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Archive for the category “Bodhisattva Ideal”

To Do and Not To Do: Bodhisattva Virtue In Action

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (5)

“Virtue,” Acariya Dhammapala tells us, “is twofold as avoidance (varitta) and performance (caritta)” (p. 41).  If you keep the five precepts, you are avoiding certain actions.  You are not killing, notstealing, not committing adultery, not lying and not using intoxicants.  This is a type of virtue, certainly–we might even say a negative virtue.  In this way, your goodness is measured by absence.

In the Pali Nikayas this is considered sufficient for the attainment of arhantship.  A person not engaging in certain behaviors will remove him or herself from those situations and consequences that ruffle the mind and lead to unfortunate outcomes.  For the establishment of a peaceful mind, a mind that is ready to meditate, this is enough.

But here, perhaps, we really do see a difference between the bodhisattva ideal and the ideal of someone who simply wants to meditate for his own well-being. The bodhisattva cannot stand on negative virtue alone, he must go further and act, positively, outwardly, to express compassion to the best of his ability.  Virtue must not only be absence, but performance.  The bodhisattva mustdo something.

dog carrying dog

The Dalai Lama’s quote above perfectly captures these two facets of virtue or goodness.  At leastdon’t hurt others (or yourself); that is the lowest standard one should hold oneself to.  Going beyond that, practice the opposites of those behaviors the precepts guard against.  So, we might say:

  1. At least, do not kill.  Better yet, protect and render assistance to others.
  2. At least, do not steal.  Better yet, give to others (dana).
  3. At least, don’t misuse your sexual energy.  Better yet, be chaste and educate people on the right uses of sexuality (when and as appropriate).
  4. At least, don’t lie.  Better yet, disclose your faults and when you speak, be gentle and informative.
  5. At least, don’t take intoxicants.  Better yet, nourish yourself with healthy, edifying food, what the Hindus call sattvic.

Dhammapala goes into considerable detail about the do’s and dont’s of bodhisattva virtue.  Here is my boiled-down version of his virtue as avoidance:

  • hold no resentment against anyone
  • do not take what is not given
  • never arouse a thought of lust for the wives/husbands of others (if a householder)
  • abstain from all forms of sexuality (if a renunciate)
  • do not say anything untrue, hurtful, unwise, or untimely
  • abstain from harsh speech
  • abstain from slander
  • abstain from idle chatter
  • abstain from covetousness, ill will and perverted views
  • never injure another
  • do no evil deed even if threatened with death
  • do not indulge in omens and superstitious practices
  • do not indulge in the “diversity of outside creeds”
  • abstain from all wrong means of livelihood
  • never arouse unwholesome states in others
  • never place oneself in a higher position or rank than those who are of inferior conduct
  • be neither too accessible nor inaccessible (i.e. associate with others at the proper time)
  • do not criticize those who are dear to others in front of them nor praise those who are resented by them
  • do not engage in persuasion
  • do not accept excessive favors
  • do not refuse a proper invitation

Now for virtue as performance:

  • speak only truthful, beneficial, endearing, measured and timely talk, especially talk concerned with Dhamma
  • possess knowledge of and faith in cause-and-effect
  • have faith and respect for recluses who have gone forth and are practicing in the right way
  • perfect the practice of loving-kindness
  • eradicate hatred, ill-will and aversion
  • be devoted to renunciation
  • have faith in the enlightenment of the Tathagatas
  • treat others with respect and courtesy
  • wait upon the sick
  • render service to those who ask
  • give thanks to those who commend you
  • praise the noble qualities of the virtuous
  • patiently endure the abuse of antagonists
  • always repay help and advice rendered to you
  • diligently practice wholesome states of mind
  • acknowledge all transgressions and reveal your faults
  • do good deeds anonymously [per Dogen]
  • dedicate your every goodness to supreme enlightenment
  • be a companion to those who need companionship
  • comfort and aid the sick and needy
  • console the bereaved
  • restrain with Dhamma those who need to be restrained
  • inspire with Dhamma those who need inspiration
  • determine to perform the “loftiest, most difficult, inconceivably powerful deeds of the great bodhisattvas of the past”
  • conceal your virtues
  • do not become complacent over minor achievements, but strive for successively higher achievements
  • assist those who suffer from blindness, deafness and physical disability
  • help the faithless gain faith, the lazy generate zeal, the confused develop mindfulness, the unconcentrated gain concentration
  • dispel the five hindrances from those who suffer them
  • establish beings in wholesome states

All of the above, every last bit of it, is dedicated to the “purpose of becoming an omniscient Buddha in order to enable all beings to acquire the incomparable adornment of virtue” (47).  Furthermore:

Thus, esteeming virtue as the foundation for all achievements — as the soil for the origination of all the Buddha-qualities, the beginning, footing, head, and chief of all the qualities issuing in Buddhahood — and recognizing gain, honor, and fame as a foe in the guise of a friend, a bodhisattva should diligently and thoroughly perfect his virtue as a hen guards its eggs: through the power of mindfulness and clear comprehension in the control of bodily and vocal action, in the taming of the sense-faculties, in purification of livelihood, and in the use of the requisites (44).

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T he Six Perfections by Dale S. Wright

The Six Perfections (Wright)The Six Perfections: Buddhism & the Cultivation of Character by Dale S. Wright. Oxford University Press 2009, 292 pages.

After reading a couple examples of “popular” books on the Buddhist paramitas, this one came as a very welcome relief.  The difference was immediately noticed and profound: as opposed to the fluff, irrelevant stories and pop psychology of Das and Boorstein, this is a mature philosophical reflection on the Buddhist “perfections” by a man who is less an entertainer than a real thinker.  Wright’s language is sophisticated, nuanced and densely meaningful, and he offers a critical, contemporary assessment of Buddhist attitudes and practices.

The book is entirely Mahayana in orientation, taking its cue from the “Perfection of Wisdom” literature, specifically the Diamond Sutra, the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, the Vimalakirti and, of course, the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva.  (I knew I was in the hands of a good scholar when Wright actually stated up front what his sources would be.)  The book covers (per the title) the traditional six paramitas as opposed to the Theravada and later Mahayana ten.  For each of the six Wright first discusses how the paramita has been understood in traditional Buddhist culture.  He then offers a contemporary critical assessment of that “perfection.”  I found this added reflection absolutely critical to the quality of the book and one of the reasons why I would recommend it so unhesitatingly.  Wright recognizes–as is rarely done, it seems–that many images of Buddhist sainthood are so rarefied and elevated as to be impossible to emulate.  Somehow, though, they must be rendered concrete, and so the question Wright pursues is how can these examples be made valid models for contemporary people.  He spends a lot of time exploring this and similar questions, making the old texts relevant and comprehensible to us.  In this he renders great service to the tradition as a whole.

It should be clear to anyone who reads this book that Wright is a man of great integrity and insight.  The book simply could not have been produced by someone who had not reflected seriously and at length upon these issues.  But my simply saying this will not adequately convey what I mean.  Put it this way: I know a book is “great” when I cannot help but read it with a pen or pencil in hand and feel excited to mark out passages that particularly strike me, when I am compelled to write notes to myself for later reference.  When I know I have to read a book again, I get a feeling of great gratitude to the author, for in such instances he or she has created something that affects and alters me, for the better.  This is such a book.

I offer a few examples from the text:

What is it that we are perfecting in the six perfections?  The best word in English for that would be our character.  It is through resources of character that we undertake enlightening practices, and it is our character that is enlightened (7).

Unless we as donors can see clearly and unflinchingly that who we are as donors–secure in wealth and health–is completely dependent on numerous turns of good fortune, on the care and help of others, and on opportunities not available to everyone, our acts of giving will be less than fully generous.  These acts will therefore not have the liberating effects that they might otherwise have had.  When we are able to see that the homeless person’s parents did not do for him what ours did for us, that his teachers did not do for him what ours did for us, then we begin to understand the contingency of our fortune, and, looking more deeply, the thorough interdependency of all reality (25).

The culmination of Buddhist practices of generosity can be seen in their ideal form, the bodhisattva who gives unselfishly out of a deep compassion for all living beings.  Compassion is the ultimate aim of these practices.  But that culmination is the result of a long process of self-cultivation.  For the most part, compassion is something we learn to feel.  It is not innate, not a “natural” feeling.  For these reasons, we cannot feel compassion simply by deciding to feel it, or by telling ourselves that it is our responsibility to feel it.  We do, however, have the capacity to develop compassion by cultivating our thoughts and emotions in ways that enable it.  This is the function of the “practice” of giving.  Making generosity of character an explicit aim of self-cultivation, we sculpt our thoughts, emotions, and dispositions in the direction of a particular form of human excellence (30).

In the same way that etiquette resembles morality while not yet embodying it, morality imitates compassion while still falling short of it (81).

The perfection of tolerance is the art of understanding what, when, and how to tolerate (110).

Anger as a response to injustice presupposes a kind of selfhood that will at some point stand in the way of justice (117).

The role of energy in ethics can be highlighted by reflecting on ways in which we might fall short in life. There are two basic ways in which it is possible for a person to fail ethically. The most obvious of these is to act unjustly, to commit crimes against one’s society and oneself, to be a negative, destructive force. But another way is to fail in the positive, failing to live constructively on behalf of oneself and others. This second failure signals a deficiency of energy, a lack of constructive striving toward something worthwhile. Failing in this sense, people may never commit a crime against others or do anything explicitly wrong; their failure consists of not generating the energy of constructive life, thus failing to live a life in keeping with their capacity (146).

I could of course supply many more quotes–the author is eloquent and thoughtful at every turn.  But the book is not without its faults.  Two points stood out for me. First, Wright has a tendency to go on longer than necessary, which can make the chapters seem over extended.  He clearly gets caught up in his own ruminations at times, to the detriment of the text.  If anyone thinks any part of the book is “boring,” this will be the reason.  The second problem is much more profound.  Through the first four paramitas Wright was spot on in his understanding and elucidation of Buddhist concepts, but in the section on meditation (chapter 5) the wheels came off his cart.

I think once again we have here the age-old conundrum of the scholar who has not practiced beyond thinking, learning and reflection; it’s clear Wright does not really know what meditation is.  For example, on page 194 he says “…in contrast to samatha or calming kinds of meditation, vipassana cultivates thinking in the service of enhanced awareness and wisdom.”  He continues, saying “…vipassana meditation takes several forms. But in each case the practice entails focusing thought on an idea or a series of ideas” (194).  He clearly believes vipassana is primarily reflective, cognitive or conceptual, so the essence of the fifth chapter is an elucidation of meditation as a kind of disciplined, guided thinking.  While it is true that some types of meditation (think of the Brahmaviharas) begin as discursive reflections or visualizations, that is never their end.  As regards vipassana, however, it doesn’t even begin there; Wright would have done well to read Kornfield’s Living Dharma to get an idea what vipassana really is about.

I have to confess I am at a loss to explain how Wright so totally misses the point here.  Clearly he is an intelligent, thoughtful and well read man.  Clearly he has put a lot of time into understanding Buddhist culture.  But the fifth chapter, while not without insight (here and there), is largely a toss on account of how badly he misunderstands what dhyana is actually about.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this kind of fault is cultural in nature, the culture in question being the “culture of scholarship,” aka “academia.”  (Remember when someone says It’s academic they really mean it’s beside the point, not useful or applicable.)  I was once myself an aspiring scholar/academic and I can say how tempting it is to think that if you’ve read the books and published the articles, then you must really understand something in a serious way.  If you’re talking about Renaissance French literature, that might be the case, but human consciousness ultimately transcends culture and time–structures and capacities are innate–and contemplative technologies which seek to alter those structures and capacities cannot be adequately understood from the vantage point most of us start from.  These are not things one should simply think about–you have to do them.

On account of the problems I’ve described, I’m giving the book four stars.  However, the first four chapters are five (even six!) star material, and the last chapter is also quite excellent, though it lacks the practical groundedness of the first four.

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.

how_important_ethics_cartoon

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

The Great Aspiration: Are You Even Qualified To Be A Bodhisattva?

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (2)

In a previous post I left off noting how utterly impossible seeming Dhammapala’s “eight qualifications” for bodhisattvahood were–without actually telling you what those qualifications were!  (I didn’t want to depress you any sooner than I had to.)  Well, here they are.  These are the qualities and characteristics you must possess if your bodhisattva vow has any hope of succeeding:

  1. A human being (manussatta): You have to be homo sapiens when you make the vow.
  2. Male sex (lingasampatti): Maybe you can chalk it up to patriarchy, but this is one of the traditional qualifications since, it is assumed, all buddha’s are male.  (The Buddha himself is quoted as asserting just this in the Anguttara Nikaya 1.279, on p. 114 of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation.)  However, the Tibetans–bless their hearts–have a different take on this.  According to them there has been at least one female buddha–Lady Tsogyal, consort of Padmasambhava. 
  3. Achievement of the necessary supporting conditions (hetu): Dhammapala does not elaborate on this point, but I think it’s safe to assume it refers to the requisites of enlightenment (bodhisambhara), among which, of course, we can count the paramis.

    male homo sapiens

    Human dude

  4. Personal presence and sight of the Master (sattharadassana): Here we run into a real problem, since apparently you have to make your vow at the feet of a buddha.  Since we know of only one buddha directly and he’s been dead 2,500 years, give or take a century, anyone wanting to make the bodhisattva vow for the first time has already missed their chance.  There is still hope, however, and this applies whether you’re currently a man or woman: assuming the truth of rebirth (a big assumption, admittedly, and one I will have to repeatedly make for the purpose of this project) it is possible you did indeed make a vow before Shakyamuni and received his acknowledgment.  Even if you are woman now, perhaps you were a man then when you made the vow.  After all, the bodhisattva vow is one that must be taken and retaken throughout one’s existence, in succeeding lifetimes, and unless you’ve developed the ability to recall past lives you will not know under what circumstances you previously lived and made the vow.  I should point out that while this explanation gets us around the apparent impossibility of this qualification, it does not minimize its difficulty or rarity.  (A more optimistic interpretation might say that you could have made the vow at the feet of any buddha, including those previous to Gotama.  In which case, with innumerable buddhas and innumerable opportunities, there may in fact be innumerable real McCoy bodhisattvas out there!)

    Sumedha_receiving_a_prophetic_declaration_from_Dipankara

    Sumedha (the future Gotama) receiving affirmation at the feet of Dipankara Buddha

  5. The going forth (pabbajja): You have to be a homeless renunciate when you make the aspiration, though not necessarily as a bhikkhu in a buddha’s dispensation.
  6. The achievement of noble qualities (gunasampatti): Not only must you already be a renunciate, but your meditations must have born significant fruit, specifically in the form of jhanas and various psychic powers.  The reason for this is that only such a person will have the ability to properly investigate the paramis and understand, on his own, their necessity and nature.  So, if you are a bodhisattva and don’t currently manifest these powers, well….something’s gone wrong.
  7. 446px-Hsuan_Hua_Hong_Kong_1Extreme dedication (adhikara): The necessity of this trait would seem obvious to the point of being redundant.  Honestly, I do not know of any project, task or aim undertaken by persons for their own benefit or the benefit of the world, that is as vast in its stated scope, duration, or challenge as that of the bodhisattva.  ”World conquest”–the project of Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons–seems almost a timid affair by comparison.
  8. Strong desire (chandata): This, too, seems rather obvious.  Without a kind of mono-maniacal obsession for spiritual development it hardly seems possible anyone could have a snowball’s chance in Avici hell to attain buddhahood.  The aspirant must, as Dhammapala says, possess all the aforesaid qualities and “have strong desire, yearning, and longing to practice the qualities issuing in Buddhahood. Only then does his aspiration succeed, not otherwise.”

Feeling intimidated yet?

Of course, all of this is simply “by the book.”  I don’t know where Dhammapala got his information (maybe the devas?) so there is no way to check the veracity of any of it.  Also, none of this makes sense if one doesn’t buy into the notion of rebirth; everything is predicated upon the assumption that a vow can carry over from one life to the next.

Stepping back, it’s obvious that if we withhold judgment on whether or not rebirth is true and take the bodhisattva project at its face value, as a soteriology it represents a truly unique culture.  There is no other ideology out there where altruism of such a scale is imagined, much less attempted.  The fact that there really have been–and are–people who take this aspiration more seriously than anything else and orient their lives, their careers, even their deaths, with this and only this end in mind, is quite staggering if you try to wrap your head around it.

Among modern day practitioners the person whom I think most closely fits the self-consciously lived bodhisattva life is the Venerable Hsuan-hua (pictured here), one of the two greatest Chinese Ch’an monks of the twentieth century.  (The other was his mentor, the Venerable Hsu-yun.)  See, here, for example, the vows Hsuan-hua made as a young renunciate.  His life, from very early until his death, was marked by a frenzy of teaching activity and the establishment of monasteries, temples and educational and medical facilities, punctuated by sometimes extended periods of intense solitary retreat.  Whether or not the intention behind this tremendous labor actually carries over to a new life is not for me to say, but clearly the man’s work and example has had significant ripple effects in the visible world.

Comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (1)

This post and several forthcoming will be my thoughts on Acariya Dhammapala’s excellent little “Treatise on the Paramis,” which I’ve now read three times.  I don’t have any particular plan or order of progression to follow other than what the text gives, though perhaps some grander, more intelligent approach will reveal itself as I go along.

The paramis as a heuristic tool: Sometime during my second reading I wrote the following at the top of the treatise: “The paramis are a heuristic tool to think about how a person needs to be to 1) best help himself, 2) best help others, 3) perfect samadhi and paññā.”  They are a training guide, almost a kind of mnemonic device, for inculcating certain personality traits.  As such, they are in no way absolute.  That is, the list of ten we have in this treatise could have been twelve or nine or, as they are in the Mahayana tradition, six.  This is important to keep in mind, as it will enable one to be flexible in how one appraises one’s own character and tries to effect changes.

The meaning of “parami”: Usually the meaning of the word is given as “perfection,” but Dhammapala offers some interesting wrinkles on this.  He says, first, that “bodhisattvas, the great beings, are supreme (parama), since they are the highest of beings by reason of their distinguished qualities…”  So the word can also refer to supremacy or primacy.  Furthermore, the paramis are the character or conduct of the bodhisattva, of one who is supreme.  We could therefore alternately translate the word as “excellence,” so long as we think of excellence in an active sense–as a verb instead of a noun.  Thus when you act with excellence or from excellence, you demonstrate the paramis.

helping hands

Their sequence: In this text and others it’s suggested one performs or perfects the paramis in a sequence.  I am not convinced of this.  It seems to me the path of development is holistic, with every attribute activating, strengthening and reinforcing, every other one.  I’m sure there’s some hard science on this somewhere, but my suspicion is that greater renunciation (self-restraint or discipline) is positively correlated with higher levels of mental energy, or more generally ethical behavior.  Some paramis may be easier to perform initially, but that does not mean one will necessarily perfect them in any particular order; this would seem to be determined in great part by native disposition.  One should note, too, that throughout the course of the treatise compassion and skillful means are placed first as the guiding lights of all the paramis.  They are, in effect, paramis themselves, though not called such.  What is compassion but loving-kindness in the general, affective sense, and what is skillful means but wisdom in action?  There is lots to say about these categories: how they overlap and interplay, and whether or not this is even the best list.  For remember, this is not the only list–the bhumis in Tibetan Buddhism and the Avatamsaka Sutra are different.  I’ll need to look at this later, needless to say….

“All the paramis, without exception, have as their characteristic the benefiting of others; as their function, the rendering of help to others, or not vacillating; as their manifestation, the wish for the welfare of others, or Buddhahood; and as their proximate cause, great compassion, or compassion and skillful means.”

Analysis by five ways: The author proceeds to analyze the paramis by five ways.  He describes 1) their perfection, or how they ideally manifest; 2) their characteristic, that is what is their fundamental attribute; 3) their function, or what they do; 4) their manifestation, i.e. what do they look like in practice; and 5) their proximate cause, that which allows them to unfold.  See the attached table here: The Paramis

The Great Aspiration: Here Dhammapala ramps up the difficulty of the bodhisattva project to inhuman levels.  He writes:

The condition of the paramis is, firstly, the great aspiration (abhinihara). This is the aspiration supported by the eight qualifications, which occurs thus: “Crossed I would cross, freed I would free, tamed I would tame, calmed I would calm, comforted I would comfort, attained to nibbana I would lead to nibbana, purified I would purify, enlightened I would enlighten!” This is the condition for all the paramis without exception.

Following this inspiring vow are the “eight qualifications,” and I’m sorry to inform you that none of us,not a single person on the planet, can be certain he or she possesses all eight.  To say this is a problem is an understatement, so much so that this section of Dhammapala’s essay is likely to turn people off, depress them, or make them think something’s fishy about the whole thing.  However, there is almost assuredly more here than meets the eye, and I do not think we should let ourselves be trapped by tradition–Buddhist or otherwise.  My next post will be an essay devoted entirely to the problem of the Great Aspiration and the eight qualifications.

Maybe being a bodhisattva isn’t so silly after all….

In my previous post I suggested that if you want to be a bodhisattva you just might be crazy—or at least ill-informed and irrational.  You probably are all of these, but that’s no reason to give up hope!  While each of the quandaries I proposed is legitimate, none, it turns out, are fatal to the (surreal) sensibility of the task of trying to live and think as a bodhisattva.

The first problem I noted was that the historical Buddha did not teach the bodhisattva ideal.  More accurately, it might be said he did not advise it.  For the Pali Suttas clearly describe a universe in which numberless buddhas have come and gone, arising in succession, each rediscovering the lost “ancient path” to liberation and then proclaiming it.  (See the Mahapadana Sutta, D.14, for the most detailed account of the early bodhisattva ideal found in the Nikayas.)  So the prospect of becoming a bodhisattva and then a buddha was already acknowledged in the earliest texts, as was the possibility of becoming a paccekhabuddha or an arahant (what the later tradition calls a “disciple” or shravaka.)

Regarding rebirth and the length of time it takes to perfect the virtues required to issue in buddhahood: my feeling has long been that if there is no rebirth and you strive to help others, to be the best person you can be within the limitations of your genes and upbringing, you will certainly live a worthy life.  The effects of such a life will ripple down through generations and affect the world positively in ways that cannot be foretold.  And let’s face it: if there is no rebirth, the moment you die little buddhait will cease to matter that you did not experience an awakening of the sort the Buddha experienced.  If, on the other hand, there is rebirth then the force of one’s goodness and resolve will (presumably) carry over to the next life so that your bodhisattva career can continue.  The trick, of course, will be keeping with it in life after life, for there is never any guarantee as to what sort of rebirth you’ll have, or in what your circumstances.  (Crustaceans, sharks, and maggots probably encounter difficulties fulfilling their bodhisattva vows!)  The working of karma, as the Buddha noted, is something that cannot be conceived; every life is a roll of the dice for you do not know what you’ve done in the past; therein lies the challenge.

As previously mentioned, all of this will take a long time, and the old commentators proved adept at dreaming up fantastic metaphors to stagger the mind as to just how long the bodhisattva road goes on.  Really, though, we shouldn’t be put off by any of this.  How many of those previous lives (assuming rebirth happens) do you remember?  Probably none.  How much anxiety, guilt and general angst are you suffering now on account of what you did previously?  Well, that’s a tricky question since the nature of your birth–species, genes, environment–were all determined by your previous lives (again, assuming there were any).  So in all honesty there’s no way for you to answer that question.  Nonetheless, most people do not feel weighed down by countless memories of the past, so whether rebirth is real or not roughly amounts to the same thing in the experience of the average person.

All this is to say that while descriptions of the bodhisattva career are not for the faint of heart, psychologically we can face down the prospects and take up the call.  For a further primer on some of the historical and doctrinal issues involved, I strongly suggest reading Guy Armstrong’s excellent essay, “What is a Bodhisattva? and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “Arahants, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas.”

The ontology of rebirth, or, Does it make sense to be a bodhisattva?

If one wants to be a bodhisattva, the first question one has to ask is, Does this project really make sense?  The whole basis of the bodhisattva ideal is that one should dedicate a long time to perfecting certain mental characteristics to render one the most perfect possible vehicle of teaching for the liberation of suffering beings.  This is all sounds very heroic and altruistic, but there are several problems with this notion.

  1. The first problem is that this is not what the historical Buddha taught his disciples to do.  Forget the teaching of “provisional vehicles” in the Mahayana sutras: modern scholarship is emphatic these texts didn’t issue from the Buddha’s mouth but were later creations credited to him.  (This sort of after-the-fact, alleged authorship happened all the time in the ancient world.  Consider, e.g., the deutero-Pauline and pastoral epistles, all of which are dubiously attributed to Paul.)  The Buddha urged his disciples to guarantee their liberation as fast possible, to practice meditation like their hair was on fire.  He did not encourage anyone to hang around and wait for years, not to mention lifetimes, to perfect themselves so they could do a better job getting enlightened and teaching later on.  So anyone taking the route of the bodhisattva is not following what the historical Buddha taught.
  2. Let’s face it: our characters are, to an extent, determined by our genes.  This can be seen in the dispositions of infants and how they develop later as adults.  (Note: there’s a very strong correlation!)  This means fundamentally changing ourselves, training our characters, is a very difficult if not impossible task.  When you start studying bodhisattva literature (one of the main points of this blog) you will realize that very few people are equipped for this task, which is to say they are not ripe for becoming Buddha’s.  We can admire people like Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela for their mental toughness, their ability to sacrifice present pleasures for later, worthy gains, to demonstrate compassion and care for others.  But as extraordinary as any of them is/was, none of them had all the “requisites of enlightenment” (bodhisambhara) essential for the complete awakening of a Buddha.  (I’m stating this per the orthodox opinion.  In later posts I want to explore whether or not this orthodoxy is meaningful from a practical standpoint.)  What I’m getting at is that this project has to extend past this particular life–unless of course you already are a bodhisattva and this is your last birth.  Which begs the question: Is there any good reason to believe in rebirth?  I happen to think there is, but of course, I may be wrong.  (See here for one of my reasons.)  If there is rebirth, then you have all the time in the world; actually, you have much more time than that–you have all the time in the universe, through every cycle of creation and destruction, and in multiple universes to boot.  (Scientific opinion seems to be converging on the idea of a multiverse.  See, e.g., the eye-opening article “Starting Point” by Steve Nadis on the work of Tufts University cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin in the September 2013 issue of Discover.)  If rebirth is not the case, then in this one fleeting life you’ve thrown away the opportunity to experience what a liberated human mind is like.
    Infinity art
    infinite time and space
  3. Let us assume rebirth is a fact and you’ve determined on the bodhisattva career (despite the Buddha’s advice).  What is the guarantee you’ll have any recollection of this decision in a later life?  In fact, what’s to stop you from going senile in this life and forgetting who your spouse is, not to mention all your valiant resolutions (like giving up porn or cigarettes or whatever)?  Remembering that you wanted to become a Buddha may be really tough when you’re reborn as a sponge or even just as a regular bloke hauling fish for a living.
  4. Even if you manage to remember the awe-inspiring decision you made 100,000 lifetimes ago, how can you be sure you’ll feel like sticking with it?  I mean, when I was a little kid I wanted to be a paleontologist; I didn’t become a paleontologist.  Then I wanted to be a professor of comparative religion; I didn’t do that either.  For most of the past fifteen years I wanted to be a best selling novelist, but, needless to say, that didn’t pan out.  Now…  Hell, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.  Given the fickleness of thought, how can anyone expect to make up their mind for a lifetime, not to mention for uncounted cosmic cycles.
  5. Actually, when I said “uncounted cosmic cycles” I was being rather vague.  The texts (e.g. Acaryiya Dhammapala’s A Treatise On the Paramis) cite eight incalculables (asankheyya) and a hundred thousand great eons (mahakappa) as the median length of time required for the task, but it could take as long as twice that!  How long, exactly, are eight incalculables and a hundred thousand great eons?  Well, by definition their length is incalculable and if you look about online for definitions and specs you’ll see that after a certain point the length of time in countable years stops meaning anything.  It might as well be forever.  A job that takes forever or almost forever is a job best not started.

These are just a few of the problems I’m noticing with the bodhisattva project.  I’m sure there are other problems people more astute than I am could think up.  That said, I still think it is not such a bad idea to dedicate oneself to being a bodhisattva.  In fact, it probably is the best thing you could possibly do.  More on this in my next post, where I will proceed to refute everything I said in this post.

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