Meditative Sky
7-Week Zen Practice Period / The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success
Week 4: "The Zen of Least Effort"
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Week 4: The Zen of Least Effort (26 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
Awakening Heart (Community of Mindful Living)
November 21, 2010 - Dallas, Texas

Good evening friends. Thank you for your beautiful practice. During this Zen practice period, we are going over the Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. We have talked about the Law of Pure Potentiality, the Law of Giving and Receiving, and last week the Law of Karma. Tonight we will talk about the Law of Least Effort, but because we are talking about these laws from a Zen or Buddhist perspective, I'm Zenifying them, so we're calling it the Zen of Least Effort. And I'd like for you to open with your palms together at the heart, just repeating after me,

Natures intelligence functions with effortless ease.
With carefreeness, harmony and love.
And when we harness the forces of harmony, joy and love,
We create success and good fortune with effortless ease.

As I was preparing for this talk, I realized that I didn't really want to talk tonight. And I didn't want to struggle too much to figure out what to say because obviously this is about the law of least effort, and I put too much effort into it! Actually, the difficulty of talking about this is because there is so much to say, and the challenge is what to pick out to say, so that I don't talk for three hours tonight.

In Buddhism, this would correspond to the Eightfold Path, the part of the Eightfold Path which is Right Effort. And when we say the word right, we don't mean right versus wrong, but it simply means right in the sense of what works, versus what doesn't seem to work so well. So it's more of a practical right rather than a moral judgment kind of right. It's just a practical right. This is what works. This is what is in harmony with the laws of the universe and the way things are.

So what is right effort? The kind of effort that works. That is in harmony with the universe. The Buddha taught right effort in the context of meditation practice. When we look at the noble eightfold path of the teachings, this noble eightfold path is the outline of the path of enlightenment. It's very simple and also profound at the same time, and each path has a depth to it that you see the more you practice it, even though from the surface in the beginning, as a beginner, it looks very simple, once we start practicing we see that there is more there than we thought.

The first part of the path is about wisdom, and the second part of the path is about ethics, and the third part of the path is about meditation. So you've got right view, and right thought or intention, those are the two in wisdom, and then you've got right speech, right action and right livelihood, that kind of falls under the category of the ethics aspect, and then right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration under the meditation aspect. So right effort in this context is about right effort in meditation but also right effort in our whole mindful living life.

So what is right effort according to the Buddha's teachings? Well, when applied to meditation practice, it['s simply this, very simple; when a negative thought has arisen, or a negative feeling, then we practice in such a way as to transform that negative feeling, bring it back to neutral. When a negative feeling has not yet arisen, or negative thought, we practice in such a way as it won't arise. When a positive feeling or thought has arisen, we practice in such a way as to cultivate its continuity and continuation, prolonging it as much as possible, and when a positive thought has not yet arisen, we practice in such a way as to help it to arise.

So it's very simple. That's the most basic teaching on right effort. IT sounds simple, but once you start practicing it's not so simple. But in deeper teachings on right effort, there's also the teaching on a kind of effort that is called effortless effort. And also there's the teaching on diligence, persistence and patience. And both of these teachings are imp9ortant in balance. On the one hand right effort can mean definitely putting a lot of energy and discipline and persistence into our practice but on the other hand right effort can also mean letting go, letting be, not striving or struggling so hard, but flowing with the effortless effort of the universe. I believe that both of these teachings are helpful.

You know, sometimes students come to me thinking, asking me, "These two teachings of the Buddha seem very contradictory, so which one is right?" and, well, the answer is, both of them are right, according to the circumstances. So it's not that the spiritual teachings are necessarily contradicting each other, but that they are being taught to a particular audience or a particular mindset or a particular stage on the path.

It's kind of like someone on a small paved way, path, where on one end on the left side, there's a raging rushing river, and on the other side there's this raging fire, and if you fall into the river it's so powerful that you'll drown, and if you fall into the fire obviously you'll burn to death, but you're blindfolded, perhaps, or maybe just blind. And on the other side, down the road is a spiritual teacher, and he's calling out to you to come to him, to safety, or to her. And you're following this voice that says, "Okay, now veer to the left. Okay. Now veer to the right. Now stay going forward. Now veer to the left. More to the left. Now veer to the right. More to the right. Go forward." Now compare this to the teachings. "Put more effort into your practice. Let go of effort and just flow with effortless ease." Sounds completely different, right? Right. But it's just a relative, skillful means on helping us wherever we're at.

Because sometimes in our practice, if we get caught in a laziness or apathy, an indifference, then the teaching we need in that moment is not effortless ease! The teaching that we need in that moment is get your act together! Get off your butt! Don't just do something, sit there! Discipline, persistence, right effort. But if you're in a stage in your practice where you're really, really trying very hard, so hard that you're very harsh on yourself and you're starting to become harsh and judgmental on others, then in that moment, the teaching you need is letting go, letting be, grace, resting in the support of others and not only on your own self power but on other power, and trusting, letting go and surrendering and flowing with that effortless effort, effortless ease.

In my life and practice I have found that there are certain things that I can do to make my life more conducive to effortless effort. And by the way this word, effortless effort, there are two examples I'd like to share with you from the Asian traditions. One is from the Chinese tradition. The word wuwei means nonaction, or noneffort. What does this mean? It doesn't mean you don't take action, but the action has a sense of effortlessness to it. You see, it's an action from a place of being. It's a doing out of a place of being. And in the Vietnamese tradition, there's a beautiful word in the mo0nastery, in Deer Park Monastery in California, which I'll be going to this week for Thanksgiving, on the altar, above the altar, Thich Nhat Hanh calligraphed this beautiful word, Vo Su, and it means busylessness. I love that, busylessness. It's interesting that he chose that calligraphy for the entire monastery. To do your business, go about your day with a sense of busylessness, not being so rushed, not being so busy. I like that. It's a good reminder, especially with the holiday rush coming up.

I have found that there are certain things I can do to make myself more conducive to that effortless effort and flow of the universe. What are some of those things? Well, those of you who have come to my beginner's meditation workshop before, you have heard this teaching. It's called the rhythm method of meditation. And I know it sounds funny, but I usually pick funny descriptions to help people remember things. How many have come to the beginner's meditation workshop? Okay, good. Many of you. The rest of you, you must come next month, okay? Because there's some things you may have missed, even though you've been coming for several months. There's some basic teachings that would be very helpful for you, in your practice.

But the rhythm method I have found will help put me into that effortless effort, without me putting more effort than I need to. If I just put myself into that flow of this rhythm method, it will already do its work without me having to do extra work. So if I can come to a place in my life where I can do my daily meditation at home, and come to the group meditation once a week, about, and to go to a half-day, a day long, a weekend long retreat from time to time, maybe once a month, once a quarter, something like that, and then maybe once a year or so, if it's possible, to go to a longer retreat, such as a week long, or longer. By putting myself into the rhythm of this kind of practice, I find that it makes the path a little smoother. And it's the real meaning of when you say, "I take refuge in the Dharma," because the dharma then becomes a raft that carries you. I like to think of it not as a raft but as a powerful motorboat, helping carrying you upstream.

I remember feeling this feeling once, several years ago. I was visiting another meditation group in California. It was a small group, and there was a dog there that was barking, wagging his tail, kind of walking around all the meditators. It was at someone's house, and it didn't feel conducive to meditation for me, just because of my judgmental attitude at that time. But I knew I needed to be there, I needed to meditate that particular day, and this was the only group that I could find that was available for that day. So I went, and as I began to walk, doing the walking meditation, and the sitting meditation, I felt a sense of flow. Like, "Ah. I don't have to solve this problem" that I was thinking about, direct, you know, head on right now. I can just let it go for now, and trust that the answer would come. So I just took refuge in the dharma, in the practice. I took refuge in the mindfulness, in the meditation. I took refuge in the sangha, too, and I took refuge in my own true innate wisdom and compassion, the Buddha within. So I took refuge. And I felt that sense of "Ah." It's so wonderful that this is here, available to me. Because without it, I don't know what I would do. I don't know what I would do without this practice. I just can't imagine.

So if we commit ourselves to some simple, basic practices, taking refuge in the dharma, we will begin to see how our lives will start flowing with that effortless effort. But, if we don't take refuge, I guarantee you it's going to be more of a struggle. And it's a little bit difficult sometimes for me, I have to admit, as spiritual director, when people sometimes come to me crying or complaining or struggling with things in their life, and I ask them, "Okay, so have you been meditating regularly? Have you been doing your spiritual practices? Have you been reading spiritual books? Have you been listening to spiritual CDs? Have you been coming to the sangha regularly?" "No." You know, and I just want to like pull my hair out! It reminds me of that Western phrase, "God helps those who help themselves." And that's what I sometimes feel. It's like, "Okay, you want me to help you, but you've got to help yourself first." Which is why I made a new policy this year, which I don't always keep, but my policy in general is, if someone wants to see me for counseling, first they need to go to sangha every week for a few weeks, and they need to start practicing meditation by themselves at home, at least a few days a week, and they need to start reading some books by Thich Nhat Hanh, maybe go to a judo workshop. And then come see me. You know, by the time they do all that, they don't need to see me. (Laughter)

Our meditation practice isn't something where we try to find the blessings directly, although sometimes, many times, blessings do come directly from our meditation practice in that moment. Don't look for it in that moment. Just like I was saying earlier in another talk, when we meditate it's like planting our seeds of mindfulness in the soil of our consciousness. We don't suddenly then dig it up and try to look at what's going on with the seed. "Is it sprouting yet? What's it doing?" No. We just practice and let it go. And that's the same way with our meditation and mindfulness practice. It's like a river. You know, when we don't practice we're trying to like - it's like we're trying to trudge along the riverbanks with a whole heavy load of stuff, just dragging it, right? But when we have the river of our practice, it flows toward, to us. It flows where it needs to go. In fact, even rafts, boatloads of blessings can start coming down the river toward us. But if we try to find the blessing in the river itself, we're splashing, okay, "Where's the blessings?" You know, "I don't see it. It's not working." That's not the way it is. But we just practice. We unblock our river, and then effortlessly, the blessings come down from upstream, down to us.

So be careful, though, when you start being blessed because of your practice, because you might start getting attached to the blessing and forget that it was the river that brought it to you. And you might want to start to like stop meditating and doing other things. You know, maybe some other spiritual practices that are nice too, but remember it was your meditation, the mindfulness practice, that was clearing the path within you, so that the river can flow more effortlessly, without blocks. So even though while you're meditating, it's really boring, nothing's happening, you're not doing anything, but as you meditate regularly with that rhythm method, daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, annually, you have a clear flowing river of energy in your life, and you attract, effortlessly, the blessings. And if we can receive the blessings, and the gift of blessings, without attaching to the blessings, we'll keep the river flowing. And we'll attract spiritual practices that will supplement our meditation.

Be careful then not to replace the meditation with the supplement. It's like vitamins are good, but you don't just eat vitamins. Medicines are good, but you don't just take medicines. You eat the food every day. Just normal, everyday food. That's what meditation is. Just boring, normal everyday practice. But it is essential. And yes, you can enjoy the very kind of flashy new spiritual practices that come along every now and then - ooh, a new teaching! A new practice! Wonderful! If it helps you, great! But remember they're supplemental, like vitamins. But always keep your fundamental practice of mindfulness in your daily life. Meditation. Regularly. And I guarantee your life will flow much more smoothly, effortlessly. And, when you are in that state of effortless effort, even that which is challenging and difficult is okay, because you realize when you are in that state that that is just what needs to come, and you great it with openness, without expectations and without judgment, just curiosity. Oh, how interesting. Let's see what happens. This, according to Deepak Chopra, is the practice of defenselessness. Not defending yourself but just being open. And also taking responsibility rather than blaming others. Taking responsibility for your own experience and also simply acceptance of what is. It's only when we resist reality that we create those energies that cause blockages. Then it doesn't feel like effortless effort anymore.

As I've shared before, I went on this retreat with Adyashanti, and on the very top of the door, as we went into the meditation hall, it said, "Resistance is futile." So see what happens when you practice nonresistance in a mindful way. And when I say mindful, we're not talking about being a doormat. I'm saying, greeting each experience as it is, with your whole being. This is what many of the spiritual martial arts is all about. For instance, aikido. One of my Zen teachers practices aikido. And she told us that when an opponent comes toward you, you don't oppose the opponent, you use the opponent's energy of attack and just receive it and then redirect it. So you don't push away, you receive it and redirect it. And that's what I mean by mindful nonresistance. So we're not like, "Okay, kill me." We're like, "Okay, I'm taking your energy and I'm redirecting it gracefully, you see. Not opposing it, but receiving it and redirecting it." So that is how we can also practice. And it is a practice. I don't think anybody in this room has it perfected. I certainly don't. That's why we need each other. We need to take refuge in each other. That's the refuge of sangha. And we need to take refuge in the practice. That's the refuge of dharma. And we need to have confidence that we can do it.

Because we are Buddha. That is the refuge of Buddha. You can do it.


Transcribed by Jennifer Jonnson

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