Willpower and the Buddhist Perfection of Virya, or Energy

When you want to make a change in your life, have you ever wished you skip over the willpower part? If only you could leap directly to that deep conviction that you are intimately connected to all beings, so anger wouldn’t arise in the first place and you wouldn’t have to resist indulging it. If only you could suddenly find yourself four months into a new exercise routine, when you would be very familiar with how good it makes you feel and you would naturally be motivated to do it.

Sadly, in the midst of a discussion about willpower and its relationship to Lojong, Buddhist mind training, Yangsi Rinpoche warned us that Lojong is not about forcing oneself to do something or to refrain from something. It is not a fast-acting remedy to laziness or a lack of self-control that is meant to be applied in emergencies. Rather, he said, it is like a holistic approach to health that requires time to have an effect, and this effect is based in understanding, not in our ability to force ourselves to act in a particular way.

Rinpoche’s teaching is certainly consistent with my own experience of Buddhist practice. At first – and sometimes for a very long time – it takes a great deal of effort to conform to a particular practice, such as not misusing sexual energy. Our habits and desires pull us in one direction, while our aspiration to change pulls us in another. Over time, though, by carefully observing the workings of cause and effect in our life, we see clearly how misusing sexual energy leads to suffering for ourselves and others. We become converted to the teaching; it takes less effort to conform to a particular practice because we understand its relationship to suffering or happiness, and we naturally seek happiness and want to avoid suffering.

However, according to the Buddhist teachings there is no way around having to use and cultivate energy if we want to make any progress on a spiritual (or any) path. To use an analogy from physics, the energy (force) we apply to something multiplied by the progress we make (the distance we move it) equals work. Spiritual practice can be hard work. The effort and energy required to create change – to stop something already in motion, such as a habit, to redirect energy, or to start something new – Buddhists call Virya, translated as energy, effort, zeal, vigor, vitality, or perseverance. It is listed as one of the Mahayana perfections, or paramitas, which are necessary for awakening oneself and others. It is also listed in the Theravadin tradition as one of the five spiritual faculties necessary for spiritual progress. 

To me the “willpower” described in psychological terms by Baumeister and Tierney is synonymous with Virya, and I appreciate the light their books shines on this sometimes elusive human faculty. The research they describe clearly proves that willpower is, or acts like, an energy, in that it can be depleted and replenished. Like our physical energy it seems to build up naturally over time with rest and nourishment, and gets used up when we apply ourselves to certain kinds of tasks. What is particularly fascinating to me is that willpower is depleted in many different ways (keeping track of tasks undone, dealing with physical pain, and making decisions, for example) and that its supply never appears to be infinite. 

It makes sense that Virya or willpower is an energy – after all, “energy” is one of the translations of Virya. This is a good argument for using Virya, like all energy, wisely. Ideally we will apply our energy to things that will lead to “progress” – healthier habits, better states of mind, more harmonious relationships, etc. - but also to a situation what will require less energy, and perhaps even increase our overall supply of energy. 

Buddhist practice is aimed at doing exactly this. As Rinpoche said, the long-term change comes from a change in our understanding. In my experience, this is that process of conversion, seeing and experiencing the value of a certain behavior of body, speech or mind oneself, in a very personal and real way. In the context of Lojong this might be taking on the practice of imagining all beings have been one’s loving and nurturing mother in a past life, and working diligently at it until one is so convinced of its beneficial effects that one would not want to live without such a view. It would not take so much energy to maintain the practice, because the motivation to do so would arise naturally. The stronger this practice got, the less often anger or greed would arise in response to other beings, and the less energy would be expended in restraining anger and greed.

But… it still takes energy/willpower/work to get there, although many of us (like me) secretly hope for a clever way to get to the place where we are “converted” with a minimum of the grueling, exhausting, often frustrating and uninspiring work. The folly of this hope is illustrated in the following story. Tenzin Palmo, a nun in the Tibetan tradition, encountered Togdens during her training. The Togdens were ordained monks who engaged in particularly rigorous practices like living as hermits, taking almost no food, or sitting out in the cold wrapped in wet sheets and drying the sheets with an energy they summoned from within. They were renowned as spiritual adepts, but one the Togden once told Tenzin Palmo:

“You think we yogis are doing some very high, fantastic, esoteric practice and if only you had the teachings you also could really take off! Let me tell you, however, that there is nothing I am doing that you have not been taught. The only difference is that I am doing it and you aren’t.”1

1. Mackenzie, Vicki. Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo's Quest for Enlightenment. Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Baumeister & Tierney

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I am a Zen practitioner, teacher, priest and author. I've been practicing Zen since 1995 and did monastic training from 2001-2010, and am the author of the most recent edition of Idiot's Guides: Zen Living. I am the priest and teacher at Bright Way Zen in Portland, Oregon, and often blog on the center's website, www.brightwayzen.org.

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