The Buddha has shown us a path; it is up to us to follow it. Our minds have a tendency to hop and jump around like a drunk frog. We need to stay firmly focused on the job at hand. Without effort or focus, it is so easy to get distracted or drawn back into habits or activities that lead us away from the Buddha’s path or indeed, from leading a responsible life. Life teaches us that in order to achieve anything, we need to exert effort. We learn this at school during exams, at work when going for a promotion, or simply while trying to maintain good relations with the people around us. The Buddha’s path is no different. As the famous saying goes, ‘No pain, no gain’. Although what would be more apt in this case is: ‘No effort, no gain.’
Our minds are defiled by desire, anger and ignorance, and we need to transform them into liberated minds, free of desire, anger and ignorance, at peace, at ease. This can only be achieved by the consistent application of right effort. This is aided by following the Buddha’s guidance on living responsibly. But even responsible living cannot be achieved without effort and focus. Let’s look at some examples.
At the end of the day, you sit and do your daily review. You realise that you have spent a good part of the day gossip-mongering. You feel regret, and realise that you have wasted your time. What is to be done then? You must start to apply the antidote right there and then. It is no good trying to stop yourself from gossiping once you are already immersed in idle conversation. The effort has to be applied beforehand. You must cultivate kindness and compassion for others. You have to replace the habit of gossiping with the habit of compassion towards the person about whom you have been spreading idle talk. It is a slow process and will take a lot of effort, but slowly you will be able to stop getting involved with gossip, because you will understand that the person you are talking about does not want to suffer and only craves happiness, like yourself.
Another example would be attachment to sense objects, for example, the latest gadget like the iPad. Your interest is first aroused by an advertisement in a newspaper. You then search the Internet for some product reviews and your excitement grows. Your anticipation is high. The product arrives in the shops and the shopkeeper gives you a call. One hour later it’s in your hands and you are playing with it. The more you look at it, the more you see how indispensable it is, and you get convinced that it is the one thing that can bring you true happiness in life. You can’t think of anything else, and spend the next few weeks proudly showing it to your friends, who will likely envy you for having it. Every time you look at it, a warm feeling fills you. You are so happy – your life seems complete. Then the inevitable happens – a newer, faster, smaller and more powerful version comes out. You hold the iPad in your hand, but your happiness has turned to discontentment. Why is that? The Buddha taught us that all sense objects, including those fashionable technical gadgets, are impermanent. There is no happiness inherent in them; we simply project happiness onto these objects.
In A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva said that sense objects are like honey smeared upon a razor’s edge. To see this clearly, we need to train our minds to see the impermanent and unsatisfactory nature of sense objects in our everyday lives. By first being aware when some attachment or attraction occurs in our experience. Instead of getting carried away by this desire and strengthening it, we can instead analyse it and contemplate the true nature of this object. This is a slow process and takes a lot of effort, but slowly you will become accustomed to this line of thought, which will start to act as an antidote to your craving desire. The point is not necessarily to completely remove the desire for sense objects, but to loosen the grip they have on us and to be more realistic about their nature.
This way, we will be putting in the right effort and will transform our unhelpful actions into helpful ones.