day four : evening


For the past two nights we’ve been talking about the way our acts of attention and our views shape our sense of the world and our sense of self: what the Buddha calls “becoming.” Tonight we’ll begin focusing on the other main factor that shapes our becomings, i.e., intention, which lies at the essence of action. Altogether, there are three faculties focused on intention: persistence, mindfulness, and concentration. We’ll start with persistence.

Persistence is intimately connected with conviction. Once you are genuinely convinced of the power of your actions, you will make every effort to be heedful in doing only what’s skillful and avoiding what’s unskillful. The connection between conviction and persistence is shown in the third dimension of conviction, which is what you do, based on what you believe and whom you believe in. That third dimension already requires some persistence and some effort. Also, as we engage in this third dimension of conviction, we’re already developing some qualities that are useful for persistence in training the mind: in particular, mindfulness, ardency, and alertness. Conviction is also related to persistence through one of the dimensions of persistence as the Buddha explains it: motivation. Conviction gives us motivation to engage in right effort, particularly in training our minds. After all, our actions come out of the mind. So, if we want our actions to be good, the mind needs to be trained. That thought underlies all your motivation for the practice.

Persistence is also intimately connected with the other two intention faculties, which are mindfulness and concentration. In fact, it’s the kernel around which mindfulness and concentration grow. When you’re practicing mindfulness, persistence turns into the factor of ardency. Then the ways of establishing mindfulness turn into the themes for right concentration [§7]. After all, you have to be mindful in order to stick with the object of your concentration. Concentration then strengthens your mindfulness—in fact, it’s at the fourth level of absorption, or jhāna, that mindfulness becomes pure; and mindfulness, in turn, gives direction to your persistence in reminding it what to do with different issues as they come up. So all three “intention” faculties support one another.

It’s important to remember these connections among persistence, mindfulness, and concentration. All too often they are forgotten, leading to many different misunderstandings about what mindfulness and concentration are.

Here’s the Buddha’s definition of the faculty of persistence:

“There’s the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, keeps his persistence aroused for abandoning unskillful mental qualities and taking on skillful mental qualities. He is steadfast, solid in his effort, not shirking his duties with regard to skillful mental qualities. He generates desire, endeavors, arouses persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen… for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen… for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen… (and) for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, and culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen.” [§1]

Notice that this is not brute effort. It’s effort that involves discernment. There are four dimensions to persistence—three of them are explicit in the above quotation, one is implicit—and all four are informed by discernment. The explicit dimensions are these: the distinction between skillful and unskillful qualities, the motivation used to generate desire, and then the type of effort you engage in. The implicit dimension concerns the amount of effort, in other words, how much effort is just right.

Let’s go through these four dimensions.

First, the distinction between skillful and unskillful qualities: The word “quality” here primarily means quality of mind, but can also mean any event or action that can come from skillful or unskillful mental qualities or that can develop them in your mind. It’s important to note that the Buddha never describes the mind as innately good or innately bad. It has potentials in both directions. In fact, in one passage he says that the mind is capable of anything. Or as Ajaan Lee says, the mind is neither good nor bad, but it’s what knows good and knows bad, can do both what is good and what is bad, and it can also let go of what’s good and what’s bad. Given that we have so many good and bad qualities in the mind, the issue then is how to make the best use of both. It’s like being a good cook. Normally, you like to have good ingredients to make good food, but if you’re a really good cook, you can take even bad ingredients and make good food out of them.

I’ll tell you a story. I have a student who is now a monk but, before ordaining, was a cook in Singapore. First he worked in the Meridien Hotel, at Le Restaurant de France, and there he learned French cooking. Eventually, he left the job, came to study at my monastery in Thailand, and decided that he wanted to ordain. So he went back to Singapore to earn some money to set up a fund for his parents. He got a job at the British Club and as he tried to show off his French cooking skills there, the other cooks said, “Don’t show off, okay? Remember, we’re cooking for British people. They don’t really care about good cooking.”

However, one night they had a fixed-price dinner, and one of the dishes was an asparagus soup. As it turned out, they hadn’t prepared enough asparagus soup for all of the people who came. So my student told all of the other cooks, “Okay, everybody out of the kitchen!” He then went to the garbage bin and found all of the scraps from the asparagus that had been shaved, he made a nice sauce béchamel as a base for the soup, and then he combined them to make more asparagus soup. Everyone commented that it was the best asparagus soup that night. So if you’re a really good cook, you can take anything and make it good food. And you want to bring this same attitude into your meditation to deal both with skillful qualities and with your unskillful qualities. You want to make good use of whatever comes up in the mind.

What is the distinction between skillful and unskillful? Skillful is harmless and blameless. Unskillful is the opposite, anything harmful and blameworthy. The Buddha gives a list of things that are unskillful: killing, stealing, illicit sex, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle chatter, inordinate greed, ill will, and wrong view, particularly, not believing in the power of your actions. Now the roots of these unskillful things are greed, aversion, and delusion. Generally, as we practice, we will be doing everything we can to uproot these things, but sometimes we need to use one unskillful quality to uproot another unskillful quality. For example, remember the story of the monk and the king, where the monk used the king’s pride to overcome his anger. So keep that in mind as you’re working with your own mind, as a way of expanding your repertoire.

That’s the first dimension of persistence: knowing what’s skillful and what’s not, and how to make skillful use of whatever comes up.

The second dimension is motivation, i.e., generating desire. As the Buddha said, desire is the root of all phenomena, including the path to the end of suffering. You have to want for the path to develop in order for it to happen.

There’s an American philosopher, William James, who made a distinction between two kinds of truths. The first can be called truths of the observer, i.e., truths that are true regardless of whether you want them to be true. In fact, if you want things to be a certain way, you will miss their truth. For example, you probably remember, from studying the history of science in school, that there was a period when scientists tried to prove that the orbits of all the planets were perfect circles, because they thought that should be a sign of God’s perfection. As it turns out, though, that’s not the case: The orbits are ellipses, and not even perfect ellipses at that. It was because the scientists’ desire got in the way that for a long time they couldn’t see what was actually happening. Those are truths of the observer.

But then there are truths of the will, i.e., truths that become true only if you want them to. For instance, if you’re going to be a good cook, you have to want to be a good cook. If you want to learn to be a good pianist, you have to want it. If you’re going to develop the path to the end of suffering, you have to want it. In this case, desire, if it’s properly focused, is a good thing. It’s what makes the truth true.

There are some passages in the Canon saying that when you work on the preliminaries of the path, there’s no need to formulate the wish that the higher factors will develop. They’ll develop on their own from the more basic factors. However, even in cases like that, you still need desire to persevere with the basics long enough and steadily enough for them to bear fruit. Only then will they give rise to the higher factors. It’s like watering a tree. If you water the tree, there’s no need to want for the tree to grow—it’ll grow on its own—but you still need the desire to keep watering it. So, to nourish the path, you need skillful motivation, the kind of motivation that helps you to enjoy the efforts you’re making. If you simply just push, push, push without enjoying the effort, the desire dries up and your efforts wither away. So you have to make yourself want to stick with the path.

The Buddha recommends many different ways of motivating yourself in the practice. Number one is heedfulness, which he said is the root of all skillful qualities. If you see that dangers come from unskillful actions, then you will do your best to avoid those actions.

Other qualities then can build on heedfulness. One is compassion. You see that if you practice the path, it’ll lead to happiness for yourself and for other people. You’ll suffer less from your own defilements, and fewer of your defilements will go prowling around, disturbing the neighbors.

Another useful quality is having a sense of humor around your defilements. There are many people who say they don’t see any humor in the suttas of the Pāli Canon. Actually, they’re looking in the wrong place, because the humor is primarily in the Vinaya, which deals with monks’ rules. For every rule, there’s a story, and the story, many times, will be humorous. And it’s interesting that it has this function. For one thing, if you can laugh at the behavior that led the Buddha to formulate the rule, it helps you step back from that kind of behavior yourself. Also, if you realize that the rules come from someone with a good sense of humor, it’s a lot easier to accept them.

For example, the story goes that the monks used to give a regular instruction to the nuns once every two weeks. There would be a rotating roster of monks, and one time it came to be the turn of a monk named Ven. Cūḷapanthaka. When the nuns heard that it was his turn, they said to one another, “This is not going to be an effective talk. He’s just going to repeat the same passage over and over and over again.” So they went to pay respect to him, and after the initial formalities, he said, “Okay, here is today’s instruction.” And he repeated the same passage over and over again. The nuns turned to one another and said, “Didn’t we say so? This is not going to be effective. He’s just going to repeat the same passage over and over and over again.”

Ven. Cūḷapanthaka overheard what they were saying, and it so happened that he had some psychic powers. He levitated up in the air, divided himself into many images—some of the images emitting smoke, some of them emitting fire, some of them emitting water, and each repeating that same passage again and again, along with many other passages from the Buddha. The nuns said, “Wow! This is the most effective Dhamma talk we’ve ever seen!”

Well, he got carried away and so he kept up the show until after dark. Then he came back down and said, “Okay, that’s enough for tonight.” So the nuns had to go back to their monastery. Their monastery compound was in the city, but in those days, the city would close its gates every night when darkness fell, for safety’s sake. So the nuns all had to sleep outside the gate. The next morning, when the gates were opened, they filed into the city, and all the people said, “Here come the nuns from spending the night with the monks.” This is why there’s a rule that the monks cannot teach the nuns after dark.

That gives you an example of the humor in the Canon. It’s amusing, but it also serves a serious function. It helps you to accept the rule because you see, one, that the behavior really was stupid and, two, that the people who created these rules did have a sense of humor, which shows that they had a good sense of human nature. That makes it easier to live by the rules.

I myself noticed when I went to Thailand and studied with the ajaans, they all had a good sense of humor, and it was an important part of their wisdom. When you can laugh at your defilements, it’s easier to pull back from them.

So humor is a useful way to motivate yourself to practice, to abandon things that might otherwise be hard to give up.

Other qualities that the Buddha recommends for motivation include healthy pride and even conceit—in other words, the conceit you feel when you tell yourself, “Other people can do this. They’re human beings, I’m a human being, why can’t I?” That’s actually conceit but it’s conceit in a useful form. It’s like the good cook who can make good food out of garbage scraps.

Another way of motivating yourself on the path is through a sense of honor and shame. Healthy shame means basically seeing that some sorts of behavior are beneath you, and so you wouldn’t want to stoop to doing them. This is the shame that comes from a sense of honor, of high self-esteem, not from a low self-esteem.

There’s even one passage where the Buddha recommends spite as motivation. In other words, you have an enemy and you’re angry at him. But then you remember that when you’re angry, you tend to do stupid things, self-destructive things, and it gives gratification to your enemy to see you do something stupid and self-destructive. So, do you want to please your enemy? Here you’re using an unskillful quality to get rid of an unskillful quality.

Finally, the Buddha recommends taking inspiration from the example of people in the past, such as the Buddha himself and the great teachers. The fact that they faced hardships with endurance and wisdom inspires you to do the same.

So these are all different ways of motivating yourself. As the Buddha said, when you see that you become more and more skillful, take joy in that fact, and that joy gives energy to your practice. That’s the second dimension of persistence.

The third dimension concerns the type of effort. The Buddha lists four types of effort altogether: to prevent unskillful qualities from arising; to abandon any unskillful qualities that have arisen; to give rise to skillful qualities; and then, when they’re there, to develop them all the way to their culmination.

I’ll give you an example from meditation. At the beginning of the meditation, you make up your mind that you’re not going to give in to distraction: That’s preventing. You spread thoughts of goodwill, you reflect on aging, illness, and death, you think about the teachings on kamma, you think about the need to train your mind, and you make up your mind to stay with the breath: That’s giving rise to skillful qualities. While you’re meditating, when something comes up that’s not related to your meditation object, you try to drop it as quickly as you can: That’s abandoning. Then you focus on your object, you work with the breath to make it more comfortable so that you actually like staying there, and you get more and more interested in the effect of the breath on the body and the mind: That’s maintaining and developing.

These four types of effort apply not only to meditation, but also to daily life. For example with preventing, which is something that’s often overlooked in the practice: We keep thinking that as we practice, we have to stay with the present moment all the time without thinking about the future, but actually there are times when you do have to think about the future because you need to prepare for dangers that may come up. So, for example, at the end of your daily meditation, think about what’s going to happen that day—say, when you go to work or there’s some problem that you anticipate in the family—and use the fact that your mind is now centered and calm to think about any difficulties that you might expect in the course of the day, and to figure out how to avoid doing something unskillful.

When I was living with my teacher Ajaan Fuang, my duty was to clean his hut every evening at the end of the day. If I had any questions for him, that was the time to talk to him. And I found out that when I began to discuss an issue with him, if the way I brought up the topic seemed to be the slightest bit disrespectful or that hinted that I wanted him to solve my problems for me without my making any effort on my part, there was no discussing that topic. He would cut me off, and there would be no discussion that evening. That meant that every evening as I went to his hut, I had to think over and over in my mind, “What’s the best way to approach this topic?” I got better and better at it over time. Then I found out afterwards, as I was dealing with other senior monks in Thailand, that it was a lot easier to get what I wanted from them in a way that made them happy to help, just because I had developed the habit of thinking first about how best to broach the topic with them. So think about that. You can use your meditation in this way. It’s a very helpful way to use it in daily life.

Finally, the fourth dimension of right effort or perseverance is the amount of effort: How much is just right? The answer depends on two things: first, your own level of energy; and second, the nature of the task that you’re facing.

Concerning the first issue, your level of energy: You probably know the story of the monk and the lute. There was a monk who was very delicately brought up—in fact, so delicately brought up that he had hair on the soles of his feet. There’s a very long story about this. Before the monk had ordained, when he was still a young man living at home, the king wanted to see his feet: “This is so strange. I want to see this.” So the young man got an invitation to see the king. The parents learned of the invitation and they said, “There’s only one reason he wants to see you. It’s the hair on your feet.” So they told him, “When you go to see the king, don’t put your feet out in front of you, because that would be disrespectful. Sit cross-legged with your feet on top of your lap, and the king will see the soles of your feet at a glance.”

Eventually, the young man becomes a monk and does walking meditation. He gets to the point where he’s doing so much walking meditation that his tender feet start to bleed, so he starts getting discouraged. “Now, I could actually disrobe,” he says, “and then I could still make merit.” And just at that moment, the Buddha knows what’s going on in his mind, so he appears immediately in front of him. Now, how would you feel? You’re having a bad meditation and you’re thinking, “I’m going to give up,” and the Buddha appears in front of you.

At any rate, the Buddha asks the monk, “Were you thinking of giving up?” And the monk says, “Yes.”

And so the Buddha says, “When you were a lay person, you were skilled at playing the lute, right?”


“When the strings were too loose, did it sound right?”


“When they were too tight, did it sound right then?”


“So, what do you do? You tune one of the strings so that it’s just right”—apparently the lute in those days had five strings—“and then you tune the other four strings to that first string, and then you can pick up the theme of your song. In the same way, tune your persistence so that it’s just right. Then tune the other faculties to that one, and then you pick up the theme of your meditation.”

What this means is that you gauge how much energy you have, and then you tune your expectations to that. For example, when you come home from a long day of work, that’s not the time to sit down and say, “I will not get up until I’ve achieved full awakening!” You tell yourself, “I’m going to get through the hour. That’ll be enough.” But it also means that other times, when you have more energy, you should push yourself. That’s the first aspect of the right amount of effort: your level of energy.

The second aspect depends on the task at hand. As the Buddha said, some causes of suffering go away when you simply look at them. This is why the practice of what’s called mindfulness here in the West, la pleine conscience in French, will sometimes work with some causes of suffering, because all you have to do is gaze steadily at those defilements and they’ll wither away.

However, there are other causes of suffering in the mind that don’t go away so easily. You might say that when you look at them, they just stare right back at you. So, in the Buddha’s terms, you have to exert a fabrication. This refers to the three kinds of fabrication we talked about this afternoon: bodily, which is the breath; verbal, which is how you talk to yourself about the issue—this is when your views about yourself and the world become important; and then finally mental fabrication, which is perception and feeling.

These fabrications make up your emotions and mind states, so if an unskillful mind state comes up, try to deconstruct it in these terms, and then use the same three terms to fabricate a better mind state in its place.

For example, suppose you have a feeling of anger. If you want to get rid of the anger, first you have to change the way you breathe, so that you can calm the body. The next step is to talk to yourself about the anger. You ask yourself, “Is that person really all that bad? Doesn’t he have something good about him?” And if you see that there is something good about him, that helps to lessen the anger. If you say, “No, there’s nothing good about this bastard at all”—in other words, you’re really, really angry—then you have to remind yourself that if this person really has nothing good at all, you have to feel sorry for him because he’s creating a lot of bad kamma for himself. In other words, you learn how to talk to yourself about the issue in a way that calms you down. That’s verbal fabrication.

Then with mental fabrication, you have to look at the perception lying behind the anger. Sometimes, when you think about passing judgment on someone else, you have an underlying image of yourself sitting up here on a judge’s seat, and what happens to that little person down there below you doesn’t really concern you. It will have no effect on you. In other words, you see that your act of judgment is something that will not cause you any trouble. But the Buddha says to hold a different perception in mind. Have a perception of yourself going through the desert, hot, tired, trembling with thirst. You see the footprint of a cow with a little bit of water in it. You realize that if you tried to scoop it up, it would get muddy. So, what are you going to do? You have to get down on all fours and slurp up the water from the ground.

Now, you wouldn’t want anyone to come along and take a picture of you at that point—it would look so undignified—but you’re doing what you have to do for your own survival.

In the same way, the Buddha says that when you’re angry at someone else, you need to look for that person’s goodness for the survival of your own goodness, even if you feel that it’s beneath your dignity. You have to remember that you really need other people’s goodness, because if you can’t see any goodness in other people, you’re going to make it very difficult to give rise to goodness in yourself. This means you have to be very careful about how you pass judgment, for the way you pass judgment can boomerang back at you. Remember there’s goodness out there someplace. Hold that perception in mind. It helps to control your anger.

Now, sometimes the effort that will be required to overcome an unskillful state will be gentle. Other times it’s going to require a lot of effort. As the Buddha said, if you’re practicing meditation and you’re miserable to the point where tears are coming down your face, you remind yourself, “Okay, this suffering is nothing compared to the suffering that I’m learning to avoid.” And in the end, you’ll be glad that you stuck with it. Remember that this practice affects the state of your mind not only now, but also on into the future. And who will provide for your future if you don’t? No one else can do this work for you. If you don’t do it now, it’s not going to get easier as you get older. So when you do things right—for example, you have an unskillful desire and you fight against it all night and you finally get past it—the next morning, when you wake up, notice how good you feel that you didn’t give in. Remember that sense of joy. It’ll make it easier the next time. That’ll give you more motivation to help you the next time around.

So those are the four ways in which discernment gets involved in skillful persistence: making distinctions between skillful and unskillful qualities—and skillful and unskillful strategies for dealing with both; discerning how best to motivate yourself; discerning what type of effort is appropriate; and discerning how much effort is just right. When your discernment guides your persistence in these ways, the effort of the practice, instead of wearing you out, becomes more and more energizing, more and more productive, strengthening all the other faculties so that they really become faculties: In other words, they take charge of your mind. And when they’re in charge, you’ll find that they’re genuinely on your side, bringing you a happiness that you would otherwise never know.

Q: After decades of practice, what resources in yourself do you call on to maintain or, better yet, increase your sincerity, honesty, and determination in your daily life and your practice? Is habit, according to you, a strength?

A: Habit, in and of itself, is part of a strength. You have to learn how to maintain a regular schedule for the practice. But the motivation is something you have to keep stirring up for yourself: thinking thoughts of heedfulness, and realizing that this is your true well-being that you’re working on. If you don’t look after it, who will? I also like to think of the image of your actions as being like luggage that you carry with you. In the Buddha’s image, your bad actions are like a cart that crushes and erases the footprints of the ox that pulls the cart, whereas your good actions are like a shadow that follows behind you. Your shadow has no weight, but the cart is very heavy. So if you think of your actions as luggage you’re carrying, then when you want to open the luggage, what would you like to see inside? All your dirty laundry? Random junk? Think of your actions as being your most important possessions. This is the best inducement to keep the sincerity of your practice focused on what you’re doing today. Remind yourself that you have today, you have this lifetime, you know you have this chance to practice, but you don’t know when you’re going to have the next opportunity, so you have to practice now.