An Interpretation of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: Aspect Six – Right Effort (7/10)

This is the seventh in a ten part series on my interpretation of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path…. or ‘eight things you should do to realise enlightenment’.

Parts 1-6 available here:

Aspect Six – Right Effort

Heads up – this is where things start to get proper philosophical! But remember, yr supposed to read and realise, not just read and think about this stuff! 

The Buddha says in the Dhammapada – ‘You yourself must make the effort, Buddhas have only pointed the way. Those who have entered the path and who meditate will be freed from the fetter of illusion’ (Austin 1998)

 Right Effort involves sincerely directing your energy towards purifying the mind with the intention of realising liberation from suffering. Another way of putting this is that right effort means committing to the moment by moment rigours of a spiritual life that is oriented towards achieving enlightenment, and directing yourself away from an ordinary, mundane existence where you focus your energy on attaching yourself to particular things and people to achieve shallow, contingent, temporary happiness.

Right effort implies that the spiritual life is an active and dynamic process, rather than a reflective, intellectual, armchair type activity. There is little in practicing right effort that will make you happy in the short term, rather right effort necessitates practicing constant awareness to develop the spiritual strength that is the root of a deep, peaceful and sustainable happiness. This takes not only incredible energy, but this energy needs to be sustained over many years. Finally, it is worth emphasising that right effort puts the onus on each individual to take responsibility and commit to the immense and vigorous effort required to walk these later stages of the N8P.

There are four ‘great endeavours’ which comprise right effort –

  1. To prevent the arising of unarisen wholesome states
  2. To abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen
  3. To arouse wholesome states that have already arisen
  4. To maintain and perfect wholesome states that have already arisen

The First Great Endeavour – preventing the arising of unarisen wholesome states

There are five particular unwholesome states that act as fetters on developing concentration and leading a more spiritual existence oriented towards Enlightenment. In Buddhist terms, these are known as the Five Hindrances which dampen the quality of our awareness. The Five Hindrances are:

  • Craving – we should resist the urge to be lead blindly by our desires for this or that.
  • Ill-Will or Aversion – we should resist the urge to act violently, but also the urge to harbour and dwell in resentment, or even to speak ill of people.
  • Restlessness and Anxiety – these often result from reflecting on the future rather than the present, and can easily distract us from focusing on our immediate activity.
  • Sloth and Torper – these include tiredness which is often a reflection of us not wanting to do something rather than a result of our actually needing physical or mental rest, and also apathy, the feeling of just not being bothered with making the effort to do something.
  • Doubt and Indecision – can be one of the most innocuous barriers to leading a vigorous spiritual life. In Buddhism, once a decision has been made, it should be seen through.

The explanation for why we should strive to overcome these five hindrances is quite difficult to appreciate. The argument is that these five hindrances arise when we think about an object/person/ event. The point of right concentration (of which right effort is a part) is to reside in truth which means remaining at the level of ‘bare attention’ – just being with an object without making any judgements about that object.

The problem is that for most of our waking moments, we do not do this. What we do is to think of an object and the object starts a thought process that leads to the hindrances arsing. The process goes something like this – I see a jacket I like. I experience craving, I imagine myself in the jacket, I imagine the admiring looks I get, I experience excitement, I start thinking of all the other clothes I can wear with the jacket, I experience doubt as I realise I don’t have that many clothes that match with it, so should I also buy some new trousers too? I start to plan how I can arrange my finances to be able to buy the jacket, I experience anxiety as the thought of finances reminds me I have that bill to pay, I push the unpleasant thought of my finances out of my mind and think ‘sod it, I’m having that jacket’, and then slight doubt comes back… and so on.

From a Buddhist perspective all of this thinking actually has very little to do with jacket. It is your ill-disciplined mind that has added on this lengthy chain of thoughts. The truth is that there you and the jacket were in the same vicinity. You saw the jacket, this lead to craving. That is all there is – you, the jacket and your craving. This is your direct and immediate experience, and this is where you apply right effort – to stay with this moment rather than to be carried away by the fantasy you allow your ill-disciplined mind to create.

Please note that in the example above, the practice of being in the moment won’t necessarily be pleasant, because this involves you craving and craving is not pleasant. But eventually, the craving will pass and you will have been in the moment for more of the time that if you had spent a few seconds or minutes living in the mental fantasy created by your mind. The chances are that by ‘staying at the level of bare attention you are more likely to experience more joy in the moment.

To illustrate this by returning to the above example, imagine that you took this shopping trip with a friend. On this trip you also visited all sorts of shops, and had some nice food and conversations and sat in the park for a while. In the course of the half a day you spent shopping, did you taste that cake, listen to your friend, smell the flowers? Or did you spend a considerable amount of time mulling over wanting that jacket and not being in the moments. The point I am trying to make is that by not being carried away by the hindrances that you add to your experience at being with an object, you free yourself up to experience the other moments much more fully and at the end of the day you would have been that little bit freer, a little bit more content maybe?

Having said this, I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which making right effort and being in the moment are wonderful. The truth of right effort is that if you employ it to eradicate the flights of fancy that distract you from bare reality, then at times you will be more aware of the bare suffering of craving and aversion. At other times, however, you will also be more aware of the deep joy of the moment. Given that the point of Buddhism is to be truth, either is better than living out your unnecessary hindrance-ridden fantasies in your head.

The Second Great Endeavour – abandoning unwholesome states that have already arisen

Bikkhu Bodhi (2000) recommends five methods for dealing with the five hindrances when they arise. Firstly, there is the method of expulsion, where there are different methods for dealing with each of the five hindrances:

  • Craving can be dealt with through meditation on the impermanence of things, which I will cover in greater depth in aspect eight of the path, on right concentration.
  • Ill-will can be dealt with through the meditation of loving kindness, as outlined in aspect two of the path.
  • Tiredness can be dealt with through brisk walks and determination. This is obviously easier said than done, but I guess you just have to get on with it even when you’re tired.
  • Restlessness can be dealt with by breath meditation, which I also deal with in aspect eight on Right Concentration.
  • Finally, doubt can be countered by investigation, or by learning about Buddhism more thoroughly, which was covered as part of aspect one of the path.

The remaining four methods to overcome the five hindrances are to be applied generally to all of the five hindrances.

– The second method is a rational approach where one considers the consequences of one’s unskilful thoughts, much as I did in the Jacket example above.  The general idea behind this practice is to bring about the realisation that residing in the hindrances performs no positive function and can only detract from the quality of the lived experience of the moment.

– The third method is to simply redirect your attention elsewhere, useful here is engrossing yourself in any number of basic physical activities. In the Zen tradition this means focussing on anything that goes on ‘below the eyebrows’ – really focussing on mindfulness of the body. So when you stand up, concentrate on standing up, when you walk, concentrate on walking, and when you clean something, just clean it. That is all.

– Fourthly, you can confront the unpleasant feelings and face up to them directly. Again in the Zen tradition this is conceived of as ‘letting the fires burn’ – you face up directly to your anger, misery, anxiety, and sit through it, letting it burn you away. The logic here being that because you cannot endure this, but enduring it nonetheless, you get in touch with something that sees you through, your deeper nature, and thus take a step closer to transcending your small self.

– Finally, there is suppression of negative emotions as the final resort.

Dealing with negative emotions is where most of us will spend a lot of our time in the early days of practice. It is perfectly normal to experience an increase in negative emotions when you start practicing right concentration. When this happens, remember that suffering is a natural and normal part of the human condition, these negative emotions are part of you and need to be worked through. Eventually, and this has to be taken on faith early on, right effort, will pay off and negative emotions will lose their grip on us, allowing us to spend more effort on arousing and cultivating the wholesome states, or the seven enlightenment factors as outlined in the following two sections.

The Third and Fourth Great Endeavours:

(3) to arouse wholesome states that have already arisen and

(4) to maintain and perfect wholesome states that have already arisen

These next two practices of right effort should be conducted simultaneously in conjunction with the eradication of the hindrances. The development of wholesome states is really the first time in the path where we start to get a glimpse of the bliss-consciousness that is Enlightenment, where we realise that Buddhism is not all ‘doom and gloom’, suffering, and sticking to routines and ethical codes of conduct, but that we do all this to give us the discipline of mind to cultivate the various factors of enlightenment. The Buddha taught that there were seven such factors that both lead to and constitute enlightenment. At this stage it is probably best to view these as the different stages of increasing ‘oneness with the moment’ – the earlier stages involving more effort, the later stages being more automatic. If the later stages seem somewhat utopian (especially from tranquillity onwards), this is probably because it’s unlikely that you will get anywhere close to these stages unless you spend several years in monastic seclusion.

The seven enlightenment factors are:

  • Mindfulness
  • Investigation of phenomena
  • Energy
  • Rapture
  • Tranquillity
  • Concentration
  • Equanimity

While there are specific mindfulness practices which we will turn to in the next section, here mindfulness means keeping in mind the true nature of things (impermanence, suffering and no-I); it means keeping in mind your broader purpose, which is the transcendence of unsatisfactory conditioned existence; it means keeping in mind the suitability of the actions which are conducive to the purpose of achieving enlightenment; and it means keeping in mind  and it means keeping in mind the persistent need for right effort (Thera 2013). Mindfulness is the foundation on which all of the other enlightenment factors rest.

Mindfulness clears the way for investigation, which is an active process whereby you drill down into objects of attention to realise their component structures. In Buddhist philosophy the ultimate aim here is to investigate the ‘five aggregates’ which are form (physical objects) sensation (the feelings of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral), perception (the formulation of an idea about an object), mental formations (the pre-conceived, habitual ideas we have about the things we experience) and consciousness itself (which is conceived of as consisting of pure sense-experiences, including that of the mind). The purpose of investigation is to realise directly that all of the above aggregates, which make up the entirety of the physical world and our experience of it, and thus ‘I’, are subject to change, impermanence, and thus insubstantiality.

The work of investigation requires energy, which is basically right effort – the effort to continually strive to prevent and eradicate the hindrances and to cultivate and maintain the enlightenment factors. Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000) describes this energy, or right effort, as having three stages. Initially it requires shaking off lethargy, which grows into ‘perseverance’ and eventually develops into ‘invincibility’ where it ‘drives contemplation forwards leaving the hindrances powerless to stop it’.

So far so good, but after this, the enlightenment factors start to get somewhat esoteric in nature. Rapture, a word possibly better translated as ‘contentment’, is where we take pleasurable interest in the present object of attention without clinging to that object of attention. It also means taking pleasure in practicing the dharma, in acting ethically, in being self-disciplined and in being compassionate.

The state of ‘rapture’, however, is still characterised by a degree of restlessness, and this is eventually surpassed by tranquillity, which is where rapture is subdued and contemplation of the moment continues with self possessed serenity. Tranquillity is that state where we have peace of mind in all situations and are unmoved by the ‘eight vicissitudes’ – by whether we experience gain or loss, good-repute or ill-repute, praise or censure, or pleasure or pain.

The final two factors, those of concentration and equanimity, are most closely associated with formal meditative practice. Concentration is one-pointed unification of mind with the object of attention, and equanimity is where you just observe phenomena with no need to do anything, essentially a state where the self is neutralised.


Congratulations if you got this far…. might take a few hundred sitting sessions for this stuff to really settle itself in yer consciousness!

16 thoughts on “An Interpretation of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: Aspect Six – Right Effort (7/10)”

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