Parami – ‘perfections,’ – are daily life practices that give the mind a firm ground in Dhamma. Comprising simple qualities like patience, generosity and truthfulness, they can be skillfully applied to the ‘flash-points’ in the day in order to steer the mind out of samsaric currents and towards peace, clarity and nibbana.
– Ajahn Sucitto
To undo the stress that our minds create takes a move to a more selfless mode. The Buddha’s encouragement is that we develop generosity daily to lift our minds out of their isolation and to establish goodwill and a happier sense around relationships.
Generosity allows the heart to feel full and settled with others and works against feelings of insecurity and loneliness. It reflects and develops right view that we are not just an isolated self.; but rather we are in a field of present-moment awareness that is connected to other events. Our lives are part of a whole system.
Generosity brings value to relationships. The act of giving opens the heart in a benevolent way whether through a gesture, offering service, giving attention or sharing material things. We learn to relate to ourselves, our family, and others in a wise and kindly way. The sense of developing connectedness through generosity leads to an openness of heart. People feel moved and inspired when they act on the opportunity to be generous.
Morality is what keeps our boat on course. Sila is based on the fundamental principles of respect and empathy, and makes non-abuse for other beings a way of life: ‘for my welfare and the welfare of others’. It is acting in line with the precepts, what they call forth and the effects they have on us and others when practiced with a sense of truly valuing one’s own mind and body, in the context of the people we live with. Morality means considering our actions of mind, speech and body. It carries with it the strength of restraint, the empathy of concern and the clarity of discernment.
Morality guides us to acknowledge and become mindful of the energies, impulses, inclinations within us. It helps us to acknowledge our positive qualities and potential, as well as the unwholesome, un-virtuous, ‘sub-personal’ energies within us. Morality encourages us to exercise discrimination, to consider the long-term effects of our behaviour, to set wholesome boundaries, and to meet and transmute unwholesome emotional energy: inclining towards the bright and withdrawing from the unwholesome.
Renunciation is a process of simplification. In its most obvious sense it entails introspective enquiry: looking into one’s wants and wisely translating appetite into relevant needs. It’s a matter of wise discernment rather than asceticism or being puritanical. It is a gentle and reflective practice.
Renunciation gives us the focus to see craving for what it is. When we investigate craving we realize that it is based on the ephemeral fantasy of fulfillment. It is not the ‘object’ that sets up the craving, but the sense of ‘not having’. Mindfulness helps us see the hole of craving as a vortex of tangled, over-stimulated energy, and unresolved passion,
blocking our energy and awareness. Feeding on the senses remains a natural inclination until we have realized something more fulfilling. We need to meditate to untangle these energies, to turn the mind back to its source. Cooling the fire, meeting the floods directly, takes great heart and truthfulness. It involves coming into the body and steadying the heart through mindful breathing.
And rather than focusing on the objects of desire we can develop the skill of looking directly into and through the energy of desire, witnessing our mental content, bearing it in mind and inquiring into it: is it useful? Does it lead to my welfare or that of another?
Putting out the fire involves questioning: is this causing suffering? Can this be let go?
Recognizing rather than repressing. Then we can be with the grasping in a clear nonjudgmental way. We can breathe patience and kindness into the grasping and agitation letting the wave pass through us; realizing it is its nature to rise and cease and we use this clarity to help us choose our involvements wisely.
Wisdom is the fourth perfection. The human mind is a mixed blessing. The development of wisdom means to be clear about the mind. Wisdom helps us see clearly, to discriminate and evaluate the states we go through, and to resonate with qualities like kindness, generosity, truthfulness and integrity.
Wisdom can be understood in three aspects symbolized by the book (conceptual knowledge), the sword (practice wisdom) and the lotus (clear realization). Conceptual knowledge can map out a basis for inquiry, instill some confidence, and spur us on to further investigation and practice. But we can also get lost in thinking and views. So, it is imperative to develop the wisdom faculty in the right way, so that it oversees or transcends mind consciousness.
Practice wisdom is directly applying theory to one’s life to clear away the causes of stress, confusion and suffering and to cut off delusion and entanglement. Practice enables us to look into what the mind’s cooking up, and to get clear as to what’s stoking the fire and how to apply wisdom to our impulses. This effort gives rise to increasing clarity. With each insight, old karmic knots are untangled making the mind feel bright. Realization wisdom leads to confident, clear, peaceful knowing – the purity of knowing that provides release from confusion and stress.
True wisdom senses balance and wholeness, understands cause and effect and realizes the fruit of clarity and happiness. Wisdom builds on a basis of renunciation, deliberately putting some things aside, turning off the glare of sense contact and establishing mindfulness, pausing and reflecting on the underlying characteristics of our minds and of what feels skillful and unskillful. This is where we take our stand. Here we can engage in the world from a clear, ethical and compassionate place. Wisdom always operates in the present.
Applied energy is a quality that the Buddha regularly encouraged and listed as one of the factors of enlightenment. Awakening energy is not just a matter of intense effort, it is the wisely applied resource that resists the push of psychological habits and programs that can cripple our wellbeing. When our habitual programs well up, they flood attention. The chief function of energy is to keep awareness awake at the places where we drift into automatic pilot, and then direct it to firm ground. When we steward our resources, and our energy is bright and steady, we feel good and act effectively.
The Buddha advised us to relinquish the causes of unskillful mind states and to cultivate the causes of good mind states. Awareness must widen beyond our habits and programs. Mindfulness and wisdom working together help us to clarify and stay in touch with our true interests and intentions. This takes determination, restraint and investigation. It also needs alternative ways to channel energy such as through acts of generosity, kindness and calming meditation which bring healing to the heart.
The energy of arousing and gladdening oneself on the one hand and disciplining, restraining and investigating on the other, aims towards an end of the energy of ‘doing’. By applying mindfulness to the process of how we are aware, directing energy to knowing and letting go of attachment we are moving towards a goal where there is emotional stability and plenitude and peace that does not change, a beautiful stable energy that supports letting go of burdens.
Khanti suggests patience, forbearance, acceptance and was considered by the Buddha to be the supreme purification practice. The mind/heart (citta) habitually creates suffering and stress through reacting to, holding onto, or getting caught up with what life throws at us. Khanti – patience – is the restraint of holding the heart in the presence of its suffering, carrying it through the turbulence of existence until it lets go of the ways in which it creates suffering.
The process of bearing with suffering is a voyage of growth, not a punishment. Patience is not a denial of emotional intelligence, but rather it helps us step back from simply reacting, to help us be present with our suffering in a spacious way, and to know and investigate our experience. It helps us to see into the conditioned, impersonal causes of suffering, the dukkha of the ‘worldly winds’: praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and disrepute happiness and unhappiness that blow through the heart and throw us off balance.
The wise response to disturbance is to make it an object of meditation, to accept its presence and work on our reactions. With patience, we can find a place where we can work and assemble our skills around this pain and act from a cooler and wiser place. When these conditions can be held in the truth of their nature, the mind lets go and senses a freedom that doesn’t depend on supports. In that full allowing we stabilize our hearts and find peace.
The reality of Dhamma practice is that we need to develop patience with our attachments, passions, and views. Then out of the crucible of these parami, deep compassion flows, and the mind broadens and opens so that wisdom can penetrate. All perfections merge in the highest wisdom, the steady insight into suffering and a true peace of mind.
The parami of Truth can be understood in two ways, as the truthfulness of morality expressed in our intentions and behaviour, and as the truthfulness of perception, seeing things in an undistorted way. For both we need to check out the nature of our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviour through introspection and meditation. By witnessing and investigating these changing energies we can begin to see how we are often driven by social and biologically conditioned programs and reactions. We gain the insight that these conditioned states and energies are impermanent, not fundamental, and subject to ignorance.
We also begin to see that there is not a self in charge of this flow of mind, while at the same time we do not seem to be able to be apart from this changing show. The deep questioning that arises from this often arouse people to search for spiritual truth.
In the dynamic seeking of truth, truthfulness and understanding work against confusion and dishonesty. To put aside untrue assumptions requires paying attention in an appropriate, enquiring and in-depth way. This is intention based on truthfulness. Clear awareness is deep honesty.
There is no fixed thing, no self, but there is inheritance of biases and habits. Mental activity is kamma. Your mind acts create an inheritance. The first step to abiding in truth is to be clear about good and bad kamma. To refrain from the bad and pick up the good. When we look at things in terms of truth, we can witness skillful and unskillful, compassionate and confused, psychological intentions and states of mind.
If we stand on truth, we realize that there is no abiding self only pain or attachment to be released, and ignorance to be cleared away.
The real issue is not the fact of being affected but our tendency to mindlessly jump on to these conditioned affect-latent tendencies. Mindfulness-based discernment establishes a reference point from which we can witness, and be clear about, our psychological actions, our caring impulses as well as our reactions and anxious defenses. We can watch them arise and let them fall back into awareness. What remains is bright watchfulness. As we see this, we can begin to take steps to generate bright impressions based on kindness, compassion and understanding—and from this our attention gets clear and well focussed.
This parami combines the notion of establishment, setting a foundation, a standing place, and has come to mean resolve or determination. If your looking for the deepest changes it takes resolve to carry out the practice to take you there. Intentions are pretty weak if one has no resolve.
Resolve is not just blind energy or effort. Meaningful resolve requires a wise assessment of what is needed. We need the wisdom to sense that a course of action is worth following. Resolve is also ‘working at it’. Making the effort to overcome resistance, to put aside alternative courses of action, to moderate and supervise one’s practice and stay with the central goal.
Grounding in the ongoing reflection, practice, and benefits of the other parami’s helps us to be clear about our effort and resolve. To resolve to be generous, to refrain from doing harm to develop appropriate relinquishment, to discern and investigate, to develop energy, patience and truthfulness in one’s practice. But this also means developing a resolve to be with the inevitable raggedness, chaos, insecurity and disorderliness of our minds with patience and kindness and compassion.
Meditation is not at first, and perhaps often, not rapturous—it often requires the resolve to hold to the meditation topic—within the torrents of moods and feelings. As we let them pass we become aware of the stuff we don’t want to be immersed in. Practice offers an opportunity to explore and a way to step back from the turmoil of samsara. We may also begin to change our focus to a more long term ‘non-self’ view rather than short term moods. And our outlook may shift from ‘getting enlightened’ to being aware of the mind—a moment at a time—and to be content with that.
Then, for moments at a time, we may experience ourselves ‘inching out of the flood’, which we have been floundering in, to a place of stillness, a place where there is a peaceful emptying out of desire. These moments encourage practice and this kind determined approach provides a tangible path by which we lay down a steady patient foundation. We can begin to see life, our daily actions and interactions, our resolutions, in a wider way, broadening from a self-centered view to a shared world view, guided by a sense that what we are involved in is for our welfare and for the welfare of others in a way that brings forth tenderness, strength and trust.
The notion of goodwill and kindness is shared by all spiritual paths. However, we can lose touch with that bright way of relating, (including to ourselves.) The main issue for the mind is how it relates to what we experience. Relationship is fundamental because we are actually never stand-alone beings. We are always a being-with.
Self-view, which is the default norm for unawakened beings, is blind to this interdependency. It’s flooding ignorance too often sweeps us into separation and alienation characterized by some form of ill-will or dissatisfaction with others or ourselves.
We need a means to carry the heart across the floods that submerge our fellow feeling. Metta is one of our major healing tools. The practice is to cultivate a conscious field of kindness seeing through the instinctual blindness and conditioning behind self-view, respecting our boundaries while widening appreciation and concern to include everyone. Although the sense of self/other happens by default we can have some say over the emotional and energetic flavouring it gives rise to. Metta is an extension of the affective and responsive heart.
When we take up the practice of kindness we look into the mind, moment by moment, stilling reactions, with an intention to gentling the mind out of the hold of aversion, depression, anxiety. Metta is non-aversion, non-fascination, non-projection releasing others from being objects upon which we project our needs and fears to satisfy our emotional hunger.
We need to approach ourselves and others first with patience, then truthfulness, plus the resolve of kindness. If we use the relational experience in a kind and generous way then defensiveness, anxiety, fault finding and grudges won’t haunt or impair our lives.
Keep the deep intention of kindness central to Dhamma practice. When we make a resolution and practice of kindness, to others and to ourselves, then we are making metta into a perfection—a vast transfiguring way of life. The small, localized state of mind opens out from the default ‘self-and-other’ sense into the Great Boundless Heart.
Equanimity denotes an evenness of mind that at first may not sound like all that much; but in fact, is considered the most profound of the Brahmaviharas. In comparison to the ups and downs, delights and sorrows, cravings and aversions, of our normal mind, equanimity is a unique openness, attentive and full. It offers respect and perspective on wherever we find ourselves in the present.
But Equanimity as a practice is not easy. It is an intention, a mental muscle. Equanimity is developed through meditation that steadies the energy of the mind. When the mind puts aside external sense contact, and the agitation and fascination that accompany it, the mind’s energy settles and unifies with the energy of the body and a natural inner stillness can be realized. It holds feelings and perceptions in full awareness without getting rocked by them.
Equanimity helps us embrace the present moment in an inclusive way. It is an even-minded acceptance of oneself and others, but with the potential to act responsively. Meditation develops equanimity through the insightful capacity of the mind that realizes the truth of kamma: that action can have bright potential, or it can drag you down to a dark state, depending on the ethical quality of intention that initiates it.
Meditation also provides insight into the conditionality and biases of the self. The Buddha’s middle way makes intention, rather than self, the owner of actions. Equanimity is a deep humility that allows the mind to step out of adopting identity, view, and judgements, while offering clear guidelines that respect our innate moral sense. And equanimity, framed by the other parami, finally releases us into a deliverance of mind that realizes it’s source: clear awareness—Nibbana.
Compiled by Chris Freypons