The Paramitas: Overview and Generosity
I’d like to spend some time exploring the paramitas or “gone beyonds.” I just spent a little time in a class I was teaching discussing how practice of the paramitas can result in a positive seeding of the Buddhist unconscious (the storehouse consciousness), which in turn can produce healthy plants. When these plants bear fruit in our daily lives, this can be quite transformative.
The primary paramitas are generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. As Zen practitioners, we should not take each at its face value, however. As “gone beyond,” their value lies primarily in their ability to cut through, deconstruct, and demolish all our conceptual frameworks, ideas, belief systems and reference points- to pull the rug out from under our conventional understanding of each of them. The practice of each is meant to take us beyond dualistic thinking in which generosity is the opposite of stinginess, morality the opposite of immorality, etc. Getting caught on one side or another is a thought distortion that clouds our ability to authentically practice the paramitas and live placidly in a chaotic world.
Authentic practice of the paramitas entails removing our straight jacket of dichotomous thinking. Here’s an example: In our current political climate there’s a lot of focus on racial identity. But the bottom line is that there are no biological races. The black-white dichotomy was created by slaveholders who wanted to justify their ownership of, “inferior blacks.” My great, great grandfather Timothy managed to get to New York from Ireland during the potato famine of the mid-1800s. But since he was Irish, he was forced to sleep outside. Local Irish told him that there was a part of the continent he might want to move to, California, where he would no longer be treated as Black Irish, but could sleep inside, and not be discriminated against; which he did and it worked! So much for the black-white dichotomy!
Let me move on to each of the paramitas, finishing this piece by commenting on the first one, dana (generosity). We usually think of generosity as being focused on the well being of others, but non-dual generosity needs to include generosity toward ourselves. So many Zen students I have worked with over the years suppress or deny their own needs in their focus on being “generous.” When they do this, they dry up inside and its hard for them to be genuinely generous to others. Often these people are locked into the virtue of sacrificing their own well being to help others and this lock closes them down to a generosity which is beyond concept. In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha says to Subhuti, “If bodhisattvas act generously without concepts of generosity, their merit will be incalculable.”
Can we tap into a generosity beyond concept, a generosity that’s not based on trying to accomplish something or just be “good?” To do this we need to get to know our stinginess. If we are stingy in sharing our material goods, it is possible to be generous to this feeling of needing to protect ourselves and our resources- to practice seeing it and touching the fear that is at its root.
When we are stingy with money or goods, there’s always an underlying emotional constriction. Most likely our stinginess comes from one or both of our parents fears that were passed on to us. In my own case, I learned in my family of origin that deep and enduring happiness was directly related to material well-being. Even though I saw the inadequacy of that belief many years ago, it’s still in my unconscious and pops out on occasion. And I have practiced with it enough that I have been able to compassionately touch the underlying fear, and in most circumstances it loses its power when I do this. You might try practicing with your own stinginess in the same way. You may be surprised to discover how doing this enhances your own feeling of generosity toward yourself, your friends, and all beings.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher