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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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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.

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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