The Perfection of Energy

By Jack Lawlor A bodhisattva strives to cultivate wisdom and compassion simultaneously in order to liberate all beings. Let us examine a very important characteristic of the Bodhisattva Way, the Perfection of Energy.

There are many words and phrases we commonly use to describe a perceived lack of energy: tired, weary, exhausted, burnt-out, fatigued, etc. We are all familiar with these feelings. Since there often seems to be too little time, we try to work very fast, but in doing so, we become alienated from the work itself, from the person we are trying to help, and from the present moment.

We should examine whether our weariness is a kind of "false" fatigue— false in the sense that it is not the work which physically tires us, but the fact that we are so alienated from it that the present moment ceases to nourish us. What can mindfulness practice offer us in this circumstance? Can it provide energy and enable us to "bring joy to one person in the morning and to ease the pain of one person in the afternoon"?

The Seventh Precept of the Order of Interbeing urges us to practice conscious breathing not only in the meditation hall, but in our daily lives, where tiredness is most likely to overtake us. We can maintain harmony between body and mind through the practice of following our breath. Aware of each moment, we touch life, like the hand of God touching the hand of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistinc Chapel. When we touch life in this way, we are one with great energy. Living in this way can transform tasks that used to seem tedious into an experience of centeredncss, and peace, and become liberated from "false fatigue."

My father, a retired Chicago fireman, suffered from emphysema, and was hospitalized frequently during the past three years. Over Labor Day weekend, while Thay was in Chicago, he died peacefully.

I visited him almost every day he was in the hospital. Because it was over an hour away, each trip took about four hours. Unaccustomed to so much driving and so many rush hours, I often came home feeling very tense, tired, and dispersed.

At first, I frequently failed to practice sitting meditation because there was so little time after working downtown and then visiting the hospital. But I came to realize that I needed to practice consistently to transform the dispersion and fatigue into mindfulness and energy. If I allowed myself to become too fatigued, I would not be a very good visitor at the hospital. I would not be able to help anyone.

So, I became more steady and constant in my practice during the long period of my Dad's hospitalization, and the practice described in the Seventh Precept became my best friend. When daily circumstances did not allow a time or place for sitting meditation, I found a means to practice walking meditation, in a nearby park, on sidewalks, or down the long hospital corridors.

Buddhist teachings frequently address the subjects of energy and sustained effort. On his death bed, the Buddha urged his followers to work out their salvation "with diligence." The Dhammapada describes how the Master meditates "with great perseverance," how "it is sweet to live arduously, and to master yourself," and how "it is you who must make the effort; the masters only point the way." In Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition, we find the following beautiful verse of The Refuge Chant in the Plum Village Chanting Book: "I vow to practice wholeheartedly, so that understanding and compassion will flower."

In religious practice, energy and inspiration can, however, become too intense. We might choose to become Buddhist with a capital "B," or perhaps Zen Buddhist with a capital "Z," and in the process, sever our ties with anyone who is not Buddhist. We hurry about to organized Buddhist talks and retreats without regard to responsibilities we owe our families or friends. If we do not carefully integrate Buddhist practice into our daily lives, the practice may lead to bitterness and frustration. So we need to know the warning signals, to find a gauge that will tell us if our zeal is excessive, or our practice out of balance. Warning signals might include harsh judgments toward those who either don't practice or who don't meet our standards, intolerance toward non-practicing family members, or perhaps a dualistic feeling that only organized "religious" activities are worth our time and attention. If we sense this happening, we may wish to take a fresh, detached look at our practice and determine if we have set too many "spiritual" goals or projects for ourselves.

What is the right path between sloth or fatigue, on the one hand, and excessive zeal on the other? In one sutra, the Buddha encounters a monk named Sona who practices with energy, yet is unable to find liberation. The Buddha knew that Sona had once been a musician, so he asked him, "If the strings of a lute are too taut, is it tuneful and easy to play?" "No, Lord," was Sona's response. "And if the strings of the lute arc loo loose, is it tuneful and easy to play?" Again, Sona replied, "No, Lord." So the Buddha asked, "What if the strings are neither too taut nor too loose, but adjusted to an even pitch. Does your lute then have a wonderful sound and be easily played?" Sona replied, "Certainly, Lord. Then the most beautiful music can be made." The Buddha concluded, "It is the same with our practice. If energy is applied too strongly, it will lead to restlessness, and if it is loo lax it will lead to lassitude. Therefore, Sona, keep your energy in balance, and in this way focus your attention." This is the "middle way."

Our challenge is to find a practice we are comfortable with. If the practice is too "madcap" or grim, we will abandon it before it becomes our good friend. But if we wait until Thay or another prominent teacher visits our city for a retreat, the practice will not become a part of our lives. We can practice conscious breathing and mindfulness at any time, supported by a Sangha. If we practice buddhism with a small "b," buddhism without excessive form, we will not alienate our family and friends. I hope you will forgive this metaphor, but I sometimes think of it as "stealth" Buddhism—real, effective, and hard to detect.

All of us experience exhaustion and fatigue—physical and spiritual, from time to time. But in a healthy Sangha, there is always someone strong when you tire, someone calm when you panic. In turn, you can be strong for others when they are weary or overwhelmed.

This Sangha is not limited to those who practice together weekly. We are the direct beneficiaries of the wisdom of many who have gone before, who practiced in times of similar or worse difficulties. When we practice mindfulness, we are the continuation of our spiritual ancestors, and we also draw on the strength of the teachers in our family's bloodline. It is easy to do this at any time, by just looking in the mirror or at the palm of your hand. When my father died, my mother gave me his Chicago Fire Department ring, given to him after 35 years of service. To my surprise, engraved on the ring was a kind of Dharma talk my father had been quietly giving me throughout my entire life: "Dedication, Discipline, Integrity."


Our spiritual and bloodline teachers nourish us like roots: they are sometimes difficult to see or delect, but they are there, providing sustenance and support. In the presence of the greater Sangha, there will always be one who is not tired, whose practice and stability will help protect us from excessive weariness or zeal, and keep us on the middle way, the wonderful path of practice.

Jack Lawlor, True Direction, is a Dharma teacher and an attorney, living in Evanston, Illinois.

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