MY FIRST FORMAL INTRODUCTION to the Six Perfections, also known as the Six Paramitas, was in 2010, in a Dharma class taught by Khenpo Lophel, a tall, young Tibetan Buddhist monk from the Kagyu lineage, who taught at the Mangalashri Foundation in Vancouver, B.C. The first three paramitas—generosity, patience, and ethical behavior—are, like many core teachings of Buddhism, not unique to Buddhism. Most of us would probably agree that these are admirable personality traits to cultivate and, if practiced well, would lead to a more harmonious state of affairs between people and nations, not to mention our own harmonious sense of well-being and happiness.
I think it’s fair to say that we all practice these first three perfections to a certain extent, even if we don’t make the conscious decision to cultivate them. You can’t live in our over-crowded, fast-paced, collage-like world of modernity without a little bit of generosity, even if it’s sheerly accidental; it’s certainly not that difficult to be forced to be patient, waiting for the traffic light to change or for the plants in your garden to grow; and there’s definitely plenty of rules and laws these days that will keep your actions at least minimally ethical—whether you like it or not.
Paramitas four through six—joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom—well, these three take a decidedly more intentional and focused effort to develop. To go about your busy workday with a happy attitude, fully engaged in the present moment, knowing that everything you’re doing is wise and helpful and on the right track is not an easy thing to accomplish on a day-to-day basis, let alone to possess as qualities of one’s foundational, permanent state of being. For many of us, these perfections don’t come easily or naturally, and they take more than a fair amount of conscious effort to properly cultivate. Indeed, most spiritual work seems geared toward helping enhance our efforts and abilities in these advanced practices of mental awareness—how to be happier, how to meditate better, how to gain deeper insight into ourselves and the world we live in—so we can have a clearer, more concise understanding of our lives, of our true nature.
What makes these six ideas unique within Buddhist philosophy is their application as a programmatic system designed to help us step out of our self-centric mentality—a mentality which creates a false sense of self, and its accompanying attendant, suffering—so we can experience the deeper, permanent state of awareness that is our true self, and its accompanying attendant, happiness. But if we do not consciously nurture all Six Perfections, we remain in a budding state, the full blossoming of our lives unrealized. As we work with the Six Perfections, we begin to experience how they are more than just a simple set of high-minded virtues, or as something to be merely possessed; rather, we experience them as powerful tools we can use, on a daily basis, to cultivate happiness, bring joy to others, and heal our lives.
You Are Not Pizza
PARAMITA IS A SANSKRIT WORD often translated as the crossing over to the other shore, specifically the crossing over of the sea of suffering to reach the shore of happiness. Paramita is also rendered as transcendent action, transcendent of the root cause of our suffering, namely the self-centric, mindful-less way in which we normally conduct our lives and perceive the world. The Six Paramitas shine a clear and direct light on our ignorance about how our view of reality creates the suffering we experience and how the delusions of our untrained coarse mind work to continually perpetuate it.
The foremost affliction of the human condition that we all seek solace from, in one form or another, is suffering. There are many different ways we suffer in our lives. Some forms of suffering are indubitably self-evident—war, torture, sickness, death—while some are more subjectively subtle—workplace politics, restaurant queues, other first world problems. Regardless, no one is immune from suffering.
Buddhism postulates that the root cause of suffering comes from either our grasping toward, or aversion away from, the elements that comprise our life. Simply put, when we get what we want and can successfully keep the things in life that we don’t like at arm’s length, we’re happy; when we can’t, we suffer. That’s how happiness and suffering are self-generated when you live within a self-centric, mindful-less view of your personal reality.
Modern life is a hard rules place where we must continually make the effort to find and maintain a sense of security, contentment, and worth relative to our self, others, and the community in which we live. Living in the modern world means we have a boatload overfull of time-sensitive, mission-critical tasks we continually need to contend with, and our fast-paced lifestyle stands in direct opposition to what is required to cultivate a peaceful, happy, and meaningful life.
Indeed, the conscious, heart-centric practice of the Six Paramitas flies directly into the headstrong winds of the everyman-for-himself and get-what-you-can-while-you-can capitalist ethos that energizes the consensual world that we are all subjected to. It can be utterly exhausting and, more to the point, more than a little de-humanizing, to live our lives in this never-ending cycle of the so-called “pursuit of happiness.” Sadly, many people gradually become thoroughly inured to all this chaotic striving and surrender to the magnetic pull of the ways of the world, abandoning their personal vision of a life of happiness and worth and resigning themselves to a perpetual state of merely getting by and hoping for the best.
Because our coarse mind is in perpetual motion, continually defining and re-defining our reality, keeping it within the deluded grasping and averting mental parameters we’ve established for our happiness, we've erroneously come to believe that the sum total content of our coarse mind is our actual real self, that somehow our coarse mind is who we really are. It never occurs to us to think of the coarse mind as just another sensory interface designed to process mental information, creating the sense realm of our mental awareness, similar to the way that our ears and eyes created the sense realms of sound and vision. And yet, readily and without much of a fight, we allow the coarse mind to ascend to the throne of our primary source of identity of self—which makes about as much sense as smelling a pizza and then thinking, “I am pizza!” And so it is through this distorted mindset that our central interface to the world, our coarse mind, shapes the contours of our experience and all of the finer deluded details of our interconnected relationships to everything we experience.
So if the mind is really in charge of the show, why isn’t it doing everything possible to try and make you happy? In actuality, it is. The coarse mind is continually trying to make you happy the only way it knows how—by creating concepts and narrating internal stories for you that shape your reality so you will strive towards that which it thinks will bring you pleasure, and pushing you away from that which it thinks will bring you pain and suffering—all within the confined mental space of your self-generated, deluded sense of reality.
And so it goes...
"Purification refers specifically to cleansing obscurations resulting from negative acts performed in the past and of the obscurations of the mental afflictions. The great difficulty lies in the powerful momentum of our karma, and sheer habit. The deep ruts of our habitual thinking and behavior have been accumulated over many eons of previous lives. So in the Mahayana tradition you practice the six perfections for three countless eons until finally you become perfectly enlightened—a buddha—with the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks. That's how long it takes, though—three countless eons. It's finite, but don't hold your breath. You are practicing through contractions and expansions of the universe—basically big bangs and big crunches." — Alan Wallace, "Vajra Essence"
Into The Deep End
WHEN I WAS A KID GROWING UP, my father ran the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charitable organization dedicated to the service of the poor, at our local church. I would often help him with food and clothing drives, and delivering groceries to fellow parishioners who needed a little help to get through the month. Their gratitude made deep imprints on my young mind, and I discovered a sense of warmth and happiness unlike anything I had ever experienced before in my life. Those impressions stayed with me through my adult life, and I carry with me the wisdom that even the smallest act of selfless service will bring me more true happiness than any hedonic or sensual pleasure I may pursue.
Material science has shown that altruistic thoughts and actions produce serotonin, a hormone that eases tension and lifts your spirits, in your body. When we do good things, we feel good. This is a big key to the understanding of true happiness. Because the world in which we live both enables and reinforces our grasping and aversion for self-centric gratification, we rarely experience a pure view of our true self that isn’t stained by this delusion. We come to believe that happiness comes only in fits and starts, that it’s a fleeting sensation over which we have little or no control, that it’s found in good movies, good food, good wine, good sex. The coarse mind distracts our attention away from the truth of our reality for one simple reason: it’s never been trained to view reality any differently.
There’s something about the altruistic generation of happiness that feels like a long-lost nostalghic dream of home, the feeling that this is somehow who we really are, where we really belong, the way things really should be. Unlike an elegant theory or well-crafted concept we might read in a book, there’s a subtlety to this feeling, an inexplicable quality beyond words, that we can experience as a tangible, empirical taste of our own personal truth.
There’s a certain effortlessness to this experience that fully abstains from any and all attempts to coerce a non-experiential conceptual understanding out of it, much like trying to describe a well-crafted Symbolist poem or dancing about architecture, as the saying goes. But when you get into the flow of developing a heart-centric view of reality, the development of your life tends to unfold rather than being forced by your will into existence.
When we dive into the deep end of this experiential shift, we quickly realize what is meant when we say we are creating our own reality. The full ripening potential of our lives breaks through and we become aflame with the fire of divine creation. The self-fastened bonds of our suffering begin to loosen, and we see how we have the potential to be the authors of our own personal narrative, the creators of our own little kingdoms of happiness. Thus inspired, primed with the reality of heart-centric action as a true source of happiness, we can now engage the Six Paramitas as navigational tools and set a course to sail across the ocean of suffering toward the shore of permanent happiness.
Sitting at The Traffic Light
THE KEY TO WORKING with the Six Perfections, the most sure-fire way to achieve the full benefit of the practice, is to take a pro-active approach to their engagement, as opposed to the re-active way that we normally respond to all the little things that come up in our lives and minds. For it is in the everyday ordinary, in the quotidian, that one can gain the most merit and insight with this practice. All the little things that upset us, all of the so-called problems of life, are now seen as both method and means for the generation of our happiness.
With a pro-active approach, there’s no need to wait for things to occur that test your patience. You pick and choose what you need to work on and dive right into your issues, right into the heart of where they actually live—inside your mind. That’s the taking of the heart reins, that’s the foundation of a heart-centric life: bringing our grasping and averting shadow self into the clear light of heart-centric awareness.
Paramita number three, patience, is a wonderfully powerful practice in and of itself, and the one that most of us can probably relate to the easiest. In order to cultivate the perfection of patience, we focus on the less then patient ways we sometimes act in certain situations or with certain people and then consider ways we can pro-actively improve our patience, in a specific scenario, at some point during the day.
Let’s say you’re out driving and you’re late for an important meeting. The guy in front of you is driving way too slow, you get stuck at a red light, and you think or react in an impatient way. Suddenly, you realize that the opportunity has arisen to apply some patience, so you take a deep breath and flex your patience muscle. The problem with this reactive level of engagement is that it requires both present moment awareness and then actually engaging upon it mentally, which can be easier said than done. The light may change to green then back to red again before you even realize that your agitated focus of impatience is fully engaged and is afflicting your mind.
When we spend time focusing on the devil of one’s own impatience in a pro-active manner, consciously doing little things like letting someone get ahead of us in traffic, or not complaining when a friend is late for a meeting, we begin to see that happiness is found through focusing on others—not on our perception of their faults but rather on our reaction to all them, and all of the little things that happen to us during the course of our day. With a little bit of practice, we soon discover that even the slightest bit of pro-active effort can have a profound effect on our happiness.
It's a Neighborly Day in This Beautywood
THE DEEPER PROCESS AT WORK here is the emptiness of reality and how we are continually creating our own version of it. There is no such thing as patience somewhere out there in the world that you can or cannot possess, or that someone or something is causing to arise in you. The transaction of anger, for example, remains unsettled and incomplete if you don't accept or interpret loud words and wild gesticulations being directed toward you as “anger.” Similarly, someone is not an inconsiderate driver if I don’t label them as such. I might lose my mental marbles of equanimity in traffic and yet my friend in a similar scenario is as calm and collected as Mister Rogers in a hot tub, sipping a glass of pinot grigio.
For me, in traffic scenarios, which admittedly often test my patience, I pro-actively work with the idea that maybe the driver is on the way to visit a sick friend in the hospital and so they are beside their thoughts and not focusing on driving. By realizing that I have the choice in that moment to create my reality and label the driver in any way I choose, the driver magically transforms from an idiot driver who got his license from a Cracker Jack box into a thoughtful and kind person I can direct my deepest compassion to.
It’s easy to think that some problems in life are too big, that someone is clearly wrong in a particular situation, that the Six Paramitas don’t necessary apply to all scenarios, and so on. We may think that it’s impossible to take full responsibility for our reality, especially if our life history and present life circumstances have been filled with pain and distress, or maybe even physical abuse. However, if you are not suffering from severe trauma or a clinically-diagnosed mental disorder, then you are probably fit to do this practice.
I am always inspired thinking about the life of Viktor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor who founded the third major branch of psychotherapy, after Freud and Jung, called logotherapy. It’s a rarely cited fact, but many of those who were liberated from the Nazi death camps ended their lives by their own hands. Frankl, however, moved forward courageously after his release, and his classic book, "Man's Search for Meaning," describes how we can discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most horrific ones, and thus find a reason for living. Frankl’s life example is important to recall in our moments of deepest doubt and despair.
Clearly, when you have a heart-centric view of reality, you engage with life on a different level. When you take responsibility for the way you perceive yourself, others, and the world at large through the use of the Six Paramitas, slowly and surely the shadowy workings of your self-centric self begin to dissolve, and you fall into the flow of the magic dance of heart-centric living.
When you fully realize your role in the creation of your suffering, and pro-actively work on yanking out the root causes of your suffering like so many weeds, what’s left is a self-generated state of permanent, lasting happiness. You’ve made peace within yourself.