The Eightfold Path: Right Effort

It’s not about striving for success, says Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön. Right effort is a graceful fine-tuning.

Lama Karma Yeshe Chodron
30 March 2023
Photo © Mel Karlberg / Stocksy United

As a newcomer to Buddhist teachings, I was rather wary of “right effort.” A first-generation Latinx American steeped in success overdrive, I’d quite enough of implicit performance standards that exhausted and oppressed. No matter how hard I strived, I still struggled with pain, grief, and lack of fulfillment. I didn’t want a new rule book. I wanted to be happy and not to suffer, simple as that.

Luckily, I soon learned that how we respond to our doubts is a crucial point of practice. Engaging the teachings with curiosity—neither dismissing them reactively nor swallowing them indiscriminately—is a vital portal to understanding the dharma. It breeds receptivity and sharpens prajna, the precise knowledge that discerns things as they are, without ignorance and projections getting in the way. The resulting open-minded, supple attitude empowers experiential analysis of the buddhadharma, starting right where we are. Over twenty years later, this integrative approach has never failed to revolutionize my practice and life in marvelous ways.

Exploring right effort through this lens reveals its immense reach. To begin, it helps to trace the phrase translated as “right effort” in English to the source languages of Buddhist heritage. “Right” translates the Pali word samma (samyak in Sanskrit), meaning complete, genuine, in perfect harmony. It connotes “to right,” as in to restore to an accurate position, in alignment with what is “true,” like an arrow, instrument, or wheel that is finely crafted, even-keeled, and fit for its purpose.

The English word “effort” renders the Pali word vayama (vyayama in Sanskrit). It means to extend, stretch, exert energy, train, and fathom, as in the distance indicated by outstretched arms as well as the act of measuring that span.

This semantic understanding softens any discordant associations with terminology we usually meet only in translation. We encounter the teachings more nakedly, on their own terms. Right effort sounds responsive to me now, rather than autocratic.

Delving deeper unearths more interconnections. On the eightfold path to liberation, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration are seminal to training in samadhi, or meditative immersion. Right effort, the first in this triad, levels the field for right mindfulness and concentration by implementing the four investments of our energy recommended by the Buddha: (1) neutralizing active, unwholesome mind states, (2) discouraging inactive, unwholesome mind states, (3) nurturing active, wholesome mind states, and (4) encouraging inactive, wholesome mind states. The term “wholesome,” central to understanding right effort, connotes well-being and holistic integrity, in harmony with the tenor of “right” and “true.”

Right effort speaks directly to our samsaric condition. Life is a continuous string of choosing this over that, pouring our energy into fashioning a rare and beautiful life. All beings are united in this daily endeavor, but our efforts often yield spotty results at best.

Why? We are not lazy. You and I, everyone from the queen to the ant, are busily efforting all day, every day. We strive to line things up just so, hoping to achieve our aims. We adjust course often. Yet unwavering happiness devoid of suffering remains elusive. Our communities and planet fare no better. Somehow, our efforts and aspirations diverge.

Right effort addresses this discrepancy. Efforts that are “right” fulfill our heartfelt yearning for happiness, free of suffering. By exercising gentle precision, right effort gauges, crafts, and refines our mind states in attunement with the four noble truths. Guided by right view and intention, the practices of the eightfold path that are central to training in precise knowledge, right effort traverses the waters smoothed by right speech, action, and livelihood, which are the eightfold path practices that emphasize training in shila, or ethical discipline. Right effort, then, is the compassionate stewardship of the mind that steers our way to liberation.

To experience the restorative action of right effort, we can begin with its pivotal role in cultivating meditative immersion. In meditation, we experiment with discerning our mind states qualitatively, learning their flavors and impact. We test remedies that neutralize and discourage mind states in disharmony with the path, such as agitation, dullness, and other hindrances, taking the results to heart. We encourage and nurture lucidity, stillness, joy, and other factors conducive to samadhi, savoring their sweetness. In this increasingly wholesome environment, the heart-mind heals.

This is the domain of right effort: settling the mind, becoming familiar with its textures, and recalibrating with alacrity to foster samadhi and dissuade the attachment, aversion, and delusion that hinder it. Less a striving for success than graceful fine-tuning, right effort sustains meditative equipoise, priming the mind for liberating insight into the nature of things. In time, our investments of wise energy transform our mind.
Resilient, mind inclines spontaneously toward abiding in its intrinsic excellent qualities.

The ecosystem of mind flourishes as the dross obscuring its native splendor falls away. The gold of mind’s innate tranquility, insight, bliss, and more—present all along—shines through to an ever-greater extent. Mind regains equilibrium within its natural rhythm, free of the turbulence wrought by mind states inimical to blissful ease.

Intimacy with the subtle sweetness of what accords with liberation and the bitterness of what opposes it spreads beyond meditation. Right effort blooms from within, thriving in the encounter with everyday life. Natural distaste develops for acts in disharmony with the trainings in prajna and shila. Wise ethical conduct inspires joy. Within the very stuff of our days, right effort promotes well-being and compassion. Life organically highlights the dharma as our true refuge from harm.

The infinite interconnection of all eight path elements comes into relief. None acts individually. Collectively, they reinforce and advance one another. The eightfold path expresses an indivisible whole, transcending false binaries of right–wrong, efforting–idling, success–failure. Nothing to add or remove, so much to be.

Ultimately, buddhanature manifests fully, resplendent with the utmost benefit for all beings radiating from our own consummate awakening. The active repose of buddhahood, replete with benevolence, wisdom, and power, is effortless.

Lama Karma Yeshe Chodron

Lama Karma Yeshe Chodron

Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön is a scholar, teacher, and translator in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. She divides her time between the Rigpe Dorje Institute at Pullahari Monastery, Kathmandu, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Before studying Buddhism, she completed graduate degrees in biology and law and worked as a litigator in Miami and Silicon Valley. With her husband, Lama Karma Zopa Jigme, she cofounded Prajna Fire and the Prajna Sparks podcast. She also co-hosts the Opening Dharma Access: Listening to BIPOC teachers podcast.