Right Diligence a dharma talk by Lisa Glueck
The last three steps on the Buddha’s Eight-fold Path concern mental discipline. They are Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Mindfulness and concentration often steal the show, leaving poor old diligence in the shadows.
To practice it well is an art. While we can’t be too mindful, we can be too diligent. The traditional analogy is tuning a guitar string – not too tight, not too loose. Joseph Goldstein speaks of over-efforting which makes us tense. On the other hand, under-efforting leads to stagnation and discouragement.
A traditional definition of right diligence, also known as right effort, is to exert ourselves to develop wholesome qualities and release unwholesome ones. So, it’s more directed than right mindfulness.
But doesn’t this work-ethic mentality contradict the Heart Sutra, where it’s pointed out that there’s “nothing to attain?” Besides, aimlessness is one of the three doors of liberation (along with emptiness and signlessness). Thay even says, “aimlessness and nirvana are one.” So, how do we reconcile aimlessness with right diligence?
The Heart Sutra and the Three Doors of Liberation are Prajnaparamita teachings. Prajnaparamita means the perfection of wisdom, or wisdom on the level of absolute truth. In contrast, the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path and the mindfulness trainings all belong to the level of relative truth.
The term “absolute truth” might sound like it contradicts the first and second of the fourteen mindfulness trainings: “I am determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory or ideology, even Buddhist ones, “ and “I am aware that the knowledge I presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth”.
The two truths sometimes sound contradictory, but they’re not. We need teachings on both levels. Most of us enter the path through the door of knowledge, or relative truth. Maybe we’re inspired by a Dharma talk or a book. Teachings on this level guide us to get our lives in order so that we feel more peaceful. Through practicing Dharma on the relative plane, our mindfulness and concentration deepen. This allows us to break through to an understanding of Prajnaparamita teachings.
As a young practitioner, I preferred the lofty teachings of the Prajnaparamita: why mess around on the relative level when I could let go of thinking and get immediate relief? Ever heard of “spiritual bypass”? I’ve discovered that there’s a crucial reason to practice the entire eightfold path, no shortcuts. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche indelicately said, “there’s a huge, smelly pile of unfinished business we need to attend to.”
You may have heard the quote from Anne Lamott, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone.” I can relate: a crowd of unwholesome thoughts and feelings thrives just below the surface. No wonder my shoulder muscles are so often clenched! This is a wakeup call to pay more attention to our most reliable teacher: our own body.
This is a full-time job. We must remain vigilant or unruly thoughts and feelings may take over. But the secret is to do so with a light touch, a sense of warmth and humor. All sentient beings are suffering and need our cheerful help.
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