…they (paramitas) are actually based on a deep acceptance of imperfection.
A little exploration of the six paramitas… the so-called “perfections,” or virtues, or qualities, or good approaches to practice.
Right off the bat, since these qualities or attributes are called “perfections,” the first thing to acknowledge is that they are actually based on a deep acceptance of imperfection. Humans and attempts at perfection don’t always mix so well. It’s often bad news when people try to bring them together. Intolerance, racism, fascism, eugenics, and other unholy idealisms may result, on the political level. On the personal, perfectionism is a well-known path to unhappiness, leading away from self-acceptance.
On the other hand, to take a musical metaphor, any musician knows that practice is the only way to get close to perfection, and that practice is simultaneously an aspiration toward perfection and a full acceptance of the need to address imperfection with unstinting practice. When anything like a “perfect” performance happens, it doesn’t come from an imagined ideal, but rather from a spontaneous welling up of untapped forces and energies.
So it’s helpful to understand that the kind of “perfection” pointed to in the paramitas is essentially an acknowledgment and acceptance of imperfection. To be fully human, as Yamada Koun sometimes said: that’s the project. And to move in that direction, the key is, from the Buddhist perspective, to be on a path that leads to liberation, not from our humanity, but into our fuller, greater humanity.
Actually the meaning of paramita isn’t quite so straightforward anyway. According to Donald Lopez, there are two possible origins of the term:
- It derives from the adjective parama, “highest”, or “primary”, “most excellent”, and hence the noun can be rendered as “excellence” or “perfection”.
- A more “creative” etymology is that it derives from pāra, “beyond”, “the further shore,” and mita, “that which has arrived,” or “that which goes.” Hence “that which goes or has gone beyond.”
In other words, following these guidelines for practice will lead us “beyond.”
Either way, the six paramitas are surely six aspects of practice, of being on the Path. If we want to grow as a human being, to expand, to fill our sails with love, to move freely on the great ocean of experience, to go from a partial narrow view to a broad expansiveness – and especially if we want to find the Great Way that unites not just all humans, not just all beings, but the whole of creation – and if we then want to live out our remarkable existence, our very being, in a way that measures up to the “Great Way,” then here are some waymarkers, some direction-pointers, to help us do the above. That’s a way of approaching what these “six perfections” are about.
They are not rules or regulations. More like “good guidance,” or road signs, or a GPS system that keeps us in the general direction of personal and transpersonal health and well-being – blessedness, as Aristotle called it.
Perhaps they could also be called “aspects of integrity.” They are:
- Dana: generosity, giving of oneself
- Sila: virtue, morality, discipline, restraint, refraining from harm
- Kshanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
- Virya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort
- Dhyana: one-pointed concentration, contemplation
- Prajna: wisdom, insight
I won’t necessarily explore them in the traditional order.
Stay tuned for more about the paramitas in the coming weeks….
Message from Henry is from our March 7, 2016 newsletter.
Image: Tulip by Rosa Bellino, used with her permission.