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The Six Perfections
Geshe Rabten Rinpoche
The Graduated Path to Liberation
To become a buddha, a bodhisattva has to practise six perfections:
Perfection of Giving
This perfection is divided into four categories: the giving of property, Dharma, refuge, and active love (maitri).
For most of us, basic material needs such as food and clothing are the types of property easiest to give. High bodhisattvas, however, are capable of giving their eyes, flesh, and even their lives. The object we give is not the actual giving—it is only the means for giving. The real activity of giving is the strong decision to give freely, without avarice. In this way, even if we possess nothing, we can practise giving, because giving depends on our state of mind, not on the object being given. Milarepa had only a small cloth to wear and lived on nettles, but he still practised the ultimate perfection of giving. In the beginning when we try to start this practice, we may find that even the giving of money or material things is difficult, but when we have completed the perfection of giving, the giving of anything, even our own flesh, will be easy. To practise the perfection we need a very strong desire to help others and a very strong will. But if our motive for giving property is to gain fame, for instance, this is not the practice of giving at all.
The giving of Dharma means that one gives, with pure mind, the true teaching to other beings. This type of giving is more beneficial than the giving of property. Possession of property helps for only a limited time, while Dharma is lasting and more deeply helpful. A person with property may still be suffering, but Dharma can not only remove this suffering, it gives the person a new wisdom eye as well. Included in the bodhisattvas' work to attain buddhahood is the aim to give Dharma as fully as possible to all beings.
To give refuge means that we work to save and protect the lives of all living beings. For instance, if we put water creatures stuck in the mud back into water, we are practising this kind of giving. The person who truly wants to put an end to war and killing is practising the refuge aspect of this perfection. If the life of any being is in danger, we have to help in any way we can. The practice of giving refuge results in very good fruit immediately and deeply.
The practice of active love is the wish to give real happiness to all beings. By just having this wish, we cannot directly help beings straight away, but if it is cultivated it will eventually have great results. The immediate fruit of this practice is that no spirits can harm the practitioner.
All these kinds of giving help in two ways—they help other beings and they help ourselves. If we practise giving solely for our own benefit, it is not true giving.
Perfection of Morality
The perfection of morality has three aspects:
Perfection of Patience
There are three types of patience:
When we are harmed bodily or mentally by others we should not react by getting angry or harming them in return.
When we suffer, we point to someone or something outside ourselves as the cause. The immediate reason for our suffering may be something outside, but the deep, or underlying, cause is our own karma, which is of our own doing. The fruit or our actions must come back to us. If a person stabs us with a knife, this injury had to happen to us. We cannot point to anyone outside ourselves as the cause. If, because of our religion, we have to leave our country and endure great suffering, this circumstance has been produced by ourselves. We should think that the seed of suffering has already been sown, therefore it must grow. This way of thinking reduces the power of suffering over us. We have to start practising patience with very small sufferings; later we shall be able to be patient with very large ones. As a result of having practised the perfection of patience, a bodhisattva can withstand any suffering whatsoever for the sake of beings.
In Tibetan history there is a story that shows clearly how beneficial the practice of this type of patience can be. Some years after king Langdarma had eradicated the first spreading of Buddhism in Tibet, a king of western Tibet, Lha Lama Yeshe Ö decided to reestablish and propagate the pure Dharma in the land. For this purpose he went in search of a sufficient amount of gold with which to invite the very best Indian pandits to Tibet. While on his search he was imprisoned by the king of Garlog, who demanded as ransom Lha Lama Yeshe Ö's weight in gold. But when Yeshe Ö's nephew came with the gold, the old king refused to leave the prison, saying that his life was almost over and that instead the nephew should bring a pandit from India. The nephew then was able to invite Atisha from Nalanda, and Atisha re-established the pure Buddha Dharma in Tibet.
Not only did this king willingly forsake his own freedom for the sake of others, but he also did not try to retaliate against the person who had captured him. To harm someone who is harming us does not make sense from a religious point of view. When we seek revenge against others who appear to be hurting us, it does not relieve our own pain, but only gives rise to new suffering for us by creating more karma. If, because we have caused pain to others, they turn around and beat us with a stick, the immediate cause of the pain is the stick, but the person wielding the stick is reacting against our own action, which itself was caused by our being in the grip of an overpowering mental defilement. So logically, our anger should be directed against our own mental defilements. Anger with other beings is very stupid and serves only to create more suffering for us. A country, being attacked by another, fighting back, returning the aggression, is like a hungry person taking poison.
If all people were to practise patience it would bring real peace into the world, but those with no experience of Dharma find it very hard to believe in the efficacy of the practice of patience. If someone who is struck returns the blow, that person sets up a chain reaction with no end, but if one party shows patience, as a result others will do so also. We find this notion in the Christian tradition, when Jesus urged us to turn the left cheek to those who strike us on the right. In the Tibetan tradition, Lama Tsong Khapa composed two verses in which he prayed,
When I remember, see or hear living beings
speaking harshly or hitting me
may I meditate on patience,
and, avoiding anger, speak instead of their good qualities.
By developing, in the stream of my being, the pure wish,
which is based on bodhicitta,
holding other beings dearer than myself,
may I quickly bestow supreme buddhahood on them!
The harm given us by the body, speech or mind of others is like a sword, arrow or spear. The practice of patience is the good armor of protection against this; possessing it, we cannot be injured. If we do not practise patience, trying instead merely to avoid conflict and say nice things and be friendly to everyone, we shall be unable to behave like this to all the countless beings, but with patience we shall be constantly protected from harm. If we walk along a very rocky path, it is impossible to remove all the stones from the way, but strong shoes protect us from all possible injuries.
The third kind of patience is that of keeping concentration on meditation, or anything else concerned with Dharma, without allowing distracting influences to harm the practice.
Perfection of Energy
This means energy for Dharma. There are three kinds:
The three kinds of energy overcome three weaknesses: the first that the mind will not turn to Dharma; the second is the fatigue we experience when we practise; the third is the doubt we have in our own ability to achieve the aims of Dharma. The person who wants to get to the top of a mountain has first to turn to the path, second, to keep going and not give in to laziness, and third, not to falter and think, "This is possible for strong people, but not for me.
The scriptures teach that all virtue follows from energy. With energy, someone who is not intelligent can get the Dharma fruit. A person who is intelligent but lazy will not get the fruit, and the intelligence is useless and wasted. With both intelligence and energy, there will be the greatest success. There is a simile in the scriptures that if the dry grass on a mountain catches fire and the wind fans it, the whole mountainside will catch fire, but if there is no wind the fire will go out straight away. Intelligence is like the fire and energy like the wind. If a person has intelligence and no energy, nothing will be accomplished. Thus the perfection of energy is essential for achieving the goal.
The Perfections of Concentration and Wisdom
Concentration must be on an object. It is very important in both Dharma practice and ordinary life. The Tibetan word for concentration meditation is zhi.nay; nay means to "dwell" or "stay," and zhi means "in peace." In a practical sense, then, zhi.nay means to live peacefully without busy-ness, and is often translated as "calm abiding." If we do not examine it carefully, our mind seems quite peaceful; but if we really look inside, it is not peaceful at all. Our mind is not able to stay on the same object for a second. It flutters around like a banner in the wind; as soon as we concentrate on one thing, another comes to disturb it. Even if we are living on a high mountain or in a quiet room or cave, our mind is always moving. If we go up to the top of a high building in a busy city we can look down and see how much turmoil there is, but when we are moving around within the crowd, we are only aware of a little of the bustle. Among the various mental factors, there is constant movement between conflicting elements; these factors always lead the mind. The movement of a banner fluttering in the wind Is not caused by the banner itself but by the wind. Mind is like the banner and the mental factors are like the wind. This constant movement stops the mind concentrating on an object for long. Of our mental factors, the defilements are stronger than the good qualities. We usually do Dot try to control them, and even when we do, it is very difficult because for a long time we have been in the habit of always following them. Concentration or calm abiding occurs when our mental factors are purified and thus our mind is able to dwell peacefully on the object.
There are two kinds of meditation: analytical meditation and concentration meditation. It is necessary to use both kinds of meditation to remove delusion and reach the goal. Some people say that thinking and learning about Dharma are not meditation, but the scriptures say that these activities are in fact also kinds of meditation. If we do not think carefully and know the nature of the object we cannot concentrate well. The bustle within the mind is mind-produced; to quiet it, therefore, action by the mind itself and nothing external is required. The primary action must be by the mind; on this basis, factors such as a suitable place and the meditation posture can help.
The place in which we practise concentration should be clean, quiet, close to nature, and pleasing to us. Our friends should be peaceful and good. Our body should be healthy, not sick. Sitting in the correct position also helps. For meditation, there are seven aspects of the ideal posture:
These are the seven aspects of the vajra posture. Each is symbolic of a different stage of the path, but each also has a practical purpose. The legs crossed and the feet on the thighs make a locked position. We can lock ourselves firmly in place with legs crossed and the feet on the thighs as described above; positioned like this we could sit in meditation for a long time, even for months, without falling. The straightness of the body allows for the best functioning of the channels carrying the airs on which the mind rides in our bodies. If the body is straight these channels will not be blocked. The position of the arms is also to allow the best functioning of these channels. If one looks too high one can easily see something distracting; if the head is too low one gets pain in the neck or becomes sleepy. The mouth should not be closed so tightly that breathing is difficult if the nose is at all blocked; nor should it be open so widely that strong breathing causes the fire element of the body to increase with high blood pressure resulting. If the tongue is pressed against the palate, the throat and mouth will be kept moist. These are the immediate reasons for the meditation posture. Very rarely, people's arrangement of the inner channels is different, in which case they need a different position.
By just sitting in the vajra posture we achieve a good frame of mind, but the main work has to be done by the mind itself. If a thief enters a room, the way to remove him is to go in and throw him out, not just to shout from the outside. Similarly, if we are sitting on the top of the mountain while our mind is wandering in the village below, we shall not be able to develop concentration.
There are two enemies of concentration. One is busy-ness, wildness, or scattered attention; the other is sleepiness, torpor, or sinking. Our attention is distracted when a desire arises and the mind immediately races after it. Whenever the mind goes after anything other than the object of concentration, this is wild or scattered, mind. Sleepiness, or torpor, occurs when the mind is sleepy and not alert. If we want to concentrate well, we have to overcome these disturbances. If there is a beautiful picture on the wall of a dark room, we need a candle to see it, but if there is a draught, the flame will flicker and we shall not be able to see it properly. If there is no draught but the flame is very weak, there will not be enough light and we shall still not be able to see the picture. If there are neither of these difficulties, the flame will be strong and steady and we shall be able to see the picture clearly. The picture is like the object of concentration, the flame is the mind, the wind is scattered attention and the weak flame is torpor.
In the early stages of the practice of concentration, the first of these disturbances is more common. The mind immediately flies away from the object to other things. This can be seen if we try to keep our mind on the memory of a face; it is immediately replaced by something else. It is very difficult to quell these disturbances because, over many lives, we have built up the habit of following them, while we have not developed the habit of concentration. We may find it very hard to develop new habits of mind and leave old ones behind, but concentration is the basic necessity for all higher meditation and for all kinds of mental activity.
Mindfulness and awareness consciousness are the antidotes to scattered attention and torpor respectively. The drawing here represents an aspiring meditator, who is following the path of meditative stages that ends in the accomplishment of calm abiding and the beginning of the practice of insight meditation. At the bottom of the page we see the practitioner, who holds a rope in one hand and a hook in the other, chasing after an elephant led by a monkey. The elephant represents the meditator's mind; a wild or untrained elephant can be dangerous and wreak enormous destruction, but once trained will obey commands and do hard work. The same holds true for the mind. Any suffering that we have now is due to the mind being like a wild, untrained elephant. The elephant also has very big footprints; these symbolize the mental defilements. If we work hard at improving our mind it will be able to do very great work for us in return. From the suffering of the hells to the happiness of the buddhas, all states are caused by the behaviour of the mind.
At the start of the path the elephant is black, which represents torpor or sinking of the mind. The monkey leading the elephant represents scattering of the mind. A monkey cannot keep quiet for a moment—it is always chattering or fiddling with something and finds everything attractive. In the same way that the monkey is in front leading the elephant, our attention is scattered by the sense objects of taste, touch, sound, smell, and vision. These are symbolized by food, cloth, musical instruments, perfume, and a mirror. Behind the elephant is a person, who represents the meditator trying to train the mind. The rope in the meditator's hand is mindfulness and the hook is awareness. Using these two tools the meditator will try to tame and control his mind. Fire is shown at different points along the path to represent the energy necessary for concentration. Notice that the fire gradually decreases at each of the ten stages of zhi.nay, as less energy is needed to concentrate. It will flare up again at the eleventh stage, when we start practising insight meditation.
In the beginning, just as the elephant following the monkey pays no attention to the person chasing behind, the practitioner has no control over his or her mind. In the second stage, the practitioner, who has almost caught up with the elephant, is able to throw the rope around the elephant's neck. It looks back; this is the third stage, where the mind can be restrained a little by mindfulness. Here a rabbit is on the elephant's back, symbolizing subtle torpor, which previously might have seemed to be a state of concentration, but now can be recognized for the harmful factor that it is. In these early stages we have to use mindfulness more than awareness.
At the fourth stage the elephant mind is more obedient, so less pulling with the rope of mindfulness is necessary. By the fifth stage the elephant is being led by the rope and hook and the monkey is following behind. At this point we are not much disturbed by scattering or distracted attention; mostly we have to use awareness instead of mindfulness. In the drawing, the sixth stage of practice is depicted with the elephant and the monkey both following obediently behind the practitioner, who does not have to look back at them. This means that the practitioner does not have to focus continually on controlling the mind, and the absence of the rabbit shows that the subtle torpor, which appeared at the third stage, has now disappeared.
Upon reaching the seventh stage, the elephant can be left to follow of its own accord and the monkey takes leave; the practitioner has no more need to use the rope and hook—scattered attention and torpor occur only mildly and occasionally. At the eighth stage the elephant has turned completely white and follows behind the practitioner; this shows that the mind is obedient and there is no sinking or scattering, although some energy is still needed to concentrate. At the ninth stage the practitioner can actually sit in meditation while the elephant sleeps peacefully nearby; at this point the mind can concentrate without effort for long periods of time-days, weeks, or even months. The tenth stage, where we see the meditator sitting on top of the elephant, signifies the real attainment of calm abiding. At the last, eleventh, stage, the meditator is sitting on the elephant's back holding a sword. At this point the practitioner begins a new kind of meditation called "higher vision," or insight meditation.
If we practise the calm abiding type of meditation, we might use an image of Buddha as our object of concentration. The first thing we do is look at it very thoroughly. Then we start meditating. In meditation we do not look at the object with our physical eyes but focus with the mind's eye. At first our memory of it will not be at all clear, but even so, we should not try to force it to become clear—this is impossible at the start. The important point is to keep our attention focused on it, clear or otherwise. The clarity will eventually come naturally.
At the beginning, concentration is very difficult; the mind always turns this way and that. When we persist in the practice, however, we shall find that we are able to keep our mind on the object for one or two minutes, then three or four minutes, and so on. Each time the mind leaves the object, mindfulness has to bring it back. Awareness has to be used to see if disturbances are coming or not. If we carry a bowl full of hot water alone a rough road, part of our mind has to watch the water and part has to watch the road. Mindfulness has to keep the concentration steady, and awareness has to watch out for disturbances that may come. As we saw in the drawing, we need progressively less mindfulness after the initial stages, but then our mind, tired from fighting the scattering of attention, produces torpor.
After a while there comes a stage where the meditator feels much happiness and relaxation, which is often mistaken for the true state of calm abiding; in fact, however, it is subtle torpor, which makes the mind weak. If we continue our practice with energy, this subtle torpor will also disappear. When we have removed this disturbance, our mind becomes clearer and more awake, and thus the object of our meditation is seen more clearly. As our perception of the meditation object increases in clearness and freshness, our body will be sustained by our peace of mind, and we shall not have hunger or thirst. Eventually, a meditator can continue like this for months at a time. The feeling experienced in the mind at this stage cannot be described.
If we look at a piece of cloth with our eyes we can see it, bur not in great detail. But a person who has concentrated on it well with the mind's eye can see it very clearly in all details. When we die our mind becomes weaker, but if we practise meditation then our mind, at this time, will actually become fresher and clearer. Normally, dying people experience delusions and fears which lead to a bad rebirth. If, however, we have meditated well, then during the death process our mind will be concentrated on Buddha, Dharma and so forth; this helps very much for the next birth.
The scriptures say that in the ninth stage of the practice of calm abiding, even if a wall crashes down next to the meditator, he will not be disturbed. As the meditator continues to practise, his body and mind experience a special pleasure; this feeling marks the attainment of the final goal of calm abiding. The meditator's body feels light and tireless, symbolized in the drawing by the person flying. His body has become very supple, and his mind can be turned to any meditation, just as a thin copper wire can be turned in any direction without breaking. The meditator feels as though the object and his mind have become one.
Although at the ninth stage of calm abiding we feel very happy and peaceful, this is not the real end of meditation. Firm concentration on the object is still not the complete achievement. Now the meditator can combine concentration with an examination into the real nature of the object of meditation. After continuing the simultaneous practice of both types of meditation, a special pleasure arises from the seeing into the object. "Seeing the object" involves seeing whether an object is suffering, seeing if it is permanent or changeable, and looking for the highest truth to be found about the real nature of the object. In Tibetan, the name for this meditation with insight is lhag.thong; lhag means more, or higher, and thong to understand or realize. 29 Through this kind of meditation the mind obtains more understanding of the object than it can through simple concentration; when this practice has been perfected, the mind can turn to anything. The perfection of lhag.thong gives great spiritual satisfaction, but if one is satisfied merely with this, it is like having an aeroplane built, ready to fly, but left on the ground.
The mind can be turned to deeper and higher things. It has to be used on the one hand to overcome karma and defilements, and on the other to obtain the virtues of a buddha. For this, the object can only be emptiness, or shunyata; other meditations prepare the mind for this final object. If we have a very good torch that can show up anything, we have to use its light to find what is important. The root cause of all our trouble is ignorance. We have to use our knowledge of emptiness to dispel ignorance; we must use our mind, purified by calm abiding and special insight, to cut the root of the tree of ignorance. In the drawing, at this stage, the practitioner is holding a sword, symbolizing the realization of emptiness, to cut the two black lines symbolizing the two obscurations: the defilement-obscuration and the knowledge- obscuration.
The realization of emptiness is essential to remove ignorance. Once we come close to a thorough understanding of emptiness we are on the way to the perfection of wisdom—the complete comprehension of emptiness.