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Introduction to the Paramitas

This is a transcript of the first talk to a year-long study group on the Paramitas which began on September 29th.


While the Precepts, and in particular the “prohibitory precepts” are mostly actions to refrain from – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t misuse sexuality – the Six Paramitas are qualities we can actively cultivate. From the earliest beginnings of the Buddhist tradition, there has been a focus on deliberately shaping the kind of person you are, and the kind of life you will live. This is our singular freedom as human beings; it’s a freedom available to no other beings in the universe, so far as we know.

Although Zazen is the central practice of Zen, it’s not the whole practice. The whole practice is the whole of your life. For most of your life you’re not sitting in meditation; your life off the cushion is not only where the fruits of your practice can be seen, but provides a cornucopia of practice opportunities.

Buddhism is a radically practical system; the primary purpose of its philosophy is to guide the practice that is our life. At the centre of this practice is the cultivation of particular ideals of human character. We might think of character as that part of our overall identity that is shaped by the choices we make, rather than a given of our birth or our personal history. It is through our character that we undertake enlightening practices in the first place, and it is our character that becomes enlightened. When we act in accord with our own vision of the good, our acts are shaped by that vision, and our character is in turn shaped by our actions. Our behaviour forms, as well as expresses, our character. Cultivating character in this way presupposes that we are both free and responsible.

The Paramitas constitute a series of bases for training our minds and hearts, but – like the Precepts – they also describe the qualities of an enlightened being.  If you really know, in your heart and your bones, that everything is transient, and that nothing, including our “selves”, has an existence independent of everything else, you would naturally act in a way that manifests these qualities.

And as we found in working with the Precepts, our understanding of excellence grows as we develop and move toward it, and we revise and enlarge our image of what perfection might be. As one sutra says, “Enlightenment is just the path, and the path is enlightenment.”  This was very much a perspective emphasised by Dogen: to be moving along the path of self-cultivation is the very meaning of “enlightenment”.

The Sanskrit word traditionally translated as “perfection” is paramita, and there are different versions of the origin of the word. By one account, paramita derives from a word meaning “gone to the other side” – something is perfected when it has gone right beyond what it would be in an ordinary life. But other scholars link the word to one which means “excellent” or “supreme” – something is perfected when it arrives at a state of excellence.

In English, the word “perfection” is actually rather troublesome. It implies a final point of completion, beyond which no further development is possible; if something is perfect, you don’t want to mess with it, as that would just ruin its perfection. Not only would this be the end of practice, but it implies that there is a version of “perfect” that is the same for all people in all situations and all times.

Nothing could be further from the essence of Buddhist philosophy, which is that all things change in complex ways, that nothing is fixed or static, everything is contingent and contextual, and that like everything else, the path of enlightenment is open and ongoing, without end.

A more fitting way of thinking about the development of character would be one that fits our actual possibilities, and that can be revised as our situation in life changes, or as our horizon of understanding expands. So the idea here is that enlightenment is not something static and unchangeable, because human beings are not static and unchangeable. Our practice evolves with us, and in response to the conditions and challenges we face. The Paramitas, like the Precepts, are all about relationship: our relationship with others, with the world, and with ourselves. And they are best studied in relationship with our dharma sisters and brothers.

The Six Paramitas are:

DANA: Generosity     This overlaps with the Precept of not taking what isn’t freely given, and giving all that you can.

SILA: Morality     Proper conduct, which requires the self-discipline to hold back, and not act on every impulse.

KSHANTI: Tolerance     Patience, tolerance, and endurance. The ability to meet situations creatively, to make use of them and not be laid low by them.

VIRYA: Energy      The ability to apply ourselves with enthusiasm and diligence, to have the strength and courage to offer ourselves wholeheartedly.

DHYANA: Meditation      The capacity to be attentive to what’s actually there, rather than lost in the windmills of your mind. The capacity to work with all of the Paramitas flows from our sitting practice.

PRAJNAPARAMITA: Wisdom     The actual felt sense that all dharmas are empty of independent existence. It is said that prajnaparamita pervades all the others.

These qualities describe the path of our Bodhisattva practice. We practice precisely by practising generosity, moral conduct, meditation, patience; we apply ourselves wholeheartedly. This is how we find a way to live in this world as it is, with some happiness – hopefully helping others and not making things worse.

Like the Precepts, the Paramitas are a lifetime practice, and as we found when working with the Precepts, they are like a piece of cloth – wherever you pick it up, you are picking up the whole cloth. Each of the Paramitas implies the others. In order to practice Generosity, you need to be attentive, you need energy, you need patience, and God knows you need wisdom, otherwise you get ridiculous projects like the NGO that gave Jersey cows to the people in the mountains of Nepal, or the people who sent lingerie to the refugee camps. The generosity was there, the wisdom wasn’t. We can be quite misguided in our efforts to be generous, especially when we are offering out of our own distress at the other person’s suffering, or our own fantasy about their suffering. It requires a degree of wisdom to know what to give, and how to give, for the real benefit of not just the direct recipient but the wider sphere.

Now more than ever, in these crazy times, we need to live lives that are full of integrity , meaning and benefit to others. We can’t afford to be living on this planet just thinking of ourselves. We need a bigger way of life. But we’re just ordinary people in the world – what could this bigger way of life mean? What do the Paramitas look like when we live them?

That’s what we’re going to be exploring.

In this class, be generous in your listening, and courageous in speaking. As our practice deepens, bit by bit, in a variety of ways, we create activities, habits, practices, that accord with our vows. Use the space to try things out – you might not be sure of an idea, but it’s a chance to see what it’s like when you express it – is it true? Is some part of it true? As always, we have the opportunity to practice within the microcosm of our Sangha, in the ways we relate to each other.