The Four Proper Exertions by Master Sheng Yen

The Four Proper Exertions by Master Sheng Yen


–Chan Master Sheng-yen
World Economic Forum, New York
February 1, 2002

 The Four Proper Exertions: Part One

Dharma Talk by Master Sheng Yen 

This is the first of four talks on the Four Proper Exertions, given by Chan Master Sheng Yen between October 31 and November 21, 1999, at the Chan Meditation Center, NY. Rebecca Li translated, and transcribed the talks from tape. The final text was edited by Ernest Heau, with assistance from Rebecca Li

The Four Proper Exertions are really the four proper attitudes to have for those on the Buddhist path. Lacking these proper attitudes, it would be very difficult to succeed in practice, whether one is on the Hinayana path of liberation in nirvana, or the Mahayana path of liberation through helping others. The Four Proper Exertions are an integral part of the Thirty-Seven Aids to Enlightenment, which are emphasized in both the Hinayana and Mahayana traditions. Without these four proper attitudes, one can become lax in one’s practice, or even give it up entirely. 

Of the seven groups of practices that make up the Thirty-Seven Aids to Enlightenment, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are the first, and the Four Proper Exertions are the second. This is the correct order for progressing through the Thirty-Seven Aids. We practice the Four Foundations to cultivate a calm and stable mind, and then progress to the Four Exertions to maintain diligent effort. After that we can move on to the remaining five categories to complete the practice of liberation.

How do the Four Proper Exertions relate to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness? First, remember that the Four Foundations practice includes the Five Methods for Stilling the Mind. Thus, after one practices the Five Methods of Stilling the Mind, one is capable of calming one’s mind. However, at that stage one is at most able to enter samadhi. There is no wisdom at that stage, After practicing the full course of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, wisdom can arise, and one is on the way to liberation.

As a path. Buddhism has three major disciplines: precepts, samadhi, and wisdom. But even if one practices precepts and samadhi, without wisdom there is no entry to nirvana. To seriously practice Buddhism, one should engage all three. To attain wisdom, one should practice contemplation as taught in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. 

The Wisdom of Contemplation 

There are two approaches to the practice of the Four Foundations, that of the Hinayana and that of the Mahayana. In the Hinayana, the emphasis is on the wisdom of contemplation 

In this regard, there are four contemplations: contemplating that the body is impure, contemplating that sensation is actually suffering, contemplating that the mind is impermanent, and contemplating that phenomena are without self.

Opposing the four contemplations are the four inverted or upside-down views. The first inverted view is attaching to the body — we love it and think it is pure. The second inverted view is thinking of sensual pleasure as bringing happiness, rather than as bringing suffering when we lose it. As a. result we hold on to pleasure, mistaking that for happiness. Third is taking the passing thoughts of the mind as the self, and mistaking this “I” as real. Finally, there is seeing phenomena as real, and relating to things as an owner — thinking of this or that as belonging to oneself.

Having the inverted views, we experience vexations that become obstructions to liberation. To correct these views, we practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to reduce vexation and make progress towards wisdom. When we begin to see that the body is really impure, we will not be so attached to it. When we can see that pleasures ultimately bring suffering, we will not be so attached to them. When we see the mind as a collection of passing thoughts, we won’t see the self as permanent. When we see that phenomena are without self, we will not be so attached to gain and loss, or be so upset when something doesn’t go our way. 

The Wisdom of Emptiness

In contrast to Hinayana emphasis on the wisdom of contemplation, the Mahayana emphasizes the wisdom of emptiness. This idea of realizing wisdom from experiencing emptiness comes from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which speaks of contemplating body, sensation, mind, and phenomena as empty. Through this contemplation, wisdom is attained.

The Hinayana approach contemplates the impurity of the body, the suffering that arises from sensation, the impermanence of the mind, and the non-self nature of phenomena; the Mahayana approach directly contemplates body, mind, sensation, and phenomena as empty. At first glance, the Mahayana approach may seem easier and more direct, but unless one diligently practices the Four Proper Exertions, it is not easy to realize the wisdom of emptiness. In any case, whether practicing the Mahayana or the Hinayana approach, one needs to practice the Four Proper Exertions to make real progress.

Comtemplating Body and Sensation

How do we directly contemplate emptiness? First, concerning the body, we see that both the nature and the form of our bodies are exactly emptiness. When we can see that, we give rise to wisdom immediately. Sensations result from interactions between our sense organs and sense objects. Without either sense organs or sense objects, there would be no sensations. We should then see that sensation does not reside inside our bodies, which only contain our sense organs. in other words, sense organs by themselves do not give rise to sensation. Neither does sensation reside outside our bodies, because outside our bodies are just the sense objects. Again, sense objects by themselves do not generate sensation. Can we say then that sensation must be somewhere in the middle, where sense organs and sense objects meet? But that’s clearly impossible. So, when we are able to see that sensation resides neither inside nor outside our bodies, nor in the middle, when we can directly perceive that sensation is empty, at that instant, we can give rise to wisdom. 

While this may sound like tricky reasoning, we are just explaining how phenomena arise from causes and conditions. Sensations occur when sense organs and sense objects come together. Without these causes and conditions coming together, there would be no sensation, which obviously cannot exist by itself. So, if one can directly contemplate the arising of causes and conditions, and how that brings about phenomena, then one is seeing emptiness.

Contemplating Mind

Now let’s consider contemplating the mind. We give names such as greed, hatred, happiness, jealousy, and suspicion to our thoughts and emotions, but these names are not the true nature of the mind itself. How could they be if the mind is constantly changing? If the mind had enduring reality, how can we be happy now and sad later, or vice versa? Or if we say, “I love this,” how can we hate “this” later? Precisely because the mind is subject to constant change, we cannot apply any name to it and say that this is the mind. So the third contemplation is seeing that although we give names to the mind, the names are not the mind itself.

We constantly use words to describe the mind. Sometimes we say, “This person’s mind is very good,” or, “This person’s mind is very scattered,” as if there were a real mind there. But all the names and adjectives are just labels, not the real mind. When we say that someone’s mind is very good, it is a very ambiguous statement because the really good mind is no mind. When one has a mind, that’s a bad mind! When there is a mind, it is usually a mind of vexation — of greed, hatred, happiness, worry — all minds of vexation. As we said earlier, the only good mind is no mind. If we can really contemplate mind free from all names and labels, and perceive its actual emptiness, we can give rise to wisdom.

Contemplating Phenomena

We come now to contemplating phenomena — seeing that phenomena are neither good nor bad. First we should distinguish between phenomena in the mind and phenomena in the external world. If we can see that all the names that we give to our minds are actually empty, then we can also see that the names we give to phenomena are actually reflections of our minds. When there is no mind, how can there be good or bad in the phenomena around us? So, the contemplation of phenomena is based on the emptiness of mind, sensation, and body that we just discussed. If body, sensation, and mind are all empty, the phenomena have to be empty as well. When we can see the emptiness of phenomena, we can give rise to wisdom. Does this direct approach to contemplation sound easy to practice? Instead of contemplating the impurity of the body, the suffering of sensation, and all that, we just need to look at phenomena and say, “Oh, this is empty,” and “Oh, that’s empty.” Is that so? [Laughter]

In Taiwan I heard a Chan master lecture on the emptiness of phenomena. The audience seemed to really like it. Afterwards a layperson walked up with a big, bulging red envelope full of money offerings for the lecturer, who seemed happy to be receiving it. At this moment, another Chan master who happened to be in the audience came up and grabbed the red envelope from the layperson. The lecturer was startled, and said, “What are you doing? Those offerings are for me!” The master from the audience said, “You just gave a lecture in which you said everything is empty. So money is empty; you are empty, I am empty. What difference does it make who gets the envelope?” The master who gave the lecture said, “No, those offerings are for me.” And with that, he tried to grab the envelope from the master from the audience.

The layperson finally said, “Let me give you each an offering.” The master from the audience released the envelope to the lecturer, and told him, “Actually, I was just trying to make a point. Of course, the offerings belong to you. But you talked about emptiness, and I am asking, how do we really practice emptiness, how can we really see that everything is empty?”

It is difficult to see important things like money, love, and relationships as empty. Can you think of your spouse, your boyfriend, or your girl friend as empty? One way to begin to really see things as empty is to be diligent in practicing contemplation, In the meantime, keep reminding yourself not to be greedy, and not to attach to things like love, relationships, and money. Remind yourself that all things are ultimately empty. When I was in Japan, a young scholar gave an excellent lecture on emptiness. After the presentation we all got together for lunch, and this scholar sat at the same table with us. We told him he gave a good talk on emptiness, but that he should not eat lunch because the food was empty anyway. The scholar said, “Well, see. When emptiness meets emptiness, isn’t that also emptiness?” We agreed. Then he said, “Well, my stomach is empty, and so is this food. So it should be all right for this empty food to go into my empty stomach. Am I correct?” Everybody agreed, so we let him eat his lunch. What do you think? Is this the correct way to think about emptiness? In half an hour it will be lunch, so are we going to put some empty food into our empty stomachs? [Laughter]

The Four Proper Exertions 

Now we will move to our main topic, the Four Proper Exertions. There are different names for this practice. The first and most commonly used name is the name we are using, and it basically refers to the four proper ways to maintain diligence in the practice. The second name for the practice is the Four Cutting-offs of the Mind. This name refers to the mind as the source of vexations, and to the need to cut off those activities of the mind that relate to attachments. By constantly reminding ourselves that we are practicing, we can make progress in cutting of the activities of  the mind that correspond to vexation. A third name for the practice is the Four Correct Ways of Cutting Off. This name refers to the need to cut off laziness and the idleness of the mind. The fourth name is the Four Kinds of Correct and Proper Splendidness, and it refers to the four proper methods to encourage oneself to practice benevolence, and to stop the bad deeds of body, speech, and mind.

As we said, without practicing the Four Proper Exertions, one may become lax and not succeed in Chan contemplation. When one becomes lax, the five obstructions of desire, anger, sloth, restlessness, and doubt can occur. We need diligence to keep us from falling into the pit of laziness, and succumbing to the five obstructions.

So the practice of the Four Proper Exertions is as follows:

To keep unwholesome states not yet arisen from arising,
To cease unwholesome states already arisen,
To give rise to wholesome states not yet arisen,
To continue wholesome states already arisen.

The practice of Buddhadharma really is about giving rise to wholesome states and stopping unwholesome states. What then are wholesome states and what are the unwholesome states? wholesome states are the ten virtues; the unwholesome states are their opposites, the ten non-virtues. The ten virtues serve as the foundation of those on the Hinayana path of liberation, as well as those on the Mahayana path of compassion. In fact, the ten virtues also reflect the moral standards for people in lay life.

The Ten Virtues

The ten virtues are in three parts, corresponding to bodily actions, speech, and mind. The virtues relating to actions are no killing, no stealing, and no sexual misconduct. The virtues relating to speech are no lying, no slandering, no gossiping, and no divisive speech. The virtues relating to the mind are cutting off greed, cutting off hatred, and cutting off ignorance? These ten virtues are the wholesome states that are cultivated in practicing the Pour Proper Exertions.

By Contrast, the unwholesome states are the opposite of the ten virtues: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slandering, gossiping, divisive speech, greed, hatred, and ignorance. Dividing the ten virtues into three categories of bodily action, speech, mind is just a coarse definition. To go into more detail, leaving out the body and speech, and just referring to the mind, next time we will talk about the twenty different state of minds of unwholesome, or vexatious, states of mind, and eleven ways in which the mind can be wholesome and virtuous. People are mistaken if they believe that so long as their body does not do unwholesome things, they are wholesome. It is really in the mind that wholesomeness is cultivated, and only when the mind if free from vexation are we truly wholesome.

The Four Proper Exertions: Part Two

Dharma Talk by Master Sheng Yen 

This is the second of four talks on the Four Proper Exertions, given by Chan Master Sheng Yen between October 31 and November 21, 1999, at the Chan Meditation Center, NY. Rebecca Li translated, and transcribed the talks from tape. The final text was edited by Ernest Heau, with assistance from Rebecca Li.

In our first talk on the Four Proper Exertions, we discussed their importance in developing the diligence to practice contemplation, cultivate samadhi, and give rise to wisdom. Today, we will talk about the role of meditation in practicing the Four Exertions. Let’s first recall what the Four Proper Exertions are. They are: First, to prevent unwholesome states that have not arisen from arising; second, to stop unwholesome states that have already arisen; third, to give rise to wholesome states that have not yet arisen; and fourth, to maintain and increase wholesome states that have already arisen. Remember that by states we mean actions as well as speech and thoughts.

How do we distinguish between wholesome and unwholesome states? We take the point of view of wholesomeness as the ten virtues, and of unwholesomeness as their opposites, the ten non-virtues. We can also look at wholesomeness and unwholesomeness from the points of view of daily life, and of meditation. One simple idea is that if you do wholesome things you won’t go to jail, but if you do unwholesome things you can end up in jail. Based on this simple distinction, it is not always clear what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. We know that some people do good things and end up in jail, and some people do evil things and remain free. Someone might steal $1,000 and go to prison, and another may steal an election and become the president. Someone commits murder and is executed, while another massacres ten thousand and is a hero. So how useful is to say that unwholesome people go to jail, and wholesome people do not?

Because it is not always clear what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, Buddhism prescribes the ten virtues and their opposites, the ten non-virtues. We described these in the previous lecture. The ten virtues give us a clear idea of what wholesome and unwholesome really mean, and are in three groups: virtues that pertain to actions, virtues that pertain to speech, and virtues that pertain to thoughts. Of these, Buddhism gives greatest emphasis to virtues of the mind, because the impulses to act or speak come from the mind. You can usually tell whether someone’s actions and speech are wholesome, but it is not as easy to tell if their thoughts are. In daily life we can usually recognize unwholesome states, but it’s another matter when we meditate.

Unwholesome States in Meditation

Without proper training and practice, it is hard to recognize the unwholesome states that may come up when we meditate. They are restlessness, drowsiness, no confidence, laziness, no self-control, scattered mind, erroneous views. Just about every meditator experiences them, making it very difficult to attain samadhi. For the first few days on retreat, you may experience these problems, but with diligence your mind will gradually become more stable and relaxed; you will become less restless and less prone to drowsiness. When you are no longer restless and drowsy, your interest and enthusiasm will give you the confidence to overcome laziness. You will then find meditating very rewarding.

There is a difference between laziness and lack of self-control. When you are lazy you are passively idling and scattered, but with no self-control you are actively engaging in incorrect views, and even become liable to to lose control over body and mind. But if you make an effort to become more stable and more relaxed, you will be able to overcome scattering, control your body and mind, and give rise to correct views, The right approach is simply to know that the point of practice is to stabilize body and mind, and to diminish vexations, By becoming stable you will more clearly perceive the subtle vexations in your mind. Recognizing them, you can also stop and avoid unwholesome states. When you do that you will be able to arouse and maintain the more wholesome states. At that point you are actually practicing the Four Proper Exertions.

Are You Wholesome?

Though most people would assert that they are good, they are not always clear about what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. Once a Chinese man told me that he had no religious affiliation. He said, “Religions teach people to become good, to become wholesome. I know that.” I asked him why he has no religion then. He said, “I do not need religion; I never do bad things; I never have bad thoughts. Only people who have bad thoughts and do bad things need religion.” I asked him, “So you are really a good person, you really have a good heart?” He said, “Of course I have a good heart.” When I questioned him further, he said, “How dare you question me? What evidence do you have that I am not a good person, that I have unwholesome thoughts?” I told him, “Well, right now, you are angry. Isn’t that unwholesome?” Despite being a good person, this man could not recognize his own unwholesome thoughts.

Some people thing anger is not such a bad thing, especially when they can blame others for making them angry. They will say, “You made me angry.” They live in suffering and vexation without even knowing it. Some people become angry when they don’t get what they want, blaming others, or saying that life is unfair. But if they do get what they want, they want more. Some are envious if others are better off, but if they find themselves better off than others, they become proud. Are these wholesome states of mind? You will probably think, “That’s just normal!” [Laughter]

From the Buddhist perspective this is vexation and suffering. The purpose of Buddhadharma is to turn suffering into true happiness, vexation into wisdom, anger into compassion, and greed into a heart of giving. We use wholesome states to correct what is unwholesome and to cultivate a genuinely pure and stable mind.

Without meditation it is difficult to see clearly one’s own wholesome and unwholesome states, and to know when the mind is pure or impure. But with meditation practice, your mind becomes stable, clear and able to see its own subtleties. You will recognize and correct unwholesome states  as they arise. for these reasons meditation is basic to practicing the Four Proper Exertions. The Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra says that practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness will eventually give rise to wisdom.

The Five Obstructions

Laxity in practice will give rise to the five obstructions of desire, anger, sloth, restlessness, and doubt, which we described in the previous talk. When this happens, you won’t be able to gain the Five Mental Faculties of faith, diligence, mindfulness, samadhi, and wisdom, which are also part of the Thirty-Seven Aids to Enlightenment. The five obstructions are in fact unwholesome states that hinder the arising of the Five Mental Faculties.

In daily life, people desire money, fame, food, love, and living comforts. What do we desire when we meditate? Surely, they should not be the same things. (Answers from the audience: “Enlightenment, bliss, good feeling.”)

Is this what we are seeking the whole time we are meditating? “When am I going to get enlightened?” Or, “I want supernatural powers.” Or, “I want to be at one with the universe.” These are desires for experiences, or for just feeling very comfortable and blissful while sitting for hours. These attitudes will not get you samadhi, much less wisdom , because they are still desires, Not getting what you want to experience can lead to anger, or disgust.

The mind will become restless, the body will get hot and bothered, and the cushion will feel like a volcano. Instead of getting up from the cushion people like this will keeping struggling, looking for something they can’t get, or had and lost, and creating more and more vexations for themselves.

After struggling like this for a period of time, you will have lost a lot of energy, and will be tired. This obstruction is sloth, or torpor, characterized by severe drowsiness. So after sleeping on the cushion for a while, like drifting in a rowboat, you recover from tiredness and begin meditating again. But then desire and anger come up again, the mind becomes restless, and the internal struggle begins all over. This is the fourth obstruction, restlessness, or being scattered.

So when one’s mind is restless, it leads to the fifth obstruction, doubt. Doubt can be lack of confidence in your teacher, or doubt in the meditation method that you were taught. Another kind of doubt is in believing that your physical or health problems make your body not suitable for meditation. With doubts like these and others, eventually you will decide to quit, and want to leave [the retreat] thinking, “Well, the others can meditate, but it’s not for me.”

So these five obstructions block the virtuous wholesome faculties, and prevent us from eliminating our vexations, and from opening the road to wisdom and compassion. Now, to encounter the five obstructions is normal in practice, but if we diligently rely on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we can prevent obstructions from becoming serious. When obstructions arise, just return to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Better yet, with continuous practice of the Four Foundations, obstructions will not have a chance to come up in the first place. So these are the ways to practice the first two exertions, to stop unwholesome states that have arisen, and to prevent unwholesome states from arising.

So when obstructions arise, just return to your practice method; rely on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Diligent, ceaseless use of the meditation methods and practicing the Four Foundations will help us stop unwholesome states, and not allow the rising of new ones. 

The Five Mental Faculties

We said earlier that with the five obstructions prevent the Five [Wholesome] Faculties from arising. On the other hand, practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness will give rise to the five faculties, which we said consist of faith, diligence, mindfulness, samadhi, and wisdom.

Let’s begin with faith. There are several reasons for having faith in something. First is to have blind faith in something because others do, or tells you to. I once asked someone why he was a Buddhist. He said, “My wife wouldn’t marry me unless I became a Buddhist, so I became a Buddhist.” This is blind faith, but it is not necessarily bad. This man eventually became a good practitioner.

You can also have faith in something you understand. When you learn the principles and the doctrines of a belief and find them suitable, your belief is based on understanding, not just blind faith. Very often Westerners, especially intellectuals, turn to Buddhism because they understand and feel compatible with the ideas.

Another basis for faith is first-hand experience. When you put Buddhism into practice and find that it improves your life, stabilizes your mind, and helps you to help others, this builds confidence and faith in Buddhism. This is the kind of faith that is the first wholesome faculty.

We have said that the practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is the path to samadhi. But samadhi by itself does not give rise to wisdom. The Five Methods of Stilling the Mind can stabilize the mind, but the Four Foundations emphasize going beyond stilling the mind, and diligently practicing contemplation to arouse the wholesome faculties. Through diligence we can eliminate vexation and attain wisdom; without it, arousing the Five Mental Faculties would be very hard. When faith arises, diligence will naturally arise with it. This is because seeing the useful results of practice, one will become more confident, and one will want to work very hard to keep getting good results. This willingness to work hard is diligence.

The third wholesome mental faculty is mindfulness, which means always keeping the practice foremost in your mind. More than thirty of you took the Three Refuges with me to day, but will it be two years before I see you again? If that happens, you have not given rise to mindfulness, and maybe you will have forgotten the practice. So to be mindful, remind yourself that the Dharma – the practice – is very important and very will become diligent in your practice.

And being diligent, you will be able to enter samadhi, and eventually give rise to wisdom.

I had a student who participated in a seven-day retreat with me, and then didn’t show up for another five years. Then another five years later he showed up again, so I asked him, “How come I haven’t see you for the last five years?” And he said, “Shifu, at least I came back. Some people never do.”

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