Practicing Perfection

Let's challenge ourselves to kick our practice to higher level by practicing generosity in our lives. How often and how far can we go out of our way each day? How does practicing generosity affect our own sense of well-being?
05/09/2012 07:56 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

People practice meditation for all sorts of reasons: to feel calm, to experience a bit more clarity, to cut through personal confusion, to deal with physical, emotional, or mental pain. These are all legitimate reasons, and certain practices, if carried out regularly, can effect changes in our experience as well as in our physiology. Neuroscientists, for example, have been able to measure changes in brain activity as a result of regular, sustained meditation practice.

Yet, according to the Buddhist tradition, we can't experience the really profound, transformative effects of meditation if our practice isn't grounded in an ethical or moral ground. Without such a ground, meditation is little more than a kind of mental calisthenics. We may experience a bit more peace, a bit more stability, but true contentment, true joy, true confidence will elude us.

That ground is the motivation to attain freedom from suffering in order to help all other beings to attain the same freedom. This motivation is commonly referred to as aspiration bodhicitta -- a Sanskrit term that can be translated in a variety of ways, including "the mind of awakening" -- and the effects of our practice will be greatly enhanced if we recall this motivation at the beginning and at the end of each session.

Our practice will become even more profound and our lives will transform even more deeply and dramatically if we take the next step and practice application bodhicitta -- that is, if we actually conduct ourselves in post-meditation in a manner that conforms to and reinforces that motivation. Doing so involves the application of what is known in Sanskrit as paramita and in Tibetan as pa-rol-tu-chin-pa. Both terms are often translated as "perfections," in the sense that they're the most compassionate and intelligent qualities we can cultivate in our daily conduct. A more literal translation means "going beyond" or "crossing to the other shore" -- that "other shore" being the experience of complete freedom from suffering that lies beyond any limitations of "self" and "other," "subject" and "object."

Most classical Buddhist texts encourage us to practice six paramitas. The first, which is many ways the foundation of all the others, is generosity, which is traditionally divided into three different types.

The first type of generosity is fairly easy to understand. It involves giving material assistance, like food or money. There's an old Buddhist story that in one of his earlier incarnations, the Buddha gave up his body to a starving tigress who couldn't feed her cubs -- he willingly let himself be eaten so that the tigress and her cubs could live. I'm fairly certain that if the story is true, the experience must have been rather unpleasant. Whether true or not, it remains as an example of the type of willingness to endure personal hardship on behalf of others.

I imagine few of us today are asked by starving tigresses to give up their bodies. But in my estimation, it's a great object lesson in terms of the lengths to which we can go in order to provide food for people who are starving. All around the world, thousands of people gather in lines to accept charitable donations of breakfast and lunch for themselves and their children: hungry tigers and tigresses who only want to help their cubs survive.

I was taught that the first kind of generosity could extend beyond material assistance to giving emotional sustenance. Sometimes this means offering comfort or encouragement to someone who's having a difficult day, a difficult week, month, or -- as many people across the globe have experienced -- a difficult year, a difficult decade, a difficult life.

The second type of generosity involves offering protection to those whose lives are threatened in some way. There are many individuals who engage in this kind of activity, offering assistance to people who are about to lose their homes, their cars, even their children. They offer drug and alcohol addicts the opportunity to enter rehabilitation facilities to detoxify from the poisons in their systems and, in some cases, learn skills that will help them to acquire jobs. Shelters that protect women and children who have been abused in various ways offer a kind and caring environment that provides a basis for these women and children to overcome their fears and their histories of abuse.

The final aspect of generosity involves offering understanding. Usually this involves giving a Dharma teaching, such as the type given to large groups of students by the great masters of the Buddhist tradition.

Generosity in teaching can also be passed down a little bit more casually. For instance, one student who began working for a large international corporation was disturbed by the volatile reactions of her boss.

"Don't take it personally," her coworker told her. "He's afraid of losing his job, and he can't help but pass that fear to you. Whatever he says, though, whatever he does, has nothing to do with you. Give the guy some love. He's wicked scared."

So let's challenge ourselves to kick our practice to higher level by practicing generosity in our lives. How often and how far can we go out of our way each day? How does practicing generosity affect our own sense of well-being? How does it affect the environments in which we function? How does it influence our our meditation practice?

And what's with that secret smile we start to catch now when we look in the mirror?

For more by Tsoknyi Rinpoche, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.