The purification of conduct established by the prior three factors of moral discipline serves as the basis for the next factors of the path which focus on concentration — right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The power of sustained concentration acts as the support for insight-wisdom, the primary tool for deliverance. Right concentration brings the requisite stillness to the mind; to do so, however, the factor of concentration needs the aid of effort and mindfulness. Right effort provides the energy demanded by the task, right mindfulness the steadying points for awareness. (A simile from the suttas>>>)

Right effort

The Buddha begins the training of the mind with right effort. He places a special stress on this factor because the practice of the path requires work, energy and exertion.

The awakened one points out the path, you yourself must make the effort.

The goal, the Buddha says, is for the energetic person not for the lazy one. Here we see the  great optimism of Buddhism. Through effort, through exertion, we can transform the whole structure of our lives. We are not the hopeless victims of our past conditioning; we are not the victims of our genes or of our environment. Through mental training, through practice and exercise, it is possible to raise the mind to the high plateau of wisdom, enlightenment and liberation.

The four aspects of right effort

If we observe the states that arise in the mind, we see that they fall into two basic classes

Unwholesome states
Unwholesome states of mind are rooted in the defilements, in greed, hatred, delusion and in their offshoots. To prevent these states from arising we apply:

The effort to prevent unarisen unwholesome states from arising

The first side of right effort aims at overcoming unwholesome states, states of mind tainted by defilements. The defilements that impede concentration are usually presented as the "five hindrances" : sensual desire, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and doubt. They are referred to as "hindrances" because they block the path to liberation; they grow up and over the mind preventing calm and insight, the primary instruments for progress. By maintaining watchfulness over the senses, we are able to prevent the unarisen defilement from arising.

coming soon: Ashoka course on the five hindrances taught by Joseph Goldstein.

The effort to abandon the arisen unwholesome states
Despite the effort at sense control the defilements may still surface. When we see that a defilement has arisen we have to apply energy to eliminate it.

This can be done by a variety of methods. In the Vitakkasanthana Sutta sutta (Majjhima Nikaya N0. 20) the Buddha gives five methods for training the mind to overcome unwholesome states.

Wholesome states
Along with the removing of defilements one cultivates wholesome states of mind such as the eight factors of the path, the four foundations of mindfulness, and the seven factors of enlightenment. To strengthen these unwholesome states we:

  • Develop the undeveloped wholesome states
    We have many beautiful, potential qualities stored up in the mind, for example, loving kindness and compassion. We have to bring these up to the surface of the mind to make them shine forth.
  • Strengthen and cultivate the existing  wholesome states.
    We must avoid falling into complacency and have to make effort to sustain the  wholesome states that have been developed and to develop them to full growth and completion.

By applying these four aspects of right effort, step-by-step, we cleanse the mind of its defilements until it becomes bright and pure and radiant.

Right intention and right effort

It might seem right intention and right effort are very similar.

The middle way (Not too tight, not too loose)

Right effort requires caution. The mind is a very delicate instrument and its development requires a precise balancing of the different mental faculties. We need keen mindfulness to recognize what kind of mental state has  arisen and a certain degree of wisdom to keep the mind in balance to prevent it from  veering to extremes. This is the middle way.

Effort should be balanced without exhausting the mind on the one hand and without letting it fall into stagnation on the other. There's a story in the Buddhist literature that illustrates this.

Practicing the path must be done in the same way, balancing energy and calm.

To develop the mind further, to make it capable of gaining concentration and insight, we have to enter the practice of the next factor of the path, right mindfulness.

Right mindfulness

Right mindfulness is the clear awareness of what is happening in us and around us at the successive moments of experience.  Mindfulness is a form of attention. To practice mindfulness involves attending to our experience.

But mindfulness differs somewhat from ordinary attention. Ordinarily the faculty of attention is used as an instrument for serving our purposes -- our biological and psychological needs. Attention serves as an instrument of the rest of the mind, so that we notice what the mind demands and desires,  we notice the things that serve  the mind’s desires; we neglect the other things, we don’t attend them.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a kind of attention which operates independently of all ulterior aims and purposes. Mindfulness is an attention which observes our experience, carefully and precisely, always attending to what is occurring what is in the present, without limiting the field of observation, without making any discriminations, without subordinating the acts of attention to external purposes.

The four foundations of mindfulness

The Buddha systemized the practice of mindfulness according to the objects of mindfulness:

  • The mindful contemplation of the body
  • The mindful contemplation of feelings
  • The mindful contemplation of states of mind
  • The mindful contemplation of mind objects

The Buddha says that the four foundations of mindfulness form the only way that leads to the attainment of purity, to the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, to the end of pain and grief, to the entering upon the right path and the realization of Nibbana.

These will be taught in the Ashoka course on Vipassana meditation. For a brief introduction click here.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness >>>

Right effort and right mindfulness

Right effort and right mindfulness work together in close cooperation. Right mindfulness makes us aware what kind of state has arisen. Then through right effort we apply our energy to eliminate unwholesome states – states that lead us to distraction and entanglement. And through right effort we strive to arouse and strengthen the wholesome state that lead to calm and clarity.

Right concentration

Right effort and right mindfulness are directed to the eighth factor of the path, right concentration.

Concentration here is wholesome one-pointedness of the mind, wholesome unification of the mind. To develop concentration we generally begin with a single object and attempt to fix the mind on this object so that it remains there without wavering. We use right effort to keep the mind focused on the object, right mindfulness to be aware of the hindrances to concentration, then we use effort to eliminate hindrances and strengthen the aids to concentration. With repeated practice the mind becomes gradually stilled and tranquil. With further practice we can develop deep states of absorption.

The stilled mind — gateway to wisdom
When the mind is stilled and collected it serves as the means to develop insight. Having developed right concentration, when the mind has become a powerful tool, we direct it to the four foundations of mindfulness, contemplating the body, feeling, states of mind and mental objects.

An instrument of discovery
As I mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, the eight factors are not meant to be followed in sequence. The path consists of eight factors working simultaneously. They all perform distinctive functions, all contributing in their unique way to attainment of the end of suffering.

Though right concentration claims the last place among the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, concentration itself does not mark the path's culmination. The attainment of concentration makes the mind still and steady, unifies its concomitants, opens vast vistas of bliss, serenity, and power. But by itself it does not suffice to reach the highest accomplishment, release from the bonds of suffering. To reach the end of suffering demands that the Eightfold Path be turned into an instrument of discovery, that it be used to generate the insights unveiling the ultimate truth of things. This requires the combined contributions of all eight factors, and thus a new mobilization of right view and right intention.


The Noble Eightfold Path

4 of 4

Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha