Understanding The Perfections Of Character

By: Venerable Jim Jiang-Wen Kearse 将稳, OEB

Recently, in my dharma practice, I’ve been studying the Six perfections with the helpful insights of my teacher, Venerable Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei. So it was a surprising delight that I came across a short discussion of the Perfections in the Lankavatara Sutra 1. (The Perfections of Character are: generosity, morality, tolerance, energy, meditation, and wisdom).

The Perfections can be thought of as ideals to acheive. Although there are only six Perfections, according to the Lankavatara Sutra, there are three levels of understanding these Perfections.

The first level is an apparent, mundane understanding. This is the view of the ordinary, everyday world around us. The Perfections are understood in terms of the immediate benefits they can bring us.

At this wordly level of understanding, Generosity is considered in terms of making one feel good about giving to others (how it might possibly be a tax deduction, for example). At this level, helping others is only a superficial thought. Morality might be thought of as doing what is good in order to to be seen as a good person in the eyes of other people. The practice of Tolerance is personal – how one is patient with other people’s annoying habits and characteristics. Energy is thought of as perseverance; it is linear in that one believes that there is a final goal to be reached. Meditation is also thought of in terms of what one may acheive by the practice; perhaps some sort of a state of bliss. Wisdom may be viewed as reaching a state of pure peace where one is not bothered by anything and one dispenses to others the advice of a sage.

The second level of understanding is mental, or conceptual. At this stage, one begins to see how our thoughts can become problematic for ourselves and others. One sees that there is a bigger picture, one that is not only more inclusive of other people, but also of how conditions and events contribute to people’s situations.

At the conceptual level of understanding, Generosity goes beyond the simple act of giving; one now posseses a sympathetic understanding of others and this leads to a greater precision in the charity one offers to people. The motivation of Morality changes as well as one now sees the connections between what one does, thinks or says, and how these affect people and situations, and so one begins to respond with consideration of how personal actions will influence outcomes. Tolerance moves from a selfish endurance of others to an extension of one’s self onto others; one realizes that other people feel and react the same way as we do and so the patience we have with ourselves becomes the patience we have for others. Energy transforms from goal-oriented to process-oriented; it is no longer about striving to reach a particular goal, but rather how one perceives the world, thinks, speaks, acts, perseveres, is mindfully attentive, and how one diciplines the mind (this is often referred to as the eightfold path). Meditation shows one how everything is dependent upon everything else (for example, people need food to live, food is produced by farmers and weather conditions, each of which depend upon other factors such as solar systems, thermal systems, water cycles, etc.), and how all things fit into a larger system of ever-changing processes and interactions. Wisdom reveals itself in one’s understanding of the similarities and connections we share with all other things.

The third level of understanding is spiritual, when one habitually recognizes the connections and commonalities between all things and people, rather than seeing only surface-level distinctions.

At the spiritual level of understanding, generosity becomes a sincere desire for everybody to find peace-of-mind and happiness as well as the accompanying desire to help others acheive this state of well-being. Morality becomes spontaneous and effortless as one now sees there is very little difference between one’s self and others. Tolerance is now such that one views everything as having no real distinctions; although one can see that there are individuated phenomena, these disctinctions are secondary to the understanding that apparent differences are at best only a fuzzy blurring between boundaries – everything is relatively equal. Energy is revealed as knowing that there really are no differences between one task and another; doing one thing is about the same as doing another so the same effort is extended to all tasks. It all becomes just “stuff” one does! Mindfulness now includes everything; how one thinks, how one speaks or acts. As to wisdom, this is displayed when one has the epiphany that it is only in one’s mind that hard distinctions are created, that no real borders exist as all things rely on other things and everything is intimately interconnected with all of existence itself.

1. Goddard, Dwight, ed. A Buddhist Bible. The Lankavatara Scripture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970. p. 329-331.


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