Tag Archives: paramitas

Who’s Effort?

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 Opportunity of Now

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.

frog in India

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?

Gifts that Pass Through Your Hands

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Pleasant Hill view

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.

jizos 2006

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.

The Gift for All Seasons

The “Paramitas,” sometimes translated as “perfections,” are six in number and they can be thought of as different perspectives of life – like looking at a jewel, in this case the jewel of life, through six different facets. The first of these facets is Giving (in Sanskrit “Dana”), and it is the first because all practice must begin with generosity. In particular, I believe that all practice must start with the gift of generosity toward oneself.

bamboo image croppedTo some this might seem to be a narcissistic way of thinking, but it’s really necessary if you are to persevere at Buddhist practice. This is because, if you are practicing the study of the impermanent self, then you will encounter over and over again the gap between your intention and your actions. You will be faced, time and time again, with the difference between your ideal and what you are trying to accomplish; between your vision of practice and the actuality of how you think, act and don’t act; between your idea of true self and your mundane reality. If you don’t apply generosity for yourself in those moments, it can be devastating.

Turning this around, it seems to me that this dynamic is also behind the tendency to criticize others. That is, you can look at others and see their gaps, their failure to live up to your ideal or their own ideals. And seeing that happening, you want to criticize them because that’s what you do with yourself. You find that want to be stingy with them for not being the person they could be.

It reminds me of something that occurred when I was new to Tassajara, the Zen monastery and retreat center in Carmel Valley, California. I had been given a job that included bringing in and taking out the garbage cans to prevent racoons from making a mess during the night. So, in the evening, I brought the trash cans to the shack where they were kept. However, in the morning, when I went to take them out again, they were already out. trash canSuddenly I was irritated. I didn’t focus on the fact that someone might have been trying to be helpful, or someone might have been impatient about having them out at a certain time. Instead, I had the thought that someone thought I wasn’t competent to do the full job. Or that someone assumed I’d forget, and didn’t give me a chance to get it right. I sat on my cushion and considered this series of events. I even thought of making a community announcement. It was then that I was struck by the absurdity of it all. To think that I might make an announcement complaining about someone having helped me, however intentionally or unintentionally. Then I had the thought, “Oh Sweetie! Look at what you are thinking. How silly is that?!” So, for me, those moments are now called “Oh Sweetie” moments, the moments of realizing how comparing mind takes my thoughts, feelings, actions and inaction, and creates suffering. And I’ve learned that even just naming them “Oh Sweetie” moments is a form of generosity toward myself, allowing me to hold lightly the so-called mistakes.

In truth there is no gap between our actual and our true self. Whether you are perfectly equanimous or you are “messing up,” your true self is always expressing itself as the you of that moment. It’s just that in the mundane reality of day-to-day life, you can and should discern between skillful and unskillful actions of body, speech and mind. This act of discernment is the second Paramita, Ethics (in Sanskrit “Sila”). It is the activity that helps to reduce the hindrances. In his “Instructions to the Tenzo,” Zen Master Dogen says that the Head of the Kitchen of any practice center must have joyful mind, vast mind, and nurturing mind. While vast mind is expressing the way of sameness, nurturing mind is expressing the way of difference.

Therefore, watching over water and over grain, shouldn’t everyone maintain the affection and kindness of nourishing children?

So, even as you disappoint yourself, please be generous with yourself – just as you would be kind to water and to grain and to children. This is the true gift for all seasons, and one which we would do well to give ourselves and others.