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Empty of Self: Paramitas And Bodhisattva

Last month we explored the Noble Eightfold Path, the steps taken to address Dukkha, within the context of the Three Marks (laws) of Buddhism. Paramitas or virtues are the heart-felt actions that connote the emptying of self or release of the “I/Thou duality. 

They are a shift in the spiritual center of gravity. I suggest this disbursement is not just decentralization but holistic as well.By observing behavior we intuit continuity and seeing continuity we gain insight. Enter the Bodhisattva. 

A Bodhisattva is virtuious in helping others. This is not helping others before oneself, but rather one’s self is no longer the end all and be all, hence there is no “other” in the dualistic sense. So let's look at the six paramitas in this light.

We can begin with another term used for paramitas: wisdom that is the ability in a given moment to act with knowledge and experience to to make choices that reduce infusing uneeded suffering into the situation. Unneeded is based on insight and mindfulness of the conditions and variables of the moment and possibles.

In The Essence of Buddhism, Traleg Rinpoche includes two chapters on the paramitas and introduces them stating:

“If we want to obtain enlightenment by becoming a Bodhisattva, it is necessary to actualize wisdom and compassion. This is done by the practice of what are called the six paramitas, or 'transcendental actions.'

Para in Sanskrit literally means the 'other shore.' Here it means going beyond our own notion of the self. From the Buddhist point of view in general, and from the Mahayana point of view in particular, if we want to progress properly on the path, we need to go beyond our conventional understanding of the self. So when we say that paramita means 'transcendental action,' we mean it in the sense that actions or attitudes are performed in a non-egocentric manner. 'Transcendental' does not refer to some external reality, but rather to the way in which we conduct our lives and perceive the world—either in an egocentric or a non-egocentric way. The six paramitas are concerned with the effort to step out of the egocentric mentality.”

There are six paramitas.  Practicing the paramitas is perfecting virtue.  Insight deepens practice.  Practice deepens insight.  In Buddhism, ethics and understanding are mutually reinforcing. Impermanence and inter-being are mutually implicative.  Recognizing inter-being breaks down barriers; it makes divisions porous, diaphanous, flexible, provisional.  It undermines the absolutizing of separateness.  Ethically, this leads to greater identification with others; greater sympathy, empathy, generosity, kindness; a greater feeling of familial inter-being.

The six paramitas are:

  • Dana—Altruism, Giving, Generosity 

  • Shila—-Ethics 

  • Kshanti--Patience

  • Virya—-Persistence

  • Dhyana-Meditation 

  • Prajna—Wisdom. 

The other five paramitas may be construed as variations and specifications of dana. Taken together, all six are the matrix of equanimity. Equanimity is both the root and the fruit of wholesome conduct.  Equanimity is upeksha in Sanskrit.  The word upeksha has two roots: upa and iks.  Upa-iks has the root meaning “looking closely” or “close consideration.”  Close consideration leads to insight.  Insight leads to virtue. Virtue leads to equanimity. (Referenced from a paper: A Brief History of Zen by Stefan Schindler).

Do not think that the six paramitas march along 1,2,3,4,5,& 6. Collectively they are Prajna Paramita of  the Heart Sutra. It is the swirl of the first five that present “fullness.” This swirl is the energy of a Bodhisattva-being. The Openness of Dana through Virya (persistence) affords Shila (precepts) through Kashanti (patience) developed through Dhyana (zazen). This becomes compassion, loving-kindness, joy, and equanimity. 

Join us this Tuesday, April 29, 2024 (7:00 PM/EDT) in person at The First Congregational Church of Falmouth, MA or 

Palms together,


Unshin Sangaku Dan Joslyn-sensei

Founder and Guiding Teacher

The Falmouth Soto Zen Sangha


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