The Bodhisattva Path is traditionally described in terms of the six paramitas, or “transcendent perfections”—literally, “that which has reached the other shore.” These are (1) generosity, (2) moral discipline, (3) patience, (4) exertion, (5) meditation, and (6) wisdom. The Way of the Bodhisattva consists in following the path laid out by the paramitas. Over the next six weeks we’ll be exploring how to do that as Green Bodhisattvas.
If you haven’t followed the Tricycle Retreat on Green Meditation, feel free to backtrack a bit if you like. Or simply jump right into our discussion now. The paramitas are a basic Buddhist teaching that we can take up at any point in our journey, whether we are coming to Buddhism for the first time or have been practicing for many years.
The first paramita, generosity, is the basis for all of the others. If this first transcendent perfection “reaches the other shore,” the others can only follow. As the Indian saint Shantideva—who is particularly revered in Tibet—once put it, “One passes into nirvana by dedicating all.”
In Buddhism, generosity consists of offering oneself and one’s resources freely to other beings. This could take the form of material or monetary assistance, or it could consist of loving care, kind words, good teaching, or sound advice. If we have it—and it could benefit other beings—then it should be offered freely and without any expectation of reward. This is the teaching of all the buddhas.
Nearly everyone can understand generosity on this level. As Green Bodhisattvas, however, our understanding is a little different. Rather than being something we ought to do if we want to be bodhisattvas, the first paramita is found to be an accurate description of our world.
Individual beings live ONLY through the generosity of other beings, since everything that eats is also eaten. Nothing in this vast, interrelated ecosystem we call the world exists for itself alone. We live to support one another, to serve one another, and ultimately to feed one another, too.
Most Buddhists are familiar with the Jataka Tales. These are folk stories that developed some time following the death of the historical Buddha, depicting his adventures in earlier lives. In many of these, the future Buddha appears as an animal, and in some cases he sacrifices himself for the sake of some other being, occasionally even offering himself as a meal. Such acts of self-sacrifice are said to exemplify the spirit of the bodhisattva, a being who works tirelessly for the salvation of other beings, even at great personal cost to himself. In other words, it interprets the stories as prescriptive (as telling us how we ought to live in the world) rather than as descriptive (telling us how we actually live).
This is the essential difference between Green Bodhisattvahood and the traditional understanding of this great Mahayana Buddhist ideal. The traditional teaching tells us that we ought to save all beings. The green version (preserved in such ancient stories as the Jataka tales or the Buddha’s act of touching the Earth when he becomes enlightened) tells us that we are already participating in a bio-spiritual economy where nothing is ever lost or gained, but where everything and everyone is used fully—a world where Bodhisattvahood is not the ideal but the real.
The six-syllable mantra OM MANI PADME HUM (“Behold! The Jewel in the Lotus!”) has long been associated with the six paramitas, and is therefore an important foundational practice in following the Bodhisattva Way. The Karandavyuha Sutra states that those who touch, or even merely see, its six syllables written or carved on a stone will find themselves becoming bodhisattvas. Lama Yeshe often remarked to his disciples, “Even if you do not want to cultivate compassion, reciting the six-syllable mantra will cause compassion to grow in your mind.”
For the first week, recite the mantra as often as possible, reflecting with its opening syllable, “OM,” on the generosity of a world that gives us life, sustains our life, and to which our life force is even now returning with every moment and every breath. Let this be an inspiration to act with generosity toward all beings, participating consciously in that matrix of blessings.
Rather than seeing ourselves in anthropocentric terms (as a special class of beings deserving a central place in the scheme of things), through this practice we cultivate an understanding of the world as a vast field of blessings in which there are bodhisattvas everywhere, blissfully dying and being born for the sake of one another, whether they have attained consciousness of this beauty yet or not.
Please feel free to ask any questions about the paramita, this practice, or about any other aspect of Green Meditation.
NOTE: To hear a beautiful version of Mani chanting, go here. The melody can be learned easily in a matter of minutes. Or, you may say it more quickly, with an equal emphasis on each syllable.
NEXT WEEK: The Second Paramita: Moral Discipline.
Clark Strand is the founder of the Green Meditation Society and the author of the book How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not, an examination of 30 koans drawn from the Bible, and Meditation Without Gurus: A Guide to the Heart of Practice. A former Zen Buddhist monk, he is currently developing an online support network for those who wish to organize GMS groups where they live, or for those who want support in developing a practice on their own.