In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition we are encouraged to cultivate six transcendent virtues, the paramitas. Paramita is often translated as “perfection” so this teaching is often called “The Six Perfections”
In his ‘Letter to a Friend,’ which is an instructional text for lay practitioners, Nagarjuna calls the six perfections the essence of the path. As we train in mindfulness and wisdom, these virtues are reinforced and strengthened.
Here’s how Nagarjuna describes them:
Generosity and discipline, patience, diligence,
Concentration, and wisdom that knows thusness –
Those measureless perfections, make them grow,
And be a Mighty Conqueror who’s crossed samsara’s sea.
I’m not crazy about words like ‘conqueror’ but of course Nagarjuna isn’t talking about warfare. He’s talking about conquering yourself, overcoming your own weaknesses. We have a lot of things we can work on in our spiritual journey and the six perfections are like tools we can use to help.
Generosity involves being more giving. When we give we strengthen the harmony with the world around us and we lessen our own attachment to material things. It helps us to not cling so tightly to these things that we can’t truly hold on to anyway.
Discipline involves avoiding negative actions. Giving in to our temptations all the time disrupts our harmony with the world around us and our ability to be mindful and attentive.
Patience has bigger connotations here than we usually think. It doesn’t simply mean an ability to wait when we need to, but also our ability to put up with difficulties and weather the storms of life. It’s the quality that stops us from falling to pieces when things get hard.
Diligence involves taking delight in positive actions. This path is the way out of suffering and we sometimes forget that. Keeping in mind that what we’re doing is important helps us stay on track. It is our inspiration and motivation. The path shouldn’t become a chore, it’s something to be excited about.
Concentration involves our ability to focus on these virtues. It’s our ability to pay attention to what we choose to pay attention to.
Wisdom is sometimes considered the highest and most important. It’s cultivating that ability to see things as they are, to have a real grasp on the nature of reality and our place in it.
As Buddhists we can strive to make these perfections part of our being. This is a path to awakening. I like to see things this way. This is a positive view, for the most part. These are the things to cultivate rather than the things to avoid.
If you like this writing and have an interest in this text, you can join us in “Introduction to the Mahayana” at the Rime Buddhist Center. We have in person and online options. Here are the details:
Facilitator: Lama Matthew Palden Gocha & Daniel Scharpenburg
Date: 6 sessions beginning on November 22, 2023
Time: 7:45 – 9:00 pm
Class Fee: $30
Text: Nāgārjuna’s Letter to a Friend – Get it on Amazon or at the Rime Center gift shop.