The Paramitas

The Paramitas

Commentary by Rev. Dr. Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi

A paramita is an ‘excellence’ that we already contain as beings. It is as if it were a diamond in the rough deep within us, waiting to show itself. Our practice exposes it, frees it, so that we manifest it in our moment to moment lives. Thus, it is not something to strive for, to become or to create: it is already there, deep within us. The paramitas are taught in the Diamond Sutra. As we practice zazen, kinhin, samu, and mindfulness, we are cutting away the stuff of ego, the shell of the small self, and exposing the inherent diamond aspects of Buddha nature that rest beneath our self-centered exterior.


So, what is generosity? It is the act of being in the world selflessly. It is easy to be generous on the cushion, in the zendo, or at retreat, cut off from the demands of the everyday world. True generosity comes when we are giving of ourselves without ourselves being in the picture at all. It is living in service to all beings, regardless of whether they are 'deserving' or not. "Deserving" is something added. We see someone or some being in need, and we meet that need, that is all. Now, sometimes, meeting a need is not done in the way that it might be expected. For example, if we see clearly and deeply, we can notice the true need of a person. There is a difference between the manifest need and the latent need. The manifest need is the surface need; food, money, a bath. The latent need might be something entirely different; recognition as a human being with inherent worth, hope and trust in self and the world. If our eyes are clouded by preconceived notions of what beings need, we fail to see accurately, we see through our preconceptions a distorted picture of what is before us. That is why the Buddha asks us to practice seeing clearly, that is, to practice seeing without a self.


The second paramita is ‘morality,’ or to follow the precepts. Our precepts act as guides. Their truth resides within us. We are not to take them literally, but rather, see them as aspects of ourselves emerging as a lotus out of the mud. In Buddhism there are two truths: the Absolute truth and the Relative truth. The precepts are also both absolute and relative. Do not kill means that we should not take life, an absolute. But we also know, that we need to take life in order to live. Within the absolute, there is room for everything. Just as water contains all waves, so the Absolute contains all contradiction. When we rise in the morning, we should orient ourselves immediately to the good. This means we orient ourselves to the precepts, taking refuge in the three treasures; committing to the three pure precepts; and following the ten grave precepts. Fundamentally, if we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha we cannot err. It is up to us to live our lives morally. There is no ‘Buddha’ standing watch over us, no great father in the sky or mother in the earth to tell us not to do something or punish us if we do. Our choices are our lives and karma comes with all of our choices.


Patience is typically thought of as something we need in order to 'put up with' slow pokes. Patience also teaches us that slow is good, that taking one's time allows for an opportunity to see clearly what is right there before us and to see what we miss because we are seemingly always pressed for time. The truth is, we are never really pressed for time. Never. If you are, then you are under the press of others and are not in control of yourself. This press is something we add to our lives. It is toxic and is literally killing us in every way imaginable. Patience is the flower opening in its own time. Patience is the smile of a child. Patience is the willingness to see the car in front of us as sharing our universe and teaching us how to share as well. Of all the paramitas I suspect this one is foundational. Without the willingness to see the big picture, we are locked into small, narrowly conceived ones. When we see only what we have to get done, where is there room for others?


To come to practice, that is, to come to life, with our eyes wide open requires diligence. It is so easy to let our eyes close part-way, relax ourselves and fall asleep as we routinize our lives. I was just reading an article on the McDonaldization of now, the world, and the author suggests that as a result of greater effort on efficiency, and the mechanisms of efficiency, our social connections are being broken down. It is so easy to put ourselves on autopilot and just cruise. Yet, pay attention to what happens as we do this: our eyes look but do not see, we eat without tasting, work without caring, and engage with others only to maintain our cushy cocoons. Wake Up!!!, the Masters shout. Great diligence and vigor is required to live life fully. Come to your cushion, your feet, and your job wide awake. Practice seeing things as they are and not what you wish them to be. With such effort, the buddha that resides deep within you will open your heart and let compassion fill the universe.


The fifth paramita is meditation. Meditation is not a passive thing. It is quite the contrary, dynamic, moving, cracking, opening … meditation is the being and the coming together, as one. In our tradition, Zen itself is meditation. It is not an inward gazing, not an attempt to reach an altered state, there is no goal of "attainment" or joy." Just sitting. Just walking. Just eating. Just working. Just playing. When we say, ‘just...’ we mean that we add nothing to the activity. We are just doing the activity, completely, with no separation of self from the activity. As we step into this "meditation," we can (and do) often feel as if we are something special. As if we are ‘centered,’ ‘grounded,’ and somehow “above it all.” This is takes us down the wrong path. When we sit upright and place our attention on the breath, or the spoon or the task at hand, we just place our attention. We do so without judging the activity, without self-involvement in any way. We watch ourselves as we do this until the watcher and the watched collapse into one and the self “drops away.” Nothing special. It is the same as riding a bike or driving a car. We just integrate all of the gross and subtle movements into our "body-mind." Or rather, our body-mind emerges in its true state of unity. As some of you know, I am a runner. There are times, not always, that as I run, placing one concentrated footstep down after another, that this complete integration occurs. There is no foot, no road, no runner: just this. Practice meditation daily, formally if possible, but informally, as well. This means deliberately placing your attention on your breath throughout the day. Deliberately placing your complete attention on the one you are with or the task you are doing… but it also means establishing a daily sitting practice. You can do this. We all can. But don't become obsessive-compulsive about it either. Life is a flow, stay in the flow. Sit/don't sit...just don't wobble.


The sixth paramita is wisdom. I like to think of this as the glue that holds the Eightfold Noble Path together. It is the essence of the middle way. Not too tight, not too loose, we approach our daily activity without extreme and with great balance. Many of us approach things as if their getting done were a matter of life or death. In most circumstances this is highly unlikely, and even if it were, having the wisdom to settle ourselves, accepting all of the information as it flows to us, without overreacting, can be helpful and is a sign of developing body-mind wisdom. Wisdom comes with practice and experience. Most of us do not know that the world will not end if something very important fails to get done. Most of us act as if our stuff were the single most important stuff there ever was, yet how can this be so? The stuff of the universe has been here since the beginningless beginning and will remain until the endless end: our part is less than a wink in time. Yet, wisdom would also tell us that our every act, our every thought, is an eternal comment upon the eternal cycle of coming and going: karma does not have a beginning, nor an end. Use your internal gyroscope to establish a sense of personal balance in your life. It informs everything. When, when walking, walk; when sitting, sit; and, above all, don't wobble. When we are one with this, we will know that the name of that gyroscope is wisdom.