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The Six Paramitas

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

This past week was the first year anniversary of the departure of Venerable Jing Kong, and in honor of this, I wanted to share another one of his teachings that benefitted me a lot. Last year, I wrote about The Enlightened Mind, and this year's article is about The Six Paramitas. These are six virtues practiced by those seeking enlightenment, and they are giving, precepts, endurance, diligence, concentration, and wisdom.

Icon Sources: Flaticon


One thing that Venerable Jing Kong emphasized is that Buddhism is not superstitious praying for good luck, Buddhism is highly applicable to daily life, and The Six Paramitas are a great example. No matter what job or task we are doing, we can apply The Six Paramitas to do it superbly AND improve ourselves in the process.

Oftentimes, people try to improve their performance by improving the method or tools. For example, a teacher might try a different teaching method or a new teaching tool. A chef might try a new recipe or a new cooking utensil. While these can be helpful, Buddhism teaches us to get to the root of the matter, which is the mind. Think about it, if someone's mind is muddled and dull, then even if you give them a great method and tool to do the task, can they do a good job?

Hence, The Six Paramitas focus on cultivating our mind. Specifically, each Paramita counteracts a vice:

  1. Giving counteracts selfishness

  2. Precepts counteract bad behavior

  3. Endurance counteracts anger

  4. Diligence counteracts laziness

  5. Concentration counteracts distraction

  6. Wisdom counteracts ignorance

The Six Paramitas make our mind sharper and stronger, which then allows us to do any and all tasks better. This article will explain each paramita, then give real life examples.


Here is a table of contents to help you navigate this article.


 

1: Giving

When most people hear giving, they think about giving away money and objects, but giving is much broader and deeper than that. Giving is all about broadening our hearts and weakening our attachment to self. Buddhism teaches four categories of giving:

  1. Giving material wealth, objects, and property

  2. Giving energy and time

  3. Giving non-fear (comfort and happiness)

  4. Giving knowledge and wisdom

Icon Sources: Flaticon


Why should we practice giving? Because giving makes us happy! This has been proven by many scientific studies, but we can easily think about the people we know. Is it the stingy person or the generous person who is usually happy, relaxed, and carefree? Do we ourselves feel happier and relaxed when we are generous or when we are selfish?

This first paramita is so important because so many people are working so hard every day, but their hard work is not reaping them more happiness. Isn't that such a shame? If we could swap our motivation for working hard from selfish desire to giving, then we would feel happier, have more motivation, and be more productive!

As mentioned before, giving is about broadening our hearts and weakening our attachment to self. The Buddha taught that all suffering comes from our attachment to self. The stronger our attachment to self, the stronger our negative emotions, such as greed, anger, sadness, and fear. When our ego is extremely strong, all we can think about is ourselves and what we want. When we don't have what we want, we feel suffering in the form from craving, sadness, or anger. Even if we obtain what we want, we start fearing that we might lose it, or we'll compare ourselves to others and start craving for more.

Icon Sources: Flaticon


On the other hand, if we focus on giving, on helping others, and on serving others, then our sense of self naturally weakens. "Naturally" is the key word. If I tell you "Don't think of a pink elephant", what happens? You think of a pink elephant. Similarly, if we tell ourselves "Don't think of myself", it's pretty hard to do. But by focusing on giving to others, we naturally forget about ourselves, which reduces our suffering and naturally brings us joy. Hence, Venerable Jing Kong taught everyone to follow this motto:

"Always think to help others with every thought."

Indeed, I have found that when I focus on helping the others, I can more easily let go of negative emotions, understand others, and solve conflicts more harmoniously. When I am tired or facing difficulty, if I can think of my parents and teachers and all the support they've given me, it motivates me to push through.

One more important point to mention about giving is karma. According to karma, what goes around comes around.


Icon Sources: Flaticon


Think about it, if someone helped you, you would want to return the favor in the future, right? When we give others happiness, we feel happy too, right? When we teach things to others, we get smarter too, no?


So a person who is always happily helping others will naturally create good karma, and in the future, people will naturally want to return the favor. Even strangers that the person never met would want to help that person because of that person's good name. Therefore, giving is not only great for our mental wellbeing now, it is also great for our future.

Now that we know why giving is so important, let's go into more detail about the four categories of giving.

1.1: Giving material wealth, objects, and property

We might say that it's easier for the rich and wealthy to do this compared to the poor, but the important thing is not how much wealth you give, it's about the sincerity of your intention.



Let's assume there are two people. Person A has $1000 and Person B has $100. A charity asks them to donate some money.

Person A thinks, "I work so hard for my money, and you want me to just give you my hard-earned money? Ugh, but you're a charity, so I feel bad for rejecting you. Fine, I'll give $100."

Person B thinks, "Oh this charity is doing really important work! Well, I only have $20, but I'm happy to give $5!"

Who do you think cultivated the paramita of giving better? Who do you think had a happier look on their face when they gave the money? Who do you think the charity person would feel more touched by?

Remember that Buddhism is about cultivating the mind; therefore, Person B actually cultivated the paramita of giving better! However, Person A is still pretty good because he was willing to give when many people are not. Most of us were taught to be selfish growing up, so when we first practice giving, it can feel a little forced and unnatural. But as we practice more, it'll become more natural, and we will feel happier, more relaxed, and more carefree. With that kind of mental state, we will have happier relationships and be more effective at work.


1.2 Giving energy and time

We might not all be rich, but we all have energy and time. At home, we can give energy and time by doing the chores, cooking, and cleaning. At work, we can help our coworkers if we have extra time. With our friends or other people, we can listen to them attentively. These are things we probably have to do anyway, but if we do them reluctantly, we are increasing our attachment to self and suffering. If instead, we do them with the intention of giving, then we reduce our attachment to self while also gaining joy from helping others. Win-win!

Icon Sources: Flaticon


Similar to giving material wealth, the important thing is not about how much time and energy we give, but the sincerity with which we do it. If I give someone one hour of my time, but the whole time I feel reluctant, then that would not be as good as giving half an hour of sincere time. However, generally speaking, when we are more sincere, we would give more of our capability. For example, if I have two hours of capability, and I have 100% sincerity, then I would give the full two hours.


1.3 Giving non-fear

Giving non-fear means easing others fears and giving them comfort, peace, and happiness. Examples include

  • Donating money to help people with hospital or medicine fees (giving of wealth and non-fear)

  • Donating towards disaster relief

  • Listening to others with empathy (giving of energy and non-fear)

  • Do acts of kindness to make others feel warm and happy

  • Giving a smile to someone who is having a tough day

  • Giving others encouragement rather than criticism

  • Yielding in a conflict or disagreement rather than getting angry

Icon Sources: Flaticon


Aside from being the good thing to do, giving non-fear is also the wise thing to do from the perspective of karma. Think about it: If a person always makes other people feel afraid or bad about themselves, then lots of people will resent him, and he will worry about his enemies hurting him in the future. But if a person always helps other people feel good and encourages them, then he makes lots of friends, and he will feel happy, peaceful, and at ease.

1.4 Giving knowledge and wisdom

This one is fairly self-explanatory. It's not only teachers that give knowledge and wisdom, any of us can. To give some examples:

  • Sharing useful things you've learned with family and friends

  • Teaching a grandparent how to use a new piece of technology

  • Teaching a child how to do their homework

  • Tutoring a classmate

  • Teaching a coworker how to do a task better

  • Giving a useful book to someone

  • Writing to promote wisdom


According to karma, those who give knowledge and wisdom will in turn become more knowledgeable and wiser. We've probably all been students in the past, and when we had to explain a concept to a classmate, or explain it on a test, we are forced to articulate it clearly, which then helps us to understand it better. Even now, as a teacher, I teach the same class over and over again, and I find that after teaching the same topic so many times, I gain a much deeper understanding of it myself.


2: Precepts

Precepts means abiding by rules. Buddhism has rules for its students, such as no killing, no stealing, no adultery, no lying, no slandering, no foul speech, no enticing speech, no greed, no anger, and no ignorance. These rules all help us to purify the mind from negative emotions and cultivate good karma. When I heard about these precepts, I thought, "Wow, a true Buddhist should be a really good and moral person then!"

But precepts apply to any situation where there are rules involved. Here are some common examples:

  • Following best practices in your industry or field of work

  • Following a recipe when cooking a dish

  • Using proper grammar when writing

  • Following the country's laws

  • Following the school rules

  • Following the company policies

Why should we follow rules? Because it is an important way to practice giving, specifically giving non-fear. In other words, giving is foundational for precepts.


Think about it: If you are a leader, why do you establish rules? Obviously for the greater good of your country, company, or group of people. If you know there is a person who doesn't like to follow rules, how would you feel? You'd probably be afraid of that person causing trouble and harming others! And if we are the person who likes to break rules, how do we feel? Probably annoyed at the rules, which means suffering from an over-focus on self, and fear of being caught if we break the rules. Hence, following precepts is good for ourselves and others.

Just to be clear, precepts are not about blindly following rules or forcing yourself to follow rules that seem unreasonable. It's important to first understand why the rules are in place, then we would willingly follow the rules because we know the benefits.



There can be rare occasions where it is appropriate to break the rules, but we should be doing so with the intention of giving, not of selfishness. For example, if someone in my car got a heart attack, then I would break the traffic laws and speed to the hospital to save a life. However, such situations are rare, and we should be clear about our intentions being unselfish if we are to break a rule.


3: Endurance

The third paramita can be translated as endurance, perseverance, or patience. I picked "endurance" because I think endurance not only encompasses perseverance and patience, but it also encompasses enduring negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and impatience.

Precepts are helpful for endurance. If we have clear rules to follow, it is easier for us to persevere. For example, if we commit to not getting angry at others as a precept, then we are much more able to endure anger. If we attend a class where attendance is mandatory, then it is much easier for us to not skip class. If I commit to writing a blog post every week, then it is much easier for me to persist and not be lazy.

The Buddha said,

"The success of everything depends on endurance."

Nothing worthwhile in life is attained instantaneously. It takes time and persistent effort to overcome all the obstacles and hardships on the way to our goals. To succeed in school, we need to endure difficult classes and stressful exam periods. To succeed in getting a job, we need to endure the long process of job searching, interviewing, and rejections, until we finally land a good job. To succeed in any relationship, we need to endure conflicts and negative emotions by being patient, tolerant, and yielding towards others.

Icon Sources: Flaticon


The most important thing is to be able to endure negative emotions. If we let negative emotions get the better of us, then we will fail right there and then. For example, a relationship is broken when we cannot endure anger. A project or a piece of work is ruined when we cannot endure impatience. A job search fails when we cannot endure disappointment.

How can we endure negative emotions? Again, the foundation is in the first paramita of giving. Obviously, having a weaker attachment to self will reduce our negative emotions, making it easier to endure. But giving is also about broadening our hearts. When we broaden our hearts, we do things for the sake of others. Think of any great hero. Surely, they had to endure tremendous hardship. Were they able to endure because of their own self-interest? Or was it because they had their family, country, even the world in their heart?


Icon Sources: Flaticon


As a student, even if school is hard, when I think of how hard my parents work to pay for my schooling and all the love they gave me, I will feel motivated to push through. In my relationships, even though we are having an argument, when I think about the past kindness and love that this person has given me, I am willing to let go of my anger and try to create a better future together. Although my work is difficult, when I think about how many people my work helps, I am willing to persevere for them.

The above is a brief introduction to the topic of endurance, and you can read more here: Six Ways To Practice Endurance.


4: Diligence

Diligence is about working hard. As mentioned before, diligence counteracts laziness. But this doesn't mean burning the midnight oil every day. True diligence is running a marathon, not a sprint. That means endurance is required for true diligence. It's better to push ourselves at 80% effort every day for many years than to push ourselves at 100% for a few weeks, run out of fuel, and then become lazy again.


In Buddhism, diligence refers to correcting bad habits and improving one's virtues. In other words, if someone spends hours reading Buddhists texts, but they have not improved their moral character and relationships with others, then they only have the appearance of working hard, but they are not actually cultivating diligence.

Buddhism teaches four types of diligence:

  1. For the virtues and good qualities I do not yet have, I should work hard to build them.

  2. For the virtues and good qualities I already have, I should try to hone them further.

  3. For the vices and bad qualities I already have, I should work hard to rid them.

  4. For the vices and bad qualities I do not have, I should be vigilant to prevent them.

Icon Sources: Flaticon


Similar to helping others, seeing our own self-improvement is a natural source of joy. As Socrates said,

"Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day."

But it's also fine for the farmer to delight in improving his farm, or for us to delight in improving our work. In fact, diligence encompasses honing our craft. For example:

  • A teacher hones her teaching skills by learning and practicing new teaching methods

  • A chef hones his cooking skills by experimenting with new recipes

  • A doctor improves her medical skills by staying up-to-date on the latest research

  • A coder improves his coding skills by attending a coding workshop

  • An athlete attends practice every day to keep improving


In case you are wondering, yes, diligence is also a way to practice giving. We should be diligent to give more to others. It is good to be diligent because we love your craft, but it is even better if we can add giving into our intentions. After all, the reason we can do our work right now is because of our parents who raised us, our teachers who taught us, and the countless people who provide for our daily needs. How can we repay all their kindness? By improving my virtues and doing my job in society to the best of my ability.


5: Concentration

The fifth paramita can be translated as concentration, fixedness, or meditative concentration.

5.1 Concentration in daily life

In the context of daily life, we can think of it as being concentrated on whatever we do. When we are listening to someone speak, we are focused on them, not on the past, not on the future, not on the people in the background. When we are doing our work, we are focused on doing our work, not on our lunch later, not on the TV show we watched last night, not on the distracting background noise. When we are concentrated, we can do a good job.



We can also think of concentration as cultivating a calm, serene, and pure mind. This kind of mental state would be able to excel at any task and handle any problem. The opposite would be an agitated and messy mind, which results from emotions such as excitement, anger, worry, fear, etc. This kind of agitated mental state would ruin tasks and make problems worse. Doing calming and relaxing activities every day can help us to cultivate serenity, such as meditation, deep breathing, listening to classical music, going for a calming walk, or taking a relaxing shower.



Hence, there's a Zen saying that goes,

"You should meditate for 20 minutes a day. Unless you're too busy, then you should meditate for an hour."

In other words, if we are so busy that we can't even find 20 minutes to calm down and relax, then we need that calm down and relax even more. Doing so is highly worth it because it will not only improve our sense of peace and wellbeing, but also improve the effectiveness of our work after our mind has calmed down.

5.2 Concentration in Buddhism

We can also interpret the fifth Paramita to mean "fixedness", in the sense that our mind is very stable and fixed on proper thoughts, such as the Six Paramitas. In other words, nothing can tempt my mind to leave the Six Paramitas. If I see others being selfish or breaking a rule or being lazy, I won't be tempted to do so. If someone tries to make me angry, I am fixed in my state of compassion and calm. From these examples, we can see that the previous Paramitas are important stepping stones to concentration.


Another explanation of the fifth paramita is "meditative concentration", which is a much deeper and stronger concentration. It refers to the absence of attachment (e.g., I want this, I don't want that), discriminatory thoughts (e.g. this is good, that is bad), and wandering thoughts (e.g., What's for dinner tonight? What time is it?).


Icon Sources: Flaticon


Attachment, discriminatory thoughts, and wandering thoughts lead to what Buddhism calls "The Five Poisons", which are greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt. Just from their names, we can see that the Five Poisons are very harmful to our mind. If we can practice the Six Paramitas, then we naturally will reduce and even eliminate mental afflictions and mental poisons.

A similar idea to "meditative concentration" is flow state, which is when we are deeply focused and engaged in a task, such that we forget time, and our creativity is extremely high. For example, there are rare occasions when I get really into my writing, such that three hours passed by before I knew it. The whole time, I was totally focused and immersed in my writing, and I didn't feel any thirst, hunger, or need to go to the bathroom. But flow state is also different from meditative concentration because after flow state, people might feel a little tired, whereas meditative concentration is a state of calm and peace, and it wouldn't drain our energy.


6: Wisdom

Wisdom can have different explanations as well.

6.1 Wisdom in daily life

In the context of daily life, wisdom encompasses rationality, effective thinking, and good decision making. It also includes the clarity of mind to differentiate good from bad, right from wrong, and benefit from harm. If the Six Paramitas were like a body, then wisdom would be the eyes. Without wisdom, the body would move around aimlessly, recklessly, and in vain, perhaps even hurting itself. Wisdom is also like light. Without it, we'd be lost wandering in the dark.



Consider these examples:

  • If we encounter a beggar on the street asking for money, and they smell of drugs, should we give them money?

  • If the class rule says no cellphones in class, but a student is waiting for an emergency call from a relative, should we enforce that rule on this student?

  • If everyone is criticizing me for quitting my job and chasing my dreams, should I keep enduring their criticism in the name of chasing my dreams?

  • If I am working so hard at work that I barely spend time with my family, and they start to feel cold towards me, should I keep being diligent?

  • If I am so focused on my work at hand that I forgot about my other responsibilities, is that good concentration?

I've written about some standards for wisdom here. One of the most important ones is this one:

"Do not just consider the present action, but also consider its side effects. Do not just consider immediate effects, but also consider the long-term effects. Do not just consider the effects on one person, but also consider the effects on the greater whole."

Icon Sources: Flaticon


Let's look at a couple of the examples mentioned above. If we give money to the beggar, even though our intention is to help him, he might use it to buy drugs, which would result in harming him. That's not wise. If our goal is to give him food, we could simply buy a meal for him.

Not allowing cellphones in class is to help students focus in class, but this student is waiting for an emergency call from a relative; this is a special case that calls for compassion and understanding from the teacher. If the teacher refuses it, not only is she being heartless, she also causes the student to be even more unable to concentrate due to worrying about his relative, which defeats the whole purpose of enforcing the rule. For the remaining examples, you can try applying wisdom yourself to find an answer.

In the context of work, wisdom is those highly creative ideas and intellectual breakthroughs that come from a highly focused or calm mind. For example, some people get great ideas while showering or meditating. Why? Because their mind was really calm and relaxed. People also get really creative ideas and make intellectual breakthroughs in flow state because they are calm and concentrated, with very little wandering or distracting thoughts. Therefore, if we want to have more creative breakthroughs, it's very helpful to cultivate calmness, serenity, and concentration via calming and relaxing activities.

6.2 Wisdom in Buddhism

Wisdom also has a deeper meaning in Buddhism. The Buddha taught that everyone has the same innate wisdom as the Buddhas, and this innate wisdom arises from a calm, pure, and concentrated mind. "Pure" refers to the absence of the Five Poisons (greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt), and "concentrated" refers to the absence of attachments, discriminatory thoughts, and wandering thoughts. The stronger our purity and concentration, the more innate wisdom that flows out of our mind.

The Buddha also taught us to first cultivate precepts, which purifies our mind from negative emotions and the five poisons. When we persist in precepts for a long enough time, we eventually become "concentrated" or "fixated" on them, such that nothing can pull our minds away from the precepts, resulting in meditative concentration. When we can maintain the state of a pure and concentrated mind for a long time, our innate wisdom will naturally flow out.


Everything that the Buddha taught came out of his innate wisdom. It wasn't stuff he made up with wandering thoughts, discriminatory analysis, or personal attachments. Although we are not at the level of the Buddha yet, we are fortunate to have his teachings. Thus, following his teachings is like taking his wisdom and using it as our own.

To give an analogy, let's say I'm a newbie chef. I don't know how to cook the best pumpkin soup in the world, but I can read the recipe written by the world's best chef and cook the same soup she did just by following her recipe. Of course, I need to work on my craft to eventually be able to create world-class recipes on my own, but in the meantime, I can follow recipes from top chefs.


Similarly, I need to work on precepts, then concentration, then wisdom, but in the meantime, I can learn from the wise teachings left behind by the Buddha and other sages of the past (e.g., Confucius, Lao Zi, Socrates, Aristotle, Seneca, etc.). If I can live my life according to their teachings, then I would be living my life the same way the Buddha would, and I would eventually recover my innate wisdom. By then, I would think and act the same way past sages would without conscious effort.


Conclusion

Venerable Jing Kong taught me that Buddhism is not superstition, it is in fact very useful for daily life. The Six Paramitas are a great example, as they can be used towards any job or task we do to cultivate our minds, raise our virtues, increase our productivity, and improve our sense of peace, wellbeing, and happiness. Given all the benefits, how can you apply the Six Paramitas to your life?


This article explained the theory behind the Six Paramitas. The next article will showcase real life stories and examples.


 

Weekly Wisdom #248



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