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Shaking Up Despair or On Virya Paramita, Joyful Effort

By Norman Fischer | Mar 20, 2016
Location: Naturebridge
In topic: Buddhist Psychology
At the EDZ Bay Area All Day Sitting on Sunday, March 20, 2016, Norman gave a talk on how to practice Joyful Effort in our troubled world.
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Shaking Up Despair or Virya Paramita, Joyful Effort

By Norman Fischer | Mar 20, 2016

Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager


I know you are probably thinking, like I’m thinking, about the world we live in. Politics right now, the economy, the climate, and the state of the earth. The media is our nervous system, and right now our nervous system is twitching like mad, and it is very uncomfortable. It is hard to separate out our own personal views and our own personal problems from the general anxious-making buzz. It all seems like one, big, impossible mess.

That’s what I want to talk about today. I am not going to talk about the mess, because you already know all about that, and there is no use repeating everything. The question is how are we going to practice with this?

First, we have to get below the surface of our minds. We have to get below the content to our underlying attitude. We all have an attitude, somewhere down there. That attitude colors and conditions everything that appears on the surface. The same fact, the same reality, can seem terrible, dark, horrifying, unfortunate and difficult, but it can also seem normal and understandable, given the craziness of human beings. In other words, how you see the fact of what is happening, how you see that reality, is going to depend on your underlying attitude.

So let’s take a moment and see if we can examine our underlying attitudes. Right now, while I am talking to you, how are you feeling? Right now. See if you can take a moment, literally to check, and ask yourself, How am I right now? What am I really feeling right now? Bringing your mind to your breath, bringing your mind to your body, asking yourself, So, okay, how is it with me right now?  Whatever you are finding, ask yourself, What is behind this? What is underneath this? Steadily, without forcing anything, without expecting any big insights, just a few more breaths, looking and seeing what are you feeling.

I really hope what you are feeling in this moment is a sense of well being. I wish that. I wish that were the case. If so, isn’t that great? Good to know that you could sit for a day, quietly among friends, and that you could find a little peace in a troubled world.

This is great. This is not a small thing. It is something to value and to emphasize.

A lot of people cannot imagine anywhere they could go, anything they could do, that could give them a little peace. Nothing would give them peace. A lot of people don’t even imagine that there is such a place. So it is not a small thing, if you feel a little peace now. Sitting with friends quietly could bring you a little peace.  I hope that it encourages you to keep sitting regularly.

But maybe you didn’t feel a little peace. Maybe, to be honest with yourself, what you found was a sense of dread, fear, upset. Maybe you noticed a tremendous hope that things could be other than the way they are. Maybe you noticed a resistance to the way you feel: I don’t want to feel this way. This sucks. I don’t like it. Anyway, even if you did feel pretty good right now, you probably realize that tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, you are not going to feel so good. Once you get back into the swim of your life, and the daily news cycle, and the challenge of your busy life, and all the bills to pay, and a family to take care of, and everybody is falling apart, soon, even if you do feel pretty good right now, you are going to feel lousy again. 

So, here is a practice that you could try. As many times as you could think of it during the day, interrupt yourself, take one conscious breath, and check the quality of your mind. As many times as you can, just check: How am I feeling right now? Am I feeling joyful, happy, easeful… grim, determined, exhausted, anxious, panicked? How is it? Take that one breath and just check and see what’s going on with you.

There is no goal here that you should be feeling a particular way. That’s not the point of this practice. The point is simply to check and see. Notice what’s happening. Probably, simply noticing creates a different situation internally.

Next, if you can do it, having checked the condition of your mind, take another moment or so, a breath or two, and think, Why am I feeling this way right now? What are the factors? What are conditioning factors that cause me in this moment to be feeling this way? Why is my mind the way it is right now?

Doing this doesn’t take very long, just a moment of reflection. As many times a day as you can, stopping yourself, taking a breath, and checking, just as we did a moment ago: How is it with me right now? What’s going on? And when you see that, ask yourself: What are the conditions that are producing that mind in me now?

The reason why we would undertake a practice like this is to shake-up and to challenge the underlying attitude that we are carrying around, without knowing it. Can we shake it up and take a look at it and get some purchase on it? I think that most people in this moment feel pretty bad about the condition of the world. Very few people would say, I think things are going great. I am very hopeful. If we met somebody who would say that, we would think to ourselves, What’s wrong with her? 

It’s universally agreed upon that things are not going well. This is not because we are all depressed. It is just an objective fact, right? The world really is in bad shape on a lot of different levels. Since we are good people, and we care about the world, we should feel terrible about the condition of the world. We should feel a sense of grief and dread and upset. If we don’t, it means one of two things: either we don’t care, and we’re callous, or we’re kidding ourselves, distracting ourselves in some way. Which, of course, a lot of people do. But distraction isn’t going to make things any better, because distraction can’t be continuous, and even if it were continuous, underneath the distraction the feeling of dread is still there.

So, it seems to make sense that we should feel that things are not going well. Then we conflate our own problems and our own life with the state of the world. And we are not feeling that great about our own lives either. This is very tiring. By the end of the day, spent with this underlying attitude, churning within us whether we know it or not, we’re tired. We’re worn out. We go to bed thinking, This is the way it is. There is no remedy for it. 

I suppose that this all sounds familiar. I hope not, but probably it does.

We’re doing bodhisattva practice, right? We’re practicing Soto Zen, which is a bodhisattva path, so we are taking medicine to address this condition. We can call this medicine various things, but today I am calling it virya paramita: joyful effort, joyful energy. That’s the cultivation. That’s the medicine we are taking to deal with this condition.

I want us all to recall what we already know, that Buddhism begins with “all conditioned existence is suffering.” Not bad politics is suffering, environmental problems are suffering, bad economics is suffering. No, all conditioned existence, without exception, exhibits the quality of suffering. In other words, yes, things are very dark. Very, very dark. Even if you elect the best possible politician, and the entire group of politicians are all great, things will still be dark. We are all going to get sick and die, and even under the best of environmental policies, the day comes when the earth falls out of the sky and the sun no longer warms us.

So dharma practice takes on the darkness. It begins with the darkness. There is no assumption that conditions are going to be different, and that the darkness is going to go away. So it is exactly in the face of darkness, in the midst of darkness, that we practice. Darkness doesn’t discourage our practice. Darkness is the main motivation for our practice.

Virya paramita means energy, enthusiasm, vitality, joyful effort – the rising, forward moving effort we make exactly in the face of darkness. We’re not trying to make the darkness go away. We’re facing the darkness with this rising energy. As I was saying in the fall practice period, virya paramita is the practice of hopefulness. Practicing hopefulness.

I am using my words carefully. I am not saying that virya paramita is being hopeful. Virya paramita is practicing hopefulness. Bodhisattva hopefulness doesn’t mean that we pretend that there is going to be a good outcome and that everything is going to work out fine in the end. It doesn’t mean that we pretend that. In fact, bodhisattvas know that everything will turn out just fine in the end, because bodhisattvas know that the nature of time is healing. They know if there is one moment, there will be another moment, and in this succeeding moment they know that something is going to happen. And they know that nobody knows what’s going to happen.

This is essentially a good thing.  Something will happen. Maybe we won’t like what happens. Maybe it will be painful for us and for others, but what good news! There will be a moment, and we don’t know what is going to happen in that moment. Bodhisattvas know that every moment is a moment of full potential.

This is inherently hopeful, if we understand it. Bodhisattvas, with their meditation on emptiness, with their understanding of radical interdependence, with their tremendous faith in the breath, with their tremendous faith in time, and with their tremendous faith in practice, bodhisattvas do understand this point, and they find it essentially hopeful. They practice this kind of hopefulness. They cultivate this thought.

Bodhisattvas can always imagine – bodhisattvas are very imaginative – a good outcome, even when things look dark. Often it does go that way. Sometimes things look really, really dark, and then to everyone’s surprise, there is a good outcome, that no one could have ever anticipated. Bodhisattvas can imagine such a thing, because nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Anything, by definition, is possible in the moment that has not yet arrived.

But bodhisattvas can equally imagine horrendous outcomes. We have already seen huge numbers of horrendous outcomes in our human history. So there is every reason to believe that there could be another one. Bodhisattvas are quite aware of this too.

The practice of virya paramita has nothing to do with outcomes. Bodhisattvas are not hoping for something in particular. They have a hopeful attitude based on the profound understanding that a moment in time – the present – always includes a moment of time in the future. If there is life in this moment, there will be life in the next moment. As soon as there is no life in the next moment, this life is over. Every moment of a living presence includes a future moment. And anything can happen in that future, and nobody knows what. That’s why they call it “the future.” [Laughter] That’s why bodhisattvas are always hopeful; they never know what is going to happen.

The hopefulness, this joyful going forward, accepting the challenge of an unknown future, is the practice of virya paramita: joyful, uprising energy.

I hope that this all sounds convincing to you, that it is a hopeful, inspiring thought. But we all have to admit that it sounds good, but actually, That is not how I feel. Of course, that is not how we feel. We don’t feel like this. That is the whole point! We are not trying to gin up enthusiasm for this idea, leaving here all smiling, pretending that we feel like this. We don’t feel like this. 

Virya paramita is an ideal. That’s what makes an ideal an ideal, right? When it’s real, it’s not an ideal anymore.  An ideal is a direction that you are going. It is a practice that you are doing. It’s a path. Virya paramita is a path toward an unrealizable horizon. But it is a path that you can walk on. It is a practice that you can actually do.

How do we practice it? Well, we use things like the technique that I was suggesting a moment ago. That is one way to cultivate virya paramita, examining honestly our underlying attitudes and challenging them. If we don’t look at our attitudes, we are stuck with them forever. They are totally unconscious and will drive our lives to the end.


When you examine your underlying attitude, you will find that there are many assumptions and habits built into your attitude – assumptions and habits that may or may not be true. You realize that your attitude could be otherwise than what it is. There is no real reason why it has to remain as is. You realize quite often how distressing your underlying attitude actually is. It’s not helping you. It’s not helping your life. It’s not making you cheerful. It’s not helping making your friends cheerful. It isn’t making you better at your work or your relationships. It’s not making your life more sustainable.


When you see that, you have a lot of incentive to keep walking the path of virya paramita.