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Six guiding stars to live by – introducing the Six Paramitas

six paramitas, generosity

“The ultimate goal of spiritual practice is to transcend this world.”

True or false?

For many spiritual disciplines, both Eastern and Western, the answer is YES – the goal of spiritual practice has been personal salvation; to leave this world behind and reach a different realm of being. In the West, the idea of heaven became common, while early schools of Buddhism advocated a path of personal liberation by attaining nirvana.

Around 2000 years ago, Mahayana Buddhism appeared and distinguished itself from the earlier schools by emphasizing the ultimate altruistic ideal, called the Bodhisattva ideal. One’s own liberation stopped being the supreme goal. Staying in this world to help alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings became the highest aspiration. The Six Paramitas were formulated at that time.

What does Paramita mean?

Literally meaning “having reached the other shore”, or “perfection”, the Six Paramitas are both practices to be cultivated and the realization of such practices. They are “transcendent actions” that helps us to transcend our usual, egotistical, self-referential way of operating in this world. The “I, me and mine” ego as a means of identification and resulting behaviour, causes so much friction, pettiness and strife in this world. It’s each ego for its own.

At essence, the Paramitas are based on the recognition there is no self to be selfish for. From that understanding, and through practicing the Paramitas, we cultivate a selfless way of being. The welfare of others becomes more important than our own. In this and the following five of articles, we’ll explore each Paramita and how to live them all as a part of your daily mindfulness practice.

The Six Paramitas, in English and Sanskrit, are:

1. Generosity – dana
2. Morality – sila
3. Patience –ksanti
4. Diligence – virya
5. Meditation – dhyana
6. Wisdom – prajna

The gift of fearlessness

1st Paramita, Dana – Generosity

“The practice of giving is universally recognized as one of the most basic human virtues, a quality that testifies to the depth of one’s humanity and one’s capacity for self-transcendence.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi

Do we need to spend a lot of money to be generous? Of course not!

Besides material gifts such as food, clothing or monetary assistance, there are many other ways to practice generosity to others. We can give material support such as food, clothing, monetary assistance, as well as our knowledge, loving care, and kind words. Our full attention, or deep listening as Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, is priceless and luxurious in our age of chronic rushing and distraction! In the digital age, being fully present for others is a gift.

We can also give our physical strength and energy and also literally offer parts of physical body (offering blood, skin to burn victims or donating organs).

Traditionally, there are four kinds of generosity outlined in Buddhist teaching:

  1. Giving material things to those who are in need
  2. Giving protection to those in difficulty
  3. Giving love
  4. Giving wisdom

Buddhist teaching says we can also give the gift of fearlessness.

We all fear the prospect of losing our job, or someone we love, or getting sick… the list is long. However, in this time of huge global shifts, the feeding of fear can also be a vicious tool in the old game of “divide and conquer”. Fear is being used to manipulate, disempower and generate divisiveness.

The cultivation of mindfulness and awareness help us to see through the fear, and to instead act from a place of courage, wisdom and compassion. Our yoga practice cultivates nonjudgmental, grounding presence. We have our two feet firmly on the earth. En masse, and with action, mindful yogis can be an antidote to the fear.

How to practice generosity as yoga practitioners?

Let’s take a look through the meditative yoga lens to find out how to practice the first of Six Paramitas – generosity – as yoga teachers and practitioners.

Firstly, and most importantly, yoga and meditation are contemplative traditions that, by definition, seek to investigate the mind. When one becomes deeply acquainted with mind, one is more easily able to let go of neurosis, attachment, and greed, which is itself a generosity practice. This cannot be overstated.

Not holding onto thoughts and experiences, even when they appear to be important, is generosity practice. And since there’s no giving without receiving, by letting go of what’s so dear to us – our thoughts, opinions, emotions, fixations – we receive something in return. Something very precious – the gift of insight.

In terms of our daily lives, we can practice generosity by:

  • As teachers, by ensuring we offer an inclusive, nurturing space and experience.
  • Offering a sliding scale for class prices to support those in need.
  • Including time for meditation and contemplative enquiry – which cultivate wisdom – in every class. Remember, yoga is more than exercise.
  • As yoga practitioners, make time to deeply listen to people around you. Forget your own views for just that conversation, and truly hear them.
  • Ring one friend or family member each week, and let them know how much they mean to you. They will appreciate it.
  • Before throwing clothes, furniture and so forth away, or selling it, consider giving it to charity.
  • There are countless ways to volunteer to help others in need. For example, participate in Amnesty International’s letter writing campaigns – they really save lives and give hope and protection to those in dark places.
  • Be creative! Listen to your heart, and give with love!

We rise or fall together

Off the meditation cushion or yoga mat, the presence and clarity of mind we are cultivating enables us to respond to our surroundings with more ease and creativity. We give and receive what’s needed, when needed, without the doubt, scatteredness and egotistical self concerns that would ordinarily obstruct our vision.

When we witness a conflict, or meet someone in difficulty, the first point is that we become mindful and aware of the situation. Self-obsessed egos won’t even notice, and if they do, there’s no time. Mindfulness and awareness cause greater sensitivity to what’s happening. From there, practicing generosity flows naturally.

As our hearts open, and we give more to others, we experience directly our interconnectedness. As the saying goes, we rise or fall together. The Bodhisattva ideal says, let’s rise together. Besides, it will be more fun.

Do you have any insights to share?