6 Liberating Actions – the Paramitas

This article was published in issue # 19 | Spring-Summer 2007


Common to many Buddhist teachings is the role of the bodhisattva, one who has made the great and generous promise to rescue all beings from suffering and guide them to enlightenment. The work of the bodhisattva is summed up in the paramitas, the six liberating actions. The following text is an excerpt from the new and revised edition of Lama Ole Nydahl’s The Way Things Are.

Whoever wants to succeed in life, and perhaps also hold responsibility for others, will have to skirt a few constricting rules. With welfare states encroaching ever more on people’s lives and the search of human beings for freedom, it is hardly advisable to be totally law-abiding in the world. For this reason, Buddha taught the way of the bodhisattvas. It supplies the motivation and insight for practical people who maintain societies and have families. With this attitude, they can transform their everyday choices and experiences into steps toward liberation and enlightenment.

Sanskrit has the word ita. It means an action that is simply good (i.e., that would be recognized as such whether on Greenland or in the Congo). Buddha, however, speaks of paramitas. What does this prefix param mean? It means “trans” or “that which takes one beyond.” “Normal” kind deeds fill mind with pleasant impressions. They mature under given conditions as states of happiness, making mind confident. Mind then dares to observe that which knows and surrounds its experiences; that is, itself. As long as the notion persists that a subject does something to an object, positive acts do not liberate but should still be performed: They provide the basis for future happiness and mental freedom. Activity only liberates beings when combined with the insight that the doer, the thing done, and the receiver are all interdependent parts of a whole and that they possess no permanent own nature. Given that such satisfying wisdom is new to non-Buddhist cultures and in most cases will unfold only gradually, which skillful actions can best anchor them in one’s life?

1. The advised entry is through generosity, the first paramita. One may well see the world as a splendid hall decorated for huge celebrations. Everything is there—every richness of potential experience is present—but if nobody starts to dance, no party evolves. One breaks any ice and affirms one’s confidence in beings’ fine qualities through giving, in this case by showing one’s trust in what is shared. Since such acts are inspiring, others will pass them on for the benefit of many.

The traditional Buddhist texts mention three kinds of basic generosity, which will obviously be expressed in different proportions according to the prevailing conditions of the times, cultures, and countries involved. The first kind of generosity is giving what people need for their immediate survival. It benefits them for a while but makes them dependent. Second, one supplies education, which enables people to take care of both themselves and others during this life. Finally, one shares the liberating and enlightening teachings, which alone bring lasting happiness. Pointing to mind’s absolute qualities, they stay effective in this life, at death, and during all future lives, until mind recognizes its timeless essence and reaches enlightenment.

For the 85 percent of humanity that lives today in overpopulated countries, poor and in misery, victims of religions that prefer quantity to quality in their human resources and, like Islam and Catholicism, forbid them the necessary family planning, this classical division among three kinds of generosity is still valid. In the richer countries, however, where many die from too much fat around the heart and where our cities surround people with so much glass, steel, and concrete that they can hardly get together physically anymore, the most important gifts on the first two levels of generosity are probably sufficient neighborliness, trust, time, and warmth. The ultimate gift for idealists is more visible today than ever before: Guiding others in bringing enlightening teachings to them, one really helps them grow. There exists no better tool than generosity for showing how precious others are to us.

The bonds generated through this fine quality are basic and should be developed meaningfully. Since they are such effective motors for growth, it is important that one not squander them through clumsy or harmful actions and words.

2. For that reason, Buddha’s second liberating action is meaningful behavior. Educated people cannot use the word “morality” for this. They know that the ruling classes worldwide always use morality against those below. For example, for over a thousand years in Europe, church and state worked seamlessly together, blocking the creativity of highly capable populations. Whoever the state did not catch in this life, the church promised to send to hell afterward. Still today, the Islamic world functions on fear and suppression, with some childish rewards for the afterlife thrown in. So it is surely dangerous to use one single word for such a wide range of lifestyles and behavior. It can be manipulated much too easily. To encourage people to reflect before making knee-jerk judgments about others and to activate their life-experience, Buddhists prefer expressions like “useful activity,” “intelligent comportment,” or “circumspective action.”

The terms refer to three actions of body, four of speech, and three of mind. And while Buddha’s ten pieces of advice in the Small Way (Skt. Hinayana) focus on what it is better not to do, say, and think, the mindset of his more mature students on the Great Way (Skt. Mahayana) calls for a positive approach to causality. Here he shows the potential of beings’ three “gates” for useful actions: One may use one’s body beneficially to protect others, to give them what they lack, and for non-celibates to give them love. The task of speech is to say what is, to bring people together, to show them the world, and to guide them to meaning and joy. Finally, working skillfully with mind means wishing everything good to everyone, sharing joyfully in the meaningful actions that others perform, and trusting causality also in one’s own life. “Thinking clearly” would today imply finding places for Western reasoning inside Buddha’s life oriented “real” systems. These work and bring results in daily life.

3. The third liberating action preserves the accumulated good energies. Under the heading of patience, it also includes perseverance and endurance, for example going through hardships to learn. Since anger so massively destroys the good impressions that one has built up, Buddha calls patience “the most beautiful but most difficult garment that one can wear.”

4. Buddha’s fourth recommendation is to develop enthusiastic effort, or the “joy of doing.” This means to gladly perform what brings benefit, thereby overcoming laziness. Whoever lacks such expansive diligence will become older without becoming wiser, and nothing is more directly transferred from one life to the next than one’s level of activity. Therefore, it is important to go beyond one’s comfort zone and habitual limits. Regardless of what one may wish to learn or achieve, it requires energy. Even the rapid building up of muscles happens best beyond the threshold of pain, and results will only be satisfying if one leads one’s projects with decisiveness and joyful effort.

The benefit of these four liberating actions should be evident to anyone with life experience: Generosity brings human connections. Meaningful behavior directs them well. Patience makes them firm. And enthusiastic action gives them power and growth.

Whoever wants to increase their capacities and solidify their realization should definitely learn to meditate. Non-meditators cannot stabilize their mind, but instead shift from one emotion to another, often without being aware of it, and this wears them out. As recent brain research shows more and more, the results of meditation are visible and beneficial in many ways. Research also shows that imprints of useful or harmful thoughts, words, and deeds (called karma) may be skillfully enhanced or dissolved through absorption, leading to confidence and good feelings. If this is not done, such tendencies affect people as heavy moods and disturbing emotions. Worst of all, if harmful feelings control body and speech, one may easily destroy something expensive, lose face, and make enemies. Meditation, here the fifth of Buddha’s advised actions, encompasses both the simple methods for calming and holding mind to create a mental distance to events, and the more exquisite method of knowing mind. This may happen either through the recognition of emptiness and the view of the Great Seal (Skt. Mahamudra) or by awakening the body’s inherent wisdom energies through deep breathing. Most useful in all situations is identifying with one’s preferred buddha form or lama. Using this last approach, called Guru Yoga, one may effectively retain the feeling of freshness and meaning also between one’s meditations.

“The ultimate gift for idealists is more visible today than ever before: Guiding others in bringing enlightening teachings to them, one really helps them grow. There exists no better tool than generosity for showing how precious others are to us.”

6. Alternatively striving for mind’s development and at the same time relaxing any expectations, the afore mentioned paramitas are brought to the level of enlightenment by and also nourish the sixth of the liberating actions, that of wisdom.

In the Buddhist texts, the five actions mentioned above are often compared to strong legs. They provide the power to make one’s life meaningful and to benefit all. But where do they take one? The eyes that give them direction are the deep wisdom of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings. Here, building on the liberating understanding of the Small Way that there exists no lasting or vulnerable “self,” “ego,” or “I,” Buddha’s Great Way continues to negate any truly existing “outer” world. This goes beyond both materialism and nihilism, bringing about one’s freedom from concepts and ultimately full enlightenment. The observation on both levels is that for something to truly exist there must be some permanence, but all things inner and outer change everywhere and all the time. Buddha expressed this truth through his statement: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; form and emptiness cannot be separated.” Contemporary scientists in Hamburg, Germany, recently collided quarks, the smallest parts of the atom, sending them back into space. Shortly after this, near San Francisco, CA, other scientists were amazed to see particles appear in an absolute vacuum. Removing disturbing feelings and then keeping ideas of being and non-being from limiting reality, Buddha frees mind to express its full potential. Here it is recognized that only awareness is lasting and all-pervading.

At this point, doing good becomes self-evident. And why? Because all things are interconnected. Thus, whatever one sets into motion and does not decondition through meaningful acts or meditation will necessarily return to oneself.

The Bodhisattva Promise formulates one’s wish to develop for the good of all beings. Above all, it targets anger, the most harmful of mental states. As it is an inner practice, logic and motivation are the realms to watch. One’s most effective tools are thus the transformation of feelings and seeing events as passing dreams. The recognition that beings behave the way they feel should evoke protective compassion—but not politically correct leniency—toward criminal ideologies or behavior. In addition, one should spread the understanding that anger and brutality are signs of weakness and impotence, not power. This is to make such roles less attractive, even to the immature. Deep psychological methods for accomplishing this belongs on the third and ultimate level: the Diamond Way.

Until a few years ago, this part of Buddha’s advice—not to give attention to negative states but rather to transform or simply observe them—was not part of most psychological theories. Still today, “realist” groups resist that view. If one compares the customers in this form of therapy, however, who get stuck in assigning guilt and in countless expressions of anger, or chronically unhappy feminists, with mature practitioners of Buddhism, it becomes clear that the thick-skinned Far Eastern approach is preferable. Although precise crackdowns on harmful behavior, including preemptive ones, are often useful and appropriate, anger and paranoia become a growing burden on everyone. Looking back over the last six decades in the quickly evolving West, blame—also for one’s own shortcomings—was laid first on the Nazis and Communists, then on imperialism, after that on society generally, and most recently on dominating mothers. To the many who cannot see the future danger of today’s rampaging Muslim mobs, it is child-molesting priests or uncles. Whereas anything harmful to people should of course be stopped, the habit of blaming others is a serious shortcoming. It makes one feckless and weak. Whether one likes it or not, the law of cause and effect applies to all beings and things. What others do to one now, one must therefore have done to them in an earlier life and not managed to purify. Action and reaction function, and whatever one gives out always comes back. Something absolutely negative must therefore automatically self-destruct and cannot exist.

“The world needs beings with this view and a powerful, forwardlooking motivation, with little sentimentality and no disturbing feelings.”

Therefore, Buddha explains the root “evil” not as a mega-turbo-devil smelling of sulfur, but as levels of ignorance. They direct one to search for happiness through actions that can only bring the opposite result. However, being ultimately illusory, they can be removed. A dualistic view and any moralistic finger pointing are therefore meaningless. The ultimate essence of all beings is their Buddhanature; and although one creates a potential for pain, mind has the power, through methods and view, to remove whatever has not yet matured.

Evolving means enjoying what is pleasant as blessings to be shared with others and experiencing anything difficult as processes of learning and of mind’s freeing itself of negativity. One here wishes that all beings have not only joy but also its lasting cause, that of meaningful activity. What follows logically from this is the wish that they may also be without pain and the negativity that causes it. Two further wishes round this inner disposition off and make it complete: that others may have the greatest happiness totally beyond suffering and that they may feel the same strong love for all, making their actions ultimately meaningful. Anger, on the other hand, halts one’s natural disposition to benefit others. It thus disturbs the human exchange, makes people lonely, and in addition destroys their good seeds for later happiness. The world needs beings with this view and a powerful, forward-looking motivation, with little sentimentality and no disturbing feelings. With that arises an unshakable conviction in everyone’s inherent Buddhanature. It becomes logical that truth, to be absolute, must be all-pervading and that one can only imagine enlightenment elsewhere because it is already inherent in one. Thus, the consequential way of the accomplishers—the level of Buddhist yogis—is established.

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Lama Ole Nydahl

Lama Ole Nydahl is one of the few Westerners fully qualified as a lama and meditation teacher in the Karma Kagyu Buddhist tradition. In 1972, after completing three years of intensive meditation training, Lama Ole began teaching Buddhism in Europe at the request of H.H. the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. He has since transmitted the blessing of the lineage in a different city nearly every day, traveling and teaching worldwide as an authorized lama. His depth of knowledge and dynamic teachings inspire thousands of people at his lectures and retreats in North and South America, the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and Asia.

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