Shantideva’s Heroic Perseverance

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by Pema Chodron

The paramita of enthusiasm works like a miracle ingredient that brings eagerness to all we do. What the bodhisattva commits to isn’t a trivial matter. Without enthusiasm, we might push too hard or give up altogether. As the Zen master Suzuki Roshi put it: “What we’re doing here is so important we had better not take it too seriously!” The key is finding this balance between “not too tight” and “not too loose,” not too zealous or too laid-back.

In this spirit, Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged us to lead our lives as an experiment, a suggestion that has been very important to me. When we approach life as an experiment, we’re willing to try it this way and that way because, either way, we have nothing to lose.

This immense flexibility is something I learned from the exam­ple of Trungpa Rinpoche. His enthusiasm enabled him to accom­plish an amazing amount in his life. When some things didn’t work out, Rinpoche’s attitude was “no big deal.” If it’s time for something to flourish, it will; if it’s not time, it won’t.

The trick is not getting caught in hope and fear. We can put our whole heart into whatever we do; but if we freeze our attitude into for or against, we’re setting ourselves up for stress. Instead, we could just go forward with curiosity, wondering where this exper­iment will lead. This kind of open-ended inquisitiveness captures the spirit of enthusiasm, or heroic perseverance.

Thus with patience I will bravely persevere.

Through zeal it is that I shall reach enlightenment.

If no wind blows, then nothing stirs,

And neither is there merit without perseverance.

Wind is an apt metaphor for enthusiasm. Like wind in the sails of a ship, there’s nothing heavy-handed about it. It doesn’t take thousands of people to push a ship across the ocean; when the sails go up, the wind moves it forward naturally and easily.

At the same time, this verse conveys a feeling of urgency. As Suzuki Roshi said, the work we’re doing is very important. The wind of delight and the urgency with which we apply it work to­gether. There is no time to lose—but not to worry, we can do it.

Heroic perseverance means delight in virtue.

Its contrary may be defined as laziness:

An inclination for unwholesome ways,

Despondency, and self-contempt.

Two main topics are presented in this verse. The first is the defi­nition of enthusiasm, or heroic perseverance, as delight in virtue. The second is the opposite of enthusiasm: the klesha of laziness.

Once we have trust in the teachings, we’ll naturally take delight in virtue. When I realized, for example, that Shantideva’s instruc­tions could cut through my unhappiness, I became enthusiastic about applying them. Delight in virtue, in this case, meant work­ing wisely with my emotions and learning to gently tame my mind. It meant reaching out to offer kindness and support to as many beings as possible—and doing this eagerly, not out of a sense of duty.

I can tell you from experience that when there’s a shift toward eagerness, life takes on a whole new meaning. Not the meaning that comes from careers or relationships, but the meaning that comes from using everything that happens as an opportunity to wake up. There will always be challenges, but they need not be seen as obstacles. It’s all part of the path to enlightenment.

photo by Hokyu

photo by Hokyu

The opposite of enthusiasm is laziness. Here Shantideva presents three kinds: laziness, per se; not being willing to make an effort; and the despondency of self-contempt. In the verse, he describes the first two together as an inclination for unwholesome ways.

Trungpa Rinpoche calls the first kind of laziness “comfort orientation.” We use comfort to escape from our uneasiness. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy comfort in our lives; we just don’t need to become addicted to it. This is what sentient beings predictably do, even little bugs and beetles. Did you ever wonder what those flies are doing, repeatedly struggling up a sunny window and falling down? Like most of us, they’re looking for comfort.

There’s a sutra in which beings from another galaxy visit the Buddha to discuss the Dharma. They are shocked when the Buddha tells them he teaches the truth of suffering to get beings to enter the path. They find this an extremely crude technique and say that where they come from, enlightenment is directly introduced through pleasing smells. The Buddha replies that he’d be glad to use such an approach, but it would never work here be­cause Earth beings immediately become attached to pleasure.

The second kind of laziness Trungpa Rinpoche calls “loss of heart.” We feel we’ve tried and tried, but we never get it right. Things never seem to work out. We indulge in discouragement and lose our will to help ourselves or anyone else.

The third kind of laziness Trungpa Rinpoche calls “couldn’t care less.” This despondency of self-contempt takes the wind out of our sails. Doubting ourselves so profoundly is much more stubborn and bitter than merely losing heart.

Take advantage of this human boat;

Free yourself from sorrow’s mighty stream!

This vessel will be later hard to find.

The time that you have now, you fool, is not for sleep!

Shantideva again teaches himself the Dharma. This is not the time to be foolish, but to take advantage of this human boat. This precious human birth may be hard to find again. We have no way of knowing how long we will have these supportive outer conditions.

A human birth, however, is always precious for those who awaken bodhichitta. No matter how bad our circumstances are; no matter how sick or disabled we may be, it is still a precious birth if we use these difficulties to awaken our compassion and kindness. If we don’t make use of these opportunities, of course, outer losses and mental anguish will inevitably throw us into a tailspin. Then we’ll become too lost and despondent to think of others’ pain and recall the good heart and open mind of bodhichitta.

You turn your back upon the sacred Doctrine,

The supreme joy and boundless source of bliss.

What pleasure can you have in mere amusement

Straying to the causes of your misery?

Having reflected on death, Shantideva here discusses the second kind of laziness: not being willing to make an effort, or loss of heart. The Dalai Lama describes this kind of laziness as “having no wish to do good.” We feel too lazy to help ourselves or others. By turning our back on the Dharma and aimlessly distracting our­ selves with trivial pursuits, we are straying to the causes of our misery. In other words, we’re doing the very things that make our loss of heart grow worse.

The third kind of laziness is the despondency of self-contempt. This is an important topic for Western practitioners. Freeing ourselves from confusion and suffering depends on honest self-reflection. The practice of patience, for instance, depends on honestly acknowledging our impatience and aggression. It’s essential, however, that this inquiry be based on respect and kindness for one’s self.

Dzigar Kongtrul stresses the importance of having a good rela­tionship with oneself; otherwise, the path of awakening can back­ fire and fuel discouragement. Seeing our kleshas and the wildness of our mind, more clearly than ever before, can certainly heighten feelings of guilt and self-contempt. But buying into negative thinking only slows down our spiritual journey.

In the next verse, Shantideva gives us three antidotes for self­ contempt. These are three ways to cheer up and develop a com­passionate relationship with oneself: a relationship so respectful and loving, it can include clear-sighted recognition of our short­comings.

Do not be downcast, but marshal all your strength;

Take heart and be the master of yourself

Practice the equality of self and other;

Practice the exchange of self and other.

His first advice is to marshal all your strength. Instead of further denigrating yourself, teach yourself the Dharma. To marshal your strength, remind yourself, in whatever way is personally meaning­ful, that it is not in your best interest to reinforce thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Even if you’ve already taken the bait and feel the familiar pull of self-denigration, marshal your  intelligence, courage, and humor in order to turn the tide.

Ask yourself: Do I want to strengthen what I’m feeling now? Do I want to cut myself off from my basic goodness? Remind your­self that your fundamental nature is unconditionally open and free. Kleshas are just relative, impermanent phenomena, whose transitory energy doesn’t need to be solidified. In this way, we can teach ourselves the Dharma and interrupt the chain reaction of discouragement.

We can cheer ourselves up by remembering that our mind is tamable. As Trungpa Rinpoche put it: “Whatever occurs in the confused mind is the path. Everything is workable. It is a fearless proclamation, the lion’s roar!”

The second way to rouse your spirits is to take heart and be the master of yourself. This means taking responsibility for your moods. The instruction is to acknowledge that you’re not a victim. Then find a way to interrupt discouragement’s momentum, in­ stead of mindlessly doing what you’ve always done before.

The third suggestion is to look beyond the narrow perspective of self-centeredness at the equality of self and other. This recognition of our sameness can be cultivated by doing the practice called “just like me.” If you’re burdened with self-contempt, remember: just like me, many others are struggling with this same state of mind; just like me, all of them prefer comfort and ease, and to be free of misery and guilt.

This kind of reflection helps us look outward and open our heart to others. Instead of armoring ourselves, the softness of em­pathy can set in. With this as our ground, we can practice the exchange of self and other.

This practice is commonly known as tonglen. We begin by getting in touch with our own thoughts and emotions. Without doing this we have no idea what others also go through. This means contacting our feelings—of rage, self-contempt, resent­ment, envy, and so on—and realizing that these feelings are shared by everyone. They are not hindrances on the path. By lead­ing us to a genuine understanding of others’ distress, they are, in fact, necessary stepping-stones in the process of awakening genuine compassion.

At any given moment, people all over the world are feeling ex­actly what you feel. If you’re angry, you can remember the billions of people who feel exactly the same way. Then, for your sake and theirs, take in the feeling of rage, on the medium of the breath. Just breathe in the anger, with the aspiration that each and every angry person, including yourself, be relieved of it. Then breathe out spa­ciousness and relief to us all.

A more daring way to do this practice is to breathe in the pain with the intention of taking it into yourself. If you’re angry, for in­ stance, you might say to yourself, “Since I’m already suffering from this anger, may this pain ripen in me, so no one else has to feel it.” This is a revolutionary way to ventilate self-absorption. On the in­ breath, feel the pain and own it completely. On the out-breath, send out relief with the wish that everyone else could be free of their emotional distress.

If you don’t feel ready for this more daring approach, it’s not a problem. You don’t have to jump into the deep end of the pool be­fore you know how to swim. Just practice the form of tonglen that feels doable for you. It will still fulfill the same aspiration. Your ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes will grow over time.

As we connect more profoundly with bodhichitta, the unchang­ing, nonconceptual openness of our being becomes more accessi­ble. Because our basic nature is never altered by worldly confusion and pain, even glimpses of this skylike mind deepen our experi­ence of tonglen. Knowing this, even intellectually, we breathe in, with the wish that all beings uncover their true nature; and we breathe out with the same aspiration.

Pema Chödrön is an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, acharya and disciple of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is the director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada.

From No Time To Lose, A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, copyright © 2005 by Pema Chödrön, used by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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