Posts Tagged ‘Roshi Joan Halifax. Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi’

Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi

“It’s so not like that.”

Such was the response of Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse, to a comment I’d made a moment earlier. At the time, we were midway through a private interview—one of the face-to-face encounters between student and teacher that are a staple of Zen training. It was the third day of an extended retreat at the Zen Center of Syracuse, and I was one of more than thirty practitioners in attendance. In keeping with Zen custom, Shinge Roshi, then in her sixties, was giving dokusan, as it is called, to each of us in succession. She was also overseeing the retreat, conducting formal services, and offering erudite talks on Zen topics. Remembering my own experience as an academic advisor, in which I sometimes met with six or more students in a two-hour period, I remarked that she must be tired, if not exhausted. “It’s so not like that,” she replied, going on to explain that she loved what she was doing, and, far from exhausting her, the work replenished her reserves.

In her conspicuous resilience, as in her seemingly limitless energy, Shinge Roshi exemplified a quality of heart and mind essential to Zen practice. At once a precondition and a benefit of long-term practice, that quality is known in Zen circles as virya paramita, the fourth of the Six Perfections of Wisdom. Virya paramita is commonly translated as “energy” or “effort,” but the full meaning of this Sanskrit term is more nuanced than those conventional translations might imply. The multidimensional nature of virya can be seen in the contrasting perspectives of three influential Zen teachers of our time. Each gives the word and its referent a distinctively different coloration.

For the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, virya is best characterized as diligence. By practicing seated meditation, walking meditation, and mindful living, faithfully and diligently on a daily basis, we cultivate virya paramita, even as we embody this quality. Situating virya within the framework of the Noble Eightfold Path, Thich Nhat Hanh views the Fourth Perfection as an aspect of what Buddhism calls Right Effort, or effort whose general aim is full awakening. By assiduously practicing the meditative disciplines, and by persevering even when conditions for practice are onerous or adverse, we “water the seeds” of mindfulness and concentration. Over time, as those seeds grow and mature, we realize the quality of virya in our everyday lives.

Roshi Joan Halifax, Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center and the author of Standing at the Edge (2018), interprets virya in a somewhat different light. “It takes energy and determination,” she acknowledges, “to keep showing up, whether in the hospital, classroom or boardroom, the refugee camp or war zone.” But what matters most is the “unitive” or single-minded character of the practitioner’s attention. For Halifax, to practice virya means to become “one with whatever we are doing. Burning up the self. Letting go of the self.” Borrowing a word from the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, she translates virya paramita as wholeheartedness. Practicing and cultivating virya in our daily lives, we “live life as a compassionate imperative with no holds barred.”

Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi, in his book The World Could Be Otherwise (2019), gives virya yet another turn. For Fischer, virya is “joyful effort.” Contrasting this quality with the image of physical exertion in sports-drink ads, where professional athletes maximally tax their bodies and minds, Fischer invokes a simile from the eighth-century sage Santideva, who likens “joyful effort” to a piece of sheer cotton cloth being “swayed by a wafting wind.” Unlike willful, nose-to-the-grindstone striving, joyful effort is a natural expression of the universal life force, an unhindered release of vital energy. “This is the great secret of joyful effort,” Fischer writes, “and perhaps its most important aspect: Joyful effort isn’t something you do. Joyful effort is life, it’s sharing life. It comes to you from elsewhere, flows through you when you are ready to allow it.”

Perhaps this description of virya paramita comes closest to what I observed in Shinge Roshi, though her diligence and wholeheartedness were no less evident. Sometimes seen as a complement to patience (kshanti paramita), the Third Perfection of Wisdom, virya is both an ethical ideal and a distinguishing attribute in those who engage in Zen as a lifetime practice. Yet, as Norman Fischer rightly insists, the seemingly effortless, free-flowing nature of virya, conjoined with the relaxed demeanor and the sense of peace that often accompany it, sets it apart from the ego-centered, competitive, and exhausting effort to which most of us have been deeply conditioned: the drive to win at all costs and at the expense of other competitors. It is so not like that.


For the Vietnamese Zen Master: Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 193-196.

“It takes energy and determination”: Joan Halifax, Standing at the Edge (Flatiron Books, 2018), 226, 193.

“This is the great secret”: Norman Fischer, The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019), 122.




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