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The practices of bodhisattvas—the six perfections

The practices of bodhisattvas—the six perfections

The first of two talks given at the Wihara Ekayana Serpong in Indonesia. The talks are based on the bookCourageous Compasssion the sixth volume in The Library of Wisdom and Compassion series by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Venerable Thubten Chodron. The talk is given in English with Bahasa Indonesia translation.

  • The bodhisattvas practice the six perfections to become fully awakened
  • The perfection of generosity
  • The perfection of ethical conduct
  • The perfection of fortitude
  • The perfection of joyous effort
  • The perfection of meditative stabilization
  • The perfection of wisdom
  • How we accomplish the aims of others through practicing each of the perfections
  • Questions and answers

The practices of bodhisattvas—The six perfections (download)

It was here at the Serpong Ekayana temple a few years ago that I had a really good experience and saw that people were quite interested. I was very pleased that you asked me to talk about the six perfections, the bodhisattva practices. Because I’ve toured in Singapore and Malayasia and now here, and very often the topics are things like, “How to get along with other people” and “How to have a kind heart.” They are things about how to be a good person in daily life, which is very important. But you all requested an actual topic from the scriptures, so it’s a very welcome change for me to talk about that.

The reason I asked for a table is because I want to read from one book that talks about the six perfections. This book is written by His Holiness the Dalia Lama, and I assisted, and it’s called Courageous Compassion. This book is number six in a series of ten books called The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, and it’s where the Dalai Lama is really talking about the whole path and going into great depth about it. When it talks about the six perfections, it’s quite beautiful and inspiring. These are the main practices of the bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are people who have generated the bodhicitta, which is the aspiration to attain full awakening in order to best benefit all sentient beings.

Cultivating our motivation

First, before anything, we need to take refuge and set our motivation. When we’re taking refuge, we’re being very clear in our mind that we’re following the Buddhist path. So, let’s start with a few minutes of silent meditation so that we can observe our breath and let our mind settle down. Let’s remember that we’re here to learn the Buddha’s teachings, and we want to learn them because we want to improve our own lives and our own mental state. By doing that, we can more effectively benefit society and all the other individuals we meet every day, and in the long term, each and every sentient being. With that motivation then may we listen to the teachings today.

Overview of the six perfections

In our society we always want more things, right? Nobody is satisfied with what the have. We want more and more. But have you ever noticed that the more you get, the more hell realms you have? If you have a computer then you’re in computer hell because the computer doesn’t do what we want it to do. And, of course, it happens when you’re giving a talk in front of a whole big group of people. [laughter] And when you have a car then you also have car hell because your car doesn’t work when you need it to work, and that’s usually when you’re in a hurry and something is very urgent.

This is from Courageous Compassion. In a previous volume of this library, we talked about the beginning of the path—about precious human life, the wish to be free from samsara, and finally the altruistic compassion of bodhicitta. Once people generate that incredible, noble, fantastic, amazing intention to become a fully awakened buddha in order to best benefit sentient beings, then this is the practice they do to become fully awakened buddhas. There are six of them, and I want you to memorize them because I’m going to quiz you tomorrow. [laughter] I’ll test you tonight, too. 

The first one is generosity. The second one is ethical conduct. The third one is fortitude; often the third one is translated as patience, but that’s not a good translation. It doesn’t mean patience. The fourth one is joyous effort. The fifth one is meditative stability. And the sixth one is wisdom. Repeat them after me again, okay? It’s generosity, ethical conduct, fortitude, joyous effort, meditative stability, and wisdom. You might want to take notes and write them down. I’m warning you…[laughter] They’re also in many Dharma books, too. First I’m going to go through and talk about what each one of them is, and then tomorrow I’ll go into them in more depth. First we have to figure out what they are, though.

Explaining each perfection

Generosity is physical, verbal and mental actions based on a kind thought and the willingness to give. 

When it says “a willingness to give,” it means you want to give to others; it doesn’t mena you are obliged to. If you’re generous just because you feel other people are expecting you to be, you don’t really have a generous mind. So, you may give something, but it’s not actually generosity. If you’re giving something because you want other people to like you, not because you really care about them but you just want them to like you, that’s not real generosity either. Real generosity is when there is really a strong feeling in your mind that you want to give, and there’s no miserliness or stinginess in your mind. In other words, there’s no attachment to what we’re giving. 

Ethical conduct is restraining from nonvirtue, such as the seven nonvirtues of body and speech, and three nonvirtues of mind. 

Do you know what the ten nonvirtues of body and mind are? Let’s start from the beginning of the list. There are three things that we do physically with a negative motivation that harm somebody else. And when we harm somebody else, we’re creating negative karma ourselves. The three physical nonvirtues are killing (taking lives), stealing (taking what is not really offered), and unwise and unkind sexual conduct. And the four nonvirtues of speech are lying, divisive words (speaking in a way that causes others to split), harsh words (insulting and criticizing people), and gossip, our favorite one. [laughter] “Did you hear what he said? What have you heard about what people are doing? You haven’t hard anything? Oh, I’m sure you have some gossip.” [laughter]

Then the three mental ones are covetousness (wanting things that belong to others), malice (thinking about how you’re going to get even and harm somebody else for what they did to you)-, and wrong views. We’ll get into them in more depth when we talk about ethical conduct. 

Fortitude is the abilty to remain calm and undisturbed in the face of harm from others. 

So, no matter what other people say to you or how many names they call you, you’re calm. I’m sure everybody here is like that, right? Nobody here loses their temper and yells and screams and throws things. [laughter] The problem is that you’re all married to somebody who loses their temper. [laughter]

Fortitude is also the ability to remain calm when you have physical or mental suffering.

This is talking about when you’re sick or injured or something like that. 

And it’s also the ability to remain calm when you have difficulty in learning the Dharma. 

So, tomorrow if you can’t remember the six perfections, this is what you practice. 

Joyous effort is taking delight in virtue.

So, you are really quite delighted and happy to do your Dharma practices: creating merit, purifying your mind. This one is what you practice at six o’clock in the morning when your alarm rings and you have to get up and do your morning meditation. Often, early in the morning the alarm rings, and you have the aspiration to do some practice, but you’re tired, so you say, “I’ll do it tomorrow morning.” And then you bang on the alarm clock and go back to sleep. [laughter]

Meditative stability is the ability to remain focused and concentrate on a constructive object without distraction.

When you just did the breathing meditation, how long did you stay focused on the breath? You’re with friends; you can be honest. Did anybody get past five seconds? Our mind is like a monkey mind, isn’t it? We go to the past with our memories and then we go to the future with all of our daydreams and then we fall asleep and then the bell rings at the end of the session.

Wisdom is the ability to distinguish the conventional truth and the ultimate truth, and also the ability to know what to practice in the Dharma and what to avoid.

The importance of the six perfections

That’s a brief introduction to those six that gives you some idea of what we’re going to talk about. Now, why is it important to practice these six? What’s the necessity and what is the function of them? It’s twofold: one is to accomplish the welfare of others, and one is to accomplish our own purpose, our own welfare. We all know that the Buddha talked so much about having a kind and open heart, being of benefit to others and not just thinking of ourselves. When we act in that way then we’re fulfilling the welfare and the aims of others. 

Then the other one is to fulfill our own purpose. Some people think, “I shouldn’t have a purpose of my own because that would be selfish,” but that’s not correct. Because we have a purpose; we have spiritual aims. We want to have a good rebirth in the future. We want to attain liberation; we want to become buddhas. Accomplishing those aims is fulfilling our own purpose. So, don’t think Buddhism is about never thinking about anything for one’s self. No, we have purposes and aspirations, but they aren’t solely for our own selfish benefit. They are for improving ourselves so we can contribute to the welfare of others.

Working for the benefit of others

Now we’re going to go through the six again and talk about how when we engage in them we are working for the benefit of others and accomplishing their welfare. 

By giving generously we alleviate other people’s poverty. We give them the necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter and medicine. And we also provide them with things they enjoy. So, that accomplishes the purpose of others. When we live ethically and avoid those ten actions we discussed earlier then we refrain from harming others. And when we stop harming them then we are preventing them from being afraid, preventing pain, and we’re creating a safe environment for others. 

Nowadays our world is full of wars and conflict because people are not keeping good ethical conduct. I’m sure if you look at the news everyday, you see people suffering and in pain—in Russia, in Gaza, in Israel. And it’s all because of people’s ignorance and their self-centered thought. They just think of what they want to do, what benefits them, and as a result, so many people are killed, so many people’s livelihoods and families are destroyed. Sometimes people ask me, “How can we create peace in this world?” Ethical conduct is the answer. If we take the first one of the ten nonvirtues—to abandon killing—imagine what would happen in the world if for just one day, every single human being on this planet didn’t kill. 

Imagine the feeling of safety everybody would have if they knew they could trust others not to harm them physically. Because if we’re a student of history, we can see that all it takes sometimes is one person who likes to kill, and it sets off so much conflict in the world. So, one person keeping good ethical conduct influences the lives of a lot of people. So, if you do not harm others physically, that means everybody—people, animals, everybody—can feel safe around you. Isn’t that an incredibly contribution to the world? That’s you creating peace in the world.

What we do matters

The point is that what we do affects others. What we do matters. It means we need to slow down and really think about things before we do them. I work a lot with people who are in prison, and all of them were not thinking clearly when they committed their crimes. They just thought, “I feel like doing this,” so they did it and didn’t think about the results for others or for themselves. Then the wind up in prison for maybe twenty-five years or maybe the rest of their lives, and they also feel bad because of the harm they gave to others. Many of the guys I work with were intoxicated when they committed their crime. Sometimes it’s drinking. “I’ll just have a little bit; I won’t get drunk,” and pretty soon they’re drunk. And when you’re drunk you don’t think clearly. 

Some of them are there because they used drugs. Again, they cannot think cleary when they are intoxicated with drugs. That doesn’t mean that these people are evil. In Buddhism, we do not say there are evil people. There are people who are ignorant and because of their ignorance and anger and clinging attachment, they do harmful actions. They are uncontrolled, and they do stupid things, and then they suffer and others suffer. That doesn’t mean that these people are inherently existent criminals who we can never trust and who can never do anything good. They are just like us in having the potential to become fully awakened buddhas. So, we can’t say, “Oh, they’re just evil; throw them away.”

I’ve seen some of them become incredible Dharma practitioners. There is one man in particular, and let me tell you what he did that landed him in prison. He killed his mother and his stepfather. That’s pretty heavy, isn’t it? He was intoxicated with drugs when he did it, and he now has a life sentence, so he will never get out of prison. But he met the Dharma in prison, and he loves the Buddhist teachings. He practices them with joyous effort. So now, even the mental health people in that prison often refer some of the other people in prison to him because he can give them good ideas and help them work through their problems. Right now he’s writing an autobiography, and when I read some of what he experienced as a child, it’s horrible. This is really the power of the Dharma and his close connection. He has really changed.

He also wrote a children’s book, and it’s about a dog named Gavin. You have the translated version here. It’s a wonderful children’s book to read to your kids. It’s called Gavin Discovers the Secret to Happiness. All the characters in the book are dogs and cats. So, Gavin is one dog and he looks at all the other dogs who have more toys than he has. He gets kind of jealous of them. Then another dog comes to the dog park named Bodhi who is friendly with everybody and doesn’t care so much about having lots of toys. Gavin and Bodhi became friends and then one day Bodhi doesn’t come to the park to play, so Gavin goes to his house to find out what’s wrong. Bodhi’s mom tells Gavin that Bodhi has cancer, and so sometimes he gets really sick and can’t play. Gavin is so concerned about Bodhi; he is more concerned about Bodhi’s health than about himself. And the story goes on from there.

It’s a wonderful story that teaches children that what’s more important in your life is your relationship with other people, not how many possessions you have or money. This was written by somebody who is in prison. There are some beautiful drawings in the books as well. I encourage you to read it to your kids, and it gives you the opportunity to talk to your children about good values and good ways to treat people. What’s interesting is that when I said that, so many people on the women’s side are nodding about teaching their kids good values. But I didn’t see any of the men nodding about teaching their kids good values. [laughter] What’s the story, guys? [laughter] 

If you are dads, your children need your good influence. It’s not just that you have a kid and give the kid to your wives to raise. Kids need fathers, and they need fathers that are interested in teachings them by being good role models. Please, dads, remember that; it’s very important. I was quite fortune because I had a really wonderful dad. But I’ve seen people whose fathers are too buys working or going out to play golf to spend time with the kids. Or when they’re with the kids, they sound like drill sergeants in the army: “Get up! Go clean your room!”

In the last couple of days I’ve been watching the news as they release the Israeli hostages. Many of the hostages are kids, and they just run to their dads. The dads pick them up and hold them so tight, and you can see how important their father’s love is to kids. And of course a mother’s love is also important. Watch this on television; it’s very moving to see.

Benefiting others, continued

Having fortitude means that when you’re with people who are impolite or who do harmful actions, your mind is calm. You don’t retaliate, and by not retaliating then you’re not causing others pain or criticizing them so that they suffer from guilt and remorse. You’re not humiliating them. That’s how fortitute fulfills the benefit of others. You have to be a very, very strong person inside so that when somebody harms you, you don’t go completely ballistic and want to harm them back. Then the way we benefit others when we practice joyous effort is to continue to help them without being lazy or expecting them to say, “Thank you,” or getting tired. That’s a lot of benefit, too, to give to others. With meditative stability we’re able to gain supernormal powers and use them to benefit others. And then with wisdom we’re able to teach others in ways that they are able to understand what to practice and what to avoid and how to differentiate conventional truth and ultimate truth. This can help eliminate their doubt and confusion and enable them to really take the Dharma into their heart.

So, we went through the nature of each of these six and how we benefit others through practicing them in our own lives. Now I want to open it up to questions and comments and maybe answers. Answers are not guaranteed. [laughter]

Questions & Answers

Audience: [Inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): The key is to have a daily meditation practice. The key word there is “daily.” It’s not once-a-month or when I feel like it. Then you would decide on an object on which to develop concentration. Some people like to use their breath. Other people like imagining the image of the Buddha and using that image of the Buddha to develop concentration. So, there are two mental factors that are really important when developing concentration. One is mindfulness, and mindfulness puts your attention on the object, whether it’s the breath or the image of the Buddha, and maintains stability of your focus on that object. The other mental factor is called introspective awareness, and that one watches your mind, monitors your mind, to see if you’re still concentrating on that object or falling asleep or daydreaming. That’s a very short description; there’s a lot more to it.

Audience: You spoke about wisdom and discerning between conventional and ultimate truths. Could you perhaps give us an example of something that is known conventionally versus ultimately?

VTC: The cup, for example, is a conventional truth. It’s something that exists, that functions. We use it; it changes moment-by-moment. It’s a conventional truth, and through our ignorant mind, we can identify it as a cup, but we don’t really see its true nature, how it really exists. So, what is this cup, really? It looks like it has the nature of “cup” from its own side, that something inside it radiates “cup” so that anyone who walks into the room will understand “cup” and not “rhinocerous.” It looks like there’s a real cup. So then, what is the cup? Is the handle the cup? Is the bottom the cup? Is this side the cup or that side? Are any of the parts of the cup the cup? What do you think? If I gave you just the handle, would you say, “Thank you for the cup?” If I gave you just one piece of the cup, could you drink out of it? No, none of the parts alone are the cup. 

What about the collection of parts: is that the cup? If we had all the pieces of the cup and spread them out on the table, is that a cup? Is the cup something different than this? Can the handle be here and the cup over there? When we look for what exactly is the cup, we can’t find anything that we can pinpoint and say, “This is the cup.” You might say, “Yeah, so what?” Well, instead of using the cup, what if we use the I, your self. Are you your body? Is your body who you are?

Audience: [Inaudible]

VTC: There is a body. Sometimes we feel me; you know, if somebody slaps you, you feel like, “You’re hitting me.” Is this arm me? Is this who you are? 

Audience: [Inaudible]

VTC: No, even conventionally it isn’t you because when you die, the worms eat it. If this were you, then which body is you—the body of a child, the body of a teenager, the body when you are old? What about your consciousness, your mind, the part of you that thinks and cognizes and experiences and feels? Is that you? 

Audience: No. [laughter]

VTC: Are you sure? You say, “I’m happy.” Are you that happy feeling? Is that happy feeling you? If we say, “I see the carpet,” are you the person who is seeing? Is your visual consciousness you? When we look through all the mental states we have, we can’t identify one of them as being me. So, when we use analysis to research and investigate “Who really am I,” we can’t find anything to pinpoint. All we see is a bunch of parts. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t exist. Because when we don’t analyze and just have our ignorant perception, then we think, “There is this person.” But when we analyze who this person is, nothing.

Why is this important? Because when somebody insults you and calls you a name or points out your mistake, there’s a feeling of, “Who are you to talk about me that way?” And you are angry! But then stop and say, “Okay, who are they criticizing? Who is the me they are criticizing?” Who is the real you who is getting criticized? Are you your mental consciouness or your body? You can’t really pinpoint a person who is getting criticized. And who is getting angry? This one is really good. We say, “I’m furious!” Who is that I that is furious? When you look, you can’t find a person who is angry. So then you go, “Okay, no anger; there’s nobody who is getting criticized. There’s nobody who is angry. I can relax.” 

That’s how you want to employ this understanding. Or when you really want something so badly, and you have that feeling of “I want this; I want this,” then you think, “Who wants it? Does my mind want it? Does my body want it?” You can’t find this person who just absolutely has to have it.


So now, let’s recite the six again as a review session: generosity, ethical conduct, fortitude, joyous effort, meditative stability and wisdom. Review them tonight before you go to sleep and review them when you get up in the morning. And see if you can practice them from what you’ve learned about them this evening.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.