Ep. 022: The Six (and More) Perfections

Mahayana principles worth striving for

Monks' Shoes

Six Paramita Shoes (Wikipedia)

The regalia of a Chinese Buddhist monk (or nun) tend to follow certain patterns. For everyday wear, the garb includes a usually-blousy shirt, and calf-length pants with the cuffs wrapped tight (or these days with elastic), with wrapped leggings below (in modern times, maybe just knee socks). The goal is generally to keep as much of the body covered as possible, and to prevent insects and other critters from entering the pant-leg and getting themselves squarshed.

For ceremonies, a robe may go over, or be substituted for, the shirt. On ultra-fancy occasions, a kasaya, a kind of drape, goes over the left shoulder, imitating the look in southern Buddhist countries where the right shoulder is completely bare. (This is the shoulder turned toward a Buddha statue when circumabulating; thus, the monk or nun walks clockwise around the figure.)

While the colors of these clothes may vary, they are generally sedate: very light browns (bordering on mustard), greys, or dark blues. Laypeople generally wear dark brown or black robes, either to services or during other official functions only.

But a notable feature of this monastic wear is the shoes. They usually have cloth uppers and rubber soles. Closed shoes--more common in cold weather--have a seam down the center of the top of the foot. But open shoes--what some might call "sandals"--have a unique construction.

Picture a band running around the ankle. From the front of this, a panel reaches forward to the sole, covering the toes. Two thinner panels run on either side of this, from the band to the sole, just about even with the ball of the foot. Another pair runs on either side of the foot, at about the middle of the arch. And a last, single panel runs down the back of the heel.

Count them up, and you'll find there are six--three in front, two on the sides, and one in back. And when I lived with the monks in a temple in Yangzhou, Jiangsu, they taught me that these were called "Six Paramita Shoes."

Monks at Hong Fa Temple in Shenzhen wearing the kasaya over the left shoulder during a ceremony. The brown robes in the back are worn by laypeople. (Note: the monks are wearing the "cool weather" kind of shoes.)

Paramita

The meaning and origin of the Sanskrit word paramita is unclear. It may come from parama, a word that references "excellence." More creatively, it could come from para, "beyond," and either mita "that which has arrived" or ita "that which goes." So paramita would mean "that which has gone beyond" or "that which has crossed to the other shore" or, more simply, "the transcendent." In everyday English, we call it a "perfection."

Now, I have never seen this anywhere; Wikipedia would mark it "original research," a nice way of saying "no reliable, published sources exist," and they prohibit it. But here we go: The English prefix para- can in fact mean "beyond" or "past," as in "paradox" (literally, "beyond belief"). While dictionaries say this is of Greek origin, I can't help but wonder whether it derives from the same Proto-Indo-European source as the Sanskrit para. Likewise, English meter comes from the Greek metron, "measure"--and Sanskrit mita can also mean "measure."

So, do we have two words cognate to English here, para- and meter, meaning "beyond measure"?

Original research indeed!


The Heart Sutra

A copy of the Heart Sutra in calligraphy, written for me as an omamori (amulet) by a student before I started my pilgrimage through Japan in 2001

My favorite Buddhist scripture, The Heart Sutra (which I once recited 10,000 times in a year) begins (in English) "Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra." Okay, I was kidding: that was Sanskrit, not English, which would be "The Great Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Scripture." But when chanted in English, the title is usually chanted in Sanskrit. This is the "Wisdom that has gone beyond" the limits.

In Chinese, the phrase "Prajna Paramita" is transliterated Bore Boluomi--say it Boh Ray Boh Lwoh Mee--a staple expression in so-called "chop-socky" movies, and something of a "magic charm."


The Six Perfections

The monks told me that the "Six Perfections" shoes are a reminder that they should "walk in the way of cultivation"--their lives should be focused on the perfecting of six things, to wit:

  1. Dana paramita: generosity, giving

  2. Shila paramita: morality, virtue

  3. Kshanti paramita: patience, tolerance

  4. Virya paramita: energy, vigor, diligence

  5. Dhyana paramita: contemplation

  6. Prajna paramita: wisdom

(I have greatly reduced the number of translations offered. High concepts are notoriously difficult to move from one language to another, and as many as five or six words may be used to translate one term. I have also removed the usual diacritical marks used in transliterating Sanskrit writing.)

While "perfection" may be too strenuous a goal, the development of all six of these attributes should be within the grasp of anyone who cares to pursue them.


Zooming In

Let's look at the Paramitas one-by-one. I have also appended a "karmic reward" for each--the results of practicing. And, just as the Seven Deadly Sins have the Seven Virtues as opposites (Lust vs Chastity, Gluttony vs Temperance, etc.), so the Six Perfections may be better understood by contemplating the imperfections they replace. I believe I need not wax eloquent on these, as I suspect <ahem> most of us are familiar with them.

Dana paramita (perfection in giving) is a sort of mundane way to picture the high Buddhist concept of compassion. Giving should be done with the benefit of others at heart, and not to show off or merely fulfill an obligation. Thus it is an outward proof of an inwardly changed person.

  • Karmic Reward: Giving will be rewarded with great wealth.

  • Opposite: greed or desire

Shila Paramita (perfection in virtue) is not merely following a list of "Thou Shalt Nots." It is instead, like perfection in giving, another sign of compassion and the desire to reduce suffering, as I have written elsewhere.

  • Karmic Reward: Virtue will be rewarded with great abilities.

  • Opposite: immorality

Kshanti Paramita (perfection in tolerance) is similar to equanimity in that it reflects the ability to withstand hardships (including those caused by others) and accept the truth, no matter how "inconvenient" or uncomfortable.

  • Karmic Reward: Tolerance will be rewarded with great power or strength.

  • Opposite: anger or hatred

Virya Paramita (perfection in energy) comes from a word related to the English word "virile." It is what, in pre-PC days, would have been called "manliness." The main hall in a Chinese Buddhist temple, when dedicated to Shakyamuni--the historic Buddha--is called "the Precious Hall of the Great Hero." So we are to be courageous, heroic, in our pursuit of perfection.

  • Karmic Reward: Energy will be rewarded with long life.

  • Opposite: sloth

Dhyana Paramita (perfection in meditation) This is the word from which we get the Chinese word Chan, pronounced in Japanese (and subsequently English), "Zen." This is concentration of the mind, meant to achieve a sort of clarity.

  • Karmic Reward: Meditation will be rewarded with great peace.

  • Opposite: unmindfulness or lack of focus

Finally, Prajna Paramita (perfection in wisdom) is the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path. It is "to see things as they are"--specifically, to apprehend: the awareness of emptiness; the absence of distinction; and the foolish notion of I, me, my, and mine. It is a nearly impossible task, and is to be achieved, according to the great teachers, only by practicing the other five.

  • Karmic Reward: Wisdom will be rewarded with great discrimination, the power to recognize truth from falsity.

  • Opposite: ignorance or delusion

The "Three Poisons"--greed (the red--usually--cock), anger (the green serpent), and ignorance (the black boar)--are found at the center of the Tibetan Wheel of Life. These are the opposites of Dana (giving), Kshanti (tolerance), and Prajna (wisdom). (Wikipedia)

A Few More Perfections

This list of the Six Paramitas is pretty stable. However, the Theravada tradition, generally found in South Asia, has a different list, constituting Ten Perfections. They omit dhyana (meditation or concentration) and add (in Pali, with diacritics left in):

  • Nekkhamma pāramī: renunciation

  • Sacca pāramī: truthfulness, honesty

  • Adhiṭṭhāna pāramī: determination, resolution

  • Mettā pāramī: goodwill, friendliness, loving-kindness

  • Upekkhā pāramī: equanimity, serenity

The last two of these, Mettā (loving-kindness) and Upekkhā (equanimity) are also two of the four Brahmaviharas or "immeasurables," another virtue list we'll discuss sometime. The other two Brahmaviharas, incidentally, are Karuna (compassion) and Mudita (sympathetic joy).

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Not to be outdone, the Mahayana (mainly East Asian) Buddhist tradition has also expanded the list to ten, by adding

  • Upaya paramita: skillful means

  • Pranidhana paramita: resolution

  • Bala paramita: spiritual power

  • Jnana paramita: knowledge

And that's the end of the lists--for this episode, at least.


Hey, Mister! What's Wrong with Your Elephant?

Samantabhadra's vehicle, the elephant, has six tusks.

In Chinese temples, it's not uncommon to see a statue seated on a rather sleepy looking elephant.

This is Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, called in Chinese Puxian Pusa and in Japanese Fugen Bosatsu. He is the Bodhisattva of Great Practice--that is, meditation.

In the Avatamsaka ("Flower Garland") Sutra, Samantabhadra made a ten-fold vow promising to respect the Buddhas and cultivate several of the perfections on the various lists above (generosity, compassion, repentance, etc.). The emphasis is on applied wisdom--in other words, practice.

The portrayal of his elephant bears this out. In popular teaching, the lesson goes like this: A wild mind, like a wild elephant, is a dangerous thing; a tame mind, like a tame elephant, can accomplish a great deal for its owner. So the docile elephant in the image represents Samantabhadra's mind which has been mastered through meditation.

It's a wonderful image. But why do I mention it in an article on the Six Perfections? Well, if you look closely at the elephant, you'll see he has six tusks! These represent the Six Perfections, all of which Samantabhadra has attained.

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And with that, I will bid you farewell. Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Come meet the Eight Immortals, some of China’s coolest and funnest "fairies."