At the beginning of the year when we naturally have a feeling of fresh intention is a good time to undertake an exploration and practice of the Ten Paramitas. These are qualities or states of being, known as perfections of the heart.
I’m going to list the Ten Paramitas. Please pause at each one before going on and see how it sits with you, whether it is a quality or state that resonates, that feels at home within you, or if it feels like a challenge or alien, or atrophied in some way. This is not to judge ourselves or feel lacking in anything, but just to notice what is the energetic quality when we come upon these words. You might also notice where in the body you feel any shift, or any loosening or tightening. This is all just noticing. Relax and begin:
Renunciation (or Letting Go)
Energy (or Strength)
Determination (or Resolve)
Notice if any were stickier for you. (Maybe the word itself was unclear. For example, in class, I needed to define ‘equanimity’ — the ability to hold life’s difficulties and joys together in an open embrace with balance and ease.) There will no doubt be words that feel more ‘loaded’ for you: loaded with images, memories, emotions and physical responses.
You might take on one of the Paramitas for a time. Choose the one that activated the most response. Notice that state or quality in your life, either how it appears or the lack of it. This is not to make yourself wrong in any way, but to become aware of your relationship with it.
A little background
The Ten Paramis (in Pali) or Ten Paramitas (in Sanskrit). Either term is fine, and I usually try to stick with Pali terms since I teach in the Theravada tradition, but in this case ‘Paramitas’ sounds like Spanish, a favorite language of mine. In Spanish, when you add -ita on the end of a word it becomes smaller and the ‘a’ makes it feminine. So for me ‘Paramitas’ feels more approachable and fun to explore.
Everyone is born with at least some of these qualities. For example, we’ve all met children who are just naturally honest. Truthfulness is ingrained in them. They just can’t lie, even though all around them are children who are making up stuff all the time, sometimes just for fun, other times to avoid getting into trouble. Some of these Paramitas we learned as children. Our family and community emphasized the importance of them, some more than other. We might look at them from this point of view, and see which ones were emphasized by our parents and teachers. As a woman, I notice that I was always encouraged to be kind but never encouraged to be strong. What do you notice?
Some of these states or qualities we may develop as adults. Perhaps there are some that we never develop. Look over the list and make note of whether a quality seems innate to your character, something you were taught as a child, something you learned as an adult, or something you have yet to learn. And you can ask yourself whether any of them are not qualities you value and why.
The practice of meditation and the sense of awakening that comes with regular practice activates these qualities within us, and brings us into healthier expressions of them.
In class and on this blog we will be exploring each of these over the coming weeks, but now I want to give a little introductory background.
The Buddha taught all of these qualities, but apparently did not have a list of Ten Paramitas that he taught. Yet the list that arose out of the teachings and is an important part of almost all Buddhist traditions. Here is the story of how they came about:
Buddha means ‘awakened one’, and the buddha that we mean when we say ‘The Buddha’ was Siddhartha Gautama. He is the buddha for our time, since his teachings live on and influence our lives, even though he died 2500 years ago. But Siddhartha only came to be the buddha after many incarnations. In a much earlier incarnation he was an ascetic named Sumedha. He lived in a cave, wore bark clothing, had long matted hair and owned nothing. One day the recognized buddha of his day, the Buddha Dipankara (maker of light), came to his area and Sumedha was excited to see him. As he stood on the path watching this awakened being approach, he felt a great desire to become a buddha himself. He also noticed that right where he was standing the path had a puddle, To keep the Buddha from having to wet his feet, Sumedha threw himself down on the path, covering the puddle with his long matted hair. The Buddha predicted that Sumedha would become a Buddha in endless ions. And as the story goes, after many incarnations, he did become the buddha of our day, born Siddhartha Gautama.
Sumedha dedicated himself to a life of practice, but needed a framework, a list of what would be required to eventually become a buddha. He developed this list of the Ten Paramitas as the necessary course of his own awakening.