In “Way of the Bodhisattva” Shantideva starts going through the six perfections, our method for practicing the bodhisattva path. This section is only going to be about the first five. The sixth perfection, the Perfection of Wisdom, is something we will be saving for later.
The teaching of the Six Paramitas was created early in the history of Mahayana Buddhism.
Paramita is usually translated as “perfection” and that’s how I’m going to translate it. It doesn’t mean we do any of this perfectly (obviously) it just means that cultivating these virtues is very important.
If transcendent giving is
To dissipate the poverty of beings,
In what way, since the poor are always with us,
Have former buddhas practiced perfect generosity?
The true intention to bestow on every being
All possessions–and the fruits of such a gift:
By such, the teachings say, is generosity perfected.
And this, as we may seem, is but the mind itself.
This is about the perfection of generosity. The Perfection of Generosity is about more than simply giving things. It’s an expression of non-attachment to possessions, but it also represents other forms of giving, such as giving our time to others, helping them with difficult tasks, or just listening when someone needs to be heard.
Where could beings
Be placed to shield them from suffering?
Deciding to refrain from harming them
Is the perfection of virtue.
The Perfection of Virtue is not necessarily about living according to rules. We have plenty of rules in Buddhism. Living by rules is important, but more important, in this context, is the idea of living in harmony with others. We should strive to bring harmony to all of our relationships, whether personal or professional. If we set an example of virtue we can make the world a better place.
The hostile multitudes are vast as space–
What chance is there that all should be subdued?
Let but this angry mind be overthrown
And every foe is then destroyed.
This refers to the tool we use against aggression, the perfection of patience.
The Perfection of Patience represents not only patience with ourselves and others, but also tolerance and endurance. It represents our ability to “weather the storm”, to bear hardship without letting it get us down and, especially, to avoid lashing out at others because of our personal difficulties.
To cover all the earth with sheets of hide–
Where could such amounts of skin be found?
But simply wrap leather around your feet,
And it’s as if the whole earth has been covered!
This is a famous verse, often quoted from the Way of the Bodhisattva. Our problems can’t be solved by making the world a perfect place. They can only be solved by working on ourselves and figuring out how we can better respond to the world around us.
Likewise, we can never take
And turn aside the outer course of things.
But only seize and discipline the mind itself,
And what is there remaining to be curbed.
Controlling our minds, controlling ourselves, is all we can really do. Shantideva implores us to discipline our minds.
A clear intent can fructify
And bring us birth in a better realm.
The acts of body and of speech are less-
They do not generate a like result.
This is a little bit less clear, but the clear intent Shantideva refers to is the perfection of diligence.
The Perfection of Diligence is about tirelessly overcoming obstacles, walking the path even when it’s difficult and it would be simple to give up. Without diligence we might not have the determination necessary to continue to walk the path when things get difficult.
Recitations and austerities,
Though they may be long,
If practiced with distracted mind,
We can practice and practice, but we really need to be better at avoided distraction. The perfection of concentration is about taming our minds, so we can weather the storms of life with a clear and direct focus.
The Perfection of Concentration represents those practices that are dedicated to helping us improve our ability to focus and concentrate. These include several meditation and mindfulness practices. We are cultivating our mental stability and our ability to contemplate things clearly without getting held back by distractions or preconceptions. We are training our minds so we can have focus, composure, and tranquility.
Daniel Scharpenburg is a meditation instructor and dharma teacher in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world. Find out more about Daniel on his website and connect with him on Facebook.