Practice: The Four Strivings

| January 23, 2013 | 0 Comments

When we practice, we strive to become proficient. The Sanskrit term for meditation, “bhāvana”, actually means “development” or “cultivation”, near synonyms for “practice” itself. Indeed, meditation is central to the Buddhist path: to meditate is to develop wholesome mental states through mindfulness and concentration.

In the Cūḷavedalla Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 44.12), the lay follower Visākha asks the bhikkhuni Dhammadinā about the practice of developing concentration.

Lady, what is concentration? What is the basis of concentration? What is the equipment of concentration? What is the development of concentration?

Unification of mind, friend Visākha, is concentration; the four foundations of mindfulness are the basis of concentration; the four right kinds of striving are the equipment of concentration; the repetition, development, and cultivation of these same states is the development of concentration therein.

Certainly, unification of mind is a key definition of concentration. But central to the practice are two “fours”: the four foundations of mindfulness, and the four right kinds of striving. The four foundations of mindfulness (subject of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, MN 10) I’ve touched on before; deep and broad in their own right, they get well-deserved attention. Less so the four kinds of striving, which elaborate the “right effort” of the Eightfold Path. What are they?

In MN 77.16 (C.f., Saṃyutta Nikaya 5.49), the Buddha says:

Here (I) a bhikkhu awakens zeal for the non-arising of unarisen evil unwholesome states, and he makes effort, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and strives. (II) He awakens zeal for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states … (III) He awakens zeal for the arising of unarisen wholesome states … (IV) He awakens zeal for the continuance, non-disappearance, strengthening, increase, and fulfillment by development of arisen wholesome states, and he makes effort, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and strives. And thereby many disciples of mine abide having reached the consummation and perfection of direct knowledge. (Numbering added for clarity).

What does this mean, and how is it to be achieved?

The Four Strivings

(I) First we are to strive for there not to arise unwholesome states. What counts as “unwholesome”? These would be states that bring dukkha, or pain and discontent: those related to greed, hatred, and delusion. How can we stop them from arising? One classic way is through sense restraint. (Aṇguttara Nikaya 4.14.1) That is, we actively divert our awareness from things that stir up unwholesome states. This might include avoiding shopping malls or dramatic movies. It might include avoiding people who have unwholesome habits.

A monastic will, of course, undertake a more strenuous effort to avoid, for example, music, dancing, and members of the opposite sex: this is the point of many of the Vinaya Pāṭimokkha rules. A layperson won’t typically have — or want — the same kind of sensory isolation that one finds in a monastery. In that case, the layperson will inevitably be dealing more with the second than the first kind of striving.

(II) Second, and perhaps more importantly for us laypeople, we strive to abandon arisen unwholesome states. Here the practices I discussed in a previous post about abandoning the hindrances can be of use: we can use those same strategies to abandon unwholesome states generally.

In the Vitakkasaṇṭhāna Sutta (MN 20) the Buddha also gives other advice on abandoning distracting thoughts: first he suggests we substitute wholesome for unwholesome, by attending our mind elsewhere. He compares this technique to that of a carpenter who drives out a bad peg with a good one. This is essentially the advice we saw from before on the hindrances: substitute loving-kindness for hate, thoughts on impermanence, the elements, or charity for greed.

If that doesn’t work, he suggests we bring to mind the danger in such states as greed, hatred, and delusion, understanding how they can lead to sorrow in the future. So if we are angry with a colleague, we can call to mind that a public row could get us fired. If we want that new car, call to mind the payments we will have to make on it.

If that doesn’t work, we will need to involve techniques of meditation. The Buddha suggests we actively try to forget unwholesome thoughts, pushing them from the mind and ignoring them. This works best when we are in samādhi, of course, since the mind is ordinarily not so malleable as to allow us to push thoughts away, particularly those that have persisted through the previous techniques.

If the mind continues to be agitated by such thoughts, he suggests we work to quiet the mind first, in order to reach samādhi.

If none of those work, the Buddha suggests that

… with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, he should beat down, constrain, and crush mind with mind.

I’ve heard this referred to as a kind of ironic joke on the Buddha’s part. I’m not entirely convinced. That said, it is, of course, a last-ditch kind of striving, and I daresay that if we find ourselves here very often, we’re not likely to find the process very successful.

(III) Third, we are to strive for the arising of new wholesome states. What counts as “wholesome”? Generally speaking, these would be the opposites of the unwholesome ones: non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion. Or more positively, charity, loving-kindness, and wisdom. However, charity and loving-kindness are relatively worldly states, and the Buddha’s real aim in practice is the development of the so-called “seven factors of enlightenment” that lead to final liberation. (AN 4.14.3) These are: mindfulness, investigation-of-states, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. The foundations of mindfulness also aim at the development of these seven, so the practice of the four kinds of striving dovetails with mindfulness practice.

It bears noting that all of these factors of enlightenment are intimately related to meditation: mindfulness is the practice, investigation-of-states is a technique one uses in that practice, concentration is allied to mindfulness, energy and rapture come from jhanic states of concentrative absorption, and tranquility and equanimity are properties of fully realized states of mindful concentration.

(IV) Last, we are to strive to continue, strengthen, and eventually “fulfill” these states by fully developing them. That is, we are to bring them to maturity. To my way of thinking, this fourth kind of striving could be included in the third, since it’s just an example of further development of wholesome states. But I imagine the Buddha kept it separate to emphasize that mere incremental striving wasn’t enough: there had to be a further aim in mind.

So the Buddha’s aim in promoting meditation is to develop wholesome mental states, with which we can then aim to replace the unwholesome ones that were there before. These wholesome states then progress to become factors of enlightenment.

Striving and Practice

The four kinds of striving are four basic ways to approach “right effort”, sixth of the eight ‘folds’ in the Buddhist path. That is, they are ways we are to focus our exertion: things we are to do on a day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment practice. When meditating, we are focused on the breath, and through the breath, we focus on the body; we focus on the mind and mental states; we focus on phenomena and our reactions to phenomena.

But that focus on body and mind has a point: it is governed by the four kinds of striving. We aren’t simply to be aware of phenomena or our own mental states in order to see their impermanence. That sort of focus, I think, often gets cart before horse: it’s an advanced practice. Instead we are mindful in order to distinguish wholesome from unwholesome, and strive to foster the former while avoiding and abandoning the latter.

And we aren’t just supposed to do this while on the cushion. Our activity on the cushion is practice for life, so the same strategy should be used whenever and wherever possible. This, as much as anything, is the Buddhist message, difficult though it may be to bring to proficiency. Be mindful as you sit at home, as you are with friends and family, as you are at work or on vacation: note when anger or greed might arise, and strive to avoid those situations as best you can. Note when anger or greed do arise, and strive to abandon them. Strive to foster states of charity and loving-kindness, as best you can. And strive to bring a fulfilled wisdom to bear in all your interactions.

Easier said than done! But a complete undertaking of practice would be impossible without it.

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  1. mufi says:

    This, as much as anything, is the Buddhist message, difficult though it may be to bring to proficiency….

    Well said, Doug.

    I’ll go so far as to say that I find this “wholesome from unwholesome” distinction between mental states – and, of course, the “cultivation” practice that’s related to it – to be more or less what “Secular Buddhism” means to me (and, of course, others more active than I in this movement/institution may very well disagree).

    Thanks for helping me with that recognition (even if unintentionally :-)).

    • Doug Smith says:

      Thanks, mufi. I think it’s the practice that makes secular Buddhism more than just something of scholarly interest, at any rate.

      • mufi says:

        Yeah, I don’t know that I’d call it “Buddhism without Beliefs” – as per the Batchelor book title. At the very least, there’s an assumption – if not a belief (albeit a reasonable one) – here that wholesome mental states are generally worthier than unwholesome ones, as you’ve defined them above. But it’s definitely “secular” insofar as it focuses our attention and concern on this-wordly conditions and consequences.

        • Doug Smith says:

          Right. Well, Buddhism (or any path, practice, or approach to life) that’s literally ‘without beliefs’ is a nonstarter. It could be of no conceivable interest to anyone, like the proposed god of whom it is impossible we know anything.

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    “[T]here’s an assumption – if not a belief (albeit a reasonable one) – here that wholesome mental states are generally worthier than unwholesome ones . . .”

    I would say that this is what makes mindfulness different than simply following a set of injunctions. If you are paying attention, you will experience directly why unwholesome states are unwholesome — they lead to suffering, both immediately and in a secondary way when you experience the effect of your unwholesome reactivity on others. It especially takes practice to observe the dukkha present in craving, which we so often unmindfully mistake for pleasure.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      That’s also why, although formal practice should never be abstracted from its practical application, it can’t be ignored, either. Until we develop the stability and equanimity to examine the texture of our experience closely, our ability to tell wholesome from unwholesome mindstates will be muted.

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