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The Six Paramitas

Venerable Myokyo-ni, Middle Way (Volume 68:4 p. 179) February 1994

Talk from the Summer School Study Week 1993

One way or another, we are all lop-sided and so cannot help but be partial. We are either for this and therefore against that, or we are for that and against this. Since its arrival in this country, Buddhism has also come to be subjected to this bias. 'Study is unimportant, just meditate - that's it! Do it yourself.' Then it swings back to 'just study' again. How both can gear into each other, strengthen each other and correct each other, we can only find out in the course of long and patient practice. Traditional training stories and personal experiences illustrate what one-sidedness can do, and how to let it go.

Following the Buddha's injunction, we start with practising the Paramitas. The first is Giving, caring. It is an attitude that has to be cultivated - giving a present: it may be just a flower, just whatever can be afforded easily, or also giving in the sense of work done for someone or of help given which finally leads to giving myself away. Doctrinally, giving is the first of the six Paramitas along which we train and which support our training. But giving needs careful training for it can also turn into its opposite, of I doing or wanting to do too much! A Chinese story tells of what happens if giving is thus overdone.

A father and his rather simpleton of a son were planting rice in their little paddy field. They worked hard the whole day and had just managed to plant the field by evening. Then at home, tired, they went to bed early. The son, being a good boy with real love and filial piety (as it is technically called in Confucianism), began to think, 'There we have worked so hard and it's all planted out, now, wouldn't it give Pa a real joy if it would grow really fast.' He sneaked out of the house during the night and pulled each plant about two inches further up, so that they all seemed 'grown' overnight. But next day under the singing sun, the uprooted plants all wilted and died!

Not only the doltish son, we all need to keep in mind our general propensity of over-doing things in our first enthusiasm, and in so doing we let other things slide or forget about them! Thus over-zealously we do many silly things, and equally so when we are not diligent enough. So the Middle Way the Buddha taught is something that we continually need to come back to: to restrain a little when we want to run too fast - and to flog a bit when we would rather sit down.

Thus Restraint is advocated, the second of the Paramitas; the Precepts keep us in bounds! And to be able to function collectedly without being carried away by one of the Three Fires of Lust, Hate and Delusion, we do need to cultivate what by nature we are not very good at: Patient Endurance - the third of the Paramitas. Although usually short in supply, it is one of the more important factors on the way of training. Hence this enduring and continuing needs diligent and devoted training to become effective.

This is illustrated by a story told many years ago by Venerable Ajahn Sumedho at a High Leigh Summer School. He had been at a Thai jungle Wat for some time when a new arrival from the States joined them, a young man with all kinds of ideas and great enthusiasm. He assured the residents, 'I have heard that this jungle Wat is the real place! Here you really do training! None of this slow slogging, learning or anything. Here all work along properly!'

He had hardly been there a couple of weeks when he asked Venerable Sumedho how long he had been there. Told of the couple of years or so, the young man exclaimed, 'What? Two years! I have been here for two weeks and I can see already that there is not very much happening here! It seems most old-fashioned. You know, nowadays there are much better and more effective methods. As a matter of fact I have heard of a trraining place in the South. There they really do the thing properly - none of this slow-coach business. I am off there tomorrow. Wasting precious time for two years already! Why don't you come along with me?' Venerable Sumedho declined. A week later a letter came, 'This is the place now. Just as I told you! Things are really going here. Why on earth don't you come too? Just think, life is not for ever.' Venerable Sumedho was just beginning to wonder and doubt when a letter arrived from Burma saying, "That place was not quite the thing, you know. But I heard of a new method practised here, so I have come. This is the real place! You could not find anything better.' At that Venerable Sumedho smiled to himself and thought, 'I know you now. Stick it out. Stick it out', and settled down to continue. True enough, some weeks later the next letter came from India, telling of still a new place. After that he lost touch. We may suspect the young man, now not so young, is still on the circuit and still looking for 'the real thing'!

There is always the next place, as the grass is always greener in someone else's garden. Sticking it out is important for two reasons. In any traditional training place, sooner or later (usually sooner, as those who have been in Shobo-an know) we come up against things which we do not much fancy. So I have to learn to give into and to adjust. If I do not realise that this is what training is about, I say, 'No, this is not what I have come for', and look for somewhere else to go, the next place! And since to begin with, my particular problem does not exist in the next place, I think, 'Ah, now I am really in the right place.' But very soon, at the next place, too, being a traditional place, I come across something which I find quite difficult. So I shy away again as not right for me and I go to the next one. Thus I avoid grinding off just these excrescences that are on every 'I'; all I do is just evade the real issue and nothing can come of that. Patient Endurance is all-important for it helps me to go through with the training: even if I do not find it easy and have to grind my teeth, I stick it out and persevere. Then something quite different can and does happen.

In Shobo-an, unless we have guests, we observe silence at meal times. When a new resident joins us, the clink of a knife or the scrape of a spoon are specially noticeable in the silence which, becoming oppressive, makes the laying down of a cup sound like a bang! For a day nothing is said, but on the second day comes a caution, 'Care! We do not make so much noise.' And then begins the conscious trying. This makes it worse; cutlery slips out of nervous fingers! Finally it snaps, and settles. It takes some time until that quietness can take over and it is fascinating to see how each one has slightly different ways of putting down the knife or the cup. I remember one quite unconsciously beginning to scrape the plate with the spoon (not very loudly) in order to do 'something'. We are not used to quietness and it is of particular importance in a training place. But it is not the 'Keeping Still', what is sought and trained for is inner quietness. We do not know it and so find it frightening to begin with; it tends to bring up all kinds of thoughts etc. Patient endurance is needed to stick it out, one's impatience, resentment, embarrassment, memories and feelings, to be overruled by willingness to learn and eagerness to adapt and become quiet. In a traditional training place novices are judged not by how clever they are, but by the smoothness with which they can hand themselves into circumstances. One can't if there is a cacophony of noise inside.

Another of our difficulties is that we all want to be right, and 'naturally' do not want to make mistakes. We are also convinced that if we are told in detail how to do something then we can do it. But not so! We forget that we learn more by familiarity of doing in the body; 'understanding' in the head is then the consequence of it. 'Understanding' in the head only is empty - of no avail. This does not normally strike us, and yet can you explain how to play the piano or type? It has to be practised. And all practice, in the beginning, is cumbersome, going wrong again and again, but keeping at it with patient endurance will eventually bear fruit. Being impatient we find that difficult to realise and to stick it out.

Trevor Leggett who almost single-handedly introduced Judo to this country, said that in the early days the attraction was to throw others across the room. But when on the contrary for months they only had to learn how to fall, most of them did not stay the course. They did not want to fall, and were also afraid of falling! And this is really it: we are frightened of falling, we are frightened of losing, we are frightened of failing. And because of that we are not capable of really learning. This is the obstruction to our practice. If we realised that and if we could let go - but no, I do not want to make a mistake. Because I will be scolded? No, not really, that is only an excuse. Because I want to be right. I must be right. Something dreadful happens to me if I am not right. And this is one of the deep roots of 'I' that needs slowly to be softened up. Traditional training effects this and always involves the body as well. No mental training or intellectual conjuring tricks can reach the deeper layers of emotional energy, the Klesas or afflicting passions.

This is best understood in sport. A proverb says, 'He is no good rider who never kissed the sand!' As long as there is fear of something, I give that which I am frightened of power over myself. If I am frightened of something I am stiffening up against it, stem myself against it, and so I am by no means free in my behaviour, in my movements, thoughts or responses. It is only when no longer frightened that the grip loosens and suddenly the breath is free!

That is also the secret of swimming. The mammalian body floats of itself. It is my fear of the water, of drowning, my fear of dying which makes me clench- and therefore I go down even in quiet water! Whatever I think is threatening me, whatever I am frightened of - and I am frightened of all that seems to threaten me - that immediately gains power over me!

When as a young girl I was learning to ride a bicycle, I was frightened of falling off. A sizeable stone far ahead on the road - it seemed that not I focused on it, it focused on me and drew me - and it was a hit that unsaddled me every time! As long as I was frightened of falling off and, therefore, trying to avoid it - wumph and off I came! We need to experiment and train until no longer frightened of falling. It does not matter. Important is only to stand up again. Perhaps we should think of our own practice not as a way we are starting on 'here' and moving towards 'Enlightenment' - nor of how far along the way we are! Factually it is not going along a road; it is simply opening the eyes and seeing! Training could perhaps be seen as falling and somehow scrambling onto one's feet again and falling immediately again flat on one's face and scrambling up once more, never mind how often, and always falling again until finally standing comfortably on one's own two feet.

A baby, although it can move arms and legs, has yet to exercise them a good deal before it can crawl. Eventually then it begins to hold on to something and tries to get up. It cannot really, the legs are still too weak, the ,knees are bent; it falls down. Unless there is a horrified mother making it realise that it has done something frightening, it laughs, and tries once more. However often it falls down it will not give up! There is that real drive and it ,cannot help it. This is the True Nature prompting- however often it falls, and sometimes might plump rather hard but, having had a howl, it tries again. Until finally, although wobbly, it can stand. And then come the first few steps... and it falls down again! It is a wretched life for that poor infant, a frightful training! A year goes by- if 'I' had to do likewise 'I' would be in utter desperation at the prospect, up and down, and the downfalls are much more frequent than the successful standings up. But finally it is achieved, and with it with the doing, skill and strength that is the result of Patient Endurance. Whatever we call it, or not, we are born with an inclination that nudges and urges us to 'grow', not just physically but wholly into full humanhood and not just selfish creatures with our own ideas.

So next to latent Endurance, unflagging Energy is necessary for this process of cultivation so that it ripens to full maturity. This energy or zest or vigour to steadily strive on is the fourth of the Paramitas.

With that well in train, there follows now a learning to become quiet inside, a listening to and looking in silence at what there is. Just quietly look around! Listen! Can we? Or do we prefer to surround ourselves with a barrage of noise? How many of us have a radio in their car? Preferably a phone, too! We cannot bear quietness any more, we need to have some noise. Why? Basically underneath all excuses which are fabricated, one wonders what is so frightening that we have to screen ourselves against it! What is it that we are frightened of? Sit quietly! One can never sit quietly while driving a car in any case, but even that is no longer good enough. In fact we have to relearn to be quiet; to be with ourselves, to get acquainted with ourselves and make friends with ourselves. We are not friends with ourselves! We cannot bear our own company for any length of time, we have to have some kind of distraction, don't we? But when sitting quietly, as in meditation, we have to endure our presence in the absence of everything else! So, not listening to instructions , we ('I') concoct ideas of what I should 'do' in meditation- as if meditation was something 'I' can do! Because whatever I think or opine on the 'surface', deep down lurks a fear I do not want to face and so I do not want to meet myself and make friends with myself. So if there is nothing to do, perhaps I should make my mind a BLANK! A zombie on the Buddha's Way - what nonsense! As a final escape from learning to be still I can want to have a theme on which 'I' can meditate - again 'I' the 'doer'. A theme perhaps such as on of these fascinating Zen sayings of whether a dog has Buddha Nature. My golly! How I could meditate on that! But I would soon get bored of that, too.

So 'sitting in meditation' is to get used to sitting in peace and quiet. This is the fifth of the Paramitas. Find that peace, that quiet inside, and rest in it. Then you will see that all the Teachings and stories point at this peace of heart, to peace in the heart. Basically, this is what we all look for, are geared' or inclined towards - it is what the heart itself, the human heart, is wanting to 'lose itself' in and merge with. The human heart longs to come into this peaceful acquaintance and rest in itself. And from there then to go out into the normal ordinary jobs and the normal ordinary life, into whatever our job and station in our life is. Without this 'at-one-ness' we feel ourselves forsaken, being driven, coerced and under stress as so many do nowadays! But why and how does that stress arise? Is it not because we are running away from ourselves? Basically I say 'No' to any situation I cannot face and turn away from, or, if face it I must, I do so reluctantly. So I must learn to realise that it is not the 'outside' situation which I cannot face but my 'own' reactions inside, my own aversions and my own fears - hence myself! Although we try running away from ourselves, we cannot really do so. And as the dread seems to be coming ever closer, we have to run faster still and ever faster., with still a bit more noise to drown it out, and still more to do, reluctantly, relentlessly. In this headlong rush ever faster, we have forgotten to sit down and rest; instead, we develop stress symptoms. We are a strange lot indeed!

So we go for refuge to the Buddha, his Teaching and his Community. Listening to his teachings, they seem so direct and simple, so ordinary. Whether we call it Mindfulness or Awareness or Daily Life Practice, it simply means to be open and willing to live this moment, Here/Now - and again Here/Now, wholly giving myself into Here/Now and not at the same time roaming in thought somewhere else. Nothing sounds more simple than that, but how difficult for us to endure! Yet with patient practice comes the acquaintance with oneself and with that the peace of being 'At-One' with everything. That 'At-one-ment' and being 'linked back' is what 'religion' literally means from which state also arises gratitude and joy quite by themselves - if the heart is full of these, it bows of itself like a tree stoops under its load of ripe fruit!

'How do I do it?' 'You just give yourself into it. It is perfectly natural!' 'How do I give myself'?' So the first explanation comes, 'Well, you just hand yourself into it! Imagine you lower yourself into a nice, hot bath.' 'Ah, like having a bath! How many times a day should I have a bath then?' 'No, it is not like that; you do not need to actually have a bath.' 'But you just said this is how I do it!' Then comes the next explanation - and you see, in order to explain the most simple thing, more and more explanations have to come about. And in the course of time they have become more and more elaborate; so now we have the Twelve Divisions of the Teachings which fill about six libraries. It is not even possible to read all of them! Is it necessary to know them all in order to understand Buddhism? No! For they are only more and more ornate embellishments of the basic teachings.

So perhaps we can say there are Basic Teachings which are other than 'I' think, and Precepts to restrain me but which, more often than not, I do not want to keep! But these Precepts are not 'commandments' issued by some 'power' outside. I undertake them voluntarily, as conducive, and best look at them as supports that keep me in check when I want to graze out into excess, this or that way. Then, keeping within those supports, an inner strength begins of itself to develop which is essential for continuation. Then, instead of 'How do I do it?' and interpreting on the word-level only and thus going wrong, just do it and be sure that if it goes wrong, the teacher will say, 'No. Look here, this is perhaps a better way of doing it.' This is one reason why the teacher is essential! I try it now 'this way', but before long I have found still another way out!

Herrigel tells in his 'Zen in the Art of Archery' how after a long time of learning the right stance and drawing the bow he had to practice notching the arrow. By then he was raring to go, to let fly. But he had to go on practising, and finally to let go the arrow but not at the target - his attention had to be on the letting go of the arrow! This he just did not bring off: utterly frustrated he could not bear it any longer and instead devised a nice, elegant way he could notch the arrow, let fly seemingly correctly, and still go towards the target. When his teacher noticed it, he threw him out, 'You have a much too wilful will!' It took much intervention until allowed to come back.

I must! I must be right! I must this - I must that! Although nothing much ever comes out of it, because the 'must' always cuts short and so misses the slower ripening towards real, corporeal 'at-one-ment' that willingness, openness and patient endurance fostered until it has been learnt in the body and so truly remains; what merely has been 'learned' in the head is easily forgotten. But if we once learned to ride a bicycle, even after thirty years, perhaps wobbly at first but we ride away quite comfortably. What has been learned in the body, can never be forgotten! If we once learned to swim, we 'know' it for good! Hence the stress on training with the body!

And as to the Buddha's Way? A very old nun was known to have seen the Buddha. For some time after the Buddha's passing, there was great interest in what the Buddha had actually looked like. A high-ranking monk, too, devoutly wanted to know and sought a meeting with that ancient nun. She told him that her parents had been devoted followers of the Buddha and on his coming to preach nearby, they naturally went to listen to him. But she was a young girl, rather flighty and totally disinterested in anything to do with the Buddha or with the Buddha-Dharma. Nevertheless her parents took her along, she dressed up in all her finery. So, not listening but pleased with her appearance, kept fiddling with her ornaments and particularly with her hairpin, a beautiful heirloom. Suddenly that hairpin loosened itself and slipped into the long grass and out of sight. Surreptitiously she started scrabbling for it, not daring to make too much of a commotion because of everybody being quiet and listening to the Buddha. She became desperate - what could she do? Suddenly in front of her, a brilliant ray shone on to the grass, and in its light the hairpin sparkled up! She looked up to see where that light came from and saw awe-stricken, that it came from the Buddha who had noticed the girl's plight and from his Great Compassion, in the midst of his talk, had shone that ray on to the hairpin so that she could retrieve it. She was deeply moved by it and reflected, 'Here I am, not even listening, and now this! The Buddha, expounding the Dharma yet notices the girl in her fright! How great is his compassion! She ordained as a nun, became known and was approached for advice by people far and near. She always told her story and by it helped many out of various difficulties, always finishing with, 'It is that Great Compassion, out of that Great Compassion, the Great Compassionate One.'

Perhaps if fortunate enough to come into the orbit of the Buddha-Dharma, we also are touched by it. Those teaching stories help. And when we are in trouble one way or another, we may find that the Compassionate One, the Buddha, suddenly shines a ray to help us out too. There is no need therefore for all our usual commotion, our usual fears including our fear of dying - that also goes in its normal way, out of the ocean and back into the ocean... and is nothing but ocean. Hence the great Lion Roar of the Buddha, the Awakened One, 'Do not be afraid.' 'Do not be afraid' is exactly what Awakening means. Not being afraid of anything, not afraid of falling, not afraid of this or that, not afraid of losing, not afraid dying that is the 'Wisdom that Goes Beyond', beyond I, the awakened inherent wisdom which is the sixth of the Paramitas and together with which inevitably arises true compassion. When there is nothing more to be afraid of, there is clear seeing and full understanding of all that is, and only good will to all beings and reaching out a helping hand.

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