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Virya paramita, or the practice of the perfection of effort, is the fourth in a series of six practices of an awakening being. It tends to balance the aspects of wisdom and compassion, and it is in close relationship to the third practice, kshanti, patience or allowing. The subject of effort is one which also relates particularly to the relationship between body and mind.
To further explore this topic, have a listen to this unedited talk, given on Memorial Day 2015 at Empty Hand Zen Center.
The third topic in this series of six posts about the bodhisattva practices known as the paramitas is kshanti or patience.
Overall, I think of kshanti as an aspect that balances the others. Generally one can see the first two paramitas – giving and ethics – as compassion in action, and the last two – meditation and wisdom – as equally expressions of wisdom. Balancing compassion and wisdom, the two broadest areas of Buddhist practice, are the two paramitas in the middle of the list – patience and effort. Effort, or virya, is our topic for next time. For now, I would like to say a few words about kshanti.
Kshanti is the practice of patience. You might say that it has two primary aspects. The first aspect is that of forbearance. This may be closest to its original meaning, when the teaching was developed, around the beginning of the Common Era. This means that when you practice kshanti, you cultivate the ability to endure hardships. You practice being present with even the most difficult things in your life, receiving them in a way that doesn’t reject them or turn away.
This way of practice brings to mind a teaching by Shantideva, the 8th Century Indian sage whose teaching was very encouraging. Shantideva taught, “If you can do something about it (your problem), why be discouraged? If you can’t do something about it, why be discouraged?” One can equally say, either way, why be impatient? Either way, you don’t turn away.
The second aspect of kshanti is allowing. That is to say, the patience you are practicing is specifically patience with what is. It is a practice of acknowledging what is, as it is, without judging whether it is good or bad. It is the practice of allowing what is to be what it is.
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And how is it? It is changing, always changing. Nothing remains in one state forever; nothing is permanent. In fact, each moment is a completely new state, the result of innumerable conditions that have arisen and dissolved.
Thus, many centuries after the teaching of kshanti was first expounded, Zen turned it, bringing forth another aspect. Putting the two sides of kshanti together – not turning away from what is, and seeing it as a new expression in each moment – Zen Masters understood that each moment is an opportunity. In deed, each moment is an opportunity to awaken to the true nature of things, to see how your life is teaching you about suffering and freedom from suffering. Each moment is an opportunity to awaken, if you are able to truly be present with what is. This is the opportunity of now.
Seeing it in that light, it’s easy to understand why sitting zazen is so important to Zen practice. For it is in sitting that you find the capacity to encounter your life. It is in zazen that you learn that you can face whatever is in this moment. It is in zazen that you find, again and again, that the opportunity of now is always available.
So I hope to encourage you to practice patience and, to do that, I will share a quote from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center. “If you become too serious, you will lose your way. If you are just playing a game, you will lose your way. So, little by little, with patience and endurance, we must find our way for ourselves.”
Finally I would add, moment by moment, we do find our way for ourselves. The question is, which way?
Ethics, or sila in Sanskrit, is the second of the six paramitas or practices of an awakening being called a bodhisattva. Ethics is at the very root of the Buddhist tradition. In fact, much of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching was an exhortation to turn toward wholesome actions and states of mind, and away from unwholesome actions and states of mind. In this he was extraordinarily successful, convincing even murders, petty thieves, and ruthless political leaders to take up a path of morality, peace and freedom. The Buddha taught many people to consider the consequences of their actions, so that they might realize how much of the difficulty they experience is a direct result of their own unskillful behavior.
This is the teaching of karma, the fundamental law that each and every intentional thought, spoken expression, and action has a consequence at some point in the future. It is a fairly complex teaching, which takes into account factors such as forethought, one’s motivation, and celebration or remorse afterward. However, at its heart, it is simply about doing good and not doing bad, offering compassion instead of aggression, helping and not harming.
Thus when the Buddha began teaching, monks and nuns committed to only 10 precepts or rules of conduct. Later, as difficult situations arose, more rules were added until the list reached a length in the hundreds. Even later, as the path of practice called the Mahayana emerged, some Dharma teachers began to emphasize the ways in which compassion spontaneously emerges from the experience of inter-connectedness. So, with that understanding, in Zen the precepts became vows rather than rules. They became expressions of intention to act from the realization of non-separation. Thus, some of the Mahayana schools reverted back to 10 precepts, though they are a different 10. These together with the refuges and the pure precepts are known as the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts. They are:
The three refuges
I take refuge in Buddha.
I take refuge in Dharma.
I take refuge in Sangha.
The three pure precepts
I vow to refrain from all evil.
I vow to do all that is good.
I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.
The 10 grave precepts
I vow not to kill.
I vow not to take what is not given.
I vow not to misuse sexuality.
I vow to refrain from false speech.
I vow to refrain from intoxicants.
I vow not to slander.
I vow not to praise self at the expense of other.
I vow not to be avaricious.
I vow not to harbor ill will.
I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
For today, I’d like to focus on the third of the pure precepts. Taken as a whole, the three pure precepts carry a strong message. They imply that it’s not good enough to simply refrain from harmful actions and to perform skillful actions. To be truly skillful, one must also commit to a life of service. That is what it means to “live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.” This vow is the foundation of the bodhisattva way, a commitment to everyone’s welfare and an acknowledgment of the way in which their welfare is intrinsically tied to our own.
One my experiences as a hospice chaplain clearly demonstrates this dynamic. On one particularly intense day, I was told that one of my colleague’s patients might be close to death. Knowing that my fellow chaplain was out of town, I went to visit the dying woman and offer her spiritual support, though I felt I had little left to give.
When I arrived, I heard from the nurses that the patient was feeling a bit better, but that I was still welcome to pay her a visit. She was lying on a couch in her darkened room, seemingly asleep when I walked in. She awoke as I knelt by her side and gently spoke her name. I introduced myself, and told her that I was with the hospice team. The woman began speaking gently to me, but what she said was incoherent. She was a bit confused, as is common with folks near the end of life. Still, I asked permission to take her hand and continued talking to her.
At some point she seemed to wake up a bit more and asked “why here?” I replied, “I’m just here to bring you blessings.” “Ah, blessings. Blessings. Blessings!” She continued to repeat the word over and over again until I realized that she was offering me blessings. She had received my blessings and she was returning them, not just politely, but with enthusiasm. She held my hands strongly, looked into my eyes, and spoke emphatically, giving me her blessings. I had to smile and laugh and, after thanking her, I walked out of this woman’s room with much more joy than I had when I came in. This gift, from a woman who didn’t have much to give, was invaluable. She was a bodhisattva.
This is the kind of ethics that a bodhisattva practices, the kind of ethics that begins and ends with the recognition that we belong to each other in ways we cannot fully know. It is the kind of ethics that emerges from the wisdom that a skillful person doesn’t see oneself as separate from action or separate from others.
As Dogen wrote in Shoaku Makusa, a fascicle whose title translates as “Refraining from Unwholesome Action,”
…one moves from the aspiration for “refraining from unwholesome action” toward the practice of “refraining from unwholesome action.” As unwholesome action becomes something one is unable to do, the power of one’s practice suddenly appears fully.
What is the power of one’s practice? The power to give and receive joy, the power to live and be lived, the power to benefit all beings. That’s a pretty awesome power, if you ask me.
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At the time of the dawning of the Mahayana the paramitas were described as six lights on the awakening activity of a Buddhist practitioner. This was near the beginning of the Common Era (CE), and it was a period in which the Mahayana was neither a school nor a sect of Buddhism. Instead, it was a clarification of the path of a practitioner whose aspiration is to turn all beneficial karmic activity into the ultimate gift, the gift of awakening. The Mahayana was an exposition of the practice of a bodhisattva.
The Sanskrit paramita is often translated as “perfection,” though to understand it as a final objective is to miss the mark. The paramitas are actually mutually interdependent activities that inspire and inform any being dedicated to awakening, just as much as they benefit others. Thus, to expect that the paramitas might one day be completed is to forget the virtuous circle of practice in which the giver also receives, in which the giver is also the gift.
Perhaps for that reason the first of the paramitas is dana (pronounced like “Donna”). This word means giving or generosity, and it is said to encompass all of the other paramitas which are: sila or morality, kshanti or patience, virya or energy, dhyana or concentration, and prajna or wisdom. In fact, it can be said that each paramita is a complete practice because each paramita includes all of the others. Taken as whole, I see the first two paramitas as based in compassion, the last two as based in wisdom, and the entire path balanced by allowing what is and applying oneself wholeheartedly.
Returning to dana paramita, it was traditionally understood that the laity gave material goods and the monastics gave the teaching of Dharma. In many ways this is a balanced approach when monastics are renunciates who depend on others for their food, clothing, medicine and lodging. However, over time this distinction was blurred as monastics came to own land and other material goods, and lay practitioners became respected as disciples and teachers. In China, for example, alms collection was not as well received as in India, and Ch’an monasteries began tending rice paddies to sustain themselves. Also at that time, roughly estimated to be the 8th and 9th Centuries, Layman Pang and his daughter Ling Zhao became renowned as examples of profound and playful Dharma.
Today when I think about giving, the underlying intention seems at least as important as the thing given. Giving might be motivated by a desire for one’s own benefit – such as to accumulate merit, or to influence someone to like you or to give you something in return. It might be motivated by a wish for another’s well being or progress on a spiritual path. Or it might be motivated by the wish to benefit everyone.
However, it is not until I see that the gifts I give are not mine that dana paramita can be practiced. Even the teachings or material objects which I seemingly produce temporally arise out of interconnectedness, and therefore cannot truly be seen as my own. Knowing this I can give because all of life is a gift. I can give because these gifts must pass through my hands. I can give because I understand that karma is the only gift that persists, the only true legacy anyone leaves.
So please let the many gifts pass through your hands that they might awaken the whole world.
I had the pleasure of giving the Saturday morning Dharma talk at Hartford Street Zen Center about a week ago.
I spoke that day about the teaching of “no self” and the way it has arisen in both Eastern and Western culture. The nun Vajira, Greek philosopher Heraclitus, monk Nagarjuna, visionary Mahatma Gandhi, and Episcopalian priest Rev. Charles Freer Andrews all get a mention.
If you’d like to listen to the talk, you can hear it here:
During the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni, ceremonial space was defined by nothing more than four stones. Once placed and ritualized, the stones described a sacred space called a sīmā. It was a place in which the actions of the monks were considered not just valid, but also resonant with something much greater than them. This makes sense intuitively, because of the monks’ practice of wandering to collect alms and to teach. They needed to be able to create a sacred space without having to construct a building.
However, this practice is also a teaching about the role of intention. It is an example of the way in which the life of the Buddha is a role model for each person’s ability to set an intention that is in accord with the Dharmakaya, the function of perfection in all things. For me it seems that the Buddha knew that our experience of the world, when fully met with the body and mind, could resonate with so much more. That is why he gave the injunction not to simply believe his teaching, but to live it.
Thus, though we may be pushed and pulled by our karma and by the barrage of thoughts and feelings present in everyday life, each one of us is also an aspect of the function of perfection. Therefore, we are truly much more than we can possibly know. Discovering our ability to abide in this experience is the practice of a lifetime, and it can only be found by living it. Study is very helpful, but by itself cannot lead to the ultimate, just as reading a menu will not satisfy your hunger.
Recently I was asked to participate in an inter-faith panel discussion on creating sacred spaces. I began by talking a bit about the sīmā, and about the Buddhist understanding of body and mind as completely interpenetrating. To use Zen parlance, body and mind are not one, not two. They are not identical to each other, and yet they are completely inseparable. Extending it a bit further, this is also true of the relationship between us and our environment. That is, we are profoundly influenced by our environment, and we are profoundly influencing it. Extending this even further, our environment is interacting with its environment, in ever larger and larger circles until the entire universe is included in each activity of a mundane life.
From this vantage point, it is easy to see why Bodhidharma told Emperor Wu that there was nothing holy about building temples and supporting the Dharma. (See the second koan in the Book of Serenity for more on this.) If everything is interacting with everything else then, from the perspective of the absolute, one thing is not more important than another.
However, we should not understand this to mean that there is no such thing as a sacred space. We should not confuse the absolute perspective with the relative perspective. We should not fall into thinking that one trumps the other. In fact, it is because this absolute teaching is true that any space can be made sacred by our intention to enact wisdom and compassion. That is to say, since we are part of the function of the Dharmakaya then we can invoke it with our practice, with our intention, with our bodies and voices and candles and incense. We can invoke it with a bow. We can invoke it by including the stones in our ritual.
Examining it from another perspective, since we are beings with an inherent connection to the Daharmakaya, we can feel the resonance. It’s as if each one of us is a radio, and there is a signal being sent throughout the universe. If you can receive it, then you must be a part of the system.When you receive it, you demonstrate that you are part of the system. Have you ever felt the sacredness of place – a temple, a church, a zendo, a mosque, a sutra, a scripture? You received the signal. It is a temporal arising of resonance due to the expression of intention, due to the expression of wisdom and compassion.
And that’s where it gets interesting, because it means that our ability to invoke the Dharmakaya in the world begins with invoking it in ourselves. It means that the sacred space starts from within this body and mind, when we set ourselves on the path of following through on our intention to experience the Dharmakaya. So the most important thing we can do in order to create sacred spaces is to find the sacred space within us, the part of us that wants to receive the signal, the part of us that knows there is more to life than meets the eye.
Speaking to this phenomenon in his fascicle on “Awakening the Unsurpassed Mind,” Dogen teaches,
Therefore the present building of shrines, fashioning of Buddhas, and so on, is indeed awakening the mind for enlightenment. It is awakening the mind to directly arrive at attainment of Buddhahood, and is not to be destroyed along the way. This is considered unfabricated virtue; this is considered unmade virtue. This is observation of true suchness; this is observation of the nature of things; this is absorption in the assembly of Buddhas; this is attaining the mental command of the Buddhas. This is the mind of supreme perfect enlightenment; this is the function of sainthood; this is manifestation of Buddha. Outside of this, there is nothing unfabricated, unmade.
So I encourage you to find the sacred spaces within, and to bring them into expression in the world because the world needs sacred spaces. And please find the sacred spaces in the world that resonate with the sacred spaces within you, because that’s what they are meant to do. We all need to find our sacred spaces.