To Light a Thousand Lamps — Grace F. Knoche

Chapter 13

The Paramitas

In The Voice of the Silence H. P. Blavatsky epitomizes the compassionate course as follows:

To live to benefit mankind is the first step. To practise the six glorious virtues is the second. — p. 33

The six glorious virtues are the paramitas the neophyte is required to master as he travels the path that leads to the highest initiatory experience. Following Mahayana Buddhist terminology, HPB presents these "transcendental virtues" or "perfections" in her Voice as the "golden keys" that open the portals to masterhood. Buddhist texts of both Northern and Southern Schools list them variously in number and order, and at times with a different selection of "virtues." The words chosen for this or that "virtue," their number, or how they are arranged are of minor importance; what counts is fidelity to the endeavor to transcend the limitations of the ordinary self.

What are these paramitas? Of the seven listed in the Voice, the first one is dana, "giving," concern for others, being altruistic in thought, speech, and act. The second is sila, "ethics," the high morality expected of the earnest disciple; the third, kshanti, "patience," forbearance, endurance, is the kindly perception that others' failings are no worse and perhaps less severe than one's own.

As for the fourth paramita, viraga, "dispassion," non-attachment to the effects upon us of the ups and downs of life: how difficult we find this and yet, if in our deepest self we cherish the bodhisattva ideal, the cultivation of viraga by no means condones indifference to the plight of others. Rather, it demands a wise exercise of compassion. It is interesting that to our knowledge this paramita is not given in the usual Sanskrit or Pali lists. That the Voice includes viraga has significance in that the fourth position is pivotal, midway in the series of seven. We are reminded here of the seven stages of the initiatory cycle, of which the first three are preparatory, consisting chiefly of instruction and interior discipline. (Cf. The Mystery Schools, pp. 41-58) In the fourth initiation the neophyte must become that which he has learned about, that is, he must identify with the inner realms of himself and of nature. If successful, he may attempt the three higher degrees, leading to suffering the god within to take possession of his humanity.

To become equal-minded in every circumstance, in joy and pain, success and failure, is to have attained the calm of a muni, a "sage"; it is fully to identify with the truth that whereas all that is born carries within it the seed of its decline, the indwelling wonder, the imperishable spirit, as so eloquently chanted in the Bhagavad-Gita, is deathless, unperturbed by the pairs of opposites. To achieve the stature of a sage may seem rather distant for us; however, when we give the practice of viraga a fair trial, what a release this affords from the burden of tension we needlessly inflict upon ourselves — and, alas, on others.

The fifth paramita is virya, "vigor," courage, resolution; the will and energy to stand staunch for what is true, and as strenuously oppose what is false. One proficient in virya is indefatigable in thought and deed. With the sixth, dhyana, "meditation," profound contemplation, emptying oneself of all that is less than the highest, comes a natural awakening of latent powers, to culminate eventually in oneness with the essence of Being.

Finally, the seventh, prajna, "enlightenment, wisdom" — "the key to which makes of man a god, creating him a bodhisattva, son of the Dhyanis." We will have become "god from mortal," as the Orphic candidate describes this sacred moment of the seventh initiation when transcendence and immanence become one.

Full mastery of the paramitas, however enumerated, is naturally a long-term process, yet diligently seeking to practice them has the merit of producing more immediate benefits without risk of short-circuiting the psyche. The very decision to begin has a transforming effect on our attitude and outlook, and also on our relationship with others. Could we assess our ordinary selves from the vantage point of our wiser self, we would realize that a subtle, inner awakening is steadily in process; too subtle for us to graph, but cumulative in its effect on our present and future karma. We do not have to be "advanced" spiritually before consciously making the daily choices that distinguish the bodhisattva path from the pratyeka path. As we faithfully try to live these paramitas, not only will we be nearer to realization of the universal brotherhood we all long for, but we shall be following the way of the Compassionate Ones.

Along with the daily cultivation of the paramitas, the seedlings of altruism must be watered by the rains of compassion, notwithstanding the karmic obstructions in the nature that tend to inertia. Tsong-kha-pa, the sage of Tibet, held that the reverent practice of compassion is "the most excellent cause of Buddhahood, bearing the nature of thoroughly protecting all vulnerable sentient beings bound in the prison of cyclic existence." (Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism, p. 101) This is amrita-yana or the "deathless path" in its pure interpretation. When eventually a disciple is born into "the lineage of the Tathagatas," he experiences surpassing joy — and yet immeasurable sorrow because of the obtuseness of so large a portion of mankind. The present is heavy with the karma of past sowings by us all, but we should not discount the sowings of creative goodwill that have been nurtured through many lifetimes. If the latter seem long in maturing, we recall that Prince Siddhartha did not become Buddha all at once: as far in the past as "four immensities ago" he vowed to become bodhisattva for the sake of sorrowing mankind. For scores of consecutive lives thereafter he tended the plant of compassion until ultimately it came to "full ripeness" in his latest birth at Kapilavastu, India.

Let us take a leap back into the long, long ago — to the "moment" in eternity when Gautama felt the first stirring of love for all mankind and visioned what could and ought to be, not merely for himself but for all living beings. Then was the seed of bodhisattvahood quickened into life and, bursting seedpod, it sent down a tiny rootlet into the virgin soil of his awakening consciousness. He made an earnest resolve to become ripe in wisdom and magnanimous of heart. Projecting his vision far into the future, he wills to build a raft of the dharma that he might ferry numberless millions over the ocean of illusion and pain to the other shore of freedom and light.

Way back then the Buddha of history was an ordinary person, aspiring, yes, but also, like ourselves, with character weaknesses, karmic impediments from previous lives not yet resolved. We may presume that he stumbled now and then and had to retrieve lost ground, and also that his associates in any one life may have received mixed karmic impingements from his errors of judgment as well as from his victories over self. It is no routine matter to go counter to the general drift but, because his motive was selfless, his resolve served as a steadying influence — life after life, the bodhisattva ideal was his inspiration and guide. Assuredly his ultimate triumph and renunciation would have thrice blessed all whose karma he had affected during his long gestation from ordinary man to buddha.

Every life-spark is a bodhisattva, a christos, a god in process of becoming. Hui-neng of China, the humble servant in the temple, understood this, and when his inner eye awakened and he became a Ch'an Buddhist master he put it this way:

When not enlightened, buddhas are no other than ordinary beings; when there is enlightenment, ordinary beings at once turn into buddhas. — Cf. The Sutra of Hui-neng, trans. Thomas Cleary, p. 20.

The same possibility is ours: to begin now, in spite of the selfish and unruly traits that mar our nature, to sow the seeds of love and caring. Full enlightenment may be ages upon ages in the future, and although we too must make the supreme choice at the final moment of destiny, it will have been in the making all along the way. At each instant of our lives we are building into our character either the self- centeredness that eventually leads to pratyekahood, or the generosity of spirit that will impel us to take the first step on the bodhisattva path. Both paths are on the light side of nature, but there is, nonetheless, a clear distinction: as recorded in Buddhist writings, the pratyeka is compared to "the light of the moon" in contrast to the Tathagata who "resembles the thousand-rayed disk of the autumnal sun." (Buddhaghosa, quoted in World of the Buddha, p. 160)

Every living being is the fruitage of a beginningless and endless outflowing from a divine seed, for within the seed-essence is the promise of what is to be: an immense potency, inert until the mystic moment when the life force bursts through and brings forth flower and fruit. Once a seed is sown in an appropriate environment, nature's elements of earth, water, air, and fire protect and stimulate its growth. So it is with ourselves: aided by the invisible counterparts of these elements, the seed-thoughts we sow daily and nightly leave their impress on the subtle energies coursing through our planet. Since we are one humanity, however separate at times we may feel ourselves to be, we share with all others what we are, our finest and our meanest. What a responsibility is ours, but also what a superb opportunity. Just as we are sensitive to the lower strata of thought forces when we are despondent, just so may we resonate with the upper regions of earth's auric atmosphere and perchance hear, if we are quiet, the subtle whisperings that inspire to wonder and noble deeds.

Many today, in their dedicated labors to relieve the suffering of millions, are manifesting a quality of mercy which may have been fanned by a gesture of friendship and understanding made by some bodhisattva-to-be in lives past. Perhaps we too have been similarly moved. The thought is deeply humbling and makes one all the more resolved to follow the lead of the Enlightened Ones who are infinitely patient and perceptive. Small wonder a Buddha of Compassion returns to teach. He is impelled to do so by the karma of all whose destinies have intersected his in former cycles; even more is he impelled by a love so all-embracing it enfolds the entirety of nature's kingdoms, a love that fortifies new aspirants and those who possibly in a future life may experience the first intimations of concern for others' well-being.

The Buddhist Confession of Faith succinctly expresses the essence of Buddhist philosophy and practice:

Buddham saranam gacchami
Dharmam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
I go to buddha for refuge
I go to dharma for refuge
I go to the assembly (devotees, followers) for refuge

We place our trust in Buddha as the imbodiment of the "Great Sacrifice," the supreme initiator and protector of humanity, who makes it possible for avataras and bodhisattvas periodically to illumine the fields of human consciousness.

We place our trust in dharma, in the primal truths that enlighten us on universal nature and the soul, identifying with which we glimpse our cosmic purpose.

We place our trust in sangha, the brotherhood or company of seekers, a fellowship which includes the entirety of the human life-wave.

In placing trust and loyalty in one another as brother aspirants, we share in a companionship that links us magnetically with the spiritual heart of our planet, the Brotherhood of Adepts. Insofar as we give allegiance to their purposes, we are partners in this universal fraternity which is dedicated to lifting — as far as world karma will permit — the burden of sorrow and misery and ignorance that is the scourge of humanity. If enough men and women will not only believe in, but also follow their intuitions and consciously cast their lot with the cause of compassion, there is every reason to have confidence that our civilization will one day make the leap from self-centeredness to genuine brotherhood in every phase of the human enterprise.

To quicken in aspiring human hearts the ancient vow to light their lamps from the flame of compassion is the noblest and the most beautiful ideal, and one which, if steadfastly held, gives stimulus and depth to aspiration.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition