28. To engage in dharma with diligence
If lis-ten-ers and solitary buddhas, / in striving just for their own benefit,
Are seen to focus with the same resolve / as putting out a fi-re on their head,
Since my aim is to benefit all be-ings, / and effort is the source of all good traits,
I must engage with joyful perseverance: / this is the way a bodhisattva trains.
Verse 28 audio above
The sixth paramita, tson.dru in Tibetan, has so many translations. There is no one word in English that fully conveys the meaning. The early favorite translation was joyful enthusiasm, which sort of bypassed the hard work aspect (well, it was the ’70s!). Mingyur Rinpoche currently calls it joyful effort. Ken McLeod calls it energy. Both the Padmakara Translation Committee (Dilgo Khyentse’s translators) and Ken Holmes (Ornament of Precious Liberation) call it diligence, which is my personal favorite.
In its current definition, diligence is “earnest and persistent application to an undertaking; steady effort; assiduity,” which makes it no different from perseverance or steady effort, which can suggest a slog. Tson.dru is far from a slog!
However, if we combine the current meaning of diligence with its original Latin derivation from diligere, to love or delight in someone or something, diligence does the job perfectly, so we will go with that for present purposes. Of course, what it’s called is less important than understanding its full meaning, which we will unwrap with the help of our commentaries, so you are free to call it by whichever name resonates best with you.
The point of diligence is …
… if we apply ourselves steadily and with a sense of enthusiasm to the other paramitas and to our study, contemplation, and meditation, this combination of steady effort and joyful outlook, as the verse says, is the “source of all good traits” or qualities that will carry us along the path and result in our full awakening. Why do we need steady effort to cultivate qualities, such as wisdom, love, and compassion, that are already contained within our inherent buddha nature? Because our habitual patterns, developed over lifetimes of reactivity, are so strong that they kick in automatically, and it takes persistence to deactivate a habitual pattern. Think of how much determination, persistence, and constant vigilance it takes to overcome a physical addiction. Our mental/emotional addictions are just as strong, and even more ingrained.
So … what exactly makes this process joyful? According to Gampopa, the definition of diligence is “to delight in virtue.” As it happens, I spent the past weekend livestreaming a retreat at Omega Institute taught by Pema Chodron and her assistant teacher, Tim Olmsted. Though the topic wasn’t the six paramitas, one of the points Tim made echoes Gampopa’s definition of the paramita of dilgence: “What we place meaning in, we delight in, and will do again and again.”
If, in our heart and in our priorities, we really believe that waking up is a worthwhile enterprise — and is there any enterprise that is more worthwhile, really? — then we will be motivated to apply ourselves to it, and even when it’s a slog, we will take joy in remembering why we are working so hard.
Tim used the example of a hiker lost in the mountains far from home. To get back will require a lot of time, effort, and hardship, but they will delight in knowing that home is at the end of their journey. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in Training the Mind, says of resting in the nature of mind, “You can just come home and relax. The idea is to return to home sweet home.”
From the commentaries: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explains the paramita of diligence as “the joyous effort and active determination to carry out positive actions, without any expectations or self-satisfaction.” So the instruction is to apply our steady effort in a joyful state of mind free from hopes, fears, and concern for results, and also never to feel we have done enough and can stop and rest on our laurels (or, in 2018, possibly our yannys).
The three aspects of diligence: All the commentaries describe three aspects or types of diligence: 1) armorlike diligence, which means joyful perseverance in the wish to free all beings from suffering and samsara, undaunted and undiscouraged by any obstacle; 2) applied diligence, which is putting this wish into practice by joyfully engaging in dharma practice and activity, including helping beings in whatever ways we can (see, ethical conduct, type 3); and 3) insatiable diligence; this is the part about never thinking you’ve accomplished enough, so you never let up in working toward your goal of fully awakening in order to benefit all beings.
The three types of laziness: These three aspects of diligence are the opposite of the three types of laziness, which are: 1) the laziness of idleness, or what we usually think of as laziness in our culture; per Gampopa, it means “being attached to the pleasures of letting the mind drift: through sleep, idling in bed, and lounging around”; 2) the laziness of underestimating our potential; according to Dilgo Khyentse, this means “you feel discouraged before you have even begun trying to do something because you think a person like you will never reach enlightenment no matter how hard you try”; and 3) what we tend to think of as the opposite of laziness but is really the hardest kind to overcome: the laziness of being too busy with ordinary pursuits; this covers all the many things that fill our schedule so we have no time to engage in dharma activity, even though we tell ourselves it is our highest priority. This is why our teachers urge us to keep our lives simple and “have a short perspective,” that is, not to make too many plans and commitments that prevent us from practicing.
Custom antidotes to the three types of laziness: In addition to practicing the three aspects of diligence, each type of laziness also has a more specific antidote: 1) for idleness, it is to meditate on death and impermanence; 2) for underestimating our potential, according to Dilgo Khyentse it is to reflect on the benefits of awakening; Lama Norlha Rinpoche has also said that if you find yourself thinking you aren’t worthy of following the example of great practitioners like the Buddha and Milarepa, “you should be very decisive in your certainty that you have buddha nature and so you have the capacity and the potential to accomplish everything, including complete liberation”; and 3) for being busy with ordinary pursuits, it is to remember that all ordinary concerns and activities are a cause of suffering, and to abandon them.
Memorize this! Out of all this information and advice, it is important for serious dharma practitioners to know the definition of diligence and to be able to name the three aspects of diligence along with the three types of laziness and their antidotes. Being able to call these essential points to mind will help prevent us from wasting our precious human existence and / or applying “diligence” to the wrong activities. According to Geshe Jampa Tegchok, “From the viewpoint of the dharma, having energy for worldly things is not joyous effort.”
How not to apply diligence: You may be wondering, what is the “demon” of diligence? His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, tells us that diligence gone wrong is to struggle or push too hard. “It is not about beating ourselves up and forcing ourselves to do something … It should be a natural reaction, as if a fire were burning on our head … If our hair catches fire, we do not say, ‘I should probably get rid of this fire, but I don’t want to.’ … True diligence happens with a lively interest and joyful spontaneity. We do something because we see clearly that it is important and essential.”
To summarize how we can find the joy in perseverance: Remember that all this effort will eventually result in full awakening, which means complete freedom from emotional reactivity and suffering, along with the wisdom and compassion to truly help all others who are still suffering; that if it’s not joyful, we won’t persevere, and if we don’t persevere, we won’t awaken, but will remain stuck in our habitual patterns and addictions, carrying them from life to life to life and going through the same suffering again and again forever; that because we have buddha nature, it is absolutely possible to free ourselves and others; and that our time is limited by impermanence and death, so we can’t afford to procrastinate through the three kinds of laziness.
And let’s make it transcendent: Ken McLeod provides us with a way to connect directly with the transcendent wisdom, or emptiness, aspect of each paramita. For diligence, he suggests that we ask ourselves who is it that is exerting this joyful effort to help other beings? “Look, just look … Rest in the looking … At some point, the conceptual mind drops away and you see that, while you help others in whatever way you can, there is no ‘you’ there. Nor are there any ‘others.'”
And on that note, we are on to the final two paramitas, transcendent meditation and transcendent wisdom. It is through meditation that we directly realize transcendent wisdom, and it is transcendent wisdom that puts the “paramita,” or transcendence, in all the paramitas.
2018 class audio: May 10, 2018
Next practice: Verse 29: to attain complete and stable meditation
The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)