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 in practice. 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 include GENEROSITY, ETHICS, PATIENCE, JOYOUS EFFORT, CONCENTRATION and WISDOM.
Each one is an enlightened quality of the heart or an attribute. The paramitas are intrinsic to our true nature. But because our original nature becomes clouded by greed, hatred and delusion, we must develop these potential qualities in order to bring them into expression.
Awareness of the paramitas helps us live more wisely and compassionately.
These six kinds of practice enable us to serve others and to move towards attaining enlightenment, but it requires discipline and sincere cultivation 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 aim for perfection without perfectionistic striving. A healthy intention is to aim towards developing these virtues without berating ourselves for how much we’re falling short of the ideal.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to talk about all 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, so that our generosity is ideally unconditional and free of selfish desires for gratitude, recognition, advantage, reputation, or any worldly reward.
I admit that I seldom make charitable gifts anonymously. If I give to a cause that I consider to be worthy, I like to be recognized and thanked. Barack Obama realized that when he didn’t make an effort to express gratitude to major donors who contributed to his first presidential campaign, few of those donors were inclined to give as generously during the second one.
He learned that wealthy Democrats expect to be courted and appreciated.
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. We’ve spoken about Mother Theresa, who served everyone in need, as if they were part of her extended family.
It’s important to distinguish between generous actions that stem from love and compulsive giving, which may be motivated by an egocentric neediness for love, power or attention. Meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein jokes that she asked her colleague James Baraz if he thought that she was practicing the paramita of generosity by cleaning out her closet and donating clothing that she never wears to the Salvation Army. James replied, “I think you’re practicing cleaning out your closet.”
Ideally, our practice of giving aims to be free of discrimination regarding who is worthy and who is unworthy to receive. Consider how challenging this aspect of the paramita is. I prefer to transfer funds to support the education of my studious and grateful Nicaraguan godchild, Virginia Carolina, than to give money to a local, seedy-looking panhandler, whom I suspect will use the donation for drugs instead of for self-improvement.
In addition to judging who merits generous treatment, we tend to judge the way people receive our gifts. A while ago, I commissioned an artist to design and paint a beautiful sign displaying our family name in the same colors as my parent’s newly renovated home. I proudly presented the gift to my mother and father, with the idea that they would mount the sign at the entrance to their driveway. Instead, my parents left a small, rustic block of wood labeled with my father’s initials at the head of the driveway and tacked my sign to the side of the house. I had to let go of attachment to my opinion about how the recipients should use my gift.
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 all material possessions are impermanent. These reflections motivate us to use the body and any wealth to practice generosity while we still have them.
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.
On a trip to San Francisco, Mark made a small offering to a Tibetan monk who was asking for donations on a street corner. In return, the monk generously gave him a mala, or string of prayer beads. After walking away, Mark felt inclined to give a more substantial donation. He turned around and searched in vain for the monk, who was no longer there. Now the mala serves as a reminder to act more generously whenever an opportunity arises.
In this practice of giving, we may offer time, energy, money, food, clothing, or gifts to assist others. Or we may offer Dharma teachings, disseminating 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 go to extraordinary efforts to escort spiders and beetles out of the meditation hall, so that nobody will step on these sentient beings.
At the Saturday Farmer’s Market on Eastside Drive, I like to visit Lisa, who sells delicious cheese made from goats she raises on a farm in the Texas Hill Country. Her work is clearly more than a business enterprise. She displays an album of photos of her favorite baby goats, and she points out distinguishing characteristics on the face of each goat, whom she recognizes by name. During the drought of 2011, when forest fires were raging in that part of the state, frightened goats escaped from neighboring farms. Lisa provided shelter for a hundred refugee goats until her neighbors could recover from fire damage and re-adopt their herds. Her generosity towards these animals fulfills her, and Lisa transmits contentment.
REFLECTION #1: 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?
REFLECTION #2: 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?