18 December 2005

Pragmatic Buddhism in Six Simple Steps : part I

Cone. Sculpture by Jayarava The six perfections are a very well known Buddhist doctrinal list. They the six practices, or tasks even, that the aspiring Buddha must undertake in order to Awaken to the true nature of things, to become a Buddha. A Buddha is a being who has perfected all of the six tasks. As a guide to practice for ordinary human beings they can seem a bit daunting. The Mahayana makes constant use of hyperbole in its presentation of the Dharma, and this can make it seem, well, impractical. However I think the six steps of the list are much more pragmatic than they may appear at first. I want to present the Six Perfections in a much more down to earth way as something more like Six Pragmatisms, but this sounds a bit cumbersome, hence my slightly tongue-in-cheek title.

The six perfections are dana or generosity; sila or ethics; kshanti or forbearance; virya or energy; samadhi or meditation; and prajña or wisdom. They form, as we shall see, a progressive sequence which leads to the goal of the Buddhist path: Awakening to things as they really are.

So let's begin with dana. But, hang on, why dana? Why does the Buddhist path start with generosity? The basic human condition is that we are pretty self-centred, even selfish. We're like that because we are spiritual ignorant, we don't see things as they really are. In particular we believe that we are separate from other beings. We also tend to believe that "I", what is sometimes called the ego, is a permanent entity that has been "us" unchanged from day one.

The practice of generosity encourages us to start to relate to others in a particular way. We start to become more aware of them as people, who in many ways are just like us. By giving to others we start to wear away at this idea of ourselves as separate beings, and at our self-centredness. It works best if you can really get into the spirit and give everything you have with joy and enthusiasm. But of course it can be a bit hard at times to muster this kind of motivation. We still want to know what's in it for us, and I'll come to that in a minute. But even if you don't give very willingly, or very much, generosity can still begin to have an effect on you. I have found it a very good thing to give something to anyone that I am feeling resentment towards for instance. It changes the quality of my attention, moves it away from the bone of contention and onto our shared humanity.

An immediate consequence of this noticing of others is that we start to become more aware of the impact of our behaviour on them. When you give a gift, there is a clear response from that person, usually positive. Compare this with the reaction, for example, if you shout a angry word at someone. They will mostly do one of two things: They will move towards you meeting your anger with anger, your threat with threat; or they will move away to nurse the hurt you have caused. If you are aware of the other person, as a person, then you will begin to get an idea of the sort of impact that your behaviour and speech have on others. We start to see that our actions have consequences for us and other people. We will in this case begin to naturally moderate out behaviour to the extent that we have identified with others. Buddhism has lists of ethical guidelines, but if we are aware of other people then we will naturally start to be more kind. Lists of precepts are much less important than simply being kind to others.

The other side of this coin is that as we become more aware of other people and the consequences of our actions, then we will also become aware that the actions of others have an impact on us. In the past we might have tried to manipulate people to get our own way, or we might have retaliated against any slight injustice. However once we start to become aware of ethics, it becomes less and less comfortable to act that way. We might initially find that rather than retaliating we simply don't respond even though internally we are fuming. This is progress because even though another person has hurt us, we have not allowed that to motivate us to create more hurt. The hurt in the world is lessened by our inactivity. In time a more real equanimity can develop in the face of difficult people.

These first three qualities: generosity, kindness, and forbearance are the three quintessential Buddhist virtues. It can't be easy though can it? What motivates a Buddhist to go to all this trouble? Not the threat of punishment by God or our peers. Not slavish obedience to an arbitrary set of rules. Mostly we do it because it feels better than the alternative. There are two main types of pay off. Firstly if I am kind, then I raise the odds that I will receive kindness in return; if I am generous then I will receive gifts in return; if I forbear to retaliate then I will be less likely to be attacked. These things don't come to fruition fully and immediately on the spot. They take time to mature, and we have a lot of momentum in the other direction. But they do work. Try it and you will see.

read Pragmatic Buddhism in Six Simple Steps : part II
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