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Energy and Inner Renewal in Modern Spirituality

“What are the characteristics of energy? They are dynamism in action, competence in initiative, firmness of intention, a zestful mind, and perseverance in action.” – Mah?prajñ?p?ramit???stra, II, 946

When I gaze upon Guan Yin’s beautiful sculpture at the British Museum, I am so entranced by her tranquillity that I forget she’s actually practicing the perfection of energy or vigour (v?ryap?ramit?). We usually associate energy with Yao Ming or Liu Xiang, but energy is actually one of the Six Perfections in Mah?y?na spirituality. It can be difficult to cultivate in today’s hyperactive world of technology, casinos, nightclubs and digital media. We can do so much in one day if we live in the cities with great spires and towers – cosmopolitan hubs like Hong Kong, London, Vienna, Beijing, Berlin, Shanghai, or Tokyo. Yet it is just so easy to waste time through countless channels of entertainment and diversions. Even the familiar routine of staying up past 2am to catch a late show is enough to deplete our energy for the next day, dulling our motivation for work and physical exercise (not to say spiritual practice).

We cannot avoid the fact that progress in the religious life hinges on one’s energy. There is a rhetorical question commonly posed in the s?tras: “If a man attempting to save himself has to demonstrate readiness and energy, then what can be said about the Bodhisattva who has made a firm promise to save all living beings?” (??stra, II, 933 – 5). Without energy, nothing is accomplished. It is closely related to compassion, because it arises when one is aware of the world’s suffering. Rather than being burned out, the Buddhist disciple is roused to action. It’s a mental energy because it comes from within, but its verbal and physical manifestations can transform a situation of hurt into one of healing. It can shift perspectives and inspire change. The energy of goodness can palpably make the world a better place.

Cultivating energy nourishes the mind’s interior and waters the Buddha’s seed. Helping this seed to germinate and grow can be seen as caring for the home garden within our consciousness. It is the day-to-day watering of our spiritual interior. We commit energy to our religious vows so that we do not stagnate in walking the path of love. We make an effort to renovate and rewater our garden so it continues to be a nurturing home for the Buddha Nature that dwells in all beings.

If cultivating energy constitutes inner renewal, then they don’t really entail anything new, despite our (and fitness clubs’) insistence that we’re aiming for a “brand new me.” I was already a different person from who I was yesterday, so there’s no way I can hold onto this idea of a “brand new me” as some kind of project I need to “realize.” We don’t need to uproot our garden and replace it with new plants, much less demolish our inner house and commission a new mansion! The point of spiritual renovations is to affirm the worth of our house while taking action to address its unhappy and ugly cracks, stains, or even broken windows. Affirming our journey and growth thus far is not to delude ourselves with its perfection, because the journey is never perfect. It is to come to terms with the house we’ve erected with our own hands. It is so that we can gather the honesty and courage to accept that this is what we’ve built for ourselves – we cannot build a “brand new one.” If only could have “brand new karma!” That would be great, but the responsible spiritual life doesn’t work that way. No one shoulders my thoughts and actions but myself, and this makes me radically free and responsible (no harm in asking Guan Yin to give me a little nudge here and there, though).

Despite the many problems and contradictions that fraught the world (and which we should never shy away from, and indeed, be mindful and aware of), we are living in very interesting times. We already know what happened in the past yet have no idea what will happen in the future, so the present is always the most exciting time to be in. The stars that exploded long ago blessed us with life. The Buddhas of the world-systems and constellations continue to bless us. The choice to make the spiritual journey is now ours, and that is what makes it exciting. That is what should galvanize us. As long as we are inspired by compassion and guided by wisdom, we’ll never lose the energy that is so vital to the life of love and insight.

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