some personal thoughts on the perfections

“The Buddha-Dharma is the fruit that has ten thousand flavors, the flower with ten thousand fragrances. It can be said that practitioners are the farmers who raise these fruits and the gardeners who tend these flowers.”
Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the Paramitas. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a collection of virtuous practices, each re-enforcing and supporting each other, after all, it is the solid practicality of Buddhism that I’m naturally drawn to. No, my problem (apart from the obvious one of making them manifest in my life) is understanding why those particular ones.

Personally, I’d like to slightly re-write the Paramitas to suit myself and my own particular path and challenges, and I believe that is a legitimate way to treat these tools, to make them entirely and personally your own. But at the same time, it is useful to be able to talk a common language and so I’ll stick to the traditional presentation here. What follows are just some personal reflections.

Dana-Paramita – Giving
Shouldn’t we re-name this? Couldn’t we use a word that points more directly to what exactly our practice, our priority, our major aspiration really is? Giving is lovely, both in terms of giving the Dharma and giving real, solid, necessary material aid, but doesn’t the word ‘Compassion’ better reflect our vows, and the very purpose of giving? While generosity is a wonderful practice, Compassion is the very practice itself.

Sila-Paramita – Precepts
Of course the order of the Paramitas is not so important, after all each reflects and supports the others. But traditionally the perfection of sila, morality, comes second, but surely it is both gate and foundation to this path. It is by taking precepts that one becomes Buddhist, and this remains a practice and a challenge throughout one’s life. However, if we see the first Paramita as ‘Compassion’, then we can see the second as being the foundation of the first.

Ksanti-Paramita – Patience
Sometimes this Paramita is called patience, sometimes endurance or forbearance. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his wonderful commentary on the Lotus Sutra, renames it ‘Inclusiveness’, saying that the practice consists of “continually making your heart bigger and bigger so that it can accept and embrace everything.” For myself, in my own practice, I’d like to add the notion of ‘Gratitude’ to this paramita, something that is not discussed enough in Buddhist circles but something that can transform many otherwise painful situations.

Virya-Paramita – Effort
LIke patience, the name of this Paramita can have some negative overtones, giving rise to the idea that you must constantly push yourself forward, leading to stress and pain. But true diligence, again in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “is born from joy”. So why not re-name this Paramita as ‘Joy’ and be done with it? But then again, that might also lead to expectations and disappointments. So I just prefer to call this Paramita ‘Practice’.

Dhyana-Paramita – Meditation
The Paramitas are for every moment of our lives, not just those few grabbed minutes when I remember to sit on my meditation block! So personally I prefer the way that Seon Master Kusan Suryeon, in a marvellous essay on the Paramitas, calls this one the Paramita of Stillness and Stability of Mind. We could call this Paramita ‘Peace’. For myself, though, I’d re-name it ‘Faith’. For me faith in the Buddhas and in our own inherant Buddha-nature is the very bedrock of stability and peace. When faith is there, everything can be let go to it.

Prajna-Paramita – Wisdom
The two wings of Buddhism are Wisdom and Compassion and I love how the Paramitas start with Compassion and come round to meet Wisdom here – with precepts, patience (gratitude), effort (practice), and meditation (peace and faith) forming the body of the practice. Not wisdom as in book-learning (or Sutra-learning) of course, but wisdom as understanding. As Daehaeng Sunim writes, “True wisdom is obtained only through applying and experiencing”.

The Seventh Paramita
That marvellous essay on the Paramitas by Seon Master Kusan Suryeon that I mentioned earlier is called ‘The Seven Paramitas’. Seven because he allocates one practice to each day, with Monday being Dana and Tuesday Sila and so on, and gives Sunday, the seventh day, the seventh Paramita: ‘The Perfection of the Simultaneous Practice of All the Paramitas’. I think that’s a wonderful idea, and if I had to come up with a name for this one, I’d call it ‘Love’.

“By awakening to our ‘True-I’, and through the practice of befitting ourselves and others, let us show kindness to others, accomplish the Path of Bodhisattvahood, and transform this world into a Buddha Land.”
Seon Master Kusan Suryeon

Seon Master Kusan Suryeon: The Seven Paramitas – The Right Road

2 thoughts on “some personal thoughts on the perfections”

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful, provoking essay, Marcus.

    If I were to re-name or re-parse the paramitas, my top-of-mind suggestions (very little thought behind any of this) would be:

    Dana: Generosity
    We withhold ourselves from the world in nearly every moment, solely to protect the ego. How generous to let go of our defenses!

    Sila: How can I help?
    Doesn’t this question bring our lives upright, if asked with sincerity and commitment?

    Ksanti: Just this!
    Not one, not two.

    Virya: Watch out!
    Sorta like herding the ox.

    Dhyana: Nowness
    How ’bout right now? How is it?

    Prajna: Gone beyond.
    Without thinking, what appears?

    Great exercise. Thanks!

  2. Wonderful! Thank you Barry!
    Prajna: Gone beyond – why, of course, that’s perfect!
    Barry, you are a treasure. Thank you.
    Marcus _/\_

    PS – I love your theme this week on Ox Herding! ‘Generosity’, how apt for this time of year.
    And thank you again for your kind generosity here.

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