Norman gives his second talk on the Six Paramitas to the Insight Yoga Institute.
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
The way we have been talking about giving is very expansive. Giving is limitlessness itself, abundance itself, joy without any restriction. But then, we are living in a limited world that does have restrictions, and that is why the next paramita is ethical conduct. It is really the balance to this expansive feeling of gratitude and joy and sharing and love. In a way you could say that the practice of shila, or morality, or ethical conduct, is the practice of restraint.
Shila was always an important practice from the early days of the Buddha. Buddha began with the insight from his own life and experience that the nature of our conditioned existence is suffering. Although human suffering is not your fault, and not just about you, it’s endemic. But it can also be overcome. The Buddha realized that this is not so easy, and he felt that you needed to have a disciplined life. That’s where shila came in. He saw that if you are living a life of misconduct, you are creating all kinds of waves and disturbances in your own mind and in the minds around you.
Later on, during the full development of the Mahayana spirit of Buddhism, shila was understood differently. Remember that the goal shifts now from personal liberation to compassion and sharing. Ultimate giving, ultimate sharing, ultimate compassion is liberation, from the point of view of Mahayana schools of Buddhism.
Shila, or ethical conduct, became less a question of creating a structure that would make liberation possible, and more the motivation or the desire to be non-harming, to have a conduct that benefits other people, to have a kind of conduct that would make them happy. Your conduct could even inspire other people to spiritual practice and awakening. So there is a high value placed on being kind to other people, benefitting other people, and forbearing from any kind of conduct that would be harmful or hurtful or diminishing to other people.
In Zen, the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts are the heart of our practice, with the Mahayana spirit of taking these precepts not as restrictions, but as a joyful path. The precepts are understood not so much as ethical practices or rules of conduct – a list of do’s and don’ts; they are meant to describe the life that one would live if one were fully awakened buddha.
A buddha would not have to restrain herself from stealing. We might have to restrain ourselves from stealing, for example, if we felt that we didn’t have enough. But if in every moment we were practicing gratitude, and our spontaneous feeling was, Wow! In this moment everything is already given, there would never be a need to steal anything. We wouldn’t have to restrain ourselves from stealing. We would automatically be non-stealing, because that would be the fullness of our hearts.
We wouldn’t have to restrain ourselves from speaking ill of others, because we would look at other people, and we would see their wonderful qualities, and we would see their suffering. We would see their beauty, so that the only thing we would ever want to say about them is how great they are. We wouldn’t want to be gossiping about them.
Let’s talk now about shanti paramita – patience. Ethical conduct inevitably puts us in touch with some pain. When we do something harmful, or something harmful is done to us, there’s pain and there’s difficulty. Patience is really the practice of how to deal with difficulty.
In Chinese, the character for patience is an ideogram of a heart with a sword dangling over it. This character points to the fundamental nature of patient forbearance. If we are willing not to have a wall around our hearts, then our hearts are vulnerable, and that dangling dagger means that at any moment, our hearts could be broken. That’s why we make the wall, or the armor around the heart, because we don’t want to feel our hearts broken.
A bodhisattva is somebody who is willing to keep the heart open, even though sometimes that might be painful. In fact, that’s why we feel pain, right? Out of love. If we love something, we can be hurt. The practice of patience is the practice of being willing to endure the pain, because we are willing to love, we are willing to be opened up, and we are willing to accept our experience as it really is, rather than protect ourselves from it, by putting a wall around our hearts, or trying to arrange the world to fit our desires.
The word patience also implies being tolerant, understanding, persevering, constant. That’s really important in our practice. Constancy was a word that Suzuki Roshi used a lot. Just to be willing to do the practice, come what may. Rather than looking for important accomplishments or achievements or attainments or experiences, just to have a sense of constancy and patience with the practice. Sometimes the practice works well, and we are happy with it. Sometimes it works not so well, but we keep on. We practice for the sake of practice.
Next, virya paramita means energy, enthusiasm, joyous effort, vitality. It is the other side of patience. Patience is not really joyful, right? It is not energetic. I think a lot of people take up spiritual practice with the idea that they will have more joy and that they will be able to overcome difficulties. Then when difficulties come anyway, they get discouraged. That’s why the practice of patience is so important. Once you can practice patience, and you can stay in the game when things remain tough, then when the difficulty is no longer present, you have more energy, more enthusiasm, more faith.
Here are some traditional aspects of the practice of virya. One is called a “strong armor.” It is a Tibetan way of talking, which means encouraging the mind to go forward like a warrior, with no discouragement, no doubts. Going forth like a hero. Having that spirit.
The second is “forcefulness,” applying effort in the moment. This is really important, because I think that spiritual practice is very easy. It’s not that hard. The hard part is remembering to do it. You go to a retreat, and you hear all these teachings, and you think, This is right. This is it. It’s so much better than the way I do things. And then the next day, you go have breakfast, and you go to work, and you do things, and at the end of the day you say, I totally forgot about all that stuff. Never crossed my mind all day long. I got involved in my work. Remembering to apply the practice is part of virya.
That means when you have difficulty or an afflictive emotion in your life, instead of avoiding, retreating, justifying, fixing, you apply the forcefulness of virya in that moment, and say, Ah ha, here is anger. I am going to practice with this anger and not do what I usually do. I’m going to practice with this anger. Be present with it. Now I’ll take a breath.
I am suggesting that you do this. Now, instead of not noticing when you are angry or irritated, now you are on the look-out. You can hardly wait for something bad to happen! You can hardly wait to get behind a slow car on the freeway! You’re waiting for that moment, because as soon as it comes, you are going to identify it: This is irritation. This is anger. This is laziness.
Remember to practice with it: I am going to pay attention to it. And then, take a breath. Just do that much. That is all you need to do. No more than that is necessary. You don’t need to make it go away. You don’t need to change it. This will change it automatically! Even if it is still there, I guarantee you that if you do these things, it will be totally different.
The third is “firmness” – smooth and even effort. If you do a retreat, this is what you have to do. You don’t say, I’ll work hard the first and second day, then I will be exhausted the third day. No, you make an even effort. This has to last my whole life through, this effort.
The fourth is “non-complacency.” The possibilities of learning and developing more in spiritual practice are literally without end. I have been doing this for forty years full time. That is amazing! I haven’t even scratched the surface, and there is still so much more that I can learn. I am not talking about books. Books are part of it. If all the things that I have been taught in the dharma were my whole hand, so far I have been contemplating about one tenth of one fingernail. Considering how many teachings there are, hardly anything. There is way more to go. I definitely won’t exhaust it in my lifetime.
The opposite of virya is laziness. That is when we forget to do the practice, because of laziness.
There are two kinds of laziness. Sleepy – like when you are meditating and can’t stay awake. The second kind of laziness is interesting. The second kind of laziness appears as energetic activity. This is when you have a tremendous amount of energy to do useless things that are distracting you from what is really important.
There is way more to go. I definitely won’t exhaust it in my lifetime. The possibilities for inner growth are endless. As a practitioner, you are always thinking, How can I understand a little bit more? How can I appreciate our life a little bit more today than yesterday? Not being complacent. The longer you go on, the easier it is to be complacent. You have to challenge yourself to never be complacent.
The Zen school gets its name from dhyana paramita, the fifth paramita. Dhyana is the Sanskrit word for the Chinese word Chan and for the Japanese word Zen. In Zen practice, everything is included in dhyana paramita, and that’s why it is hard to talk about, because you can’t tease it apart from anything else in our practice.
Zazen is not a technique to focus your mind for a given result. Zazen is a way of life, a way of being, a way of seeing, a way of living, a way of understanding life. Zazen evokes for us the deepest and most paradoxical sense of what our human life is. It’s paradoxical, because even if we don’t do zazen, zazen is still our essential life.
So in Zen it is often said that there is no such thing as zazen, since there is nothing that is not zazen. This goes to my favorite quotation of Zhaozhou. When asked, “What is zazen?” he says, “It’s non-zazen.” And then he is asked, “How can you say zazen is non-zazen?” And Zhauzhou says, “It’s alive.” To me, that little dialogue encapsulates the Zen view of meditation practice.
Our practice is shikantaza – the practice of just sitting, being alive in the present moment. Lately I have been saying, “Sitting with the feeling of being alive.” We notice all of our problems, because we are alive. But we never particularly notice, Look at this! This is life right here! Zazen is really nothing else than sitting with that feeling.
Meditation practice, dhyana, is not the invention of Buddha or Buddhism. It was part of Indian culture, and the Buddha practiced it. What was Buddhist about the Buddha’s meditation was not so much the technique of meditation, but the way in which the mind deepened in meditation and was turned toward the investigation of reality and seeing reality in a transformative way. The understanding that the Buddha had, I think, was that truth-seeing, that reality-seeing, would not be possible without a mind developed through the strength of meditation practice.
In actual practice, to do shikantaza, it helps to have some focus of concentration. Shikantaza is sitting with the feeling of being alive, but when you do that, your mind is wandering, or you can get sleepy. We use the focus of the posture, the feeling of the body sitting on the cushion, and the feeling of the breath in the belly. In the end, however, the point is to let go of everything and just sit.
One hopes that one’s meditation practice can be a source of peace and joy within one’s life, not just a chore or a duty or something boring, but something one would look forward to enjoy and through which to find some inspiration.
Sometimes I say that prajna – wisdom – is the most important of the paramitas. Sometimes it is said that it is really the only one. Another way of saying the same thing is that there is no such thing as prajna paramita outside the other five paramitas. The other five paramitas are just the expression of prajna.
The word “paramita” is usually translated as perfection, perfection in the sense of “gone beyond.” All of the paramitas are functions of the wisdom that goes beyond wisdom. The wisdom that goes beyond wisdom is not intellectual, nor an abstraction or thought. It can’t exist in the abstract. It can only be manifested through our conduct and experience, through the action of our living.
Of course, we all know about prajna paramita from the Heart Sutra: “Avalokite┼øvara Bodhisattva was deeply practicing prajna paramita,” which means she is practicing dhyana paramita,a deep meditation. In that dhyana paramita, she sees the empty nature of all phenomena.
Empty nature in Buddhism, called shunyata, is always associated with prajna. We can’t conceptualize or reify shunyata any more than we can conceptualize prajna. There isn’t something called “emptiness.” Emptiness isn’t a condition or a thing, just as wisdom isn’t something. But we need to have a way to talk about these things, so we say things like, “Prajna is the transcendent wisdom beyond wisdom. Prajna cognizes the empty nature of all phenomena.” So these two words always go together: emptiness, or shunyata, and prajna, or wisdom.
To sit in zazen is to sit in prajna. Whether or not we have some experience of prajna that we can notice, whenever we are sitting in zazen, we are being prajna. We don’t have to sit in zazen to be prajna. Whenever we are, we are being prajna.
The source of the paradox of our human condition is the fact that our minds can only perceive through separation and reification, through definition and objectification. Life, which we also are, is larger than our thinking and our feeling. To practice prajna paramita is to see the empty nature of phenomena. This requires that we cut off the mind road, so that we can feel our life as life, beyond our human need to define and understand.
We need a contemplative practice of some sort, being seized by the scruff of our necks and shown our lives as they really are, not how we want them to be, or how we think we can understand them. It also requires an ability to hold our minds and emotions in a new way, a lighter, more open way, so that everyday words and deeds are reflective of a larger life than the one we can name and think about.