To live to benefit mankind is the first step. To practise the six glorious virtues is the second. — H. P. Blavatsky
In Mahayana Buddhism the spirit of enlightenment and the six perfections (paramitas) are the entryway and foundations to buddhahood. Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419), Tibet's greatest teacher and the founder of the Gelukpa school headed by the Dalai Lamas, examines these topics in the second volume of the Lam rim chen mo (The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment).* As explained by him:
Nowadays, from among the six perfections — the center post of both sutra and tantra paths — there exist in slight measure the stages of the practice of meditative stabilization, but the stages of the practice of the other five perfections have disappeared. Therefore, I have explained the key points of their practice in abbreviated form and a little of the method for generating certain knowledge of them. — 2:223
*Snow Lion Publications, New York, 2004; isbn 1559391685, 295 pages, glossary, bibliography, hardcover, $29.95. See Sunrise, Oct/Nov 2001, for review of Volume 1.
In at least one respect, the 21st-century Western world is not much different spiritually from 14th-century Tibet: meditation is emphasized and the other paramitas — generosity, ethical discipline, patience, joyous perseverance, and wisdom — are apt to be given a back seat by the public.
In reading this second volume of the Lam rim, we should bear in mind the concept of "mind-stream." Each of us is a mind-stream, and a current of the One mind-stream. Through countless incarnations as a human being, ignorance, beliefs, and actions derived from seeing the untrue as the true have built not only a barrier to understanding the true, but have also built habit-forces which cause us to sleepwalk through life. In order to awaken, we must transcend these habits and erroneous views. While Mahayana provides a method that allows people to change quickly, it gives significant warnings about doing so. When the aspirant considers the complexity of the human constitution, inner and outer, it is easy to understand why rapidly breaking the psychological and mental habits of countless past lives is fraught with danger.
Human beings unconsciously practice mantras, rituals, and visualizations all the time through their speech, routines, and entertainments. The demonstration of their lasting power is seen in the suffering in our lives. After reaching enlightenment the Buddha concluded that suffering was a part of life, that suffering had causes, that these causes can be ended, and thus suffering can end. Finally, he showed the path to do this through right insight, right resolve, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Spiritual practice is the reorientation of life from unconscious living driven by ignorance to a mindful, conscious life driven by the desire to know the truth.
The Four Noble Truths of suffering and its cessation through the Eightfold Path are the foundation of Buddhist life. This understanding and practice may lead not only to a better way of daily living but also to the spirit of enlightenment and the six, seven, or ten perfections or glorious virtues. Tsong-kha-pa lists six: generosity, ethical discipline, patience, joyous perseverance, meditative stabilization, and wisdom. H. P. Blavatsky refers to seven in The Voice of the Silence: charity or love immortal, harmony in word and act, patience, indifference to pleasure and pain, dauntless energy, profound contemplation or meditation, and wisdom.
The first half of volume two concerns the spirit of enlightenment which, in the Mahayana tradition, is a commitment to awakening for the sake of aiding all beings sunken in ignorance and suffering. Tsong-kha-pa takes it further, saying:
Therefore, it is not that you generate the spirit of enlightenment thinking only, "I will attain buddhahood for others' sake." Rather, you focus on such a thought and make the commitment, "I will not part from this determination to attain buddhahood for the sake of all beings until I reach enlightenment." — 2:67
Pratyeka buddhas are those who become buddhas for their own sake, whereas the bodhisattva renounces buddhahood to help other beings achieve enlightenment. In the chapter "Compassion, the Entrance to the Mahayana," Tsong-kha-pa helps us understand this difficult subject:
Although sravakas [disciples] and pratyekabuddhas have immeasurable love and compassion whereby they think, "If only beings could have happiness and be free from suffering," these non-Mahayana followers do not think, "I will take on the responsibility to remove the suffering and to provide the happiness of all living beings." — 2:32-3
He illustrates his point by quoting and then commenting on the Questions of Sagaramati Sutra:
Suppose, Sagaramati, a householder or a merchant had only one son, and this son was attractive, beloved, appealing, and pleasing. Suppose that because the son was young and playful, he fell into a pit of filth. When his mother and relatives noticed that he had fallen into it, they cried out, lamented, and grieved, but they did not enter the pit and take him out. When the boy's father arrived and saw that his son had fallen into this pit of filth, however, his only thought was to save him, and without revulsion, [he] jumped into the pit of filth and pulled him out.
To make the connection between the meaning and the parts of the analogy, the pit of filth represents the three realms; the only child represents living beings; the mother and other relatives represent sravakas and pratyekabuddhas who see beings fall into cyclic existence, grieve and lament, but are not able to save them. The merchant or householder represents the bodhisattva. Hence this is saying that sravakas and pratyekabuddhas have the compassion which is like that of the mother for her beloved only son who has fallen onto a pit of filth. Therefore develop a wholehearted resolve that assumes the responsibility of liberating all beings based on compassion. — 2:33
Tsong-Kha-Pa and disciples receiving a revelation from Manjushri
In the chapter titled "Maintaining the Spirit of Enlightenment," Tsong-kha-pa sounds a warning:
Restraint from sravaka and pratyekabuddha considerations is the bodhisattvas' highest ethical discipline, so were bodhisattvas to weaken this restraint, they would destroy their ethical discipline.- 2:73
The second half of the book covers the six paramitas. The reader cannot but be moved to new thinking and actions upon reading each of these perfections, which arise from one another and are directly connected with the spirit of enlightenment so necessary for the development of the bodhisattva. Tsong-kha-pa first defines the perfection, then masterfully unfolds each one with practical suggestions for daily life. He explains the progressive nature of the perfections, how each one relies on those before it and leads to the next:
When you have a generosity that is disinterested in and unattached to resources, you take up ethical discipline. When you have an ethical discipline which restrains you from wrongdoing, you become patient with those who harm you. When you have the patience wherein you do not become dispirited with hardships, the conditions for rejecting virtue are few, so you are able to persevere joyously. Once you joyously persevere day and night, you will produce the meditative concentration that facilitates the application of your attention to virtuous objects of meditation. When your mind is in meditative equipoise, you will know reality exactly. — 2:111
The Lam rim defines the perfections in this manner: the Perfection of Generosity
is the virtue of a generous attitude, and the physical and verbal actions which are motivated by this.
Bringing the perfection of generosity to completion is not contingent on removing beings' poverty by gifts to others. Otherwise, since there still remain many destitute living beings, all the earlier conquerors* would not have attained perfect generosity. Therefore, the physical and verbal aspects of generosity are not the main thing; the main thing is the mental aspect. — 2:114-5
There are two chapters on generosity; the first, "The Perfection of Generosity," deals with how to begin the development of generosity, the gift of the teachings, the gift of fearlessness, and how to give away material things. This leads to a chapter on "How to Give."
Tsong-kha-pa calls the Perfection of Ethical Discipline "an attitude of abstention that turns your mind away from harming others and from the sources of such harm" (2:143). The following Perfection, Patience,
is (1) disregarding harm done to you, (2) accepting the suffering arising in your mind-stream, and (3) being certain about the teachings and firmly maintaining belief in them. There are three sets of factors incompatible with these: for the first, hostility; for the second, hostility and loss of courage; and for the third, disbelief and dislike. Perfecting patience means that you simply complete your conditioning to a state of mind wherein you have stopped your anger and the like. It is not contingent upon all living beings becoming free from undisciplined conduct because you would not be able to bring this about, and because you accomplish your purpose just by disciplining your own mind. — 2:152-3
He explains the Perfection of Joyous Perseverance this way:
When you have focused upon something virtuous, joyous perseverance is enthusiasm for it. . . . it is a flawless state of mind that is enthusiastic about accumulating virtue and working for the welfare of living beings, together with the physical, verbal, and mental activity such a state of mind motivates. — 2:182
Develop an attitude of being insatiable, thinking, "Indulging in sensual pleasures is like licking honey off the sharp blade of a razor; it is the source of a little sweetness, but it slices up the tongue. If I cannot get enough of this experience, which gives me great suffering for the sake of just a slight, temporary pleasure, what sense could there be in feeling that I have had enough of the collections of merit and sublime wisdom, which give flawless, infinite happiness, both immediate and long-term? — 2:200
The Perfection of Meditative Stabilization
is a virtuous, one-pointed state of mind that stays fixed on its object of meditation without distraction to other things. — 2:210
Of the Perfection of Wisdom, he says:
In general, wisdom is what thoroughly discerns the ontological status of the object under analysis, but in this context wisdom refers to proficiency in the five topics of knowledge and the like. The Bodhisattva Levels says:
Tsong-kha-pa goes on to speak of the importance of these Perfections:
All bodhisattvas who will attain buddhahood do so in reliance upon the six perfections. The Bodhisattva Levels says this emphatically at the conclusion of its discussions of each of the six perfections. Hence, these six perfections are to be known as the one path traveled by bodhisattvas of the past, present, and future. And because these six are the great ocean of all virtues, they are the perfect summary of the key points of practice. — 2:223-4
Each chapter devoted to the perfections contains explanations of training and development.
Tsong-kha-pa employs a wealth of sources in the Lam rim. Traditionally lamas or religious students must debate their subjects utilizing the source literature of Buddhism as their foundation. These materials were well grasped by this teacher, who at 17 years of age was already recognized as one of the greatest students of Tibetan Buddhism. There are wonderfully-expressed thoughts throughout the three volumes, but volume 2 is especially profound in its insights and directions for spiritual practice and the development of the spirit of enlightenment. Few books so capably give the essence of the spiritual life through practical example and inspired spiritual direction. To paraphrase the Lam rim, a fortunate life as a human being with the time to study these things ought not to be wasted. Take the time to read this treasure.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)
The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is "look under foot." You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, and every place is the center of the world. — John Burroughs.