The six paramitas are six “perfections” or standard ideals of enlightened behavior that bodhisattvas strive to attain through the cultivation of spiritual practice. These six perfections are generosity, precept-keeping, forbearance, diligence, meditation, and wisdom.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva is commonly understood as a practitioner of the Buddha’s teachings who, unlike the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, seeks not only to extinguish his or her own delusions and suffering but works to liberate others as well. Therefore, the aim of liberating others is the fundamental premise of the six paramitas.
The first of the six paramitas is generosity, also referred to as donation or giving. There are three types of generosity: 1. donating material wealth, 2. donating the Dharma, and 3. donating courage through giving the labor of one’s body. Donating material wealth is giving others money or material goods. Donating the Dharma is properly teaching Buddhism to others. Donating courage means alleviating the anxiety and suffering of others through the effort of one’s own physical labor. Everyone can practice at least one of these forms of generosity, no matter what our economic circumstances. Someone of meager means or living on little money, for instance, is capable giving even a little something to those worse off or contributing to the public good if they have the will to do so. Likewise, someone so impoverished that they are incapable of donating material wealth can be useful to others and society by offering their sweat equity. Those who have some specialized knowledge or wisdom should be able to teach others even if they are incapable of physical labor or have no money.
Even a person of the humblest circumstances can donate the Dharma just by sharing their own experiences, and teaching others things as mundane as recipes or knitting, for example, can be ways of teaching Buddhism to others.
It goes without saying that there is nothing better for us than practicing all of these three kinds of generosity. However, the key is to be useful to others by practicing at least one kind of generosity within the limits of our ability. Regardless of which we undertake, it is highly significant that generosity is the primary prerequisite or first condition of bodhisattva practice.
The second of the six paramitas is precept-keeping. This paramita teaches us that in order to truly liberate others, we must remove our own delusion and suffering by following the moral guidelines for behavior established by the Buddha, and perfecting ourselves by leading moral lives.
We should not, however, fall under the mistaken impression that we are incapable of guiding others just because we have not fully perfected ourselves. On the contrary, it is impossible to perfect ourselves if our own efforts to lead proper, moral lives shut ourselves off from other people. A major point of precept-keeping is devoting ourselves to others. The more we devote ourselves to others, the more we improve ourselves, and the more we improve ourselves, the more we can devote ourselves to others. Each perpetually reinforces the other in a virtuous cycle.
The third paramita is forbearance, a quality that is especially important for people today. The Buddha Shakyamuni embodied all manner of virtues and became a buddha through constant practice, so it might be irreverent to diminish the magnificence of Shakyamuni by emphasizing one at the expense of the others. However, the greatest virtue of the Buddha seems to have been his tolerant forbearance and largesse. No matter which biography of the Buddha Shakyamuni or whichever sutra we read, nowhere do we find it written that he ever became angry or lost his patience. Even in cases that it would be natural to expect so, he never became even the slightest bit annoyed. However severely he was persecuted and no matter how coldly his disciples turned their backs and abandoned him, Shakyamuni responded by feeling even more sympathy and compassion for others.
If an agnostic person who recognizes only mundane reality were to ask me to characterize Shakyamuni in purely conventional human terms using only a word or two, one could respond with “absolute tolerance.”
It is for this reason there is no action that pains the Buddha Shakyamuni more than when we take out our anger and resentment on somebody when something infuriates us. Above all else, we should stop treating each other this way.
Simply put, forbearance is tolerance, which in essence means not becoming angry. As we advance in our cultivation of bodhisattva practice, we cease being angry or resentful toward not only other people, but also toward any phenomena or situation that exists. For example, we all tend to whine and complain about the weather when it rains, and grumble about the dryness and dust when we have an extended spell of clear skies and hot, dry weather. However, due to our perseverance in practice we gain repose, and when this happens we are thankful for both the rain and the sunshine. Our minds are no longer hostage to the changes in the world around us.
When we progress still further, not only do we cease having anger or resentment towards those who hurt, humiliate or betray us, in affirmative terms we even come to aspire to liberate them. On the other hand, when we have progressed this far in our practice, we also reflect intently on our conduct without praise and flattery going to our heads. We maintain a humble heart and an unassuming demeanor, never feeling superior to others just because things are going well for us.
All of these attitudes are aspects of forbearance, and exemplify a state of mind that is the apogee of cultivating forbearance. Even if we cannot immediately attain this ideal in a single step, it is surprising how quickly we can develop feelings of compassion for those who cause problems for us. We ought to make headway toward attaining at least this state of mind. If people throughout the world would only make this kind of forbearance a habit of the heart, that alone would establish world peace and make humanity happier than we have ever been before.
The fourth paramita is diligence. Fundamentally, diligence means unadulterated, undistracted, or genuine effort, abandoning trivial distractions and proceeding straight ahead toward our important goal. Even if we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the study and practice of Buddhism, we will not have achieved the perfection of diligence if our thinking and actions are impure and not completely focused on the Way.
Despite single-mindedly devoting ourselves to study and practice, moreover, we sometimes fail to see results, or worse yet, we experience reversals, or our practice is hindered by others. We must understand, however, that such discouragements are like ripples on the surface of the ocean, nothing but illusions that disappear as soon as the wind dies down. Therefore, once we have determined to practice the bodhisattva way, we should move forward single-mindedly without ever backtracking.
The fifth paramita is meditation, dhyāna in Sanskrit, better known as zen, or zenjō, its full and proper Sino-Japanese translation. Zen was originally a sound transliteration of the Sanskrit word, but carries the connotation of a quiet or immovable mind. Jō, on the other hand, was used to express the meaning of the Sanskrit term: a calm and unshakable state of mind. In addition to implying single-minded diligence, in order to attain the perfection of meditation it is important that we view all things with a quiet and composed mind that meticulously observes the world. Doing so allows us to see the true form of all things as they really exist and to discover the right way to cope with those realities.
The proper way of seeing things and the power to discern the true form of all things is wisdom, the last of the six paramitas. Since wisdom was discussed earlier its definition will be abbreviated here, but suffice it to say, we cannot liberate others without wisdom.
For example, suppose that we come across a destitute young man lying ill on the side of the road. We take one look at the young man, and feeling sorry for him we give him some money without thinking about the consequences of our actions. However, what if he is someone who is developing a drug problem? Then he will simply grab the money and use it to sustain his habit, and in this way he might end up a hopeless case, seriously addicted to drugs. Instead of giving him money, if we had only contacted the authorities and seen to it that he entered a treatment facility under a doctor’s care, he could have gained a second chance at life. Our intention was to practice generosity, but we ended up going about it the wrong way. This is an admittedly extreme hypothetical example, but similar cases of various severity occur all the time.
In this manner, even though we may do something useful for people or perform commendable deeds in order to help them, unless we act with true wisdom, our mercy and compassion may be ineffective or even counterproductive. For this reason, wisdom is an indispensable precondition for practicing the bodhisattva way.