Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The First Three Buddhist "Best Practices"

Part One: The First Three Paramitas
1. Generosity
2. Morality (Moral Discipline)
3. Patience
4. Right Effort
5. Meditation
6. Wisdom

These are the key practices of a bodhisattva, and their perfection, meaning doing them purely regardless of the circumstances, is the way of a bodhisattva. So if we emulate the paramitas, even when they don’t arises quite so naturally as we would like, we will be moving ourselves along the path to peacefulness. They can be thought of as a shorthand version of the Noble Eightfold Path.

There is considerable variation in the scriptural lists of paramitas, values we need to cultivate to live more peaceful lives and to reduce and eliminate our suffering. There is this Chan list of six, but there are other lists of ten as well. In one list of ten, patience is replaced by renunciation, and honesty, determination, lovingkindness, and equanimity are added.

1. Generosity

 is the basic principle of enlightened living, giving without discrimination simply because there is a need. The implication, of course, is that there is no Self to get in the way.
2. Morality is leading a virtuous life (doing, saying, and acting appropriately), simply not doing what we know is wrong, meaning things that produce stress and anxiety for us, for those around us, and for the planet.
3. Patience

 is the antidote for anger in its various forms, ranging from irritation to hatred, and is the mindstate that arises when we stop asking everything to be other than what it is.
4. Right Effort is the paradigm we must maintain diligently to move meaningfully along the path.
5. Meditation is what gives us the single-pointedness that allows peace and clarity to arise
6. Wisdom is the foundation of all our actions; it is right view or understanding and right intention)

1. Generosity

How are we supposed to do to attain freedom from suffering, to reach the emptiness of emptiness, to walk stably on the middle path? According to the Diamond Sutra, just be generous. Generosity, dana in Sanskrit, is often used in the context of making monetary offerings. But in daily life, generosity is meant is a much larger context. Generosity is what arises when our own self-cherishing and self-centered needs give way to being of benefit to others.

As we practice with the paramitas, our attachments, especially to our self, weaken and disappear. This is, in essence, the actuation of the Three Pure Vows (to do no harm, to be of benefit, to save all beings).

Generosity involves the gift, the giver and the receiver. Ideally, the giver should give simply because there is a need, with no expectation of personal gain, reward, or benefit; and the gift should be given without consideration of the receiver, with complete disregard for the recipient’s character or qualities. Finally, the gift can be material, it can be money or things, or it can be spiritual, meaning the gift of the dharma. Both hold an important place in perfecting this paramita, though spiritual giving, giving the gift of the teachings, is considered a higher form of giving.

The practice of giving purifies our minds and relieves our suffering in three ways. First, when we decide to give something of our own to someone else, we reduce our attachment to the object; making this a habit weakens our craving and clinging, the main causes of our dukkha. Second, establishing the habit of being generous resets our karma so that in the future we produce less and less dukkha for ourselves. And third, and most important, when giving is practiced with pure intention, our generosity produces virtue and wisdom, which has the immediate effect of changing our karmic course and eliminating dukkha.

The highest for of giving, which is neither material nor spiritual, is the giving of No-Fear.

Ten Practices for the Giving of No-Fear

1.     The more peaceful we are, the more we give no-fear
2.     Understand no-self, when there is no self, there is the giving of no-fear
3.     Body – Slow gentle movement, no clumsiness, less eye-contact, humble stances
4.     Speech – Right speech, gentle language, slow speaking, mindful speech
5.     Mind -- Replacing defiled mind states with their antidotes
6.     Equanimity – Stop discriminating and differentiating, stop value-adding judgments
7.     Understanding that everyone acts only to relive their own suffering, never to cause us to dukkha
8.     Making compassion the central point of departure for everything we do and don’t do
9.     Become the smallest person in the room, allowing modesty and humility to guide our actions
10.  Never go on the battlefield
11.  Never say it more than once
12.  Conquer our own fear of fear
13.  Living with a heart filled with sympathetic joy
14.  Always offering as much support and comfort as possible
15.  Recognizing that we have intellectually, economically and spiritually a strong duty and responsibility to care for and protect the weak

The giving of no-fear is the giving of the gift of ultimate wisdom.

2. Morality (Moral Discipline)

Morality is acting in “right” ways. There are a number of lists that codify these behaviors. View them as guidelines, not absolutes; view them as rafts, not doctrines. Contemplate them anew each time conditions warrant their arising.

These can be used to guide our every decision:

1.     Do no harm, then if possible
2.     Be of benefit
3.     If you can’t be of benefit, do nothing
4.     Be morally disciplined and follow the rules
5.     Meditate
6.     Be wisdom-oriented

Use Right Speech
Only speak when it will improve the silence

1.     Only speak when conditions suggest you should speak
2.     Only speak when you have something to say that will be of benefit
3.     Always speak in ways that can be heard
4.     Only say it once
5.     Never go on the battlefield; being of benefit isn’t about winning
Wrong speech:
            Harsh, mean-spirited or angry words
            Gossip and small talk
            Belittling others to raise your own status

As Much As Possible, Maintain One of these Mind-States
1.     Generosity
2.     Compassion and Lovingkindness
3.     Patience
4.     Humility and Modesty
5.     Moral Restraint
6.     Equanimity
7.     Right Speech
8.     Truthfulness
9.     Dependability
10.  Regret (When we act appropriately but the outcome is not beneficial, then we use regret, very gently, to remind us to try another tactic next time.)
11.  Distaste (Develop a gentle aversion to all that is unwholesome in body, speech and mind.)

The Precepts

I asked a student to contemplate these and she emailed me the next day saying “I must be missing something, I don’t do any of these.” I told her to contemplate just “no killing.” She emailed me a few days later: “I could spend a whole lifetime just on ‘No killing,’ couldn’t I?”

Don’t be deceived by their brevity and simplicity, these are life practices.

1.     No killing
2.     No taking of things not given
3.     No sexual misconduct
4.     No falsifying
5.     No drugs


Patience is a mindstate that is able to accept fully whatever occurs. Patience is the antidote for faulty frustrated desires (greed, the I-wants and I shoulda-hads) and unwanted occurrences (negative greed: the I-shouldn’ta gottens and it shouldn’t bes), and for the anger that arises from not getting. We need to make the perfection of patience an omnipresent practice; not just a fallback position to use in desperation when screaming fails to accomplish our goal.

Being patient means being there wholeheartedly with whatever arises, having given up the idea that things should be other than what they are. It is always possible to be patient; there is no situation so bad that it cannot be accepted patiently, with an open, accommodating, and mindful practice.

When we practice the patience of voluntarily accepting suffering (which is all imagined and unreal, so why not?), we can maintain a peaceful mind even when experiencing difficulties.

If we maintain this peaceful and positive state of mind through mindfulness, angry minds will have no opportunity to arise. (You’re always breathing, so you can always return to your breath, even when someone is screaming at you). On the other hand, if we allow ourselves to dwell in aversive thoughts and/or affirmations there will be no way for us to prevent anger and ill-will from arising.

By training our mind to look at frustrating situations in a more realistic manner, we can free ourselves from anger and a lot of other unnecessary mental suffering: If there is a way to remedy an unpleasant situation, what point is there in being angry? On the other hand, if it is completely impossible to remedy the situation there is also no reason to get upset either. This line of reasoning is very useful, for we can apply it when we feel ourselves just becoming angry and thereby move to patience.

Being patient doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do something in response to “problematic” conditions. If it is possible to remedy the situation, then of course we should; but to do this we do not need to become angry. Simple awareness will do. And importantly, we need not to believe that things should be other than what they are.

In reality all of our problems are nothing more than a failure to accept things, as they are–in which case it is patient acceptance, rather than attempting to change externals, that is the solution. Lessening and managing the anger is not the point on which we practice. The point is to patiently accept things are they are and to let go of all our fabrications about how they oughta be/shoulda be.

Problems do not exist outside our mind, so when we stop seeing other people and things as problems they stop being problems. That’s patience.

Sitting perfectly still in meditation is one of the best training for a patient life.