In the experiences of this life, diligence has been synonymous with effort. The effort was applied in order to make something happen or stop something from happening, to gain something or get rid of something, to become someone or to undo what I had become. All of these diligent and sometimes vigorous efforts were based on a concept; a mental construct. These concepts were constructed from preferences and judgments, that may have been conscious or unconscious. Concepts that may have been laid down in the mind stream from pre birth or preverbal time as a result of the mostly unconscious reactions and responses to basic drives of survival and the need for connection. Or concepts that developed over time that were more conscious based on preferences, judgments or moral principles. All in all diligence and the vigor that sometimes accompanied it was mostly founded from concepts that promised something different than what was happening in present time.
These diligences were and still are, generally, attempts to bring about benefit for self or other or to turn away from ways of being that caused harm. Often, though, when there was a particular, almost blind, vigor propelling diligence, these efforts led instead to suffering for self or other. So focused on the conceptual outcome, there was delusion about the long term benefit and ignorance of the present wake of suffering that I was leaving behind. Examples of this are prevalent in many of the well intentioned efforts by humans to bring about ease. Wanda Sykes in a standup routine shares a story about running behind trucks spraying DDT to get rid of mosquitoes when she was a child which may have contributed to the breast cancer that developed. Paving roads through the jungle here in Costa Rica allows ease of transport of goods and services and also causes toxic runoff into the rivers and the ocean. It is the cause of thousands of wildlife deaths, and stimulates housing development for folks like me; stripping away the forests and diminishing the natural beauty that we sought and why we moved here in the first place.
Virya is not diligence driven by blind commitment to a specific outcome regardless of the effects. Virya, in this sense, is like the water cycle on this earth. There is no terminal point and no beginning. There is just the movement of water from vapor floating in the sky as clouds, to droplets falling as rain, penetrating into springs and and aquifers, rising and flowing as streams and rivers, gathering as lakes and oceans, freezing as glaciers and warming to rise as vapor… Each step just as it is. The water isn’t thinking “I want to skip the cloud part this time.” Or “I want to just continue to trickle and bubble as a stream because it’s the best of me.” It moves in accordance with the rhythm of the stones, the earth, the warmth and the coolness. Virya is the essential nature of water; flexible, responsive, steady.
Sometimes diligence has been about speed. When the greatest imperative has been to get to the conceptual goal as quickly as possible regardless of the effect on self or other in the process or the effect on the quality of the result. Like rushing in the car to a mountain trail and then rushing up the trail to the vista and then rushing home to beat the weekend traffic; getting frustrated at the slow drivers, the strolling hikers and oneself for not planning it all better so there wouldn’t need to be rushing. Or after reading the expected maturation milestones of a child, trying to speed up the process so that they’ll be ahead of the game or pressuring them to move quicker because they are “behind”. At the end of Linda Atwater’s emails is this African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far go together.” This sums up the diligence speed that results in selfishness. It’s all about me.
Virya is not about speed. It is like the vigorous life force of mother earth. Unrelenting, but adaptable, abundantly generous but balanced in giving her resources just as needed, patient but insistent. This virya is an essential quality of the action of all of her children, even humans. Like the life forces of earth, this diligence is the patient mother of all of our efforts, it is the seed of all efforts, even those that run aground or go astray as a result of our speediness.
Sometimes diligence has been used to separate, judge, elevate or diminish, because of preference, greed, or hate. This type of diligence has its origin in fixed concepts about identity, morality, spirituality and any ideation that highlights the separate self or freezes a concept in time and space. This is the diligences rooted in the idea that something can be worthless or, on the other hand, inherently more valuable. It is the dogmatization of theology. It is the fighting for a political cause that makes no room for alternate perspectives and experiences, hiding behind a protective cloud of righteous concepts. It is about benefit for me and mine.
There is no separate self in virya. It is like the warmth and light of the sun radiating out on mountain peak, to the lowland; equanimous in its objective. As the sun is ever-present even in cloud filled skies and ever-returning from the longest night, this diligence never turns away from the path of peace for all beings, no matter how hard we cling to and idea, or how angrily we resist, or how haughty we may have been in our self aggrandizement. It is similar to the understanding that we are not the makers of the light and warmth of the sun, and that we cannot diminish the sun with our ideas or actions. Virya, this vigorous diligence does us, in a sense. We do not do it.
The practice of virya is the practice of diligently slowing down and patiently persisting like the earth. This practice is responding to present awareness, being flexible and open to the changes and alternative perceptions and ways of being like the water in its cycling on earth. This practice of diligence is the practice of relinquishing control and setting aside the ideas that reinforce a separate self and that lead to greed, hatred and isolation. Like laying back to receive the warmth and light of the sun just as it is, just as we are.
With these words I pay homage to all buddhas, bodhisattvas, sentient beings, and the totality. May these words not confuse, bring doubt, or harm, but bring ease and warmth and an end to suffering for all beings throughout all times and in all directions.
Here are a few more resources for studying and reflecting on virya.
From The Noble Great Vehicle Sūtra: The Questions of Sāgaramati. Chapter Five. Practicing Diligence. https://read.84000.co/translation/toh152.html?part=UT22084-058-001-chapter-5#UT22084-058-001-chapter-5
Virya Paramita: Universal Energy and Personal Failure. Kathie Fischer. https://www.upaya.org/2015/11/kathie-fischer-virya-paramita-six-perfections-part-7a/
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