Good evening and welcome to our retreat on the ten perfections. It’s always a pleasure to come and meditate with you here, and I hope the retreat is helpful for you all.
The ten perfections are a list of teachings that provide focus for living everyday life in a way that has meaning and purpose, at the same time developing the path to awakening. This emphasis on purpose is in line with the nature of the mind itself, which is purposeful. To be happy, the mind requires a good purpose. The perfections pose questions that force you to reflect on what kind of purpose you already live for, and whether you might do better to aim at something higher.
The questions they ask are:
What kind of happiness do you want to set as a goal in your life?
Is your current behavior actually taking you there or somewhere else?
If it’s taking you somewhere else, what do you need to change?
The answer given by the ten perfections to these questions is that true happiness can be gained through human action, but it lies in a dimension beyond the confines of space, time, and change. It’s the best possible goal. In some cases, it can be attained in this life, but in others it may take two lifetimes or many more. So, the perfections ask you to take the attitude of a marathon runner. Pace yourself and be ready for the long term so that you don’t give up before you’ve arrived at the goal.
All of the Buddha’s teachings—his Dhamma—are goal-oriented. This is reflected in the fact that the word Dhamma is often paired with the word attha, which means “meaning,” “purpose,” “benefit,” or “goal.” All of these meanings of attha are connected. To know the meaning of the Dhamma is not just a matter of interpreting its words in terms of other words. You also have to know its purpose: how the teaching is supposed to be acted on, and where it’s supposed to lead you when you act on it correctly. In fact, you won’t really know the fullness of the meaning of the Dhamma until you’ve had a direct experience of the goal. To reach that experience, you have to ask, with regard to every teaching: “What is this teaching for? How do I act on it correctly? And when I do, where will it take me?” Then act accordingly.
To understand the goal of the ten perfections, we should first look at two approaches to life that the Buddha did not take, because sometimes they are falsely attributed to him.
The first is that there is nothing to attain, that we should reject the desire for something better than what we presently experience as unrealistic, and instead find contentment in accepting things as they already are.
A while back, I was watching an interview in which a Dhamma teacher was saying just that: that happiness lies in simply relaxing and accepting things as they are, with the realization that they cannot be changed. The woman who was interviewing the teacher said, “But isn’t this defeatist and pessimistic?” And the teacher said, “Only if you think about it.”
Now, the Buddha was not defeatist, and there are no images in the Canon of relaxing your way to awakening. All of its images are of search, struggle, and mastering skills. As the Buddha said, the path is a path of victory. “Unexcelled victory in battle,” he called it. And he certainly didn’t say not to think. We end desire not through resignation, but by using our discernment to strategize, to find a path to a happiness so complete that there’s no more need for desire. It’s found, not by lowering your standards, but by finding good standards and then raising them. To do that, you have to expand your imagination as to what you are able to do.
The second approach that the Buddha didn’t take was the materialist approach, claiming that the death of the body is the end of consciousness, so that we have to find our goal solely in this life. This perspective might lead us to find meaning in creating a better society where people can live a moral life, with all its anxieties and vulnerabilities. This, however, does not solve the major problem in life, which is that we’re driven first by our hungers. We live by feeding on one another.
One of the images that occurred to the Buddha before he began his quest for awakening was of many fish in a stream. The stream is drying up, and the fish are fighting one another over that last little bit of water, yet even the fish who succeed in pushing the others out of the way are going to end up dying anyhow. If this were all there was to life, it would be pretty depressing.
The problem with the relaxed, accepting approach and the materialist approach is that both see suffering as a necessary part of life that simply has to be accepted. This is precisely what the Buddha did not accept. He aspired to freedom from suffering and from the need to feed.
The materialist view also differs from the Buddha’s approach in that it starts with an assumption about the relationship between body and mind—that the body comes prior to the mind—and from there draws some conclusions about what we can do and know. The Buddha’s approach was the other way around. He started by mastering skills that allowed him to do and know more than he had ever done and known before: putting an end to suffering and realizing a timeless happiness. Then—in the course of mastering those skills—he made some radical discoveries about how the body and mind are related.
One of his discoveries was that consciousness does not need a body to survive. Consciousness and craving feed on one another in such a way that they can keep each other going beyond the death of the body, from lifetime to lifetime, indefinitely. This was not an idea that the Buddha had simply picked up from Indian culture. There were many materialists in ancient India. So, in teaching rebirth, he was not adopting, without thinking, an idea universally accepted in his culture. It was a hotly debated issue in his time.
He also discovered that actions have results that lead beyond this life, and the results follow the pattern of cause and effect based on the quality of the intention behind the act. Because intentions come from the mind, this puts the mind first.
Here it’s important to note that the word for mind in Pāli, citta, can also mean heart. In other words, we’re looking at the mind/heart both as something that thinks and understands, and as something that desires. From the Buddha’s perspective, these two functions are not totally separate. Our thoughts are shaped by our desires, and our desires by our thoughts. In particular, the act of forming an intention uses both sides of the mind/heart. Each intention is based on a desire to attain a goal, informed by our understanding of what is possible and how, given what’s possible, it can best be attained.
The practice of developing the perfections is one where we train our mind to be good so that it has a correct understanding of cause and effect, and of how to use cause and effect to attain a wise goal. We also train our heart to be good, both in the sense of desiring a well-being that causes no harm, and in the sense of having the strength to carry through with that desire. Then we combine that good mind and good heart to produce intentional actions that are skillful and coherent, leading to the best possible goal: a happiness that has no need to feed. Only then can we be truly harmless and safe.
The Buddha discovered that this goal is possible and he presented it as a challenge: Do you want to live life without trying to see whether it’s true? He says that we have a potential power in our hands. Don’t you want to see how far it can take you toward awakening to the end of suffering?
The perfections we’ll be discussing in the course of this retreat are qualities of heart and mind needed to arrive at that awakening. If we desire true happiness, their development should take priority in our lives, requiring that we trade short-term comfort for long-term happiness.
The ten perfections are these: giving, virtue, renunciation, discernment, persistence, endurance or patience, truth, determination, goodwill, and equanimity. You’ll notice that these are qualities both of a good mind and of a good heart. We try to bring wise understanding to the desires of the heart so that, as they work together, they can shape intentions that are noble and good.
These qualities are also strengths, and many of them are listed in the suttas as treasures. They teach us to regard the challenges of life not as obstacles, but as opportunities to make our hearts and minds wealthy and strong.
The role and importance of the perfections is reflected in the Pāli word for perfection: pāramī. It can either mean “foremost,” para, or it can be related to “to the other side,” paraṁ. In other words, the ten perfections take priority for anyone who is aiming to go beyond suffering, to find unbinding or true freedom on the other side of the flood of birth and death.
The purpose of this retreat will be to provide some understanding of the perfections and to give an opportunity to put them into practice through meditation. We ask that, for the duration of the retreat, you take as a working hypothesis the Buddha’s understanding of the mind that underlies his teaching of the perfections. This will give you an opportunity to look at your life from the perspective that this understanding provides.
Basically, the Buddha’s perspective is that if we train the mind and heart to be truly good, we will also be truly happy. Happiness and goodness, when they’re genuine, go naturally together. The Buddha’s insight here is very different from the perspective of contemporary culture, which says that true happiness isn’t possible. “Buy our goods instead,” they say. “Content yourself with what we can sell you.” There are also many currents in our society saying that being truly good is neither possible nor wise. So, by adopting the perfections, we free ourselves from the cynical attitude we see so prevalent around us.
As for the organization of the retreat: In the evening we’ll have talks on the ten perfections. The morning talks will be primarily practical talks on meditation and other issues related to the perfections. However, because there are ten perfections and only eight nights, some of the perfections will be allocated to the mornings. We’ll also have opportunities for questions and answers. But because there are way too many people to just raise your hands, we’ll have slips of paper for you to write your questions on and a bowl for you to put the questions in. We will answer the questions as the schedule allows.
Given the way that the retreat is organized, there are a couple of perfections that won’t come until the end of the retreat, but it’s good to talk about them briefly now. For example, equanimity and endurance: We have lots of people in this room, and I understand we’re going to get a lot of rain this week. So, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice endurance and equanimity. Many of the ajaans in Thailand have said of Westerners that endurance and equanimity are our weak points. Here’s our chance to prove them wrong.
Another perfection worth noting as we begin is the perfection of renunciation. It, too, won’t be discussed for several days, but it’s precisely the perfection under which meditation comes. So, we’re going to start meditating right now in order to give you some practical basis for understanding the discussions of renunciation and also the relationship of meditation to the other perfections as we come to them.
Close your eyes; get in position. Spread thoughts of goodwill. Goodwill is a wish for true happiness. The Buddha connected it with discernment. He said that any time you have ill will for someone else, it’s a sign of wrong view. And because the teaching is all about finding true happiness, goodwill underlies all the perfections.
So, start with goodwill for yourself. Tell yourself, “May I be truly happy.” Think for a minute about what that means. Happiness doesn’t simply come from the wish. It comes from our actions. So, when you’re wishing goodwill for yourself, you’re telling yourself, “May I understand the causes for true happiness, and may I be willing and able to act on them.”
Then spread the same thought to others. Start with people who are close to your heart: your family, your very close friends. May they find true happiness, too.
Then spread those thoughts out in ever-widening circles: to people you know well and like, to people you like even though you don’t know them so well, to people you’re more neutral about, and to people you don’t like. Remember that goodwill in this case means that if these people have been behaving in very bad ways, you’re wishing that they learn how to change their ways for the better—which is something you can wish for everyone without any hypocrisy.
Spread thoughts of goodwill to people you don’t even know. And not just people—living beings of all kinds: east, west, north, south, above, and below, out to infinity. May we all find true happiness in our hearts.
Now bring your thoughts to the breath. The word “breath” in this context doesn’t mean just the air coming in and out of the lungs. It also means the flow of energy in the body, which exists on many levels, the most obvious being the energy that allows the breath to come in and go out.
So, take a couple of good, long, deep in-and-out breaths and notice where you feel the energy of the breath most prominently in the body. If long breathing feels good, you can keep up that rhythm. If it doesn’t feel good, you can change. You can experiment to see what kind of breathing feels best for the body right now: long or short, fast or slow, deep or shallow, heavy or light, coarse or refined.
If your mind leaves the breath to follow another thought, drop that thought and you’ll find yourself right back at the breath. If the mind wanders off 10 times or 100 times, drop those thoughts 10 times or 100 times. Don’t get discouraged. Each time you come back to the breath, reward yourself with a breath that feels particularly gratifying. That way, the mind will be more and more inclined to want to come back. If there are any pains anywhere in the body, don’t focus on them. Instead, focus on the parts of the body that you can make comfortable with the breathing.
Now, as the breath gets comfortable, there will sometimes be a tendency to leave the breath to focus on the sense of comfort, in which case you lose the basis for your concentration. So, to counteract that tendency, as soon as the breath gets comfortable, the next step is to breathe in and out aware of the entire body. And a good way to work up to that full-body awareness is to go through the body, section by section, to notice how the breathing feels in different parts of the body.
Start down around the navel. Locate that part of the body in your awareness. Watch it for a while to see how it feels as you breathe in and breathe out. Notice what kind of breathing feels good right there. If you notice any tension or tightness in that part of the body, allow it to relax, so that no new tension builds up as you breathe in, and you don’t hold on to any tension as you breathe out.
Now move your attention over to the right, to the lower right-hand corner of the abdomen and follow the same steps there.
One, locate that part of the body in your awareness. Two, watch it for a while as you breathe in and breathe out to see what kind of breathing feels good there. And three, if there’s any sense of tension or tightness there, allow it to relax.
Now move your attention over to the left, to the lower left-hand corner of the abdomen, and follow the same three steps there.
Now bring your attention up to the solar plexus, right at the tip of the breastbone, and follow the same three steps there.
Now bring your attention over to the right, to the right flank.
And then to the left, to the left flank.
Then bring your attention to the middle of the chest. Try to be especially sensitive to how the breath energy feels around the heart, and breathe in a way that feels soothing there.
Now bring your attention to the right, to the place where the chest and the shoulder meet.
And then to the same spot on the left.
Now bring your attention to the base of the throat.
Now bring your attention to the middle of the head. As you breathe in and out, think of the breath energy coming in and out of the head from all directions, not only through the nose, but also through the eyes, the ears, in from the back of the head, down from the top of the head, going deep, deep, deep into the brain, gently dissolving away any patterns of tension you may feel anywhere in the head: around the jaws, around the forehead, around the eyes, at the back of the neck.
Now bring your attention to the base of the neck, right at the base of the skull. As you breathe in, think of the breath energy entering there from the back and spreading down through the neck, down the shoulders, the arms, out to the tips of the fingers. As you breathe out, think of it radiating out from all those parts of the body into the air.
As you get more sensitive to these parts of the body, if you see that one side is holding more tension than the other, relax that side and try to keep it relaxed, all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out-.
As blatant patterns of tension begin to relax in these parts of the body, try to become more sensitive to subtler patterns of tension that were obscured by the more blatant ones. Allow even the slightest tension that you can detect to relax.
Now, keeping your attention focused on the back of the neck, this time as you breathe in, think of the energy entering there and then going down both sides of the spine all the way down to the tailbone. Then, as you breathe out, think of it radiating out from the entire spine into the air. Again, if you notice that there’s more tension in one side of the back than the other, allow that side to relax. And try to keep becoming more and more sensitive even to the slightest patterns of tension in this part of the body. When you sense them, allow them to relax.
Now bring your attention down to the tailbone. As you breathe in, think of the energy entering there and going down through the hips, the legs, to the tips of the toes. And then as you breathe out, think of the energy radiating out from all those parts of the body into the air. And again, if there’s more tension in one side of the body than the other, allow that side to relax. And keep it relaxed, all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out-. As you’re staying here, try to become sensitive to ever more subtle patterns of tension so that you can dissolve those away, too.
That completes one cycle in the survey of the body. If you were meditating on your own, you could go through the body as many times as you like. But for the time being, find one spot where it seems most congenial to focus your attention. Focus your attention there and then, from that spot, let your awareness fill the entire body, so that you’re aware of the whole body as you breathe in, the whole body as you breathe out.
The range of your awareness may have the tendency to shrink, especially on the out-breath. So, each time you breathe in, remind yourself, “Whole body.” Each time you breathe out, “Whole body.” Allow the breath to find whatever rhythm feels comfortable. There’s nothing else you have to do right now, nothing else you have to think about. Just try to maintain this sense of centered but broad awareness. It’s healing for the body, healing for the mind, and it provides a good basis for insight to arise. But for the moment, don’t worry about insights. Simply try to make this foundation as solid as you can.
Before you leave meditation, think thoughts of goodwill once more. Think of whatever sense of peace or well-being you’ve felt during the past session and dedicate it to others: either to specific people who you know who are suffering right now or to all living beings in all directions. May we all find peace and well-being in our hearts.
And with that thought, you can open your eyes.
Q: Could you give the Pāli term for each perfection?
A: Dāna is giving, sīla is virtue, nekkhama is renunciation, paññā is discernment, viriya is persistence, khanti is endurance or patience, sacca is truth, adhiṭṭhāna is determination, mettā is goodwill, and upekkhā is equanimity.
Q: What is the relationship between the perfections and kamma?
A: They’re qualities of mind that will determine whether you will make good kamma or bad kamma—in other words, good or bad intentional actions. Everything in the Buddha’s teachings except for nibbāna is related to kamma.
Q: You touched on something about the relationship between renunciation and meditation. It sounds very important, but you didn’t explain it. Can you explain more about that?
A: When you get the mind into concentration, you have to put aside all of your interest in sensual thinking. That’s precisely what renunciation is. When the Buddha’s talking about sensuality, he’s not talking about sensual pleasures. He’s talking about our fascination with thinking about sensual pleasures. For example, you may be thinking that when our evening session is over you can go into the nearby town and get some ice cream. Your fascination with thinking about the ice cream: That’s the sensuality. The ice cream itself is not sensuality. Only if you drop that kind of thinking can you get the mind into right concentration. At the same time, the only way to overcome sensuality is to provide the mind with a better, non-sensual pleasure, and the concentration is precisely what provides that pleasure. That’s how renunciation and concentration practice are related to each other.
Q: There are practice lineages of meditation that tell you to keep the eyes half-open when you meditate in order to not separate yourself from the world, in light of the fact that our life and our activities take place within the world with our eyes open.
A: When you meditate, you can have your eyes open, half-opened, or closed: It doesn’t make any difference. Do whatever seems best for keeping your mind both calm and awake. However, it’s good to remember that when you meditate, you are taking time out from the world—because you have a problem that the world cannot solve, and only you can solve it for yourself. That’s the problem of the unnecessary suffering you cause for yourself. This is a problem that happens in a part of your awareness that no one else can know directly. In other words, no one else can experience your suffering.
The solution to this problem comes from qualities that lie within your mind, again, in the part that no one else can know. So, allow yourself to have some time out from the world so that you can focus your attention fully on the problem you need to solve. If the world keeps pushing in, you have to push back. And watch out for meditation lineages that tell you that your fulfillment will happen within the world, because they won’t condone your spending the time you need to solve the problem that you have to solve. If you don’t solve it, you’ll keep on suffering, and that suffering will spill out onto others as well.
Q: Is the Buddhist path the same for everyone?
A: Everyone will have to develop the same perfections. Some people will have to work harder on some perfections than others. And some people, in addition to gaining awakening, will develop other psychic abilities as well. But the path to awakening itself is always the same.
Q: How should one find the purpose of one’s life?
A: Fortunately, you are the person who can decide what your purpose is going to be. In other words, it’s not a pre-ordained purpose you have to find. It’s a purpose you choose. In the Buddhist cosmology, there’s no one in charge. There’s no one assigning a purpose to other beings, which means that you’re free to choose what you think is the best goal in your life. Now, your past kamma may make it difficult to attain that goal in this lifetime, but if the goal is good, don’t let that discourage you. Just because a path of practice is easy doesn’t mean that it takes you where you want to go. And just because a path has obstacles doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to follow it.
Q: An awareness that is freed from the body and its cravings: Is that awakening?
A: There are states of mind where we’re not aware of the body and we don’t see any cravings, but it is possible for the cravings to be there, simply that they’re not showing themselves. They’ve gone underground. That’s not a state of awakening. Awakening is a mind where the possibility of craving has been uprooted.