Adhitthana is a Pali word that usually is translated into English as “determination” or sometimes “persistence.” It is composed of Pali root words that mean “foundation,” “will,” or “resolve.” As the eighth of the Ten Perfections of Theravada Buddhism, it describes the determined resolve to walk the Buddha’s path.
Determination is sometimes called the backbone of the Ten Perfections. Without determination, the Path can seem too difficult and demanding, and the seeker will fail.
The historical Buddha spoke of adhitthana as things that are willed. Probably the earliest mention of adhitthana is in the Sangati Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Digha Nikaya 33). Here the Buddha spoke of adhitthana as four qualities to be willed or resolved: to develop insight, to realize truth, to relinquish hindrances and to dwell in tranquility.
The Buddha’s Example
The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment illustrates determination. As Prince Siddhartha sat under the bodhi tree in deep meditation, it is said he was tempted by the demon Mara. Mara sent his most beautiful daughters to tempt Siddhartha, but Siddhartha did not move. He then sent a vast army of demons hurtling toward Siddhartha, and even then Siddhartha did not move.
Mara then claimed that seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him and not to a mortal. Mara’s demon soldiers cried out, “I am his witness!” Mara challenged Siddhartha — These soldiers speak for me. Who will speak for you?
We might reflect on this story when we feel discouraged, and when our determination wavers.Enlightenment is not something that belongs only to a few, special people. In a way, it’s a birthright of every being.
Determination as a Perfection
The Perfections are in a particular order because one perfection leads into the next one. However, it’s also the case that all Perfections support all the other Perfections. One doesn’t progress by completely mastering one before moving on to the next one, because all of them are required to master each of them.
In many Theravada commentaries it is said that Determination follows the Perfection of Truthfulness because truthfulness is perfected by determination, and because unshakable realization of truth leads to greater determination. After determination comes the Perfection of Loving Kindness, or metta. Loving kindness strengthens determination to practice for the benefit of others and to work to liberate them from suffering.
However, it cannot be stressed enough that all of the Perfections depend on determination, just as determination is strengthened by the other Perfections. Determination without the direction and context of the other Perfections could easily lead one the wrong way.
Determination and Right Effort
The Perfection of Determination is related to the Right Effort of the Eightfold Path. Although determination needs to be strong, the teachings of Right Effort show us that skillful practice is not about burning ourselves out.
The Buddha taught that practice should be like a well-tuned string instrument. If the strings are too loose, they won’t play a sound. If they are too tight, they will break. Practice should be nourishing, not draining. Striving and exertion are not always fruitful but must be guided by wisdom and compassion, including compassion for ourselves.
[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]