May 27, 2013
Viriya is the Pali word for energy, and refers to a kind of unremitting energy that arises out of the development of stable and steadfast mindfulness along with the truth discerning wisdom of investigation. As Satiis that which facilitates and enables memory and thus mindfulness, Viriya is that which allows courage, effort, and perseverance to emerge. It is also described as the kind of energy that shores things up. This is such a practical image. Imagine building a structure of any kind; add a little here, a little there, pay particular attention to shoring up the weight bearing wall. We are continuously shoring up our practice and our daily lives, and they require energy, courage, persistence and effort to do so. This is Viriya.
I used to have a rowing coach who would scream “Put something on it!” when our rowing was slow or sloppy. Adding some courage and effort to the energy gave us a better chance of maintaining an even keel in choppy, uncertain water. Our lives are like that; choppy and uncertain. When we apply energy and effort, we are more likely to right our boats.
The Buddha taught that there are the Four Great Efforts that are supported by this kind of energy.
1. To enhance and foster wholesome or skillful states that are already part of our makeup. As an example, when generous thoughts arise, develop them further and act on them.
2. To not get entangled in unwholesome or unskillful states that have already surfaced in us. For instance, when an unkind judgment arises, we note it and gently move the mind away from it. Let it go.
3. To encourage wholesome and skillful states to develop. To tap into our enormous power for goodness through cultivating awareness and wisdom.
4. To avoid unskillful and unwholesome states not yet surfaced. If we know through experience that certain circumstances bring about unskillful action and unwholesome states, avoid those circumstances.
Here are the Buddha’s direct instructions:
“Herein, the [practitioner] rouses his will to arouse [or] overcome wholesome [or] unwholesome states; and he makes effort, stirs up his energy, exerts his mind and strives.”
Once the energy is stirred up and available, we need to harness it and use it wisely. This is where courage, effort, persistence and perseverance come in. I think of this as a kind of vow, an act of trust, and the commitment to practice as the continual act of vowing; a vow that leads us to live a skillful, peaceful, wise and compassionate life.
In his book, Taking our Places; the Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, Norman Fischer offers some beautiful and accessible ideas on vows, vowing, and how they relate to practice and our lives.
“Vows are energies. Vows are aspirations. They are larger than life. Endless sources of inspiration, vows differ from goals, which are limited in scope. Goals can be met. Vows can be practiced but never exactly completed, for they are essentially unfulfillable, and it is their very inexhaustibility that propels us forward, opens us up, shapes our desires and actions.”
“The journey is long, but there’s no rush. Each day starts from where we are – where else could it start from? There is no use wishing it were otherwise. There’s an old saying in Zen: if you fall down on the ground, it is the ground you use to get yourself up. The vow uses the ground of our present imperfection and doubt as purchase to establish itself ever more firmly. Each time we acknowledge our limitation and affirm our vow anyway, we strengthen it….To live a life of vowing is to offer ourselves completely to our lives, with nothing held back.”
“Vowing is like walking toward the horizon: you know where you are headed, you can see the destination brightly up ahead, and you keep on going toward it with enthusiasm even though you never arrive there.”
To commit to practice, to come back to the cushion over and over and over again, we need energy, courage, effort and persistence. The same holds true for our lives.
Adapted from Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, Joseph Goldstein & Jack Kornfield, 1987.
 Adapted from The Noble Eightfold Path; Way to the End of Suffering, Bhikku Bodhi, 1994.