Thursday, May 29, 2014

Six Paramitas - Why It's So Important to Do Good

Original Photo by United Way of Massachusetts & Merrimack Valley available on

               Everybody knows (or should know) that giving is rewarding. It fills us with a sense of pride as we see our happiness become doubled within the hearts of others. 

                But when life starts to feel more and more like hell, the idea of doing good for someone else suddenly becomes further and further away in on our minds. 

                "Things can only get worse for me now," we say to ourselves. "I do have to take care of myself after all. Why should I be the one to help them out? I'm the one who needs help. Come on, if life is going to be so cruel like this to me, why should I bother helping other people? They should be helping me. Anyway, it doesn't matter. I might as well just give up since it seems like my whole life is already ruined."

               When we lose our strength and get tired of carrying that heavy burden, we can start to blame the world for what it's done to us and want everybody to just leave us alone. We can't understand why such bad things we didn't deserve seem to only happen to us.

                 Yet if we really, really want to have a positive change for the better in our lives, we first have to recognize that we are the ones who have to make that change. We ourselves need to make the effort toward bringing that change about. We can't just bury our heads in the sand and expect things to magically improve.

Original Photo by Peter available on

                 If it's too hot outside, we have to cool ourselves down by getting a cold glass of water. If we're getting out of shape, we need to exercise at the gym or go out on a walk everyday. If we're not meeting our deadlines at work, we need to put in some overtime or to reorganize our projects more efficiently. If we're struggling at school, we need to sacrifice our weekends to do homework or to seek the aid of a good tutor. These examples show how cause and effect are linked. We make the change we want to bring about with our own day-to-day choices.

              The foundation of Buddhist teachings is the Law of Cause and Effect. According to Buddhism, the following three lines which are written in the sutras represent universal truth, applicable at all times and at all places.

Good deeds bring good results. 

Bad deeds bring bad results. 

Your own deeds bring your own results. 

                    This means waiting around aimlessly for something good to happen does not make what we want to happen come about any sooner. Only using the power of intention to wish what we want to come true will not work well for us either. If we want good results to actually manifest in our lives, we of course have to think it, but then we have to get up, get out there, and get working toward doing that good.

Original Photo by Evan Courtney available on

              We of course need to relax in order to restore our energy, but we can't manifest our dreams if we're always away at leisure. The greater our efforts, the greater the energy and momentum that brings about those results. Being lazy only brings us more laziness sooner.  

               But we're unwilling to accept this high level of responsibility behind creating our own results. We don't want to be judged by others, and no one wants such a heavy burden on their shoulder. So when things go wrong, we often list off an excuse or find someone else to blame for our current misfortunes.

               However, once we begin to realize in depth how Causality works, we try our best to get ourselves back on course. We focus our minds toward planting all the good seeds we can to better the lives of those around us as well as ourselves. Doing good in this way speeds us toward achieving our ultimate purpose in life.

                 So it's all just cause and effect. Just do a lot of good and I'll be happy. Is that all there is to it? Can Buddhism really be this simple?

                Let's get some insight from a very chance encounter between a Buddhist monk and a Confucian philosopher that took place hundreds of years ago.

Original Photo by Rebecca Selah available on


                  In China, there was a famous Buddhist monk by the name of Bird's Nest. He liked to meditate on branches high up in the trees.

                 One day, the famous Confucian poet Bai Juyi was walking through the forest and spotted the treetop monk in meditation. Seeing this rare opportunity to meet with another great philosopher, Bai Juyi decided to playfully tease him from below.

              "Hey up there!" said Bai Juyi. "Isn't it dangerous to sit high in a tree with your eyes closed? You may doze off and hit the ground."

               "It is YOU down there that is in danger!" said Bird's Nest.

               Even though way up in such a precarious place, Bird's Nest was seeking for a solution to his mortality, a danger that awaits each and every one of us. Down below, Bai Juyi realized how keen the monk's awareness must be for such a quick-witted response while still in meditation. He decided to introduce himself to this exceptional monk plainly and forgo all the usual formalities associated with his own title. In this way, both could speak comfortably to the other.

               "I am the rather insignificant Bai Juyi. Might I ask your name, good monk?"

                "I am the insignificant monk Bird's Nest."

                 "Ah, so it is indeed the famous Master Bird's nest I am speaking with?" Bai Juyi said as he devised a way to test the knowledge of this well-known monk. "Well, I'm very pleased to run into you, because you see, I've been wondering for a long time about Buddhism. Since I have you here, could you tell me in just a few words, what it is that Buddha teaches?"

                 Bird's Nest said simply, "To refrain from all forms of evil and pursue good. This is Buddhism. In fewer words, stop bad deeds and do good deeds."

                 "Hah-hahahaha!" Bai Juyi erupted in laughter. "Even a three-year-old child could figure out that! Hah-hahaha--"

                 "--A child of three may know it," interrupted Bird's Nest. "But even a man of 80 years still finds it rather difficult to carry out, wouldn't you say?"


                 This made Bai Juyi reflect deeply. It’s very true that little kids quickly seem to grasp the difference between right and wrong at an early age. Yet why is it that once they grow up into parents and grandparents they still run into the same problems?

               Ethics and morals may succeed at making us appear virtuous to the outside world with what we say and do. But Buddhism is different in that its primary focus is within the mind. We have to make sure the good that we do with our words and our physical efforts comes from the very bottom of our hearts.

              If you do good, good things will happen to you! If you do bad, you will head toward misfortune. You reap the results of the seeds you yourself planted. So if we really understand the Law of Cause and Effect completely, we'd naturally quit doing bad actions and do more good actions!

                However, it's just too difficult to see how Cause and Effect works in relation to all the miscellaneous events that happen to us everyday. It's even more difficult to clearly see how we behave toward others with real accuracy.

               Since we have a bias toward our own choices and our own perspective, it is this same bias that causes us to doubt Causality when things don't seem to be going our way. "But I'm such a great person," we think. "I don't deserve all this bad treatment that's happening to me. Something went wrong."

                   But if we really put our minds to work, are we really successfully doing good all the time? Are we really able to determine the true severity of our own mistakes? How much real effort are we sincerely putting toward doing good? How about all those small acts of kindness we put off or never get around to actually doing? "Those little ones aren't as important," we justify to ourselves. "No one will notice, so who cares? I'll wait for something better to do with my time."

               Yet there is actually so much to gain by all these small acts of good. We should make special effort toward completing them as best we can. If we keep a positive mindset with all we endeavor, great or small, we can only stand to gain. Even moments that appear to be setbacks can suddenly take on new meaning. To understand this further, let's read a short story.


Do Good Regardless
The Stone in the Center of Town

            A king once slipped out of his castle in the middle of the night when nobody was looking and laid a great stone in the center of town.

Original Photo by Joel Penner, available on

             In the morning, a drunken soldier tripped over the stone, fell, and hit his head. "Who put this blasted stone here?" he snarled. "I'd like to teach that damn fool a lesson." Cursing, he went on his way.

          Soon a gentleman on horseback came by and just missed running into the stone. He came to a stop and said, "Whew, that was close! I could have been killed. What a dirty trick to play!!" Muttering, he trotted on.

         After another interval, a farmer came by, pulling his wagon. "What's this?" he cried. "Somebody put a big stone here. It's dangerous and blocks the way." Grumbling, he gave the stone a kick and went on by.

         None of them thought to remove the stone.

         A month later, the king assembled the people in the town square and admonished them. "I am the one who put the stone here," he said. "But none of you made any attempt to remove it for the public good. That is a sign that my reign is flawed. Today I personally will remove the stone."

          When he did so, underneath it was a bag marked, "For Whoever Moves the Stone Out of the Way." It was full of gold and jewels.

Photo by Kurtis Garbutt (edited to enhance color), original available on

      Good deeds, even those that go unseen, always bring a reward.
(Something You Forgot Along the Way, p. 162)


           Whether it's moving a stone out of the way to picking up trash on the street when we see it, everyone would start doing more good if they knew a great reward awaited. Because, deep down, we all want to be recognized and applauded.

            From flash mobs to reality TV to stardom, the desire for fame is in our very nature. But very few people can carry out the self-discipline and the consistent effort of virtue that it requires. Most people notice all the problems they have stacked up around them only to walk away or put it off. “Maybe later...” we say to ourselves. “Next week seems better for me... or better yet would be next month...” Sound familiar? Do those words sound like you’re getting any closer to what you really wanted?

           Our past experiences may fool us into thinking that doing a favor for someone else will keep us from being happy. "Hmmm," we think to ourselves. "This favor is going to end up taking up a lot of my time. If I don't get around to it, I'm sure someone else will step in instead of me. I don't have to be the one."

           Yet passing off these little acts of kindness to someone else proves that we don't really understand that doing good will bring good results. "This good is just so little, so it won't really amount to much anyway," we think. "I'm better off doing something else of more importance." But that self-interested thinking reveals how skewed our perspective can be.

            We need to reflect on our actions and see all the good around us that we can possibly do. Skipping over the little things is actually negligence on our parts, and it's also letting us miss out on this one-and-only chance to receive something that is actually really, really wonderful.

           But still we persist, "Why bother? Even if I do go out of my way and do this for them, it won't really bring me a good effect. The effect I will notice in my life will be really small, so why should I care at the end of the day? I've already got a lot on my plate as it is." This self-serving mentality demonstrates the ignorance at our very core and our complete incapability of understanding the Law of Cause and Effect. Buddhism reveals to us just how extremely short-sighted our nature is.

            "The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (ca. 150-250) expressed the reality of human goodness in this way: 'Even if you pour two or three jugs of boiling water on a frozen pond four miles around, the next day, the ice there will swell up.' In other words, boiling water may have the power to melt ice, but overnight it too will freeze. In the same way, human goodness is overwhelmed by our overriding capacity for evil."
(You Were Born for a Reason, p. 133)

Photo by TheTurducken (edited to remove debris), original available on

                But can that be an accurate portrayal? Doubt arises in our minds. Well, with so many millions and millions of benevolent people working diligently in charity organizations and as volunteers, how can Nagarjuna make such a claim that human goodness is "overwhelmed by our overriding capacity for evil?"

                 "Let there be no misunderstanding. The sort of person under consideration here -- one who feels pity and compassion for those in unfortunate circumstances and take action to help them, only to be brought up short by the realization that his benevolence is tainted by ugly pride -- is by definition one whose heart is sincerely set on doing good; otherwise, he would be incapable of such a deep realization. The more we try to become good, the more we see that our 'evil nature knows no end,' and the more we are driven to repent and to strive to overcome our natural bent toward evil."
(You Were Born for a Reason, p.134)

                There are so many grand possibilities to do good in this world. But once we begin to do a lot of good for others, there is the chance of getting carried away with unseen pride.

                 For that reason, there are three things we should take into consideration when we do good. In Buddhism, they are known as the Three Spheres of Emptiness (or the Three Empty Wheels)

Three Spheres of Emptiness 

   1st  Sphere        2nd Sphere       3rd Sphere
But I gave…   much...    that ingrate! 

(Pride as a Giver)                    (Pride in the Gift)                     (Pride over the Receiver)   

(1st Sphere) But I gave = (Pride as a Giver)

The fact we did good for someone can inflate our pride,
 and give us a false sense of superiority.
We should try to forget
or lessen the importance of our act.

(2nd Sphere) So much = (Pride in the Gift)

The greater the act or gift we provide for someone else
the greater the tendency to demand more respect from it.
We should try to forget what we did
to not become attached to our offering.

(3rd Sphere) To that ingrate = (Pride over the Receiver)

If we do a lot for someone and they are thankless,
we can have spite toward them.
We should be grateful to others and give back
without keeping track in our hearts of who we gave to.

                  Some may wonder why good deeds should be forgotten, especially if one has been taken advantage of by that someone else. But when performing good deeds it's also important to have wisdom of who to give to. We'll find out more on this topic in the next post.

            All the more than 7,000 sutras of Sakyamuni Buddha teach the importance of doing good, yet there is just one simple and true test of our understanding.  

Knowing something without putting it into practice 
is the same as not knowing it.  

                  We can say we know good deeds bring good results, but until we can practice it everyday without fail in our everyday lives -- we don't really know it. This is because the more we endeavor to do good, the more we are revealed about our true nature. Without taking the initiative to put it into practice, we can't make any new breakthroughs in knowing ourselves at any real depth.

               Because there are so many virtues that we can try to practice, Sakyamuni Buddha narrowed all of them down into six distinct categories. They are known as the Six Paramitas. In ancient Sanskrit, the meaning of the word paramita can be compared to a bridge. So in Buddhism, the Six Paramitas are each like a bridge for us on the journey toward reaching absolute happiness.

Six Paramitas

 1st Paramita - Generosity (Give to Others)

2nd Paramita - Accountability (Keep your Promises)

3rd Paramita - Patience (Remain Calm in Adversity)

4th Paramita - Diligence (Make Sincere Efforts)

5th Paramita - Contemplation (Reflect on Yourself)

6th Paramita - Wisdom (Improve Your Self by Serious Practice of the Law of Cause & Effect)

The 6th Paramita of Wisdom is a culmination of the first five paramitas
(Generosity, Accountability, Patience, Diligence, Contemplation)
cumulatively practiced at the same time.

                         The Buddha taught that we should freely choose whichever or however many of these we feel that we can do easily. Then once we've chosen, we try to perform them with all our might!

                          In the next posts, let's go over each one carefully starting with the first paramita of Generosity.