Seven Factors of Awakening – talk 3 – Diligence


Before we start on the 3rd factor of awakening in our series of talks I’m wondering how the investigation of mindfulness and discernment against the background of the 5 hindrances has been going. Has anyone taken up that investigation? How do mindfulness and discernment come online with aversion and desire arise? When dullness sets in or restless gets us agitate? Or when we doubt the teachings altogether?


The third factor of awakening for us to uncover and practice with is “virjya” which we put down as diligence on our sheet. It’s also translated as “persistence” or “energy” and there’s a strong association with effort which is a different word – “vyayama” in Sanskrit which shows up in the 8-fold path as right effort.

Diligence, or virya, is also in 3 other Bodhi Pakshika Dharma lists. It’s the second base of freedom – concentration of persistence. And those of you at the study retreat will remember our investigation of the first two of the five whole roots – faith and diligence – which give rise to the five wholesome strengths.

I remember some years ago giving some talks on qualities of effort. What is skillful effort. How do we bring our energy forward into wholesome directions like our Dharma practice. But not just Dharma practice. How about exercise as another example. Those times when we know it will benefit us to go on a walk or a jog or go to the gym. Have you ever been in that blah, whatever, state and not made those healthy choices? See if you cast you mind and body into that feeling. And how does it feel to be pulled under by that energy – a kind of dullness maybe where it’s really expressing the old fashioned translation of that hindrance as “sloth and torpor”.

And what about when you do somehow talk yourself off the couch and out to exercise. How you feel after that? Probably much better right! With more energy. So accessing energy, making effort, seems to give rise to more energy. Which is interesting. We often think of “our energy” as kind of like the gas in a gas tank, don’t we?

And when it’s running low we need to refuel. Eat something. Rest. Take it easy.

This may be true sometimes, but then other times it isn’t true. Sometimes if we push on the gas the tank refills itself sometime. So there’s discernment at work. What kind of effort will help me to access energy.

And in practice we have the question of engaging with the practice – just remembering to practice – that’s one kind of effort, that takes a little energy right there. To get to the zendo. To get onto the cushion or the yoga mat at home.

And then once we get there it might be there’s a different kind of effort needed. How hard should we work at being present? At seeing through our various self-deceptions and confusions? Is working hard skillful energy, wise effort? Sometimes so, maybe sometimes no.

And we get both messages from our teachers. Huge effort might be what’s needed. There was a Burmese master who spoke about making a “heroic courageous effort,” and he would say frequently that one should just completely abandon everything for deep sitting practice. Apparently he used to say “abandon all concern for the body”. Go for it!

A classic example of the work hard message from the Zen tradition is master Wumen’s introduction to the Gateless Gate Koan Collection – this is totally classic Zen. He’s using the frame of passing the first koan of that system but you can substitute just doing the practice for this “mu” he’s talking about.

To realize Zen, one has to pass through the barrier set up by the patriarchs.

Do not think that the barrier is in the book. It is right here in front of your nose.

Enlightenment is certain when the road of thinking is blocked.

If you do not pass the patriarchs’ barrier, if your road of thinking is not blocked, whatever you think, whatever you do, will be like an entangling ghost.

You are not an independent person if you do not pass this barrier. You cannot walk freely throughout heaven and earth.

You may ask, what is the barrier set up by the patriarchs? This one word, Mu, is it. This is the barrier of Zen. If you pass through it, you will see Joshu face-to-face. Then you can walk hand in hand with the whole line of patriarchs. Is this not a wondrous thing? If you want to pass this barrier, you must work so that every bone in your body, every pore of your skin, is filled through and through with this question, What is Mu? You must carry it day and night.

If you really want to pass this barrier, you should feel as though you have a hot iron ball in your throat that you can neither swallow nor spit up.

Then your previous conceptualizing disappears. Like a fruit ripening in season, subjectivity and objectivity are experienced as one.

And we are exhorted to practice like our hair is on fire. That death is certain, only the time of death is uncertain so therefor we should practice with great urgency.

And this is all true I think. There’s no time to waste. There’s only now. When do you think you are going to wake up to the richness of your life? Later sometime? And it can really be really fulfilling just to really give yourself to the practice.

And yet there is something to this strong effort that we can get so tight. So serious. So heavy. And we may misunderstand a strong effort as a kind of striving to get something.

Let’s do a little exercise:

Sit comfortably and upright. Be aware of the body. Be here in the body. Feel the breath. Coming in, going out. Coming in, going out. Just being. Just resting in awareness.


Then bring up more energy. Try to really be here. Really. Be firm with the body-mind. Make a strong effort. Be present. Work with this with some power.


And then relax. Notice what changes. What was the quality of mind, of breath, of body, when making that big effort to do…nothing? And what is the change when you let it go?

So there’s something about being present that’s effortless. And yet it take energy to be in a position to express and enter into that effortlessness? So it’s a bit of a koan there isn’t it? What is the right effort? How to bring up energy that awakens and brings us up toward joy, which is the next factor?

Another teacher spoke on the kind of effort we should use – this is the Tibetan dzogchen teacher Genden Rinpoche said about this: “Happiness cannot be found through great effort and willpower but is already present in open relaxation and letting go. Don’t strain yourself, there’s nothing to do or undo. Only our searching for happiness prevents us from seeing it. Wanting to grasp the ungraspable you exhaust yourself in vain. As soon as you open and relax this tight fisted grasping infinite space is here. Open inviting and comfortable. So make us of it, this freedom and natural ease. Nothing to do, nothing to force, nothing to want, nothing missing. Marvelous! Everything happens by itself.”

But this turns out to be an advanced practice brought forward after the students have done many preliminary practices like 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 mantra recitations, and all kinds of visualizations and meditations. In that system dzogchen which is very much like Zen is done only after a huge huge effort is made over many years. Then they tell you to relax!

And I remember Norman saying something similar in a sesshin. He asked us to consider what we were working on it this sesshin. He gave a nice long pause for us to notice our agenda in coming to sesshin. And then he said: “so let’s forget about that, no working here. Let that go. See if you can just drop all that and be. Just enjoy being here together.” Something like that.

So there is some kind of interchange here. Sometimes helpful to scrape yourself off the couch and really get your butt in gear. Other times helpful to relax fully. To just be present. And somehow these two kinds of effort can interact in a healthy way.

And what tools to we have always right to hand to support us in this question of what kind of energy to bring up? Mindfulness and discernment right? Bringing the mind back to what’s really happening now and being interested and curious about what leads to what. Where is there more tension? Is a bit more tension helpful, like the analogy of practice as well tuned string instrument, we do need some tension actually. Not all stress is bad.

And energy is important in all aspects of life. What is something you’re avoiding? How does that feel to keep putting it off? What does it take to bring yourself forward to engage with whatever that is? Like for me today after putting off for some weeks I went into the mechanic whom I think made a mistake and charged us the wrong amount. There turned out to be another explanation and I didn’t get any money back but it really felt like good practice to go and talk to him. A real relief. So we can work with our conflict avoidance and so on when we study virya, when we study this mental factor of energy. Remember these are the mental factors that when we nurture them and support them they support us awakening. It’s a kind of exchange of energy that leads to more energy. To more happiness.

Maybe one useful and concrete experiment to look at this next week is daily practice. What kind of energy gets you to the cushion or the altar or the yoga mat at home. What kind of effort defeats you. And not just something around your own kind of self power in the 10 minutes after the alarm goes off or after you get home from work or something. To really reflect on the causes and conditions and the many swirling energies that support or reduce support for that aspiration. Does how you treat the people you live with the night before affect this. For sure when you go to bed and what you eat, and what you drink, affects this. And then – maybe there’s success! – you get to the practice at home. Then what kind of effort is called for. How do you use this precious time? Do you make a big effort to make it to daily sitting and then kind of space out and plan the day for example? And if that does happen how do you respond?

In any case I would love for everyone in our community and everyone listening far and wide to have the experience of daily, or near daily, practice in your life. For most people it’s so supportive. Such a positive force for healing and awakening. And yet so few of us seem to pull this off. It somehow seeps right into your life. Not that everything is suddenly all better or solved or something but there’s a kind of change in the pitch of our life that’s really helpful. So let’s study that this next week if you choose to. To take up the arising of mindful, discerning energy around how can I do practice at home every day. Maybe take one day off, but not more than one. And next week we can talk about it. If you are listening to this at home and want to write to me about this feel free it’s  Or speak with another practice leader or a sangha friend.  It also really helps to express something about our process. Even if we’re a little embarrassed and so on.

So that’s a little about energy.

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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