The Six Paramitas (Perfections) 05-11-2020

The Sanskrit word paramita means to cross over to the other shore. Paramita is also translated as perfection, perfect realization, or reaching beyond limitation. In Buddhist philosophy, the term refers to six virtues that are seen as essential to cultivate. Through the practice of these six virtues, we cross the sea of suffering (samsara) to the shore of happiness and awakening (Nirvana); crossing from ignorance and delusion towards enlightenment. 

The six paramitas are generosity, ethics, patience, joyous effort, concentration, and wisdom. Each one is an enlightened quality of the heart or a positive attribute. The paramitas are intrinsic to our true nature. But because our original nature becomes clouded by greed, hatred and delusion, we must cultivate these potential qualities in order to bring them into expression. 

Awareness of the paramitas helps us live more wisely and compassionately. 

The six wholesome characteristics enable us to serve others and to move towards higher consciousness. Discipline and sincere cultivation are required to express these virtuous qualities. This is the path of the Bodhisattva—one who is dedicated to serving the highest welfare of all living beings with an awakened heart, unconditional love, skillful wisdom, and all-embracing compassion.

For those of us who tend towards perfectionism, the trick is to nurture the paramitas without perfectionistic striving. A healthy intention is to focus on developing these virtues without berating ourselves for how much we’re falling short of the ideal.  

Over the next weeks, we’ll talk about each of the paramitas in turn. For tonight, let’s look at the first one:  

The Perfection of Generosity (Dana Paramita).

This is the enlightened quality of generosity, charity, giving, and offering. 

Its essence is unconditional love, a boundlessly open heart and mind, and a selfless generosity, which is free from attachment and expectation. The paramita of generosity means that from the depths of the heart, we practice offering love, compassion, time, energy, and resources to serve the highest welfare of all beings.  

Giving is one of the preliminary steps of this practice. Ideally, our generosity is unconditional and free of selfish desires for gratitude, recognition, advantage, reputation, or any worldly reward. 

I have been reflecting about how seldom I make charitable gifts anonymously. I like to be recognized and thanked. Spirit Rock Meditation Center rewards major donors by inviting them to join a group called the Sure Heart Sangha. My annual gift is enough to ensure that I am part of that sangha. 

The perfection of generosity moves beyond such expectations and is accomplished not just by the action of giving, nor by the actual gift itself.  

Instead, the essence of this paramita is a pure motivation of genuine concern for others. 

Eleanor Munger, a retired Montessori teacher who lived in Houston’s Montrose area, exemplified that kind of compassionate generosity. In the 1980s, she volunteered to bathe, feed and nurse terribly ill people who were ostracized after being diagnosed with the newly-identified HIV virus. 

Her fundraising efforts on their behalf were so successful that in 1986 she founded Omega House hospice, a caring refuge for indigent people with AIDS. The first licensed hospice in Texas, it still depends on volunteers to assist a few paid staff members, who provide medical and social work services. Although Eleanor died at the age of 92 in 2004, her generous spirit lives on at Omega House, where I volunteer as as a chaplain.

Our capacity for generosity is sometimes tapped in surprising ways. While we have been sheltering in place, I communicated with a woman named Amy who supports a charitable organization called Books for Development. In a fundraising effort to send books to children in Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and Ghana, she sews face masks made with colorful Ankara fabrics from Africa. When I ordered two masks, Amy asked me to make a donation to the charity. In return, she donated her time and the materials and then delivered the masks to our doorstep. Her generosity is helping doubly—to educate children in Africa and to protect Houstonians during the pandemic. 

It’s important to distinguish between generous actions that stem from loving care and compulsive giving, which may be motivated by an egocentric neediness for love, power or attention. Wealthy donors often stipulate that  they will give large amounts of money to an institution, only if designated buildings bear their family’s name. Sometimes gifts motivated by power backfire. A while ago, administrators at Yale University turned down a substantial offer from donors who wanted to influence the direction of a teaching program. 

Ideally, our practice of giving aims to be free of discrimination regarding who is worthy and who is unworthy to receive. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a model of open-hearted giving. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, he donated a portion of the prize money towards establishing a Tibetan Foundation for Universal Responsibility—with the aim of, in his words, “to act from the heart of the Tibetan people to do good and helpful things not only for their own country but for people throughout the world.” The Foundation’s mission is to support non-violent communication, human rights and the protection of Mother Earth. 

Along with openheartedness, wise discernment is an aspect of the paramita of generosity. In my own experience, I’ve learned that gifts do not always promote the wellbeing of recipients. When one of my former students asked me to support his dream of becoming a chef, I gave him money to attend a culinary institute. To my dismay, he used the gift to purchase drugs on the streets. In retrospect, by paying more attention to warning signals, I might have supported his rehabilitation instead of enabling his addiction. 

Now, during the global pandemic, when so many people are unemployed and unable to afford food or rent, our natural impulse towards generosity is tapped. Like many of you, Mark and I have been donating to food banks and organizations that sustain health care workers on the front lines by purchasing and delivering them meals from restaurants needing business. We’re also practicing being graceful recipients. One day, Mark’s nephew surprised us by bringing us a freshly cooked meal, still hot from his stove. We savored not only hearty pea soup and sweet cornbread but also the sweetness of Clay’s generous act. 

To cultivate the paramita of generosity, it is wise to contemplate the enormous benefits of this practice, the disadvantages of being miserly, as well as the fact that the physical body and material wealth are impermanent. These reflections motivate us to practice generosity while we still have bodily strength and enough resouces to share. 

Generosity is a cure for the afflictions of greed, miserliness, and possessiveness. We can sense a physical contraction that comes from hoarding what might be shared, and our bodies feel more relaxed and open when we give spontaneously.

After my maternal grandmother, Deedee, died, I inherited a velvet-lined, wooden box that contained her beautifully polished silverware. Many years later, when my niece, Emily, was engaged to be married, it felt right to give her the silverware that had belonged to her great-grandmother. I took pleasure in passing on Deedee’s legacy to the next generation of our family. 

In this practice of giving, we may offer time, energy, money, food, clothing, or gifts to assist others. Or we may offer Dharma teachings, giving explanations about the Buddha’s teachings, in order to free others from misperceptions that cause confusion, pain, and suffering. We can also offer fearless protection to insects, animals, and people, when they are in danger of harm, distress, and fear. By offering care and comfort, we can help others to feel safe and peaceful. 

We practice the perfection of generosity in an especially powerful way when we include all living beings in our heart. On prolonged retreats, meditators often make extraordinary efforts to escort spiders and beetles out of the meditation hall, so that nobody will step on these sentient beings.  

Louisa, an “ex-pat” friend in Cholula, Mexico, has a reputation for giving shelter to animals. When our colleague Ed was killed five years ago, the only witness to the crime was his dachshund Maya. Even though Louisa had rescued six dogs and various cats beforehand, she did not hesitate to adopt Maya, who arrived too traumatized to eat or interact with other animals. Patiently, Louisa gave the dachshund loving attention. As a testiment to the healing powers of generosity and compassion, a recent photo shows Maya, plump and contentedly lounging on a big pillow next to Louisa’s two cats. 

EX: Now take a moment to reflect upon a moment when you acted generously in your own life. What emotions and body sensations are associated with this memory?  

EX: Remember a time when you held back from a chance to give generously.  What effect does this memory have on your emotions and body sensations?

Are there any comments or questions about the first paramita of generosity?