They may be understood more as six overlapping, unfolding, but loose, endlessly repeatable stages.
The “paramitas” are often translated as “perfections” but that may sound a little unattainable. They are…
- dana – generosity: giving freely.
- sila – ethical restraint, guided by the precepts: in sum, refraining from harm
- kshanti – patience: with the vicissitudes of life, and with our practice
- virya – diligence, constancy: the Sanskrit word is cognate with both strength, virility and virtue, and connotes steadiness, fortitude: not getting knocked away.
- dhyana – concentration, meditation: zen, in all four “positions” – sitting, standing, lying, activity.
- prajna – wisdom: literally “before knowing,” or perhaps “beyond knowing.”
The “six virtues” establish a good order for practice to proceed in. They may not be strictly sequential, yet we shouldn’t expect to leap beyond any of them without addressing them all. They may be understood more as six overlapping, unfolding, but loose, endlessly repeatable stages. Or as six aspects of a life of practice. If one or more are weak or lacking, our practice will suffer. Naturally, for most of us nearly all will be either weak or lacking… So we endeavor to keep working on all fronts.
In the West, in the 1950s and 60s, people mostly went straight for the sixth. Just gimme the enlightenment!
There had been the horrors of two world wars, and something universally positive was in desperately short supply. People had also been reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception, and dropping acid and mescaline, and projected those kinds of experiences onto Zen.
Perhaps gradually the excitement of Buddhist practice is simmering down now, in the 21st century. We can’t just have the rare fruits of the practice. We have to cultivate the soil, and get good seed, and let roots grow, and have good irrigation, and so on. If we are patient with all of that, if and when “prajna wisdom” falls it may hardly even matter to us, so deeply embedded will we be in life as practice, and in practice as life.
Message from Henry is taken from our February 13, 2017 Newsletter.
Image by Rosa Bellino, used with her permission.