Happy Tsog Day: How to practise the perfection of effort

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 38 of a 44-part series.

I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of effort
By striving for supreme enlightenment with unwavering compassion;
Even if I must remain in the fires of the deepest hell
For many aeons for the sake of each being.

Effort is taking delight in engaging in virtue, like a child at play. The perfection of effort is engaging in effort with a bodhicitta motivation. The method for generating effort is simple. First, we generate faith in our spiritual practices understanding their benefits. This gives rise to an aspiration wishing to engage in the practice and attain these benefits, and that aspiration naturally leads to joyful effort. For effort to be qualified it needs to be joyful. We need to be happy to engage in the virtue, not do so begrudgingly out of some sense of obligation.

Some people relate to their Dharma practice as hard work and they struggle to be able to do it. They have to force themselves to sit down to practice, attend classes, and so forth. Once again it is useful to recall that we are desire realm beings, which means that we have no choice but to do whatever it is that we desire. If we do not want to practice Dharma, and we force ourselves to do so against our will, then it may work for a short period of time, but in the long run our desire to not practice will win out and eventually we will come to resent our Dharma practice and even perhaps abandon it altogether. Just as the practice of moral discipline requires us to dismantle our negative tendencies and to actively construct virtuous tendencies, so too with the practice of effort we need to actively deconstruct and dismantle our laziness of attachment which prevents us from joyfully engaging in Dharma practice and then create within our mind a wish to practice through generating faith in the benefits of our practices.

The laziness of attachment is a mind that thinks happiness can be found by doing non-Dharma things. Because we want to be happy and we think doing these non-Dharma things is how we become happy, we wish to do so. For some, Dharma practice can seem like the ultimate buzzkill destroying all our fun. Once again, we have everything backwards. Shantideva says that we run towards the causes of suffering as if they are a pleasure garden, and we run away from the causes of happiness as if they were monsters to be feared. We need to recognize that our attachment to the pleasures of samsara are like giant hooks that bind our flesh to inevitable sickness, aging, misery, and death.

I once had a vision while meditating about being on a disk floating in space. There were all sorts of beautiful beings enticing me to move towards them, I did so and, not realizing, fell over the edge. As I did, the enticing beings then removed their disguise revealing they were in fact demons who then said “gotcha” as I fell into the lower realms. This is exactly how samsara works. We spend our whole lives chasing after attractive forms, wasting our precious opportunity to attain permanent freedom from all suffering, and then at the moment of our death when it is too late, it is as if everything we had ever worked towards were these enticing creatures who then say gotcha as we fall to the lower realms.

When we chase after our objects of attachment they never give us the happiness that we hoped for. And even after enjoying them, we feel we never feel satisfied and can often feel guilty about what we have done. In the process of chasing our objects of attachment, we accumulate all sorts of non-virtuous actions, engage in deceit, and break our vows. In the Lord of all Lineages prayer it says, “like mistakenly thinking a poisonous drink to be nectar, attachment with grasping at objects of desire is the cause of great danger.” We are like a prisoner who has found a way out of the prison, but chooses not to leave because it is macaroni and cheese day in the cafeteria!

There was once a Tibetan who had practiced sincerely throughout his life and reached the moment of his death knowing he was bound for the pure land and he suddenly had a doubt about whether he wanted to go. He developed a strong attachment to Tibetan butter tea and was worried he might not ever have it again. His spiritual guide reassured him, “do not worry the tea is even better in the pure land.” He was then able to let go of his attachment and he was then able to go to the pure land. The same logic can be used for all our objects of attachment. No matter how good we think they are, they are even better in the pure land. If we truly want pure enjoyments, the best thing we can do is to abandon our laziness of attachment.

Normally we consider someone to be mature if they consider the welfare of their future to be more important than their present. For example, we consider someone who studies hard in school or who saves their money for the future to be mature because they are preparing for a better future. By working hard now, we can enjoy an even better future later. But if we fail to work for the future and only live for our present happiness, life will get harder and harder overtime. In exactly the same way, if we use this life only for the sake of happiness in this life, we will waste this precious opportunity we have to prepare for our future lives. Understanding all this, we can dismantle our laziness of attachment, and instead choose instead to realize that true happiness lies on the other side of engaging in Dharma practice. Because we want to be happy both now and in the future, we then happily engage in practice. Joyful effort does not mean sacrificing our present happiness for the sake of future happiness, rather we are delighted to engage in virtue now because it makes our mind peaceful, and we are even more delighted knowing that we are building a better future for ourselves.

I have always found this verse to be particularly inspiring. We need to generate a mind that is willing to take rebirth in the fires of the deepest hell for the sake of each being. Effort is not simply about willing to do the work it takes for ourselves to attain enlightenment, our real motivation is to work endlessly for the benefit of all living beings, even if that means we must go into the fires of the deepest hell for many eons for the sake of each being. Venerable Tharchin said that he wishes to attain rebirth in the lower realms because that is where all the living beings are and he wants to help them. Such is the courageous mind of the perfection of effort.

In truth, if we truly wish to lead an effortless life, then attaining enlightenment is the best course of action. Once we attain enlightenment, all our actions become effortless. In Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, both the mandala offering and the migtsema prayer emphasize being able to effortlessly benefit all living beings. This comes primarily through applying effort now to be able to benefit them effortlessly later. One way of understanding this is to think about how spaceships travel in space. Because there is no friction in space, if they first apply effort firing their rockets, they set the spaceship in motion. Once set in motion, it continues without obstruction forever. In the same way when we remove the two obstructions from our mind, we remove all sources of friction in our mind, and all the virtuous actions we created while a bodhisattva are like the rocket fuel getting us started and then making all our actions as a Buddha effortless.

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