The Six Paramitas – Phar-phyin-drug — His Eminence Khentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Six invaluable qualities unfold and manifest from within the minds of disciples of the Buddhadharma who pursue and practice the teachings that Lord Buddha presented with joy and diligence. The six invaluable qualities are known as “the six paramitas,” phar-phying-drug. The six paramitas in Tibetan and Sanskrit are: (1) sbyin-pa (dana, “generosity”), (2) tshul-khrims (shila, “ethics”), (3) bzod-pa (kshanti, “forbearance, acceptance, patience, forgiveness”), (4) brtsong-’grus (virya, “joyful endeavour, diligence, zeal”), (5) bsam-gtan (dyana, “meditative concentration”), and (6) shes-rab (prajna, “discriminating wisdom-awareness, insight”). Paramita is a Sanskrit term and means “perfection.” It is translated into Tibetan as pha-rol-tu-phyin-pa, which literally means “gone to the other shore.” The other shore in the context of the Buddhadharma means transcendence of mental fixations concerning a subject, objects, and actions.
Generosity – sByin-pa
The practice of generosity, the first paramita, is to give what is helpful and good and to give without selfishness. There are three ways to be liberal and generous (sbyin-pa-gsum): (1) giving material things, (2) giving loving protection, and (3) giving loving understanding. The teachings on the first form of generosity, zang-zing-gi-sbyin-pa, explain proper and improper charity. It is necessary to abandon improper giving and to know what is proper to give.
One’s motivation is very important when one is charitable. It is improper to give something to someone with the intention to harm, or with the intention to become famous, or out of fear of impending poverty. It is also necessary to consider what one gives. A bodhisattva should never give anything that can hurt others and should never give anything that is helpful with wicked thoughts in mind. It is also important to reflect the recipient of one’s generosity. It certainly is not beneficial to pamper those persons crazed with desire and filled with greed. Furthermore, a bodhisattva is never reluctant to be charitable and is never animus, disrespectful, or scornful when doing so. Proper generosity is giving whatever one possibly can and doing so with a pure motivation and enthusiasm. There are many very inspiring stories about great arhats and bodhisattvas who even gave their own flesh to feed animals that were on the verge of starving to death. So, one gives whatever one can to the needy.
It is important to practice generosity, especially towards representations of the Three Jewels, towards one’s parents, towards those who are sick and in need of protection, and particularly towards those one thinks are rivals or foes. One gives them whatever one can with joy, respect, compassion, and openly. It is more beneficial to use one’s own hands than to ask others to take one’s place, to choose the right time, and not to cause any harm whatsoever. The wise know that they cannot ever be generous too soon and never falter or wane.
The second form of generosity, mi-'jigs-pa’i-sbyin-pa, is giving loving protection to all those who are fearful of others, who fear getting sick and dying, and who are afraid of natural catastrophes.
The third form of generosity, chos-kyi-sbyin-pa’i-sbyin-pa, is giving the priceless gift of Dharma to others, which does not mean speaking about it with just anyone. It means helping those who have respect for the precious Buddhadharma understand and appreciate its invaluable meaning. With a pure motivation, one should pass on the authentic teachings that one has received from an authentic scholar and master and that one has understood oneself. So that no distortions occur, it is important neither to mix the classical teachings with one’s personal opinion nor to share them out of self-centred aims. The truth of the Buddhadharma is precious and rare and should always be discussed in a pleasant environment and way. The Sutras explain how to give teachings in a traditional manner, and one should know better than to mix them with mundane concerns.1
So, these are the three basic forms of generosity, the first paramita that Lord Buddha taught. It is also the easiest paramita to understand. It can be practiced by everyone and is the foundation for the following five.
- Discipline – Tshul-khrims
The second paramita is tshul-khrims, “ethics, morality, moral discipline, ethical conduct, rule, order,” shila in Sanskrit. According to the Bodhisattva Vehicle, there are three categories of ethics (tshul-khrims-gsum): (1) to refrain from negative actions, (2) to accumulate what is positive, and (3) to help others.
To refrain from negative actions, nyes-spyod-sdom-pa'i-tshul-khrims, is the first aspect of the three kinds of discipline. It means avoiding misdeeds and wrongdoings, i.e., not doing that which hurts others and that which is selfish. In general, harmful actions are described as the ten non-virtues, which are (1) killing, (2) stealing, (3) sexual misconduct, (4) lying, (5) slander, (6) harsh speech, (7) useless speech, (8) covetousness, (9) ill-will, and (10) misguided beliefs. If one’s motivation is pure, however, then the first seven wrongdoings are permissible. If one’s motivation is impure, then one cannot be a bodhisattva. In order to have pure and skillful conduct, one needs to study and learn what is negative by training under the guidance of someone who really knows and has experienced the significance of virtue and vice.
Having seen which negative habits and actions are strongest and easiest to give up, a practitioner can take vows or commitments never to repeat them again. For example, if one is certain that one can stop killing, then one can take the vow not to kill. If one is certain that one can stop killing and stealing, then one can take both vows. Moral codes, tshul-khrims-srung-ba, and vows are supports that enable practitioners to reduce and eventually eliminate any wrongdoings.
The discipline of training in positive actions and developing virtuous qualities, dge-ba-chos-sdud-kyi-tshul-khrims, is the second aspect of tshul-krhims-gsum, “the three kinds of discipline.” Creating values of worth can be practiced at all times and in relation to everything. There is no situation or thing that cannot be the practice of a bodhisattva. It is said that there are as many practices as there are phenomena and that both positive and negative circumstances and situations present an opportunity for a bodhisattva to benefit living beings. Virtuous qualities are described as the six paramitas, but a person must be ready and willing to engage in these invaluable activities. The intention to do so is already an immense accumulation of virtue.
The Mahayana ways of dealing with mind poisons are very easy skilful methods. If one has desire, for example, then it may be necessary to exert effort in order to stop one’s craving. First it is necessary to understand the source and result of desire and craving and then it is necessary to learn to appreciate what it means to be content. While investigating both aspects, desire automatically decreases and contentment naturally increases. There is no need to sit down and work on decreasing desire and to later sit down and work on increasing contentment, seeing that winning an understanding of both practices simultaneously serves both purposes. In this way, various skilful methods can be developed and put into practice: generosity as an antidote for being stingy and mean, diligence as an antidote for laziness, meditation as an antidote for mental complexity, wisdom as an antidote for ignorance, and so forth. Mahayana Buddhism offers so many practices, and one starts by engaging in the easiest ones, until one can practice what needs to be done on a larger scale.
Acting on behalf of sentient beings, sems-can-don-byed, is the third aspect of tshul-krhims-gsum. One does need to have achieved a certain level of realization that is based upon a pure mind of loving kindness and selfless compassion in order to be able to really benefit others effectively and reliably. However, it is possible to benefit others before one has fully realized perfection if one has the pure motivation.
There are four basic guidelines to act upon for the benefit of sentient beings if one has a pure motivation: (1) To give sentient beings whatever they need to fulfill their wishes and needs, provided one’s help does not harm anyone. (2) To say what others like to hear, provided what one says causes no harm. This means to speak nicely. Nevertheless, should it be necessary to use harsh words for someone’s sake and one is certain it will move them to stop harming themselves or others, then one just has to use harsh words. (3) If in any way it is possible to offer others even a slightest glimpse of the truth, then one is obliged to do so. (4) Regardless of one’s own spiritual level of advancement, regardless of whether it is a law or not, one should behave in accordance with accepted customs and norms.
Ultimately, one’s ability to help others is limited. It is limited as long as one has not developed sufficient confidence in wisdom-awareness, the sixth paramita, or realized it fully. It is also limited as long as one does not really understand circumstances and situations and is not totally sure that the help one gives others will not be impaired by disappointment or obscured by pride. And yet, one starts where one is, at one’s personal level of understanding, and acts for the welfare of others in whatever way possible and according to one’s understanding and capabilities.
- Patience – bZod-pa
There are three ways to practice patience (bzod-pa-gsum), that I wish to discuss with you: (1) to refrain from hurting those who have caused one grief and pain, (2) to deal with any suffering one experiences without fighting it uselessly or feeling intimidated, and (3) to have confidence in the ultimate truth.
The first type of patience is the patience of not being moved by harm-doers, gnod-byed-la-ji-mi-snyam-pa’i-bzod-pa. The teachings speak of the patience of not being offended when someone hurts or abuses one personally or those who are dear, ji-mi-snyam-pa'i-bzod-pa. Put simply, it means not retaliating when someone hits us because then they would have “really” managed to hit us, in other words, not being offended when hit or knocked around by somebody. One understands that their blow did not come out of the blue rather is based upon causes and conditions created in the past – causes and conditions that one created oneself. By accepting a blow, the cause of a particular situation is overcome and the blow itself is used as an exceptional opportunity to practice patience without feeling resentment. One sees it as a chance to turn what might seem negative into a beneficial practice without becoming angry, khro-med. Of course, easier said than done.
It was not common in the Tibetan tradition to deal with situations just described adequately and Tibetans used to look down on anyone who was not offended and who did not retaliate when hurt or harmed. As a result, a victim felt ashamed if he or she did not strike back when insulted or hurt. Once I saw a monk in Sikkim react differently, though, and I was amazed. The very nice monk had a good sense of humour, but one day he said something frivolous to a monk who was very short-tempered. Angered, the short-tempered monk kicked the nice monk and then hit him on the head with a piece of wood. The nice monk was not offended, remained as soft as cotton, and gently said to the short-tempered monk, “Thank you very much. If no one were ever angry with me, how could I develop patience? Thank you for having been angry with me.” He really meant what he said and was very grateful. When situations like this arise, one has to be prepared to deal with them in the same manner. How? One begins practicing when simple situations present themselves. For instance, if someone says something that seems slightly abusive or annoying, one just remarks, “Yes, yes. It’s so true.” One doesn’t really mean it, but one pretends in order to prevent an argument from escalating and turning into a battle. One understands that their nasty words are only words. By practicing patience and forbearance in the wake of irrelevant matters, one will eventually be able to master much more crucial situations and events.
The second type of patience is the patience of enduring any suffering one experiences without fighting it uselessly or feeling intimidated, sdug-bsngal-la-ji-mi-snyam-pa'i-bzod-pa. Although it might sound so, the patience of tolerating suffering does not mean one seeks suffering and pain and rejoices when one is in agony. Since time that has no beginning until the present every sentient being living in one of the six realms of existence has been suffering in one way or another. During the entire expanse of time it is a fact that everyone has endured billions of centuries of suffering in the hell realms, billions of centuries of suffering in the animal and in all other realms of our world system, which is therefore referred to as mi-mjed-kyi-‘jig-rten, “the Saha world of endurance.”2 In one way, all past suffering can be helpful in that one appreciates that one doesn’t suffer much at this point, yet in another way it hasn’t really helped much.
When sick, one often does suffer a lot and should take medicine. Similarly, when in trouble with others, one definitely should try to get out of harm’s way. However, one should not see nor think that those situations are negative. Suffering is like a broom that sweeps away suffering’s causes. If one understands this, then suffering diminishes. If one doesn’t understand this, then suffering is intensified twice, ten, or a hundred times over and over again. How does one develop understanding? By reflecting, “My suffering is the result of former karmic causes. Just as I do not want to suffer, nobody wants to suffer.” One prays, “May my present suffering be of true benefit in that it removes the suffering of all living beings.” This is how one imagines taking on the suffering and relieving the pain that all living beings unceasingly endure. If one’s aspiration and sincere intention do not help others because there is no karmic link, then it certainly enhances one’s own practice of mind training in that one imagines taking on the suffering of others and giving them all one’s happiness.
When one sits down to meditate, one has little to no patience and it often feels painful to sit in the right posture, to uphold the right attitude, and to recite the liturgy. Having patience to practice will really help oneself and others. Lord Buddha practiced intensively for six years along the banks of the Neranjara River before he attained enlightenment under the Bodhitree at Bodhgaya.3 The result of his great patience while practicing and reaching enlightenment has been lasting for more than 2500 years and will continue helping others until time ends, which won’t ever be the case. He not only benefited our planet earth but the myriad world systems, too. Therefore, one should not complain about petty difficulties one may have while meditating and, instead, practice fortitude.
The third type of patience is practiced by having confidence in the excellent qualities of the Three Jewels, chos-la-nges-sems-sam-mi-skye-ba'i-chos-la-bzod-pa. Confidence arises through taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and develops and increases through practicing the instructions that one receives. This is the patience of bearing hardships for the sake of the Dharma, chos-phyir-dka'-thub-bzod-pa’i-bzod-pa.
It is important to continuously learn about and recall the qualities of the Three Jewels so that one is inspired to patiently seek to understand and realize the absolute and relative truths. Karma, i.e., cause and effect, is valid and effective in the relative world and therefore one should do good and avoid evil actions and ways. The absolute truth is that everything is like an illusion and therefore virtue and vice are also illusory. It is not easy for most people to acknowledge and appreciate the simultaneity of the two levels of truth, so it is important to practice the patience of not fearing the profound meaning of the Dharma, zab-mo'i-don-la-mi-skrag-pa'i-bzod-pa. How? One begins reflecting from a very basic, down-to-earth level.
It is a fact that we have all attained a precious human existence and we certainly appreciate how good our life is, because we are free to do as we please. So many possibilities to do good and benefit others are at our disposal. It would be a tremendous pity to waste the wonderful abilities and possibilities one has by ignoring and not using them. For example, as long as a hundred kilos of gold remain buried beneath the house of a poverty-stricken family, it will be of no use to anyone. Similarly, a precious human existence is invaluable but wasted if not used properly. Life is impermanent and passes quickly. The third type of patience is developed and increased by really learning to understand more fully that it would be a pity to waste one’s life and therefore important to practice patience of taking responsibility, khur-bzod-pa
- Joyful Endeavour – brTson-'grus
The fourth paramita, joyful endeavour, is also translated as “effort, exertion, and perseverance.” There are five kinds of joyful endeavour: (1) armour-like diligence (go-cha'i-brtson-'grus), (2) zeal of application (sbyor-ba'i-brtson-'grus), (3) relentless exertion (zhum-med-kyi-brtson-'grus), (4) the zeal of not turning back (mi–ldog-pa'i-brtson-'grus), and (5) insatiable perseverance (chog-par-mi-'dzin-pa'i-brtson-'grus). I wish to speak about armour-like diligence, zeal of application, and insatiable perseverance.
1) Armour-like diligence – Go-cha'i-brtson-'grus
Armour-like diligence presupposes having given rise to the aspiration and commitment to work for the benefit of others, which is bodhicitta of aspiration, smon-pa’i-byang-chub-kyi-sems. A sincere disciple has the wish to benefit others, yet he or she does not really know the best ways to go about this. A disciple therefore first develops and increases the heart-felt intention, which is concisely formulated in the prayer of a bodhisattva and reads, “From this very moment on I will use this precious human existence to attain realization of the ultimate truth for the sake of all living beings, so that I may lead them away from suffering and its causes.” This heart-felt intention is the foundation of armour-like diligence.
Just as armour protects us from wounds inflicted by sharp weapons, diligence is a strength that protects us from being dominated by laziness. Laziness pulls one back, impedes and disrupts one’s intentions, and stops one from realizing the four qualities that are accomplished by perfecting the paramita of diligence. The four qualities that will be attained by developing and increasing joyful endeavour are: (1) overcoming adverse factors such as laziness (le-lo-sogs-mi-mthun-phyogs-nyams-pa),4 (2) realizing the non-conceptual state of non-self of phenomena (chos-kyi-bdag-mjed-rtogs-pa’i-mi-rtog-pa), (3) perfecting what is desired (‘dod-pa-rdzogs-par-byed-pa), and (4) bringing the three potentials of practitioners to maturation (rigs-can-gsum-smin-par-byed-pa).5 Perfection of diligence is transcendent exertion, brtson-'grus–kyi-pha-rol-tu-phyin-pa.
It is first necessary to know what one wants to do before one begins. One needs to clearly understand the purpose of practice and win certainty in the teachings so that one’s confidence and devotion are stable and firm. Then one can successfully engage in the practices with one-pointed concentration and hold the samadhi of diligence, brtson-'grus-kyi-ting-nge-'dzin.
2) Zeal of application – sByor-ba'i-brtson-'grus
When someone knows how to give unfailing help and support to those who are suffering and in need, he or she is able to engage in reliable methods to truly benefit himself or herself as well as many others. This, then, is bodhicitta of application, ‘jug-pa’i-byang-chub-kyi-sems. So, relative bodhicitta has two aspects: bodhicitta of aspiration and bodhicitta of application.6 There are many ways to diligently practice the teachings on a relative, day-to-day basis.
The first stage of integrating what one has understood into one’s everyday life is rousing the will to overcome painful activities that have already arisen and avoiding and steering away from any harmful and disrupting influences that impede and distort one’s intention to lead a meaningful life. The second stage is rousing the will to develop and increase wholesome activities by stirring the energy to do good and making virtue a living part of one’s life. The third stage of practicing joyful endeavour is rousing the will to maintain any virtue that has arisen, not allowing the good to decrease or vanish, and exerting great effort to increase beneficial qualities by helping others in the short-run and long-run, i.e., relatively and ultimately. Of course, a disciple practices and proceeds from the level where he or she is and does what is possible. It is easy, for instance, never to hurt anyone7 and then to progress according to one’s capabilities, until one is able to effortlessly render unfailing help to others in the long-run, too, which is great perseverance, brtson-'grus-chen-po.
3) Insatiable perseverance – Chog-par-mi-'dzin-pa'i-brtson-'grus
Insatiable perseverance is based upon truly being fed up and disgusted with non-virtuous ways.8 All too often one’s efforts are sporadic, i.e., one tries one’s best for a short while and then falls back into inconsiderate behaviour for a longer period of time. If progress is to be sustained and increased, it must be steady and consistent. When a practitioner is thoroughly disenchanted and disheartened with the workings of delusiveness and seriously feels disgust, skyo-ba,9 he or she never stops longing to improve by engaging in unwavering perseverance, brtson-'grus-nyams-pa-med-pa. Then a practitioner progresses by carrying out beneficial activities for the welfare of others. The teachings state, “Even if you were to die tomorrow morning, you should still learn more. Even if you have helped everybody, you should help them again and again.” A billion or trillion friends are not too many and one enemy is one too many for a sincere practitioner of the Buddhadharma.
One should never be satisfied about having accomplished positive qualities but earnestly feel that one is beginning anew with every tiny step one takes and slightest assistance one can give others. Whenever one sees the possibility to help someone, one should not hesitate but be grateful and happy about the opportunity to be a friend. Whenever one sees the possibility to stop someone from harming others, one should not hesitate but be grateful for the opportunity to stop the evildoer. Avoiding such issues by thinking it does not matter if someone is helped or harmed is certainly not correct. For example, if one spots a glass splitter lying on the ground, it is so easy to just pick it up and throw it into the trashcan. It would surely not be right to think, “Oh well, thousands of people pass by here and do not go to the trouble of throwing the glass that someone can step on away, so why should I bother?” All of us have responsibilities. If we think one drop of water is worth nothing, then the ocean is worth nothing in our minds either. After all, oceans consist of drops of water. If, however, we accumulate one drop after another, drop-by-drop, we may be able to one day gather accumulation as vast as an entire ocean and become someone who has reached the goal through insatiable perseverance, brtson-'grus-kyi-mthar-gyis-pa.
- Meditative Concentration – bSam-gtan
There are three ways to train in meditative concentration (bsam-gtan-bstan-pa-gsum) that I wish to discuss with you.
1) It is impossible to perfect the other five paramitas without awareness, therefore it is important to practice the first meditative concentration, byis-pa-nyer-spyod-kyi-bsam-gtan, which is a beginner’s level of training to develop inner awareness. At this early stage of practice, a meditator learns to hold stable attention through shamata meditation, which is deeper and more meaningful than the superficial ways of remaining involved with mental obscurations. Shamata meditation makes the mind tranquil and allows a practitioner to one-pointedly abide in his or her mind’s innate qualities, free from disturbing emotions, rtse-gcig-nyon-mongs-med. By engaging in shamata meditation, one cultivates awareness and recognizes what arises in one’s mind. One’s body, speech, and mind rest naturally in the present moment, free from obscurations (such as desire, anger, ignorance, miserliness, jealousy, and pride) that only delude and hurt oneself and others.
2) The second stage of meditative concentration is discerning the real, don-rab-byed-pa’i-bsam-gtan. It is divided into two kinds: common and special. The first, bsam-gtan-dang-po'i-dngos-gzhi-tsam-po-ba, concerns the ordinary mind in that one learns to stop the mind from following after needless thoughts that arise and from wandering off as a result. Sitting meditation, shamata, is not carried out in order to make the mind blank and shut it off, rather the purpose of practicing shamata is to learn to recognize thoughts when they arise and to be aware of one’s own mind’s clear and radiant nature, eventually coming to see that mind recognizes mind itself.
The second kind of practice, the special, bsam-gtan-dang-po'i-dngos-gzhi-khyad-par-can, includes the first and takes bodhicitta a step further. A meditator learns to become free from the veils of clinging to a self, to objects, and to actions. Seeking an answer, he or she reflects and contemplates questions such as, “Who is meditating? What is being meditated upon and how?” Practicing in this way, a sincere disciple eventually transcends imputations and mental fixations that are biased, divided, and partial.
3) The third stage of practice carried out in order to perfect meditative concentration is upholding the first two with a pure motivation and increasing one’s openness of loving kindness and compassion for all sentient beings without exception. Realizing shamata that delights the Tathagatas, de-bzhin-gshegs-dge’i-bsam-gtan, is Mahayana, i.e., realization of emptiness. It means a practitioner abides in impartiality by having perfected shamata and is free of erroneous beliefs by having perfected insight. Based upon the pure motivation, complete perfection of meditative concentration means that a Mahayana practitioner is richly adorned with awareness of his or her mind’s inherent and radiant qualities and therefore he or she spontaneously and effortlessly engages in activities that always benefit others.
In summary: One’s mind first needs to be pacified and cultivated through calm-abiding practice that is integrated into daily life. By perfecting calm-abiding, one’s mind does become quite calm and passive, so it is necessary to engage in insight meditation concerning the way things are and the way things appear. It is also necessary to practice calm-abiding and insight with the right motivation, which is the wish to help others. Uniting all three aspects in practice is full meditation. Someone who hopes to be practicing Vajrayana would simply embark on a selfish trip if he or she was to practice meditation without the enlightened motivation of bodhicitta, and then there would be no benefit for anyone.
- Prajna – Shes-rab
There are three types of wisdom-awareness (shes-rab-gsum), which can be translated as “ordinary knowledge, lesser transcendent awareness, and highest wisdom-awareness.” They are that which is born of receiving instructions through hearing (thos-pa-las-byung-ba'i-shes-rab), that which is born of reflection (bsam-pa-las-byung-ba'i-shes-rab), and that which is born of meditation (bsgoms-pa-las-byung-ba'i-shes-rab).
There are ten branches of knowledge (rig-pa’i-gnas-bcu) that are studied diligently in the Tibetan tradition so that disciples of the Buddhadharma can eventually and unmistakably realize all three types of prajna. They are (1) rhetorics, (2) astronomy and astrology, (3) grammar, (4) performing arts, (5) semantics, (6) mechanical arts and handicrafts, (7) medicine, (8) phonetics, (9) dynamics, and (10) Buddhist philosophy. We used to refer to them as “the ten arts.” Nowadays they are called “sciences.”10 They are divided into five minor (rig-gnas-chung-ba-lnga) and five major disciplines (rig-gnas-che-ba-lnga). I want to give a brief explanation of the five minor disciplines of study first.
1) Rhetorics (sgra'i-sbyor-ba) is a branch of linguistics that is studied so that students learn to respect and observe a constant order when formulating their feelings and thoughts in an appropriate way to arouse a similar understanding and appreciation of things with those who are not in the same situation themselves.
2) Astronomy and astrology (skar-rtsis-rig-pa) is a combined field of study in the Tibetan tradition and was derived from Indian sources. Astronomy is the science that investigates the outer universe, the cosmos. It is the study of the celestial bodies, their magnitudes, motions, constitution, and so forth. The earth belongs to the inner universe and is called Jambudvipa in Sanskrit, 'dzam-bu-gling in Tibetan.11 Living beings are a reflection of appearances and therefore Tibetan astrological charts will always address the correlation between the elements that dominated in the cosmos when someone was born.12 The rela