10 Perfections

I have also started learning about the different schools of Buddhism. The first, said to be based solely on the teachings of the Buddha, was Theravada and seems to me to be best suited for the monks in a monastery, who are seeking enlightenment. Another school that emerged over time was the Mahayana school, which seems to me better suited for laypeople.

From this site, I have learned that another key distinction is that Mahayana includes the “ideal of practice” of the Path: becoming a “bodhisattva.” This is someone who “is an ‘enlightenment being’ who has bowed to bring all other beings to enlightenment.” In other words, a bodhisattva chooses to stay here and teach others how to reach their enlightenment. I see this as following the Buddha’s model.

To help this process, the Mahayana developed a list of six “paramitas” (perfections), which was later expanded to ten perfections that are supposed to be cultivated along the path to enlightenment. The first six are supposed to be complete in themselves, and the last four are supposed to add the dimension of practice that provides for one to become a bodhisattva.

Perfection of Generosity – This is about giving with no expectation of receiving in return, but simply from a spirit of being generous. As you release attachment to possessions, it becomes easier and easier to be more generous with things, time, and Self. This perfection is about giving generously and appropriately as a way of reducing suffering in the world.

This is also about giving the gift of gratitude when someone else gives something to you. Why? Because there can only be giving when there is also receiving. The two are interconnected and interdependent. And you can be grateful for the gift given to you without also being emotionally attached to either the gift or the giver.

Perfection of Morality – This perfection is not about rigidly following any specific strict moral code and it is not about playing by the rules of Buddhism (such as the Precepts). It is more about living in harmony with others by cultivating loving-kindness and compassion. It is more about making good (both morally good, and effective) ethical choices in our interactions with the world, based on the circumstances and conditions at hand.

It is more about following the Eightfold Path to continually learn to let go of ego, let go of desire, and become more disciplined in following the Path and moving toward enlightenment. As we do this, we are also impacting our karma because we cannot escape the karmic laws. BUT…it is important NOT to do good simply to receive good in return, because this is doing good from a selfish intention, which is NOT “right intention” from the Eightfold Path. It is most important to do good, simply because doing good is the right thing to do on the Path to Awakening.

Perfection of Patience – This about being patient with ourselves and with others. And it could also be translated as “able to withstand,” or “unaffected by,” or “tolerant of,” or “able to endure,” or also as being able to maintain your composure. Within the Mahayana “sutras,” (scriptures), there are three dimensions to this Perfection:

  • Enduring Hardship – In today’s way of saying things, we might think of this as facing our difficulties in constructive ways. This dimension begins with a full acceptance of the First Noble Truth and recognizing that we can reduce our suffering as we begin to truly understand that all things are temporary, including our suffering. We can also learn to endure hardship as we begin to truly understand that much of our suffering comes from our resistance to the hardship. As we reduce our resistance, we reduce our suffering.
  • Patience with Others – It is far too easy to become angry with others since they seem to constantly fail to meet our expectations. And it is far too easy to become hateful towards others for a variety of reasons. But we need to learn to release our attachments to our expectations, which will reduce our anger. And we need to learn to avoid hatefulness at all costs because it is a poison that can eventually destroy us.
  • Accepting Truth – This begins with first accepting the truth of dukkha as well as accepting the truth of uncertainty. As we learn to accept the truth of dukkha, we almost automatically start reducing our dukkha. And as we learn to accept the truth that we can never be certain of anything, because everything (including our Selves) is temporary, we almost automatically start reducing our dukkha and increasing/perfecting our patience.

Perfection of Energy – In the Sanskrit words for this perfection (“virya paramita”) the root means “hero,” and that means this perfection carries the connotation of perfecting courageous or heroic effort and also includes both mental and physical energy. There are three components to this perfection:

  • Develop character and courage to walk the Path, however long it takes
  • Take responsibility for your own spiritual training and practice
  • Practice the Eightfold Path to help others learn to reach enlightenment

I love the summary of this perfection offered on this site: “start where you are. Take courage. Develop knowledge and confidence. Dedicate yourself to others. This is virya paramita.”

Perfection of Meditation – Here, meditation is not done for stress relief or to reduce anxiety or any of the other Western ideas that have been attached to mindfulness and meditation. Instead, we do meditation to prepare our minds for wisdom and awareness. It is typically recommended to learn to meditate with the help of an experienced dharma teacher because long-term meditation as part of a spiritual practice can sometimes result in very dark, almost nightmarish, situations arising, as you come face to face with a previously unknown part of your psyche, or emotions, or past traumas.

Perfection of Wisdom – In the Mahayana framework, the perfection of wisdom is equated with emptiness, because all phenomena have no self-essence. It is our need to perceive them that gives them their essence, however temporary. This is moving beyond the surface level, academic, understanding of wisdom, to the full-on personal realization of the true nature, which opens the door to enlightenment.

One example that helps me understand this is to think of a car. The phenomenon I call a “car” is a collection of parts that are assembled in a specific way to accomplish a specific purpose. But if we start taking the car apart, at some point in that process it stops being a “car” and starts becoming a “bunch of parts.” But neither the thing I call a “car” nor the thing I call a “bunch of parts” has any specific essence outside of my subjective perception of them. When we can get to the point of truly realizing and comprehending and embracing this idea with ALL phenomena, including people, we are well on the way to perfecting wisdom.

Perfection of Skillful Means – In the Mahayana school, this is any teaching or activity one does that helps others to realize their own enlightenment. Even if the means are not inherently Buddhist, as long as they are applied with compassion, loving-kindness, and wisdom they are considered good and non-harmful.

Perfection of Vow – This is also called the Perfection of Aspiration and is focused on dedicating oneself to the bodhisattva path and living the bodhisattva vows. While the exact wording of the vows varies from school to school, there are four fairly common bodhisattva vows, which are:

  • Beings are numberless, I vow to save them
  • Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
  • Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them
  • Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it

We must recognize that we cannot bring EVERY being to their enlightenment, but we should still do our best to help those we can.

Perfection of Spiritual Power – If we let our imagination wander, we might think this includes supernatural powers and working miracles and so forth. While these are not necessarily completely out of consideration for an increasingly enlightened being, the more immediate concept is the increasing ability to practice the Eightfold Path with growing awareness.

Perfection of Knowledge – This ties the other nine Perfections together and allows us to put them to work helping others achieve their enlightenment. We achieve the Perfection of Knowledge by using our wisdom in the world, much like a doctor uses medical knowledge to help people restore their physical health.