The Practice of the Perfections

By Peter Della Santina


The applied Enlightenment Thought specifically means the practice of the perfections. Through the practice of the perfections, particularly the six basic perfections, one can achieve Buddhahood. One can transform the conventional Enlightenment Thought into the ultimate Enlightenment Thought, into the mind of the Buddha. It is the mind in which all the dualistic conceptions, all distinctions between subject and object, between Enlightenment and ignorance, between samsara and nirvana disappears. One can only accomplish this transformation by practicing the perfections.

Achieving Buddhahood implies achieving certain qualities. Foremost amongst these qualities are the qualities of perfect wisdom or knowledge, great compassion and skill-in-means. The practice of the six perfections leads to these qualities because it results in the two accumulations, the accumulation of merit and the accumulation of knowledge. These two accumulations are needed to attain Buddhahood just as a bird needs two wings to fly. Through the practice of the perfection of generosity, morality and patience one achieves the accumulation of merit, while the practice of the perfection of meditation and wisdom enables one to achieve the accumulation of knowledge. The term accumulation here is used figuratively. It is not really accumulation, but rather a state of clarity, of penetrative insight. The fourth perfection, the perfection of energy is necessary for both these accumulations, just as one would need energy in order to be successful in whatever endeavor one wishes to attempt.

In achieving Buddhahood, one achieves the qualities of freedom from the cycle of birth and death and also freedom to help all living beings to achieve liberation. These two freedoms are reflected in the two accumulations. The accumulation of knowledge results in a Buddha's 'freedom from' as it is through his wisdom that he is free from samsara, and the accumulation of merit results in his 'freedom to' as it is through his merits that he achieves the ability to help all sentient beings.

The two qualities of 'freedom from' and 'freedom to', and the two accumulations of knowledge and merit also imply the two dimensions or bodies of the Buddha -- the truth dimension (Dharmakaya) and the form dimension (Rupakaya) because the accumulation of knowledge results in the Buddha's truth dimension and the accumulation of merit results in the Buddha's form dimension.

The form dimension has two aspects -- the apparitional dimension (Nirmanakaya), and the celestial dimension (Sambhogakaya). The apparitional body appears in the world and is accessible to all sentient beings, whereas the celestial dimension appears only to those of advanced spirituality, who have purified their vision through morality, meditation and wisdom. In other words, while the ordinary body appears to everybody, the heavenly body appears only to advanced Bodhisattvas.

When we read the accounts of the former lives of the Buddha, we are inclined to regard his practice of the perfections as altogether unattainable. How, for example, can we hope to follow the example of the great monkey who sacrificed his life in order to save his comrades, the ascetic Kshantivadin whose limbs were cut by the wrathful king and yet did not produce any hostile reactions, and the Bodhisattva who sacrificed his life in order to feed a hungry tigress. These stories only make sense if we bear in mind that they have a symbolic and pedagogical meaning which illustrates a certain extraordinary state of mind.

The practice of the perfections becomes perfect only through the perfection of wisdom. It is the understanding of emptiness that turns all the first five perfections into perfections. Without the understanding of emptiness, the five perfections are only ordinary wholesome actions. The term perfection (Paramita) means going beyond the limit. It means transcendental perfection. It implies an understanding of emptiness. The perfection of wisdom is the understanding of emptiness, the understanding that all phenomena are devoid of independent existence because their existence is interdependent, is conditioned. The perfections are not perfections by themselves. It is with this understanding of the empty nature of all phenomena that the practice of the perfections becomes perfect.

Specifically, the perfection of wisdom implies the purity of the three circles. This means the purity or emptiness of the three components of all actions -- subject, object and action. For example, the application of the perfection of wisdom to the practice of generosity means that we understand the emptiness of the giver, the recipient and the gift. It is the understanding of emptiness that makes this practice a transcendental perfection because ordinarily we are bound up in all kinds of notions about the giver, the recipient and the gift, in the notion that I 'so and so' am making 'such and such' a gift to 'such and such' a person. It is bound up with all these ideas, making the practice mundane. For example, we can become rich in a future life by practicing generosity. We can become a god by practicing meditation. But without the perfection of wisdom, without that liberating element of the understanding of emptiness, all these practices do not lead one out of samsara. It is onlv when we introduce the perfection of wisdom into the other perfections that they become causes of Buddhahood.

That is why so much attention is devoted to the practice of the perfection of wisdom in Mahayana literature. The perfection of wisdom is like the wings of a bird, or like the baking of an earthenware vessel. The Bodhisattva who does not practice the perfection of wisdom is like an unbaked earthenware vessel which is easily broken. Again, it is said that the other perfections are like blind men. No matter how many blind men there are, they will never reach their destination, whereas if they have a single sighted guide they will reach their destination easily. With the perfection of wisdom, we arrive at the Enlightened mind, at the level of understanding where we have transcended all the dualistic conceptions, of self and other, of subject and object, of existence and non-existence, of Enlightenment and ignorance, of samsara and nirvana, and so forth.

But, if there is really no self and other, no happiness and suffering, and so forth, what need is there to liberate all sentient beings since there are in actuality no sentient beings, no liberation? How can there be any place for compassion? The necessary and spontaneous association between wisdom and compassion can be illustrated by means of an example. Suppose you are asleep and dream that you are being pursued by bandits. Naturally you will be terrified of the ensuing suffering, and just as the bandits are about to catch you, you awake and feel relieved that all the suffering in the dream was an illusion and is unreal. Suppose on the next evening you see your wife, child or husband thrashing about in their sleep moaning "Save me, save me. Bandits are going to kill me". What would you do? Would you sit back and laugh because you know that it is unreal, or would you spontaneously move over to wake them up because you recognize that although the suffering is unreal, to that person in the dream, the suffering is indeed real? Similarly, would you do nothing to pacify your child who suffers greatly because she has lost a balloon, the loss of which to adults is a very insignificant matter?

This compassion which flows spontaneously out of wisdom manifests itself in skill-in-means -- in the understanding of the peculiarity and capability of sentient beings and in the production of countless expedients in order to liberate all these sentient beings. The skill-in-means of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is expressed in countless expedients -- in the presentation of the various traditions of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, or more specifically in the recitation of the Mantra of the Buddha Amitabha, in the stark unritualistic techniques of Zen, and in the rich and elaborate devices of the Vajrayana.

From the six basic perfections flows the four secondary perfections -- the perfection of skill-in-means, resolution, power and knowledge. These four perfections are concerned with how best to help sentient beings. Through practicing the ten perfections over many life times, one become a Buddha whose multi-dimensional being continues ceaselessly and spontaneously to work for the liberation of all sentient beings.

Based on lectures held at Sakya Tenphel Ling, Singapore, by Dr. Peter Della Santina, Ph.D., November 1984 - January 1985 . Published for free distribution by The Singapore Buddha Sasana Society, 1987.