Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Archive for the category “Dhammapala_Acariya”

The Beginning Bodhisattva’s Practice of Virtue

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (4)

The middle third of Arya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” is, fittingly, taken up with a discussion of how the paramis are actually practiced (this would be section (x), running from pp. 35-56).  Of that chunk, more than half is devoted to the first two paramis, generosity (dana) and virtue (sila).  This is not so surprising since they are the foundation for everything else; remember in the suttas the Buddha’s teaching is often explained in brief as danasila and bhavana (mental cultivation or meditation).

I think generosity is a pretty easy concept to get–give ’til it hurts, as Mother Teresa said–but virtue, aka morality or ethics, is an entire subject itself, abounding with subtleties and potential complications.  So for this post I’d like to discuss Dhammapala’s take on virtue.


Dhammapala tells us virtue is purified by four ways or modes:

  1. by purifying one’s inclinations, meaning the things that attract or interest you (practicing dhutangas vs watching porn, for example);
  2. by undertaking precepts;
  3. by non-transgression, or keeping, of those precepts;
  4. by making amends (penitence and apologies) for transgressions.

All of these are cultivated, undertaken, encouraged and maintained by a sense of shame over moral transgression (hiri) and moral dread (otappa), which is fear of the results of transgression, and I’d say that it is really these two innate sensibilities that determine, to a greater or lesser degree, how you will behave from an ethical standpoint.  On this a lot could be said, but I will note that there are people who possess neither shame nor moral dread, and they are known as sociopaths.

Most of us, fortunately, are not sociopaths.  If we break rules or promises (especially those we value), the violation of which lowers us in our own eyes, we feel shame (guilt, too, probably, but there is a difference).  We also probably take a quick look around to see if anyone is watching, and, oddly, our relief is not complete even if we’re pretty sure we didn’t get caught.  In other words, we fear the consequences that come from breaking trust with others and ourselves–even if the police aren’t going to come get us, the world we know somehow manages to gnaw at our gut.

The important thing is that these tendencies, which in the morally healthy person are strong and quick to come online when needed, can be cultivated, and the four steps above are the process of that cultivation.  So what Dhammapala is telling us is that first we must incline toward taking on moral standards, then we must decide to do so, then we have to try to keep the promises we’ve made, and if we don’t….well, we must make it up to someone, as often as not, ourselves.

Precepts are different from commandments.  I hope everyone can see this.  In Exodus the sky god Yahweh tells his people “You must do this, that and the other thing…or else.”  Moses doesn’t stand there and ask why he and the rest have to do all these things–it’s unnerving to have conversations with burning bushes, after all–and Yahweh certainly doesn’t volunteer any justifications: “It’s good for social cohesion,” “You’ll have fewer altercations,” “Your love life will be better,” etc.  It’s just a matter of here’s the list, now be obedient.  

Notice a commandment is something given without explanation; it’s externally imposed.  However, precepts–in Buddhism, at least–are rules of training you take upon yourself because you’ve considered and reflected and come to understand the intelligence behind them.  If you have the goal of spiritual awakening, then you will realize that without the guideposts of ethical training rules the chance of you getting to your goal is nil.  I’ve written at length elsewhere upon this subject.  Here’s a snippet of what I’ve said:

What then is the purpose of ethical behavior?  The Buddha discusses this specific question innumerable times throughout the suttas.  In brief, one adopts sila (ethical precepts) specifically for the purpose of eliminating mental, verbal and physical actions that give rise to negative mental states, relationships and consequences that hinder mental culture (bhavana).  Also, we try to behave generously, graciously, and compassionately because such modes of deportment foster good mental states both within ourselves and others.  In other words, depending on what we think, say and do we have the power to increase or decrease suffering in ourselves and others.  Since the Buddha’s teaching is concerned entirely with the elimination of suffering (i.e. existential angst), ethical behavior is the bedrock upon which everything else must be built.  Without it, the attainment of higher states leading to [nirvana] is out of the question.

Once one understands this, then hiri and otappa come naturally and abundantly and Dhammapala’s four-fold schema follows as a matter of course.

Ethics meds

Conditions for Practice of the Paramis

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (3)

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.

temple gate

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!

baby steps

Post Navigation