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The Paramitas: where the rubber of practice hits the road of reality

If you've been following our Live Sessions of late, you may have noticed this word paramita cropping up again and again.

Apologies if it seems jargony and off-putting, but I can't think of a really good translation that does justice to the profundity of the paramitas, so I'll stick with the Buddhist word.

One might translate the word paramita as 'perfection' (never a notion I'm very comfortable with) or 'transcendental perfection' (even worse). Or you could veer into Christian territory and think in terms of 'virtue'

But in essence, the paramitas are behaviours that translate the insights that arise in Buddhist meditation out into the world. If you'll forgive me a little more jargon (borrowed from the brilliant philosopher Jay Garfield), these behaviours are where "the rubber of metaphysics hits the road of ethics".

The six paramitas are:

  1. generosity (dana)

  2. discipline (sila)

  3. patience (khanti)

  4. energy (viriya)

  5. meditation (diyana)

  6. wisdom (prajna)

These are behaviours (Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche called them "transcendental actions") that move us off the cushion into the realities of living in a world that is more complex and nuanced than pure introspection.

Because to be honest, it's quite easy to get a bit smug when we meditate for a long time. You say to yourself: "Oh yes, my mind is very peaceful and I understand how my mind works." But then you're still a bastard. You're still really grumpy with people and you treat people badly. You're stingy and your behaviour is far from stellar.

Contemplating the template of these six paramitas (literally meaning "the thing that takes us to the other shore") allows us to tiptoe from our cushion into reality. We start to investigate how we are 'doing' in the world.

This points to an interesting, facet of Buddhism (our Thursday morning Zoom sessions are a bit more Buddhist). You may have come across the Instagram wisdom that, "We're not human doings, we're human beings". It's meant as an antidote to the busyness of the world. But in Buddhism, weirdly, we are human doings.

Because Buddhists don't believe in any intrinsic being. We are, in effect, what we do. What we do with our minds, what we do with our bodies, and what we do with our speech.

So even if we're not doing anything, that's still a form of action. We're still laying down patterns in our brain, making synaptic connections. What we think or say or do or what we choose not to think or say or do: all of this wires a certain shape in our brain, that adds up to how we are in the world.

Within the Buddhist framework, we are what we do. And, according to the millennia of (particularly Mahayana) Buddhist practitioners, behaviours like Discipline, Generosity, Patience, Energy, Wisdom and Meditation are the "doings", if you like, that can free us, that can liberate us from the pain and constriction of being too selfish.

So that's in essence the notion behind these paramita teachings. And that's what we're exploring over these coming 12 weeks. Two weeks per paramita. Starting with the first one generosity.

And one thing to bear in mind with the paramitas is that they are grounded in what the Buddhists call 'emptiness'.

All religions have some version of these virtuous actions but what makes them transcendental from a Buddhist point of view is that we don't solidify any of the moving parts. When we get too heavy and solid about these actions, when the ego gets its teeth into being seen as good or demanding a certain response from the world, then the whole project quickly curdles into something very sanctimonious and pious.

So it's essential, from a Buddhist perspective, that we don't take ourselves and indeed the whole project too seriously.

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