The fourth of the six far-reaching attitudes (perfections) is perseverance. It’s defined as a state of mind that energetically engages in constructive behavior and maintains effort in it. But it entails much more than just sticking to some positive task, it includes heroic courage not to give up and joy in doing something constructive.
This is not about having a really hard-working attitude, where we hate our work but still do it anyway out of a sense of duty, guilt, obligation or something like that. Nor is it about going at it everyday mechanically like a workaholic. It’s not what we call “short-term enthusiasm,” where we’re really excited about doing something, putting in a tremendous amount of energy into it, but then burn out and give up after a week. We’re talking here about sustained effort and enthusiasm, and that’s why it’s also called perseverance. The reason it’s sustainable is because we enjoy what we’re doing – all of the positive work we’re engaging in. Perseverance, coupled with heroic courage, is the best opponent to laziness and procrastination.
There are three kinds of perseverance, the first of which is armor-like. This is the willingness to go on and on and on, no matter how long it takes or difficult it gets. Whatever happens, we’re not going to get lazy or discouraged. If we know that the Dharma path will take a really, really long time, and if we’re willing to even go to the hells to be able to help others, then it’s impossible to become lazy or discouraged by any smaller problem that might come up. We have an armor-like attitude that, “Nothing, nothing whatsoever, is going to shake me!” This kind of heroic courage protects us from any difficulty we encounter, because we’ve already decided that no matter how difficult things get or how long it takes, we’re going to do it.
In a way, the longer we expect enlightenment to take, the quicker it’ll come; whereas if we expect it to come immediately and easily, well, then it takes forever. Many great texts and teachers have said that if we’re seeking instant, easy enlightenment, then it’s basically a sign of our own selfishness and laziness. We want results, but we’re not into spending a lot of time helping others. We just want to get the delicious dessert of enlightenment. Essentially we’re lazy! We don’t want to put in the hard work that’s involved. We want enlightenment on sale, and we want it as cheap as we can get it. But, this kind of bargain can never work out.
When we have compassion, with the attitude that, “I’m going to work for three zillion eons to build up positive force in helping others,” the enormous scope of this heroic courage helps to bring enlightenment much more quickly.
Perseverance Applied to Constructive Actions
The second type of perseverance is the strong effort in engaging in positive, constructive actions to build up the positive force needed to bring us to enlightenment. This means that we’re not lazy about doing our preliminary practices – prostrations and so forth – nor lazy in studying, learning and meditating. We do need to do all of these things, and we should delight in doing them.
Perseverance of Working for the Benefit of Limited Beings
The third type of perseverance is the strong effort involved in working to help and benefit others, which refers to the four ways to gather others under our positive influence and working with 11 types of people to help that are also discussed in terms of far-reaching ethical discipline. They’re not exactly identical, however. Basically, here it means to actively help these kinds of people in the various ways that would be appropriate with this perseverance. We take pleasure in doing all of this, feeling really happy that we’re able to benefit others. Additionally, with patience, we’re going to endure whatever hardships are involved, and with ethical self-discipline, we’re going to avoid all of those disturbing emotions that would prevent us from actually helping them. It’s clear how the various far-reaching attitudes support each other.
The Three Types of Laziness
There are three types of laziness that might interrupt our perseverance. In order to practice and develop perseverance, we need to overcome laziness.
1. The Laziness of Lethargy and Procrastination
Many of us have first-hand experience of this type of laziness, where we always want to put things off until tomorrow. To overcome this, we should think about and meditate on death and impermanence. We need to understand that we will certainly die, that we have absolutely no clue when death will come, and that this precious human life that gives us the opportunity to do so many amazing things is difficult to come by.
My favourite Zen koan is, “Death can come at any time. Relax.” It’s good to ponder this statement. It’s true that death can strike at any moment, but if we’re so uptight and nervous and tense about it, then we’re never going to accomplish anything. We’ll feel, “I have to do everything today!” and become fanatics, which is not helpful. Yes, we’re going to die and it could happen any second, but if we want to take advantage of this life then we have to be relaxed about these two facts. If we always have an intense fear of death, then we’ll always feel that we’ll never have enough time.
2. The Laziness of Clinging to What Is Petty
The second type of laziness is being attached to trivial matters, which again, many of us will understand easily. We waste so much time watching TV, gossiping and chatting nonsense with friends, talking about sports, and so on. This stuff is regarded as a waste of time, and is basically a form of laziness. Simply: it’s so much easier to sit in front of the television than it is to meditate. Right?! We become attached to these ordinary, mundane things through our own laziness, not wanting to try and do something that might be more difficult, but much more meaningful.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t stop for some entertainment or relaxation, because sometimes we need to, in order to revitalize ourselves. The point is to not become attached to it all and overdo it because of laziness. We can always take a break, go for a walk, watch a TV show – but we don’t need to become attached to it. When we’ve had enough, we go back to the more positive things we were doing before.
The best way to overcome clinging to what is petty is to think about how the pleasures and satisfaction we get from mundane accomplishments and activities never bring us lasting happiness. It doesn’t matter how many movies we see, or how much we gossip about celebrities, or how much we travel to different places: it will never bring us an ounce of lasting happiness. The only way to get this lasting happiness is to train ourselves in the Dharma methods that lead to it. We could spend all of our time training to be able to kick a ball into a net, but that’s never going to get us a better rebirth.
So, the main point to take away is to not be attached. We might do something for relaxation, and that’s fine. But to become attached to the activity and spend all of our effort on it because we’re too lazy to do anything more constructive – that’s just a waste. This kind of laziness really is a hindrance to us really taking joy in doing constructive things.
3. The Laziness of Being Discouraged
The third type of laziness is where we have delusions of incapability – that things are simply too difficult for us and we’ll never be able to do them – and so we're discouraged. How often do we think, “Oh, I’m not even going to attempt that – how could some like me ever do it?” A big goal like enlightenment can seem daunting, but to not even attempt is a form of laziness.
To get over this, we need to recall Buddha-nature – the fact that each of us has various amazing qualities and potentials that we can fulfill. If so many people are capable of working from morning until night just to make a little bit of profit selling chewing gum or who knows what, then we’re definitely capable of putting in the time to achieve something much more significant. If we can stand in line for hours and hours to get a ticket to go to a concert that lasts just 90 minutes, then we should never think that we’re incapable of doing something constructive that leads to the everlasting goal of enlightenment.
The Four Supports for Developing Perseverance
Shantideva describes four supports that help us to develop perseverance.
1. Firm Conviction
We gain the strong intention to put the teachings into practice from having firm conviction in the positive qualities of the Dharma, and the benefit it brings us.
2. Steadfastness and Self-Pride
We need steadfastness and stability based on self-confidence and an understanding of Buddha-nature. When we’re really convinced about Buddha-nature – the basic potential within all of us – then we’ll automatically have incredible self-confidence, which Shantideva calls "pride" or "self-pride." If we have self-confidence, we’ll be stable and steady in our effort. No matter what ups and downs there are, we’ll persevere with heroic courage.
The third support is taking joy in what we’re doing. It’s a feeling of satisfaction and contentment with what we’re doing with our lives. It is the most self-satisfying and fulfilling thing to work at developing ourselves, and to work at helping others. When we do this, it naturally produces a great sense of joy within us.
4. Letting Go
The final support is knowing when to take a rest. We shouldn’t exert ourselves to the point where we just drop and give up and can’t face going back to what we were doing. We need to find the middle way between pushing ourselves too hard and treating ourselves like a baby. This point is not saying that every time we feel just a little bit tired, we should lie down for a nap!
Nevertheless, Trijang Rinpoche, the late Junior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, said that when we’re in a really bad, negative mood and none of the other Dharma methods seem to be helping us, then the best thing is to take a nap. When we wake up our mood will be different, just by the nature of taking a nap. This is very practical advice.
Two Further Factors for Developing Heroic Courage
Shantideva points out two further factors that help.
1. Readily Accepting
The first is to readily accept what we need to practice, and accept what we need to give up. In addition, we need to accept the hardships involved. All of this is based on realistically examining each point and our ability in dealing with them. This entails accepting that we actually need this constructive act and that constructive act in order to help others and reach enlightenment. We accept there are things we’ll need to stop doing, and that there’s going to be hardships involved.
We accept it and take it upon ourselves, knowing our ability and what is realistically involved. We shouldn’t have an unrealistic attitude. If we plan to do 100,000 prostrations, we have to know that it’s not going to be easy. Our legs are going to hurt, our palms will become sore, we’re definitely going to be tired. So, we remind ourselves of the benefits.
What about the stuff we need to stop doing? For a start, we need to make time in order to do it, and that can be difficult enough already – cutting things out just to make time. We examine ourselves honestly to see, “Can I do it?” We accept the reality of what’s involved and put our hearts into it with joyous enthusiasm.
2. Taking Control
Shantideva’s second point for developing heroic perseverance is that, once we have a realistic attitude of accepting the above, we take control to actually apply ourselves. With willpower, we don’t just let ourselves act in any old type of way – especially laziness. We take control and apply ourselves to the positive work we want to accomplish. As we would say in English, we “put our heart into it.”
When we’re truly convinced of the benefits of practicing the Dharma and see how the happiness it can provide is incomparable, perseverance in it naturally develops. It won’t matter what’s happening in our life, if we have a strong motivation combined with perseverance, then like a hero, we’ll achieve our aims.
Perseverance helps us to overcome one of the greatest obstacles many of us face as we try to reach our goals: laziness. The methods described here are useful not only as we progress along our path to enlightenment, but also for our more mundane aims throughout our life.