An exclusive excerpt from the new book, Life Is Spiritual Practice: Achieving Happiness with the 10 Perfections, by Jean Smith.
As a young child, I loved to play with something called “magic seeds.” I’d drop them into a glass of water, and they would suddenly swell into huge and exotic paper flowers, filling me with wonder and joy. I sometimes wish that heart characteristics like generosity and patience were like that and would suddenly bloom into full flower the moment I plant the seeds. But they don’t. They must be carefully cultivated.
The word paramis (Pali), or paramitas (Sanskrit), is usually translated as “perfections,” but the literal derivation is “that which has been completed.” This definition is fascinating—and reassuring—in that it implies that all of these characteristics are natural qualities of the heart that we can develop, that we can perfect. With practice, they can be completed.
The Buddha taught that we can learn to express these heart characteristics; by example, he showed that we could perfect them. And throughout his teachings he gives us quite clear instructions about how to do so. Scholars and the Buddha himself also used the fascinating device of the Jataka Tales: stories that show the Buddha in his previous lifetimes and demonstrate that he could perfect these heart ideals under the most challenging conditions, while he was an animal or even a tree. The lesson is clear: if he could do it, we can do it.
The perfections are ten specific ways of benefiting other beings—when they are undertaken with mindfulness, compassion, and skillful means, when they are cultivated with the aspiration for liberation for oneself and all beings. The opposites of all perfections are greed, hatred, and delusion. Additionally striking: the perfections are not specifically Buddhist. These “sacred adornments of the heart” are found historically among people of good will everywhere on our planet.
Early scholars during the centuries after the Buddha’s death tried to identify the characteristics of the heart-mind that, when perfected, were the foundation for his buddhahood. They often looked back over thousands of years of stories, some of which are even older than any known historical buddha. The earliest-known extant work on these ideals is believed to be the Treatise on the Paramis, written by the fifth-century scholar-monk Acariya Dhammapala. A later work, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, by the eighth-century northern Indian scholar-monk Shantideva, is still used as a popular teaching text by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist teachers.
Dhammapala gives several explanations for the sequence of the perfections. In one, each quality is strengthened by the cultivation of the one that follows it. In another, the quality is “purified” by the one that follows. The sequence has much to do with the order in which the perfections are traditionally taught, but it also has much to do with the way the Buddha integrated them throughout his teachings—for example, when he went into a new community his first talk was always about generosity, the first perfection.
Here are the perfections, in order, with some key factors and characteristics, according to Dhammapala:
- Generosity is believed to be common to all beings and to be the easiest of the perfections to practice, so one begins with it. Its chief characteristic is the relinquishing of greed, craving, and attachment.
- Ethical Integrity, or Morality or Virtue, follows generosity because it purifies both the giver and the receiver, and its goal is to dispel unskillful behavior and to manifest as purity of virtue.
- Renunciation, or Letting Go, perfects morality by retreating from sense pleasures and by confirming the ultimate unsatisfactoriness of sense pleasures.
- Wisdom perfects and purifies renunciation because it penetrates and illuminates the true, empty nature of all phenomena.
- Wise Effort perfects wisdom by arousing the energy to apply it and to create a sense of spiritual urgency.
- Patience perfects wise effort, by sustaining our efforts in the face of suffering and craving.
- Truthfulness strengthens patience and enables one to use skillful speech and to validate the reality of phenomena.
- Resolve, or Determination, perfects truthfulness by strengthening unshakable commitment to enlightenment.
- Loving-Kindness perfects resolve by ensuring that it is put in the service of skillful tasks for the benefit of other beings.
- Equanimity perfects loving-kindness by ensuring impartiality toward all beings in recognition that they are the heirs of their own karma.
The mastery of all of these sacred ideals is perfect liberation, living our whole lives as spiritual practice.
Practice and Reflection: The Perfections
- Reflect briefly on what each perfection means to you.
- Does any one perfection seem more important to you than the others? Which one? Why?
- If you could add one or two other qualities of the heart to this list of perfections, what would they be?
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