Saturday, January 1, 2011

Four Right Efforts for 2011

So it’s that time again when many are making their resolutions for the New Year. I pity them as most will be unable to make good on their resolutions before the end of the first week. But I also have pity for those who succeed on these resolutions because of their clinging to this notion that their success will make them an overall better person. In fact, to the entire concept of making New Year resolutions I say screw it.

Every day is an opportunity to practice the Dhamma with greater skill than the previous day. And every day holds the potential of being our last. Jan. 1 is no more special a day in this regard then March 12, or Aug. 7. Every day is an opportunity for us to better ourselves and to be of greater service to others. Every day is a chance to wipe away a bit more of the film of delusion that covers our eyes and sedates our mind, to rattle our helter skelter actions and bring them out of the self-induced soporific trance of false comfort, to open our eyes and see things for how they really are, not what we wish them to be.

That takes effort; four of them to be precise. And to correctly apply these four efforts, we need to be well-grounded in the present moment.

There are many sayings that reflect to a degree the importance of remaining focused on the present. There is “One day at a time,” perhaps the most common and very effective at reminding us that we shouldn’t dwell too much on the future. But this axiom can be used for selfish ends; for some it is a more palatable form of “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die,” because it can make us sound like we’re being more responsible. It would be something like spending your life in a gay disco, dancing away the days with all the hot go-go boys, waiting for that moment at the end of the night when all the studly men and boys take off their shirts.

There is “carpe diem,” or “seize the day,” which is a much more aggressive way of reminding us that today may well be our last, so we ought to get as much out of it as we can. This does, however, allow hedonism to run amok in our life because this saying tends to give permission for unrestrained indulgence in sensual pleasure. It would be like spending your life in a gay sauna where you aren’t so much seizing the day, but turgid appendages of flesh.

This adage gets closer to the heart of the matter: “If yesterday is a canceled check, today is cash, and tomorrow a promissory note, go with the cash and spend it today.” But even this allows for personal indulgence in empty spending purely for immediate gratification. It’s like throwing away all your credit cards and using cash only, but you’re still acquiring objects that have no real value and bring you no closer to true happiness as there will always be some new item you don’t and must have.

No, living in the present moment is simpler than that, and yet it’s more difficult to achieve. In the Theranama Sutta, we hear about a solitary monk named Thera who brags about the virtue of living alone. When the Buddha hears about this, he tells Thera that there is his (Thera’s) way of “being alone,” but there is a better way.

“And how is living alone perfected in its details? There is the case where whatever is past is abandoned, whatever is future is relinquished, and any passion & desire with regard to states of being attained in the present is well subdued. That is how living alone is perfected in its details.”

The Buddha relays this message in a slightly different form in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta as well.

“You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
The future
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
right there.
Not taken in,
that’s how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing
what should be done today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.

Whoever lives thus ardently,
both day & night,
has truly had an auspicious day:
so says the Peaceful Sage.”

So there it is. Living in the present moment means to avoid dwelling in the past because the past is gone. It also means that we recognize that where we are right now is because of what happened in the past. The past is important because it brings us to the here and now, but to dwell on the past cripples us. Pining for the future, or even just thinking about the future, is of no use as well because the future is not here. But recognizing that our future is built upon our present actions is very important. It is only by behaving skillfully in the present can we erase the kamma we created in the past and build a happier future for ourselves.

To help us accomplish this, the Buddha gave us the Four Right Efforts. They are:

To prevent unskillful qualities from arising.
To denourish and remove unskillful qualities already present.
To strengthen and further develop skillful qualities already present.
To nurture and develop skillful qualities not present so they may arise.

There are bad actions that we already don’t do, and that’s good. But we need to make sure that these bad actions never manifest themselves. For example, if we’ve never smoked, then it’s wise that we make sure that we don’t start.

No one is a saint, so there are negative actions we engage in that we need to identify and remove. If we smoke, it would be wise to stop smoking. This example oversimplifies matters, so don’t be beguiled by its apparent simplicity. We all exhibit many subtle negative behaviors that we may not immediately recognize. When we do, we need to strive to remove them.

We all have good qualities. We don’t want to lose them, so we need to strengthen them, just as we would strengthen our body through exercise. If we don’t, we may lose these good qualities, and that would be a bad thing.

Then there are the qualities that we wish to have, that we want to develop. Qualities that we admire in others and wish to emulate. We must work at developing these qualities, because they don’t spontaneously arise. We cannot become more compassionate toward others unless we practice compassion daily. We won’t become more empathetic unless we seek to understand others around us. Our concentration during meditation will not improve unless we work at mindfulness in everything we do and say.

This takes work; that is why they are called “efforts.” And frankly, there are many who call themselves Buddhist who don’t bother to put forth any effort. Even well-known teachers fall into this trap, this “thicket of views” that beguiles one into thinking he or she is following the path. They are like wolves in the coyote stories told by American Indians, an animal capable of rationalizing anything in its own mind (I’ll have to do a post soon about this particular coyote story, it’s an excellent one), or like the eel-wrigglers the Buddha speaks of in the Brahmajala Sutta.

And this is why I have no use for New Year resolutions. Of course, the Buddha did teach that it is alright to use common turns of phrase when speaking with others, provided that we clearly understand the emptiness of these phrases. In particular, the Buddha talked about the self, that it was alright to speak to others about our “selves” as long as we understood that it was just a term of common use and has no real meaning. New Year resolutions fall into this category. In which case, perhaps a skillful resolution to share with others would be to strive toward being more focused on what I am doing right now and how it will shape my future.


  1. Thank you for this post, I appreciate it highly. I linked to your blog post and to that sutta, which I think everyone should read time after time.

    Thank you!

  2. Thanks for stopping by pihlaja! And thanks for the connection. I'll be reading your blog now.