For the next several Wednesdays at St. Peter’s, we will be exploring the Ten Paramis, also known as the Ten Perfections. These follow the themes we undertook in January and much of February on the Five Precepts.
You will notice that these themes are about cultivating good behaviour, attitude, and qualities of character, not so much about the formal practice of meditation per se. Why not just concentrate on meditation technique?
Indeed, I have noticed that there are a lot of meditation apps available these days that promise instant peace and calm!
Why not just do that?
In our Western culture, there is a tendency to pursue meditation in reverse. We are in a hurry and want quick results. We might try vipassana — Insight Meditation — but, when confronted with our mental clutter, find the practice incredibly difficult and think, “This is neither calming nor insightful!”
In many traditional Eastern cultures, however, a person seeking to practice meditation doesn’t go in cold. They start with preliminary practices, beginning with keeping ethical precepts. In fact, all spiritual traditions are grounded in ethics. We are urged to refrain from doing harm as well to cultivate good qualities such as generosity, patience, and kindness.
Depending on the tradition, other preliminary practices also go into the mix: Rituals, chanting, mantras, special diets, yogic exercises, etc. This is often referred to as “purification.” The intended result of this purification process is a calm, steady heart-mind that is amenable to what we might all “serious” meditation practice.
Based on my own experience, I would say vipassana is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage, faith, patience, and plain old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness to go the distance.
Typically, instead of the peace and calm we are seeking, we experience the distressing reality of our untrained minds. And we might not understand or believe that the fleeting periods of awareness we do experience in meditation — those moments when we “wake up” — are actually very beneficial and much more valuable than achieving temporary calm. Awareness or wakefulness — remember that the word “Buddha” means “awakened one” — is actually key to the peace of mind we are seeking.
It is possible to use certain concentration techniques to experience peace in meditation and some people even have an innate ability to do that. But the peace of mind experienced does not last long beyond the cushion. Sometimes people become attached to the practice itself and avoid engaging in “real life.” However, avoiding life is not the point or the path of enlightenment.
Just as it would be wise to train the body before running a marathon, it’s wise to train the mind in preparation for — and while — undertaking the work of investigation, penetrative insight and liberating awareness.
Insight practice is sometimes compared to peeling away the layers of an onion. The layers represent our habits and conditioning, our clinging tendencies — which we take to be our “self.” But these layers actually obscure our true self — our inherent Buddha nature — which has nothing to do with our personality.
The outer layers everyone can see — strong habits and tendencies that are harmful, like substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, greedy behaviour, over-aggressiveness. It’s usually not too difficult to see how these habits lead to unhappiness, so we work to turn those habits around.
You start where you are. If you happen to be a serial killer, that’s where you start. Start by not killing. Angulimala was a sadistic serial killer in the Buddha’s time who dispatched 999 victims. He was looking to make it a thousand when he encountered the Buddha and had a sudden conversion. In other words, he woke up. He saw what he was doing, the effect it was having and the sorrow his actions were causing for himself and others.
As we learn to conduct ourselves harmlessly, we experience much more peace of mind, fewer worries, less stress. With this awareness, the most troublesome outer layers fall away and we come upon new, more subtle layers of habit that we might not have been conscious of before. We may look like we have it altogether on the outside but we also realize how quickly we can become triggered and return to the harmful mind states of greed, hatred, and confusion. In Buddhism, these are known as the three poisons.
So we work at a more refined level to counteract these poisons. For example, if we notice that we are carrying hatred in the form of anger (or depression, as the flip side of anger) we work on developing a quality that is opposite to anger, such as patience.
In short, awareness and harmless conduct reinforce each other. We can’t see our harmful conduct without some awareness. We can’t grow in awareness without refining our conduct.
In our work, we will at times come upon a layer of “self” so deeply ingrained and subtle that we can’t see it, we can’t penetrate it, it’s like we have hit a wall. We know there is something wrong but we don’t know what to do. Those are the times when having internalized the Paramis is really going to help.
The Paramis — the Ten Perfections — are by tradition the qualities the Buddha refined in his earlier lives. It is said that perfecting them over many lives gave him the foundation to attain enlightenment.
Whether we believe we have many lives or just one, we can benefit from cultivating the the Paramis. They ground us in our spiritual practice, which in turns brings ease to our worldly life.
Here are the Paramitias in the order that we’ll be studying them over the next several weeks. The brief descriptions below are mostly paraphrased from Ayya Khema’s Being Nobody, Going Nowhere.
February 15: Generosity. Jillian has already presented on this one and her skillful talk led to a good discussion afterwards. Generosity, as a parami, is considered a starting point. Generosity of any kind diminishes the ego, which is the essence of the path.
March 8: Morality and Renunciation: Nelle will bundle these two perfections together. Since the ethical precepts have already been covered in previous talks, the focus of this talk will mainly be on renunciation — or letting go. What we are actually letting go of is our egoic clinging, a practice we can do both on the cushion and off.
March 15: Wisdom: Bruce will lead this talk. This parami is very broad. According to Ayya Khema, cultivating wisdom can be seen as a process akin to feeding ourselves: First, we learn. We acquire knowledge and we put it on our plate. Then we chew on the knowledge for a while and swallow it. Then we digest the knowledge. What we can’t use, we let go of. What we can use, we keep; this may transform into wisdom. From a Buddhist perspective, wisdom is closely linked to an understanding of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.
March 22: Energy: Jillian. This parami is about using our energy skillfully so that it moves us in the right direction — towards elevated conscious, towards liberation. When our energy is balanced with concentration, we avoid restlessness. Energy is also one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.
March 29: Patience. Nelle. Patience dissolves anger. Without patience, our wanting mind demands things to be way we want them to be, to go according to our plans. Patience has a quality of insight, of seeing the big picture and realizing that whatever plans we make, the natural flow and change of circumstances means the outcomes of our plans are not within our control
April 12: Truthfulness. Jillian. This parami has many facets. It’s in part about inner honesty, seeing the truth of ourselves as we really are. It’s also about knowing the truth of the dharma for ourselves — and not just taking it on as a belief. This kind of truth-seeking is about spiritual inquiry.
April 19: Resolution. Jeff. Resolve keeps us on the path, even when it gets uncomfortable, unpleasant, uninspiring. Resolution, or determination, arises when we clearly see that the usual distractions of our ordinary lives offer nothing of lasting benefit. We therefore resolve to pursue spiritual growth and final liberation.
April 26: Lovingkindness. Nelle. Lovingkindness (metta) — or good will — refers to a quality of heart that makes no distinctions. It’s not about just loving those who are close to you or being friendly only to those whom you like. The aspiration is to embrace all beings as if they were your own children. Lovingkindness shows up in many places in the Buddha’s teachings. It’s one of the Brahma Viharas and its the subject of two well-known discourses, the Metta Suttas. It’s also a meditation practice in its own right.
May 3: Equanimity. Nelle. Equanimity is considered the crowning glory of emotions. It is even-mindedness grounded in wisdom and the insight that everything changes. True equanimity is warm and caring — unlike its near enemy, indifference, which is characterized by cold detachment. Equanimity is also one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.
Note: In the intervening weeks, Marc will be continuing with his series on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Mindfulness of Mind on April 5 and Mindfulness of Dhamma on May 10.=
Study material on the Paramis can be found at Gil Fronsdal’s Inisght Meditation Centre website:
Thanissaro Bhikkhu has an online study guide to the Paramis on his Access to Insight website.