The term “Paramita” is commonly translated as “perfection” and refers to moral guidelines that should be implemented to guide one’s actions (be generous, etc.). Acting in accordance with the Paramitas is useful in the context of emptiness as their practice helps lessen the focus on the Self and thus weaken our attachment to this delusional and distracting concept.
There are traditionally six paramitas, although in some Buddhist traditions there are ten. We’re using the classic six here. In the context of the Heart Sutra, a small “b” bodhisattva practices these six paramitas (perfections) on the way to becoming a capitol “B” Bodhisattva who practices transcendental wisdom (Prajnaparamita). But we are presenting them here as cognitive and behavioral antidotes to the manas—the delusional ego-Self. The more we practice with these six, the more we weaken the manas and the closer we get to a state of pure awareness and calm–enlightenment.
Note that we will be presenting different analytic models, from different Buddhist traditions, for the paramitas. These are models which we have found beneficial in practicing the paramitas. Our aim is to present them in a way that will allow the reader to lessen their attachment to their manas, to their deluded Self. Note also that perfecting these is a superhighway to the “wisdom beyond wisdom” (experience of emptiness) of the Heart Sutra. And finally, note that they are presented in a way that seems linear when in fact it is not. It would be more accurate to see these as interrelated in a three dimensional web—as in Indra’s web.
1. Giving–generosity, charity
2. Morality–ethical behaviors, moral discipline or restraint, following rules, maintaining order
3. Patience—unmitigated acceptance of the present moment, awareness without embellishments
4. Diligence–enthusiastic perseverance or effort, joyfulness and zeal
6. Wisdom—insight into dependent arising, interrelatedness, emptiness, and the practice of right view
First and foremost, giving is the antidote for greed, the most insidious of all our afflictions, and the source of so much delusion that arises from our manas.
There are two types of giving: giving with characteristics and giving without characteristics. Further, giving has three kinds, and each kind has three aspects. (Yes, Buddhists love to isolate, break into components, analyze the elements, and list!) Here we are just looking at the two types and then the nine elements of the first paramita, giving, as delineated by Reb Anderson, Senior Dharma Teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center.
The Two Types of Giving
1. Giving with characteristics, or with characteristics and intention, is when we have an agenda for our giving, when we want something in return for our giving—it is giving with the intention to get. It is selfish rather than selfless. For example, we join charitable boards to meet people; we have our children do volunteer work because it looks good on their college applications; we wait until the barista is looking before we place a tip in the jar because we want recognition; we give to a homeless person on the street because it makes us feel better, even superior, we build a museum and name it after ourselves in a vain attempt at immortality, and so on. Obviously, this is all manas based.
2. Giving without characteristics, giving selflessly rather than selfishly, is when we give without an agenda, without wanting to get anything in return; we give just because there is a need, we give just to be beneficial, we give solely to end another’s suffering. Giving without characteristics is giving anonymously, when that is possible. Fortunately there is no manas activated when we are giving without characteristics.
Obviously, pure giving, giving without characteristics, is ideal for our practice and development; but giving with characteristics is certainly beneficial, if somewhat less so. It is always better to give, even for slightly the wrong reason, than not to give at all, for almost any type of giving will move us further along the path.
The Three Kinds of Giving
1. Material giving (things and money)
2. Spiritual giving (dharma teachings), and
3. The giving of no-fear, which is unique to Buddhism (not doing anything–physically, verbally, or in thought–that would leave another in fear)
The Three Aspects of Material Giving
1. Giving what is good
2. Giving what is clean
3. Giving what is suitable
The Three Aspects of Spiritual Giving
1. Offering right (not erroneous) teachings
2. Teaching in a logical way
3. Offering teachings that inspire the hearer to take up the path
The Three Aspects of the Giving of No-Fear
1. Protection of others from conditions leading to suffering
2. Protection from loss of life
3. Protection from grasping and clinging to rounds of suffering
As Anderson says in his book, The Third Turning of the Wheel, using this analysis, you can check your mind and behavior to ensure you practice is substantially on track: “Just sit still and look inside and see how the paramitas are going.” This analytic way of looking inside yourself will help you to understand where you are on the path and what next needs your efforts in practice.
Practice: Notice when your manas, your deluded self, your I-centeredness, your egotistic narrative arises when you are giving. Notice what it takes to give selflessly rather than selfishly; notice and try to give with mindfulness as your mind set rather than your manas being the motivator.
Simply put, morality is following the rules, not doing what we know is wrong. Emptiness provides the understanding of what is wrong and what is right, what is unwholesome and what is wholesome. The guidelines, like the paramitas and the precepts, are not commandments; these are behaviors we develop and perfect as we walk the path; they are in Mr. Spock’s words “morally praiseworthy but not morally obligatory.” We need wisdom to guide us in perfecting and implementing these guidelines. In fact, morality arises from wisdom, from emptiness, when there is a lack of ignorance from the manas, so it becomes perfectly clear what is “right.”
The Three Kinds of Morality
1. To do no harm; to refrain from negative or unwholesome actions
Traditionally this is delineated as (1) no killing, (2) no taking what is not given, (3) no sexual misconduct, (4) no recreational drugs use, (5) no wrong speech, (6) no envy or covetousness, (7) no thoughts or words of ill-will, and (8) no erroneous beliefs.
The second kind of morality is the positive guideline for overcoming unwholesomeness.
2. To act in ways that are wholesome and beneficial
This includes Giving without Characteristics, Right Action, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, and most importantly, Right Intention, and Right View (a lack of erroneous views). This is acting selflessly in all our interactions, rather than selfishly. This is acting from patience, compassion and generosity rather than greed, anger and delusion.
3. To work to end the suffering of others in our daily thoughts, speech, and actions.
This means to act for the benefit of others, a mindstate of a pure, untainted motivation. Traditionally this includes
1. When there is a need in others, when others are seen to be suffering, if appropriate, acting to end that need and suffering;
2. Always speaking gently, with right speech, in ways that will be of benefit; and
3. Doing or saying things in a way that plants wholesome seeds so others can live with less suffering.
As our practice develops, as we get closer to pure wisdom and realizing emptiness, reading conditions clearly arises naturally and we simply act from these three positions— (1) do no harm; (2) be beneficial; (3) save all sentient beings—with confidence and ease.
It is also worth noting that once we start lying to ourselves and telling ourselves it is alright to do things we know are wrong, even very small things, we become more and more corrupted in our relationships with others, and more and more perverted in our view of what is and what is not appropriate. Moral restraint can guide us when there is doubt, when old unbeneficial habits rear their heads–when our deluded manas, our erroneous sense of self dangerously develops unwholesome narratives for us. Heedfulness of what is happening in our mind (as well as in our body and speech) is an important quality to develop if we are to remain on track with our practice, especially with this paramita.
Patience is popularly and generally defined as the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble or suffering. This, obviously, assumes that there are externals to which we should feel aversion, that there are people and places and things that somehow cause us to be uncomfortable. But common sense tells us that simply can’t be true.
The Buddhist understanding of patience is different. Buddhism suggests that patience is simply the ability to be mindfully present and aware of whatever is happening, without an aversion. Mindfulness says (1) that patience is a skill, and like any other skill, with practice we can get better at it, and (2) that there is nothing we cannot greet with patience, absolutely nothing that we cannot greet with patience if we are clear-minded.
This does not mean we become passive, does not mean that we flat-line an experience, and does not mean everything that happens is “okay.” Rather, it means we develop a practice allowing us to manage seemingly provocative situations without stress or reactivity. In some psychotherapeutic circles, this is calling “seeing bottom up,” in others it is called “resilience.”
Patience is the antidote to anger. This is a critical understanding of patience. Patience seen this way is simply being present with whatever is happening. It is simply seeing things as they really are, without false characterizations and embellishments. It is abiding in conditions, without the erroneous assignment of affinities or aversions to what is happening. Anger cannot arise when we are patient!
Being patient is not the equivalent of inaction. If it is possible to remedy the situation, then of course we should; but to do this we do not need to become upset or stressed or angry. Simple awareness is all we need.
Instead of reacting with the emotional habit of irritation and annoyance, we should examine the situation patiently. We should not become angry just because things appear not to be going our way. The aim of a patience practice is to break that habit, so we can live a calmer, happier and healthier life.
A traditional Buddhist way to train for patience, in which we learn to allow even “troubling and painful events” to happen, without believing we must become upset, is with a meditation and mindfulness practice:
1. If we practice the patience of voluntarily accepting “perceived” suffering, we can maintain a peaceful mind even when experiencing suffering and pain.
2. If we maintain this patient and positive state of mind through mindfulness, reactive energy will have no opportunity to arise. (You’re always breathing, so you can always return to your breath to become patient, even when someone is screaming at you.) On the other hand, if we allow ourselves to become reactive, there is no way to prevent anger and fear from arising.
3. By training our mind to look at “frustrating” situations through a realistic lens we can free ourselves from unnecessary mental suffering. As Buddhists are wont to say: “If we can remedy an unpleasant situation, what point is there in being angry? And if it is impossible to remedy the situation, what point is there in being angry?”
Patience is needed most when we fail to accept reality for what it is and editorialize rather than facing conditions with clear-sightedness.
Lessening and managing anger is not the point. The point is to patiently be present with things as they are and to let go of all our fabrications about how they oughta be or shoulda been so that frustration, stress and anger never arise. Instead of creating anger and then managing it, we simply stop creating it.
The Three Patiences
There are three kinds of situation in which we need to learn to be patient:
1. When our mind tells us we are experiencing suffering, hardship, or disappointment, we learn to be patient with ourselves
2. When external events seem to be threatening and attacking us, we train ourselves to be patient (but not passive when actually threatened) with perceived aversive people, places, things, and events; and
3. When we feel harmed or criticized by others, we respond with compassion and equanimity instead of anger and aggression.
Diligence is taking joy in what is virtuous, positive or wholesome, and then engaging with it. It is an attitude of gladly engaging, without hesitation or reservation, with what is virtuous. As diligence is a mindstate that leads to engagement, it is the antidote to sloth and torpor, two big afflictions to practice, especially to meditation. Diligence is more than obligatorily “just doing it”; it is wanting to do it and doing it happily. Diligence permeates all of the paramitas and invigorates them.
Diligence is one of Asanga’s fifty-one positive mental states; within that category it is one of the eleven virtuous states. It is the fifth of the six powers through which the nine stages of resting the mind are accomplished. There are three aspects to diligence and are four (sometimes six) forces which support diligence. For a practice to appear in that many doctrinal locales, over a period of six or seven hundred years, means that the practice is deemed critical and central to staying on the path.
The Three Aspects of Diligence
1. Armor-like diligence–This is a joyous engagement that arises from diligent practice and which acts like armor to protect us against doubt or discouragement.
2. Diligence in action—This is accumulating merit through the practice of the six paramitas, mindfully, without delay, and with enthusiasm.
3. Unstoppable diligence—This is an insatiable and unremitting energy to work for the sake of others, not just when it is convenient, but always, that arises from diligence.
The Four Supporting Forces
Superior understanding, strong will
Joy and rest are the four powers.
If one cultivates them,
One can easily be diligent.
–Ven. Master Yin Shun, The Way to Buddhahood
We use these four forces as an antidote to overcome afflictions that would weaken our resolve, and as a source of energy to accomplish our aim of devoted other-centeredness, selflessness, and clarity.
1. The force of devoted interest and an aspiration for learning and studying the dharma
2. The force of steadfastness and willfulness, of self-confidence, to continue with eagerness and zest
a. Confidence of action—knowing that it would be best for us to act with diligence for ourselves and others as we move along the path
b. Confidence in our capacity—knowing we have the ability to understand and act with wisdom for the benefit of ourselves and others
c. Confidence in the face of afflictions and adversity—knowing that regardless of the circumstances or conditions, we can act with diligence to moderate the apparent obstructions to our practice.
3. The force of joy that arises from a diligent, unerring and consistent practice
4. The force of moderation, of practicing in a way that is neither too loose nor too tight, and of recognizing that sometimes there is just a need to rest in our alaya, in pure awareness, before pressing forward on the path.
Sometimes two addition forces are mentioned:
5. The force of wholeheartedness, which is an ongoing endeavor and devotedness to overcoming our afflictions through a mindful diligence, and
6. The force of mastery, which is developing a cognitive voice that constantly reminds us to be conscientious of body, speech, and mind, of what we do, what we say, and what we think.
Right mindfulness of the object to which one has become accustomed
Can keep the mind from being scattered.
Remembering clearly by not losing mindfulness,
The object of focus abides calmly and is revealed clearly.
The objects of mindfulness taught by the sages
Are able to purify the mind of illusions,
To correspond with the truth,
And to lead to renunciation.
–Ven. Master Yin Shun, The Way to Buddhahood
This paramita–meditation, concentration, and right mindfulness–is the quality of pure awareness, mental concentration, and mental stability. Our minds have the tendency to be very distracted and restless, always moving from one thought or feeling to another. Because of this, our attention stays fixated in the manas/ego, in the surface layers of the mind and emotions, and we just keep engaging in the same habitual patterns of behavior.
The perfection of concentration means training our mind so that it does what we want it to do. We stabilize our mind and emotions by practicing meditation, by being mindful and aware in everything we do. When we train the mind in this way, physical, emotional, and mental vacillations and restlessness are eliminated. We achieve focus, composure, and tranquility. This ability to concentrate and focus the mind brings clarity, equanimity, illumination.
Concentration allows the deep insight needed to transform the habitual misperceptions and attachments that cause confusion and suffering. As we eliminate these misperceptions and attachments, we can directly experience the joy, compassion, and wisdom of our “true” nature. There is no attainment of wisdom without developing the mind through meditation and concentration. This development of concentration requires perseverance. Thus the previous (fourth) paramita of diligent effort and perseverance leads us here to concentrated meditation. In addition, without meditation and concentration, we cannot deeply achieve the other paramitas, because their essence, which is the inner awareness that comes from meditation, is lacking. To attain wisdom, the sixth paramita, it is essential that we develop the mind through meditation, mindfulness, and concentration. Meditative concentration is the way out of the clutches of the manas and to the gate to wisdom.
When the horses in Kentucky eat grass, the cows in Wisconsin get fat.
–Adapted from a British Zen saying (where it was Cornwall and Devon, if Carl remembers correctly)
Until we have a firm grounding in the first four paramitas and meditative concentration, pure non-dual awareness (ultimate wisdom, prajnaparamita) slips away and is unfortunately replaced with our opinions and views and judgements about everything rather than clear seeing into things-as-they-are.
Below the surface level of self-and-other (the delusional manas) lies a deeper stratum that is imminent, ever-present, and that sees interconnectedness, meaning dependent origination. This level of awareness is the wisdom that goes beyond all conception and yet it isn’t remote but right before the eyes. This is enlightenment.
So true wisdom is not about acquiring anything. Rather it is about removing those afflictions and obscurations that prevent pure awareness simply arising. To live in accord with this wisdom is to realize the middle way.
Nagarjuna, in his Twelve Gate Treatise, puts it this way:
“If one can understand this doctrine [the doctrine of emptiness] they can understand Mahayana and possess the six paramitas without hindrance.”
This replaces the three poisons—greed, anger and delusion—with the six paramitas, and so leads us from unending suffering to enlightenment.
If that is capital “W” wisdom, then we need to remember that initially we practice with the little “w” wisdoms to clear the way for the Wisdom That Is Beyond Wisdom.
These little “w” wisdoms, which aren’t really “so little,” are here presented in no particular order:
• Understanding Karma
• Understanding the Four Noble Truths,
o particularly practicing the Eightfold Path
o especially developing Right Intention and Right View toward eliminating erroneous views,
• Practicing with the three characteristics of all things
3. non-self, and
• Understanding Dependent Origination