Conditions for Practice of the Paramis
This is my third post commenting on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis.” In my last post I discussed the aspiration for buddhahood and the daunting list of prerequisites required for it to have any hope of succeeding. But additional to the specific characteristics of the aspirant there are also conditions that must exist for one to even practice the paramis, and I think it’s safe to say these conditions apply whether you really are a bodhisattva or just want to become a better person and/or better spiritual practitioner. So all you regular folks, take note!
Dhammapala writes that three conditions in particular are required just to get the practice of the paramis started. First is the aspiration for buddhahood (or, at a more regular seeming level, the desire for self-improvement), and then great compassion (mahakaruna) and skillful means (upayakosalla). Now at first glance it might seem the aspiration would come first, but a closer look indicates that’s actually not the case. First ask yourself, Why would anyone even make the vow? They would have to be motivated by compassion (big or little), by the desire to help others and to alleviate their suffering. Along with that, they would have to possess the wherewithal, the can-do spirit and facility of skillful means. Merely wanting to help others won’t cut it–without the ability you’ll be ineffectual and probably make a mess of things. On the other hand, ability without interest will result in nothing done. So, one without the other doesn’t work, but when these two exist together, then the determination can be made, so they must precede the aspiration.
But there’s more to it than even that. Dhammapala also mentions four factors, called the “grounds for Buddhahood” (buddhabhumiyo), that need to be present: 1) zeal (ussaha), meaning the energy that strives for the requisites, 2) adroitness (ummanga), which is wisdom in applying skillful means to the requisites, 3) stability (avatthana), or unshakable will for their perfection, and 4) beneficent conduct (hitacariya) which is the development of loving-kindness and compassion.
Honestly, I am doubtful about the usefulness of this list. I think it’s an unnecessary add on, since every one of these is, in some form or another, already a parami. (In other words, I see the paramis as a self-referencing, self-reinforcing system.) When he next adds “six inclinations,” I really feel it’s a bit of Theravadan style list making for the sake of list making. Basically, his idea is you have to be inclined toward the paramis to develop them. Well….duh! Dhammapala also says we should review their opposites to understand the fault of not developing them, and this is certainly a smart mode of reflection to motivate oneself, kind of like reflecting on the merits of fidelity if you imagine yourself getting caught in bed with a paramour! This actually leads to one of the treatise’s meatiest sections, an extended reflection on the positives of parami practice versus the negatives of not practicing. This part of the text, pages 22-33, is really excellent and inspiring reading.
But to get back to the point of this post (which is in danger of getting lost!), on page 33 Dhammapala makes what is certainly the most telling statement in his entire treatise:
Thus one should arouse an especially strong inclination toward promoting the welfare of all beings. And why should loving-kindness be developed toward all beings? Because it is the foundation for compassion. For when one delights in providing for the welfare and happiness of other beings with an unbounded heart, the desire to remove their affliction and suffering becomes powerful and firmly rooted. And compassion is the first of all the qualities issuing in Buddhahood–their footing, foundation, root, head and chief. [emphasis added]
I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ saying in Matthew regarding the Biblical Law:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.
While I might quibble with his theistic metaphysics, the notion that positive, altruistic motivation should be the inspiration behind all of one’s life is clearly the common thread to the messages of Jesus and the bodhisattva path.
So if we map out the the conditions for the practice of the paramis, and what engenders their development, it might look something like this:
Compassion–>effort–>skillful means (upaya)–>determination–>Aspiration (vow)
Just think of these as baby steps to buddhahood!