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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.

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Buddha Is As Buddha Does by Lama Surya Das

Buddha Is As Buddha Does

Buddha Is As Buddha Does: The Ten Original Practices For Enlightened Living by Lama Surya Das.  HarperCollins 2008, 264 pages.

I had actually looked forward to reading this book.  Das is a well-known name in Buddhist circles, and his book Awakening the Buddha Within was promoted by Ken Wilber and even became a best seller.  The man apparently also has several (3?) intensive retreats Tibetan-style (living in a shack for 3 years, sleeping upright, the works) so I assumed he must have an abundance of insight to offer.

Maybe he does.  I’ve now read the book, but I’m still not entirely sure.  You see, the first thing that hit me when I started it was that it felt like a self-improvement tract, ala Anthony Robbins.  There is the relentlessly exuberant optimism that pervades much of the more lightweight self-improvement books, and the saccharine prose was freighted with the sort of populist, feel-good catch phrases of American Buddhism that I’ve really become tired of–“we’re all Buddhas” filled with “Buddha-nature” if only we could see into our “inner being” yada yada yada.

The book is about the paramitas (“perfections”) as they are described in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.  Contrary to the subtitle, though, the practices described here are in no way “original.”  The oldest texts (the Pali) also describe ten perfections, but they are a different ten.  (See Acarya Dhammapala’s little gem of a work A Treatise on the Paramis for more about this.)  The later traditions (Mahayana and Vajrayana) compiled a different set of practices (also ten), but even there the Mahayana initially had only six, and these form the core of the list Das describes.

This kind of loose “scholarship” (if that’s the right word for it) is evident also in his frequent quotes from Buddhist literature and sutras.  He may be quoting the Buddha or some text, but a reference is never offered, and in more than a few instances where he quotes the “Buddha” I know the quote–which is probably his reworded version of it–is not from the Pali but a Mahayana or tantric text.  Someone of Das’ stature ought to know better than to pretend those passages, however edifying, come down to us from the Buddha.

For anyone who read my earlier post “On reading Buddhist books” you will know that the above marks this work out as a “popular” text.  Indeed, Lama Surya Das is a no-holds barred propagator of marketable American Buddhism, i.e. Buddhism as politically correct, feel-good pablum.  One manifestation of this is his relentless ecumenicism.  Stories from any number of traditions are bandied about freely, with the impression that everyone’s religion is equally filled with enlightened masters and sages.  I do not have any problem with ecumenism per se, so long as accuracy and depth are not sacrificed.  But what I’ve noticed about this style of thinking and writing is that it tends to dilute the depth and subtlety of the tradition on hand, in this case Vajrayana Buddhism.   The uniqueness of the tradition is disguised behind the attempt to make it seem that its truths, whatever they may be, are universally known and understood.  Yet I would wager there are many insights the Tibetans have which, for example, the Muslims do not.  (Actually, I can easily think of several.  But I digress…)  However, you will never learn that with a book like this.  Other examples that mark this out as populist fodder are: endless stories that obscure what could be meaningful points, the author’s seeming to be old buddies with every well known lama in the country, the minimal use of appropriate technical terminology (you don’t even learn the Sanskrit for several of the perfections), and the abundant use of feel good jargon.

Das also displays some serious problems of judgment.  For example, Lance Armstrong is repeatedly cited as a hero and bodhisattva.  This, of course, is terribly unfortunate (for Das) because only three years later Armstrong’s reputation totally unraveled under the weight of a doping scandal.  Of course there was no way for Das to know this at the time, but reading it now does nothing for the author’s credibility.  A worse error is citing Muhammad Ali (p. 65) as an exemplar of the first precept (not killing) because Ali refused to go to Vietnam.  This is truly PC run amok–anyone who takes up a livelihood of beating strangers’ faces to a pulp can hardly be considered a practitioner of “non-harming,” the real intent of the first precept.  Finally, offering the Vietnamese monk Quang Duc’s self-immolation (p. 42) as the act of a bodhisattva is highly questionable, as I’ve never come across anything in the entire Pali Canon to indicate the Buddha would espouse dramatic public suicide for the sake of a socio-political cause.

If my review seems relentlessly negative, I am sorry.  I actually felt embarrassed reading the book on the train, and tended to hide the cover from my fellow riders.  But this is not to say it was a complete loss.  Compared to Sylvia Boorstein’s Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake Das is actually profound.  In a number of places he gives quite meaningful and helpful advice (p. 77 is particularly excellent), and offers some very good insights (e.g. on p. 19 where he notes that the first six paramitas are bodhisattva character traits while the last four are active expressions of those traits).  In fact, I am convinced that if Das had a hard nosed editor (perhaps he’d be willing to hire me!) who could cut through the rubbish and lay bare the intelligence and experience he so plainly possesses, this book–and probably every book he ever wrote or will write–would be vastly improved.  I’m not sure if they’d sell as well, though, and that may be the catching point: like so many popular Buddhist authors, he has a foundation to support, and those things need MONEY.

I’m giving this book three stars on Amazon.  There are certainly a lot of people out there who will enjoy and benefit more from it than I have; Das is not writing for curmudgeons like me.

Pay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake by Sylvia Boorstein

Pay Attention, For Goodness' SakePay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake: practicing the perfections of the heart: the buddhist path of kindness by Sylvia Boorstein. Ballantine Books 2002, 282 pages.

Boorstein’s book is about the ten paramis (Sanskrit paramitas), written from a Theravadan perspective.  She is a practicing psychologist and vipassana teacher, hanging out with folks like Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg.  This would seem to stand her in good stead, though I confess I was less than blown away by her book.  It had a rambling, chatty, fluffy feeling to it, almost like she sat down at her computer with a cup of coffee and just started writing whatever came to mind.  Often the stories she told to illustrate her “points” did not seem particularly connected to the virtue under discussion, be it loving kindness, renunciation, generosity, or whatever.  They could go on a bit too–a not particularly illuminating conversation with a cab driver concerning whatever covered three pages (pp. 117-9)!  Similarly, the quotes at the heads of the chapters often didn’t seem related to the chapter subject.

The most instructive and original part of her book was the “periodic table of virtue” (pp. 28ff).  This was not only insightful but helpful.  It reminded me of the table I created off Acariya Dhammapala’s “Treatise on the Paramis” in an earlier post.  A few of her stories were also quite good.  I especially recommend the one about Bret and his retreat experience (memories of getting mugged) from pp. 236ff, and Boorstein’s musings on her own ten year long grudge against a fellow meditation teacher (168ff).  Then there is the hilarious–though totally irrelevant–piece about Seung Sahn and Kalu Rinpoche.  I once met the former and am familiar with his book titles, every one of which prefaces his name with the self-styled title “Zen Master.”  He never impressed me and Boorstein’s story (on p. 196) not only confirmed my opinion of him but also put me on notice that it really is possible to be too Zen.  The story is so priceless I quote it here in full:

Students of the Korean teacher Seung Sahn, the founder of the Providence Zen Center, and students of Kalu Rinpoche, a lama (priest) in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, arranged for the two venerable lineage holders to appear together for a public dialogue.  Seung Sahn took an orange out of the sleeve of his robes, held it up for Kalu Rinpoche to see, and said, in the forthright style characteristic of Zen, “What is this?”  Kalu Rinpoche’s interpreters translated the question for him, but he seemed mystified.  ”What is this?” Seung Sahn repeated the question.  Still the lama remained mystified.  Seung Sahn asked a third time.

Kalu Rinpoche turned to his interpreter and said, “What’s the matter with him?  Don’t they have oranges in Korea?”

While I am always happy to be amused, I would have liked more serious practice related suggestions, such as…”here’s a parami, and these are ways you can develop it.”  Even when she did attempt “practice points” they were mostly bland mindfulness exercises which, while good in themselves, lacked the specificity to really develop that particular trait.  I would have also liked more context.  As noted, this book is about the paramis from a Theravadan perspective so, perhaps stereotypically, there was no discussion of the bodhisattva’s career–Acariya Dhammapala and his like are totally absent.  While I won’t hold that against Boorstein, in the Theravada the paramis are traditionally associated with particular Jataka stories and the use of some of these as illustrations of the different virtues would have added greatly.

This brings me to what may be the most distressing aspect of the book: the lack of a goal for these practices.  I mean, why should anyone bother?  Why be generous?  Why give up your pleasures, venial or otherwise?  This we are never told.  The reason, I think, we are never told is because the version of the Buddha’s teaching that comes through in these pages is hopelessly watered down.  For example, when Boorstein discusses the Four Noble Truths (pp. 15ff), the third is reduced to simply having a “peaceful mind.”  Well, this could mean anything, from post coital slumber to sharing a Bud Lite with your friends on the beach.  Another example of this sort of bland evasion of the Dharma’s edgy nuts and bolts is her rendition of the third of the the three marks of existence (anniccadukkhaanatta), usually translated as not-self or impersonality.  Boorstein describes it this way (p. 112):

Nothing has a substantive existence separate from everything else, or indeed any existence at all apart from contingency, apart from being the result of complex causes and a factor in subsequent experience (insight into interdependence).

Huh?  Why, I wonder, would she want to make something simple and profound into something vague and garrulous?  It seems she is trying to straddle Mahayana and Theravada chairs and falling down between them.  In the process, the teaching of anatta is obscured and the third noble truth–the point of the whole enterprise–remains unillumined.

Why? I ask again.  Well, I think what we have here is an example of the muddiness of what David Chapman has called “consensus Buddhism“–that is the impetus in certain quarters to take the various Buddhist schools, with all their nuances, contradictions and specific flavors, stick them in a blender, and puree them to a bland mixture that we all have to agree is something called “Buddhism” on account of the lack of a better term.  The resulting concoction  appeals to the masses but doesn’t say much of anything very well.  This is a whole topic unto itself, and Chapman has really run with the ball on this.  I suggest spending time on his sites to see what it’s all about.  For here and now, though, I will only point out that what consensus Buddhism can never offer is an intellectually challenging platform for practice because that might make some people uncomfortable.

This is not a bad book, but it is by no means great, either, despite all the gushing recommendations from Boorstein’s fellow Dharma teachers.  If you are earnestly inquiring into the bodhisattva project I would suggest you pass on it.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars

A Treatise on the Paramis by Acariya Dhammapala

A Treatise on the ParamisTranslated by Bhikkhu Bodhi; Buddhist Publication Society 1996; 71 pages.

The version of this text I read is the abridged booklet available in the Buddhist Publication Society Wheel format (pictured at left).  The complete text can be found in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Discourse on the All Embracing Net of Views. 

This is a wonderful, very dense little primer on the paramis (Sanksrit paramitas), the critical moral requisites for a Buddhist practitioner and the modus operandi par excellence of any would-be bodhisattva.  What the author, Acariya Dhammapala, has done is to create a perfect fusion of Theravada thought with Mahayana attitude.  In fact, in all my Buddhist reading, I don’t think I’ve come across any work so perfectly “hybrid” in a way that captured the best of what are often thought to be conflicting and/or competing traditions.

The booklet includes a brief but informative introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi.  Several takeaways here:

  • the “three vehicles” (or, more accurately, “careers”) of the arahant, pacekkhabuddha, and buddha are all present in the earliest texts, though of course arahants were not looked down on as they were in the later Mahayana scriptures;
  • there are ten perfections in the earlier canon as opposed to the six better known later on (which was again expanded into ten in the Avatamsaka Sutra and other texts);
  • the author’s manner of commenting upon and discussing the paramis shows he is straight out of the Theravadan commentarial tradition.

As for the text proper: if you are interested in learning about the conception of the bodhisattva, you have come to the right place.  This little treatise captures the flavor, the heroism, the challenge, not to mention the profound lifestyle shift this “project” requires.  Here’s the “schedule of questions” Dhammapala covers:

(1) What are the paramis?  This is just a brief definition.

(2) In what sense are they paramis?  He gives four examples of how they are paramis.

(3) How many are there? Answer: 10.

(4) What is their sequence? Here he lists and defines them.

(5) What are their characteristics, functions, manifestations, and proximate causes? Further description, definition, etc.

(6) What is their condition? One of the meatier sections of the work, this defines what gives rise to the paramis, and what impedes them.

(7) What is their defilement?  That is, what hinders their development?  Answer: discriminating thoughts.

(8) What is their cleansing? Removal of the three poisons.

(9) What are their opposites?  Unwholesome qualities.

(10) How are they to be practiced?  This is what you’ve been waiting for!  This section, which is really heavy-duty inspiring and exhorting, comprises about one third of the text proper, and should cause you to get out of bed earlier and start thinking how to change your habits.

(11) How are they analyzed? and (12) How are they synthesized?  Some uniquely Theravadan commentator dicing and slicing.  I didn’t find this section particularly helpful.

(13) By what means are they accomplished? Another level of analysis, but this one is both insightful and inspiring.

(14) How much time is required to accomplish them? If you’re good, only four incalculables and 100,000 great aeons.  If your slow-witted, well, much longer!

(15) What benefits do they bring? Basically, this section will let you known whether or not you really are (per the textual tradition) on the path of the bodhisattva, or are just a wannabe.

(16) What is their fruit?  Briefly, “the state of perfect Buddhahood.”

Anyway, I highly recommend this little text.  It is much “heavier” than its number of pages indicates, and I plan to follow up with some essays further examining its contents and asking just how its recommendations can be put into practice.

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