The Bodhisattva Ideal

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Bodhisattvas and the paramitas

The ten transcendent practices or perfections, paramitas in Sanskrit, are fundamental to bodhisattva activity. Perfection in Buddhist teaching does not refer to being correct, or right as opposed to wrong; perfection is a matter of completion or wholeness. All bodhisattvas, at every stage, study the paramitas so they can carry out these practices completely in all their activities.

The first six are often considered separately, as in most Zen and Tibetan presentations of the paramitas. These first six may be seen as developing bodhisattva qualities. The last four are the practices of accomplished bodhisattvas returning to the world for the sake of saving others.

The ten practices work together, each clarifying the essence of the others. For example, generosity is informed by wisdom and skillful means, and the active practice of giving, in turn, helps develop wisdom and skillful means. Although all bodhisattvas have a relationship with all the paramitas, the major bodhisattva figures each emphasize different paramitas in their practice.

We introduce the paramitas only briefly here. Ashoka will be offering courses on the paramitas in the near future.


The ten perfections form a circle, beginning and ending with generosity. Generosity develops with the practice of all the other paramitas. Bodhisattva generosity (dana in Sanskrit) is perfected when no difference in status and no separation is seen between giver and receiver. Imperfect giving occurs when these roles are seen as separate. Those in helping professions, for example, are particularly vulnerable to feelings of superiority and paternalistic arrogance. Those who receive charity may become prone to dependency and weakness. True generosity is a subtle art requiring sensitivity, judgment, and patience. It is all too easy to give someone what we feel he needs, or should have, rather than what is actually useful or appropriate.

The art of mutual giving also involves the art of receiving. In the perfection of giving, the roles of giver and receiver form a subtle interrelationship. Sometimes the giver may receive more satisfaction than the recipient from the act of giving. Then who is truly giver and who receiver?

When we can accept with gratitude even the difficulties that life provides us, our own generous impulses are released. This grateful generosity, or thanksgiving, heals the split between self and others, our estrangement from our own world and life.
True giving is done without expecting reward for oneself, simply for the sake of giving. Just to give is the point, without assessing or knowing the results, without making strategic judgments about the effects or fruits of one's giving.

Within a structure that supports the activity of giving, we can examine the limitations and rewards of our own giving and gradually learn how to be more open and effective. But true gifts do not necessarily entail possessions. To appreciate a flower, the sky, or a smile is to give these to buddha, and to extend generosity to all beings.

Ethical Conduct

Ethical conduct, morality, or discipline (shila in Sanskrit) is often defined as precepts, monastic regulations, and mindfulness practices. Mahayana Buddhism does not legislate morality but rather sees ethical conduct and discipline as the natural expression of an awakened mind. The precepts are descriptions of enlightening activity rather than proscriptions on conduct. As we recognize the limitations of our own realization, we use ethical guidelines as tools to help attune ourselves to our fundamental open heart.

In the Mahayana, precepts are based on the encouragement to stay in the world. Checking out of the realm of suffering into personal enlightenment is seen as a fundamental violation of the spirit of the bodhisattva. The intention to save all beings is the primary duty.

Precepts are a road map of buddha nature, a guide to the way things are, and how we are, when we are in dynamic harmony with the world.

In terms of the other transcendent practices, ethical discipline is especially important as a precondition for meditative concentration. Moral discipline is a kind of mental housecleaning, clearing the karmic ground to allow settling.