Norman gives his first talk on the Six Paramitas to the Insight Yoga Instiute. Unfortunately his introductory talk on Zen Meditation did not tape.
Six Paramitas Talk One – Insight Yoga Institute
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Oct 14, 2010
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
The Six Paramitas – generosity, ethical conduct, energy, patience, meditation, and wisdom – describe the Mahayana path. But another way to think about the paramitas is that they are not practices or anything special. They are just descriptions of how someone would be who is fully present, with a good heart. You wouldn’t have to necessarily think about them as some intentional practices.
Somebody who is awakened would be generous. He would be someone upstanding and ethical, with enthusiasm and energy for spiritual practice. She would have patience, endurance, and the ability not to get freaked out when there were setbacks, but to go forward in a dignified way. He would be fully present and would probably have a naturally easeful meditation practice. Maybe, she would feel like she carries some quiet within herself at all times, and she would probably have a deep wisdom. He would be somebody who seems to appreciate our deep inner connection as human beings and the natural world as well.
Dana paramita is the more important of the paramitas, because you could say that generosity and giving and sharing are the beginning of the Mahayana path. The broadest way of understanding dana paramita is the sense of the natural abundance of being itself, the generousness of time and space, and the ongoing unfolding of being alive. There is something inherently generous in life. Life is always making more life. Life is abundant. All the time, there is an explosion of life. It’s not something that you need to create, as much as something that you need to allow. In this fullest sense, the practice of dana, or generosity, is living fully and openly and whole-heartedly.
The Diamond Sutra, the Mahayana sutra which emphasizes the teaching of emptiness, says that the real practice of giving goes beyond our concepts of giving. We have to see through the concepts: I’m over here. I’ve got this. You’re over there. You don’t have it. I am now going to give this to you, and now I can give myself credit, and you’re going to be grateful to me. That way of giving is inherently stingy. It assumes that I have something that you don’t. True giving is the recognition that nothing I have has ever been mine. You, as a person who might look like the recipient of the gifts that I am giving, are, in fact, non-separate from me. It’s just a natural flow of one thing to another. So this is saying that giving means going beyond the conceptual framework of giving, receiver, and gift. There is no separation, except in concept, between the giver and receiver and gift.
This is the giving that is understood in Mahayana Buddhism; perfect giving transcends any idea of giving. Dana Paramita, the perfection of giving, is giving beyond giving, giving without any idea that there is something that I have that I can give, or someone outside of myself who would receive it.
Traditionally it is said that there are three things that are given. The first kind of giving involves material possessions: giving money, giving food, giving clothing. The second kind of giving is not a material thing, but good, spiritual teachings, or, simply kindness: giving a kind word. The third kind of giving is the gift of fearlessness. This is a beautiful thing. Imagine if someone could give you the gift of fearlessness, so that having received it, you wouldn’t feel afraid anymore; the things that make you feel fearful or constricted would be removed.
To give the gift of fearlessness is to have complete confidence that there is nothing to fear – even loss, even death. When we can feel this level of confidence in ourselves, we see that all living being are this magnificent, incomprehensible, sacred mystery. When we approach everything in this way, we are giving the gift of fearlessness. If you meet somebody who approaches you like that, you feel it. People say this about His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They feel a sense of their own sacredness as human beings. They said that about our teacher Suzuki Roshi. When you were with him, you felt good to be yourself – not that he was patting you on the back all the time, or boosting your self esteem. He was just treating you as if you were a sacred, mysterious human being that he was ultimately interested in and didn’t really understand.
In his discussion of dana paramita, Thich Nhat Hanh offers many other things that can be given, beyond material things, teachings, and the gift of fearlessness. He says, “We can offer to other people our joy and our happiness and our love. We could be joyful ourselves and offer this joy to other people.” This, to me, is something really astonishing, because when you think about it, most people in our world, in our culture, feel slightly guilty about being happy. I think this is a very deep thought. I don’t think this is a small thing. When we come close to our own happiness, to feeling good about our life, something deep inside of us says, Isn’t your happiness selfish? Is it right for you to be happy?
The idea that you could be happy for others, that you could have joy with the intention of offering it to everybody you meet, is a revolutionary idea. When I was installed, years ago, as abbot of Zen Center, I remember being impressed with this teaching. Being the abbot is a very big, complicated, busy job. I said to people, “My number one priority as abbot is my own personal happiness.” Everybody was shocked by this, “What?” they asked. I said, “Well, yes, I know that when you are abbot, the head of a religious organization, your state of mind affects everybody. So I figure that the best contribution I could make to Zen Center is to be abbot of Zen Center and be happy and offer that happiness to everyone else.”
It is beautiful to think of one’s own happiness as a possibility for generosity – to offer joy to other people. Now that doesn’t mean, of course, being an idiot and going around saying, You have just been foreclosed on your house? Be happy! No, no, it doesn’t mean that. It means that when you have ease and happiness in your own heart, share that with other people in the appropriate way for their circumstances. This can be a beautiful gift.
Thich Nhat Hanh also mentions sharing our own true presence with someone, being present in ourselves and with the other person. Really listening to what another person is saying to you. Being there with the other person, not for what they can do for you, or for your sense of evaluating them. Isn’t that what we do when we meet somebody? Right away we are evaluating. You meet somebody, and without your even knowing this is going on, you think, How do I stand in relation to this person? Is she more beautiful than I am? Younger? Older? We don’t necessarily think these things consciously, but we are almost always figuring out our position in relation to another person. What if we could just give the other person our presence without that, and just receive the other person wholeheartedly? That is the gift of our true presence.
Next he mentions the gift of our stability. He means, I think, that if we are stable, we can receive another person’s pain and hurt without needing to protect ourselves against it – just being able to receive it. This also happens a lot, doesn’t it? When someone is in trouble, it is a quandary for us. On the one hand, we feel like avoiding her. It’s a little too much for me to take in her problem. Or, we do the opposite. We rush to her with the idea that we will fix that problem. We’ll make it go away, because we don’t feel stable enough to be able just to receive it, even if it is an unfixable problem.
Last he mentions understanding. Can I really understand another person’s situation? Deeply understand it with sympathy? Can I see that person for who she is and appreciate what she is up against and what she has been through?
So you see, there are many things besides “stuff” that we can give people. In a certain way, stuff is the least of it. Sometimes if the stuff that you are given comes without any of these other gifts, it is only stuff. Sometimes you are not happy to receive it, because it is really the love and the respect and the understanding and caring that goes with the gift that we really appreciate.