The Six Perfections

One of the most important component of the Bodhisattva path is the practice of the six perfections. “Perfections” is a translation of the Sanskrit paramita, which means something like, well, perfection. More specifically, the perfections are virtues that the trainee on the Bodhisattva path practice in order to accumulate the merit and wisdom that are necessary for realizing complete Buddhahood. They are the accumulated store of resources that will eventually enable the trainee, or the Bodhisattva, to become a Buddha in the future.

The idea of the paramita is not only found in Mahayana Buddhism. It is an older idea found also in Theravada. Buddha Shakyamuni was only able to summon up the resources he needed to defeat the Mara because of the paramita that he had accumulated through all the aeons. It is said that the dana-paramita (the perfection of giving) that he had performed in all the previous aeons was such that it became a huge torrent of flood that flushed out Mara and his retinues, thus enabling Siddhartha finally to attain complete Enlightenment and became the Buddha.

There are some slight differences in the list of the paramitas in the Mahayana and Theravada. But essentially they are one and the same idea. In the Mahayana the perfections are six in number, and they are:

  1. Giving
  2. Morality
  3. Patience
  4. Diligence
  5. Meditation (single-pointedness)
  6. Wisdom

It is said, such as in Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, that the previous five perfections exist in order to provide foundations for the sixth one, ultimate wisdom realizing emptiness. Taken all together, they represent necessary steps or landmarks on the Bodhisattva path. Without them Buddhahood would be completely impossible.

White Tara
White Tara

The first perfection giving (dana in Pali and Sanskrit) is the first thing that the aspiring Bodhisattva needs to perfect. This is the first step in caring for the well being of sentient beings. The work for the ultimate benefit of sentient beings cannot be merely words and thoughts, but real action, and the action has to start with giving. The giving can be done at many levels, starting from giving material things, to giving of “fearlessness,” which is a gift to sentient beings so that they no longer live in fear, and then giving of the teaching of the Buddha’s so that the beings know the correct path to ultimate freedom.

Furthermore, Deshung Rinpoche taught that, in order for the perfection of giving to be of utmost merit and benefit, there has to be a realization that, ultimately speaking, there is no giver, no recipient, and no thing given. That is, the giver should be think that by doing the giving she reaps benefits for herself. That will just destroy the purpose of walking the Bodhisattva path, which is constituted by egolessness.

The second paramita is morality. In Sanskrit this is sila. The purpose of practicing morality here is to take action in such a way that beings are not harmed. The Bodhisattva does not kill; she does not hurt the beings in any way at all. On the contrary she does everything in order to benefit their well beings. This will also accumulate merit which is necessary for realizing the Buddhahood.

The third paramita is one of the most significant. The Bodhisattva needs to cultivate patient. In Sanskrit this is ksanti and in Pali it’s khanti. The idea is that the Bodhisattva needs to overcome anger and ill will completely. No matter how much she is being harmed, the Bodhisattva realizes that this outward action is only a result of previous karmas and Shantideva said that it is in fact the one who is perpetrating the harm that deserves more compassion because he is incurring negative karmas that will result in more intense sufferings later on. The only thoughts of the Bodhisattva are to find ways to benefits beings. Shantideva also said that one moment of anger actually destroys aeons of accumulation of merit, just like a flash of fire destroys things that have been accumulated for a long, long time.

The fourth paratmita is diligence, or viriya in Pali and virya in Sanskrit. This si also very important, because without it no progress along the Bodhisattva path is possible. One of the worst forms of obstacles to the Path is the feeling that one is not worthy enough for the Path. One might think one is only an ordinary being and as such won’t be capable of becoming a Buddha. Or one might think that to become a Buddha is such a daunting task and feels that one is not up to it. This is a big obstacle because it discourages one to actually moving on the Path. This tendency is countered by practicing the paramita of diligence. By diligence the practitioner is always joyful and enthusiastic in practice. In fact becoming a Buddha is always possible for everybody, because Buddha Shakyamuni himself used to be born as animals. So we human beings are now in much better form than Buddha himself when he was an animal. So what reason do we have in thinking that we are not up to the task? Even though the Path is a long one and may take aeons to complete, the Bodhisattva joyfully takes up the task because he always bears in mind the ultimate benefit that will accrue to the sentient beings.

The fifth paramita is also very important. The Pali is jhana and Sanskrit is dhyana. In order to realize the sixth perfection, that of ultimate wisdom that will actually transforms one into a Buddha, one has to perfect the practice of meditation and single-pointedness. Shantideva recommends the practice of tong-len, or giving and taking in Tibetan. This is done by imagining that we are taking up all the sufferings of all the sentient beings in samsara so that they are completely free from them, and radiating out all of our happiness and merit to the beings. This will go a long way toward calming the mind and will be a foundation on which the realization of selflessness of all phenomena be possible.

The sixth paramita, prajna-paramita, is perhaps the apex of all the perfections, but in fact all the previous five are necessary because without them the sixth, or ultimate wisdom, would not be possible. (The Pali for ‘wisdom’ is panna.) This is the wisdom that completely realizes that all phenomena are empty of their inherent character. This may sound easy talking out loud or typing out. But it actually requires years of practice in order for one to realize this truth down to the core of one’s being. One is completely free from the fabrication and illusoriness of concepts. One perceives things completely without any conceptual thought. This in fact is really easy, but since we are so mired by the fabricating thoughts it’s not as easy as it looks. Nonetheless it’s possible.

So I would like to wish you for this coming Year of the Ox a very successful and prosperous year. For those who are willing to take up the Bodhisattva path, please undertake the six perfections in every moment of your breath. This is really what we are practicing for, that we are enabled to help sentient beings. May the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas always be with you to take care of you, to protect you and to help you along the Path.

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