educational and cultural model is based on making people feel bad about what they are not doing to encourage them to do more.  This is a real obstacle to the flourishing of genuine effort in France because they carry this cultural norm over into their practice.  They beat themselves up about what a bad practitioner they are, and constantly judge themselves (and others) for what they are not doing instead of being happy about what they are doing.  French teachers likewise can sometimes fall into this trap and use similar negative reinforcement techniques with their students.  On the surface, it seems to work because people “do more Dharma things.”  But the joy is lacking, and without joy, there is no real practice.

Without joy in our practice, we can quickly become depressed, heavy and despondent.  People come to a center, and instead of finding “the happiest place on earth” they find a bunch of spiritual neurotics!  Self-flagellation becomes the norm.  Quite naturally, people leave; and those who do say are the self-haters.  The more they study the Dharma, the more clearly they see all of the different ways in which they are horrible and falling short, so that the more Dharma they study the more depressed and self-loathing they become.  I am not saying all French Sangha are like this, not at all.  What I am saying is anybody who doesn’t know how to practice joyfully, French or not, quickly becomes exactly like this.

There are two keys to maintaining joy in our practice.  The first is to completely and totally forget about results.  Ghandi said, “full effort [itself] is full victory.”  The meaning is trying alone is success.  Why?  Because it is our trying that creates karmic causes, regardless of whether or not we succeed.  We need to mentally forget about this life, and use what little time we have left exclusively for the sake of storing up good karmic seeds for the long road ahead in our future lives.  I mentioned before that I have a dear friend in a psychiatric hospital who struggles daily with psychotic and harmful thoughts.  He can’t stop himself, such thoughts just keep coming.  At first, he would work himself up into quite a panic thinking, “moment by moment I am creating causes to be reborn in hell due to these psychotic thoughts, and I can’t stop myself.  Surely, it would be better if were dead.”  But here, we need to make a very clear distinction between “effects that are ripening” and “causes I am creating.”  The psychotic tendency is an effect that is ripening.  How one responds to that tendency is what causes we are creating.  Far from creating countless causes to be reborn in hell, because he was applying opponents and resisting such tendencies (moral discipline of restraint), he was actually creating countless causes for future precious human rebirths!  If he had 50 psychotic thoughts in an hour and he applied effort to oppose all 50 of them, then in that hour he created the causes for 50 precious human lives with which he can continue with his practice.  When he understood things in this way, he would think, “I am the luckiest person alive.  My psychotic tendencies are actually a spiritual jackpot that keeps paying out!”  This is perfect.

The second key is to remind ourselves that in the Dharma, there is no bad, there is only good and even better.  Instead of being unhappy about what we are not doing, we need to choose to be happy about what we are doing.  The glass is never half-empty, or even mostly empty, it is always at least partially full.  Just because we could do better doesn’t mean what we are doing is somehow bad.  If we judge what we do do as being worthless and inadequate, we create the causes to abandon even that.  If instead we rejoice in what we are doing as the foundation for everything that follows, then we create the causes to do more.  This is crucially important to realize.

Taken together, just being happy to create good causes irrespective of results and always choosing to be happy with what we are doing, not unhappy about what we are not doing, we will easily be able to maintain joy in our practice.  With joy comes effort, with effort comes attainments.

3 thoughts on “Vows, commitments and modern life:  Learning to enjoy virtue

  1. If I am overly serious about my practice.. what does that mean?
    It becomes a chore and not something I change my mind with.
    If it becomes a chore then I dont like it
    If i dont like it, I am not practicing Dharma.
    If I am not practicing Dharma, I will fall.
    If I fall, then its over.

    Very simple.
    Dharma is not a chore. It does not lead to lower rebirth, ever. Your attitude towards it does.

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