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The House of the Six Perfections
Ato Rinpoche

When I was invited to write a paper for this conference, I was rather worried. I am not so much a scholar, so I am reluctant to attempt a learned paper. What should I do? Then it came to me — I would tell you a story. The story is about building a house, because building a house is a practical thing to do, and I am a practical person. I like to do things, rather than develop theories about how things should be done.

How, then, to begin? When you want to build a house, there is much planning to be done, before you can actually start work. Since the house is to be called ‘The House of the Six Perfections’, (The Six Paramitas), the first task is to collect the Perfections and determine how to make them all work happily together. This may be likened to calculating how the floor, walls and roof of our house are going to be placed and where each piece will fit. We shall also need to find a suitable site and be prepared for some challenging work, as this project is to be completed with our own hands. We can consult others, who are already experienced builders, but we are going to have to do the real work ourselves.

By now you may be wondering what all this has to do with a Buddhist Conference. The answer is quite simple: the Buddha’s Teaching is about a practical way of life and is built on really rather simple basic foundations. These comprise a number of practices, which can be tailored to suit each individual practitioner. In this way it resembles a house that is made of the essential basic components, then tailored to suit the prospective inhabitants. So much for theory. Time to start work.

First of all we need a suitable site for our house: a level place – say – where there is water available. We hope also for kindly people who are sympathetic to our plans, who will understand the difficulties we may encounter, who are willing to help with advice and who are patient with us when we struggle and get discouraged. The level place is provided by the simplest and most basic of the Lord Buddha’s teaching: The Four Noble Truths. We need to believe in our project; understand that there will be difficulties ahead; know that, if we are truly determined, we can overcome all the problems we encounter and, finally, that we can accomplish our project and so discover that we have indeed been able to build a house. In this way, we shall have learned enough by experience, not theory, to be able to help others with their house-building projects.

What of the kindly, sympathetic people? They are those who are also trying to follow the Buddha’s path, some of whom are very new to the building-project, whilst others are master-builders with long years of experience. As we follow our Buddhist path, we shall meet others on the same journey and discover that the way is easier when we do not travel alone. Some of those we meet may not be entirely to our liking but we shall learn that it is important to accept wise teaching, wherever it comes from, even if the teacher, or teaching, is not exactly what we find congenial.

We have our building-site. Next we must attend to the foundations: these are the components of the Noble Eightfold Path. The first of these is Right Understanding, which leads to a clear knowledge of exactly what we are trying to do and the right way to approach our project. This first step is very important; because we need to be in no doubt that our undertaking is what we really want to be doing. Right Thought leads us along the path of non-attachment and loving-kindness, from which proceed Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Right Livelihood is crucial because, if we fund our project from inappropriate sources, we shall from the outset be incorporating into the building difficulties that will become apparent in the future. What is Right Livelihood? It is earning ones living without exploiting or harming other people or, indeed, any sentient being. Right Effort will also be needed, if we are to complete our project, as will Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, for without them we may find ourselves distracted and forget the work ahead. A building-site with lovely views provides many temptations to stand and stare, whilst on wild, wet, difficult days it is all too easy to be tempted by thoughts of comfortable idleness and the insidious belief that ‘Tomorrow will do…’

Our house now has a site and foundations, so it is making progress and we can begin the exciting stage of creating the House of the Six Perfections. The first thing to say is that, just like the Four noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the Six Perfections are practised in combination rather than individually, whereas on our building-site the floor, walls and roof must, of course, be constructed in sequence, lest the whole edifice come tumbling down on our heads. Please, then, remember this: in our building-project we shall construct the floor before the roof, whilst in terms of Buddhist practice one Perfection cannot be practised alone. But, back to our building-site: anyone with experience of building may not approve, but I propose to begin with the floor and then construct the walls. It may be that you have built the walls and then the floor but you will at least agree that the roof must be added last of all.

The floor, or the First Perfection, is the Perfection of Generosity (Dāna-pāramitā). It is often translated into English as the Perfection of Charity, but that tends to have rather limiting and patronising connotations. The generosity here refers not only to physical things but also to the wider, warmer generosity of giving yourself. It means being willing to offer to others not only your time and, when you can, teaching and insights, but also to give without attachment or expectation. We want our floor to be strong and flexible (made of wood, let us say, from timber with a bit of spring in it). Certainly it must not be judgmental; on the contrary, it must be able to support whoever comes to stand on it. This is because the Perfection of Generosity is not limited to one moment’s generosity but requires us to give what is needed as often as it is needed and to as many people as require it. In the same way our floor, if we have constructed it well, will support whoever walks or stands on it for many years. Time may change the colour of our floor, it may become worn, and a little warped, but it will fulfil its role without hesitation for as long as it is called upon to do so.

The floor is laid. Now a start can be made on the four walls. Professionals will probably be building theirs simultaneously but we will do ours one at a time and they will not fall in on us! Our first wall represents the Perfection of Morality (Śīla-pāramitā). This Perfection embraces the noble Eightfold Path, thus tying the foundations of our house through the floor to the walls. Moral conduct is concerned with how we deal with all other sentient beings. It teaches us to have respect for ourselves and for others. We learn to treat them with kindness and to follow the guidance taught in the Sigālovāda Sutra, which explains the appropriate way to treat those we met on the Path by explaining our obligations in whatever role we may find ourselves. For example, the Sutra explains that the five duties of a student to his teacher are to greet him respectfully, be attentive to his needs, serve him in every possible way, listen carefully to his teaching and receive and treat with respect any teaching that he gives.

Our second wall represents the Perfection of Patience (Kşānti-pāramitā). This can be very difficult to practise, as it calls for absolute tolerance, even of the most horrific actions. Śāntideva in the Bodhicaryāvatāra explains that all things are the result of cause and effect and that our emotional reaction is created by our own ignorance and lack of insight. It is this which can lead us to be angry and judge what we really do not understand. This second wall is going to present problems but once we are able to develop sufficient patience it will be built. However, be warned: patience is difficult to cultivate; this wall may take several attempts to build — getting cross with yourself or your wall is not helpful.

The third wall of our house represents the Perfection of Strength (Vīrya-pāramitā). Again I would refer you to Śāntideva, who teaches that without strength there is no merit, just as without wind there is no movement. Strength here means both energy and perseverance as well as the more usual meaning of physical strength. It refers to effort and the ability to resist the distractions and temptations to idleness mentioned before. It is not hard to understand how this Perfection is needed to cultivate patience, just as patience is required in order to cultivate strength.

Our fourth wall is, of course, very closely aligned to the third, and represents the Perfection of Contemplation (Dhyāna-pāramitā). Because we have grown stronger through our efforts, we have become calmer and achieved clarity of vision. We have learned how to concentrate and understand how to build our house. Now we can see what it is possible to achieve and discard the doubts and distractions that have plagued us on our way to the final stage of our project: the roof.

The Buddha taught that the other Perfections are all to be practised for the sake of the ultimate Perfection, the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajňā-pāramitā). All the other parts of the house are in place. Now the highest, the ultimate Perfection, symbolised by the roof, allows us to see that each element is important and dependent on every other element. This house is not merely the product of our efforts and determination; it can now be a home for the service of the Bodhisattva ideal. It can, when necessary, be a fortress, a temple, a retreat and a sanctuary. As we furnish it with the loving-kindness, compassion and merit that we have met or earned on our journey, we come to realise that in building the House of the Six Perfections, we have also, without knowing it, become the custodians of a beacon whose light showers the blessings of the Buddha’s teaching on us and all those who come within its limitless reach.

You may be thinking that there is something missing from this basic house, but that would be an error. It does have windows, doors, and the usual fixtures and fittings and it is from these that we can identify the particular interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings followed by those within. My Tibetan house will have thick walls and tiny windows, because our winters are long and cold. The Japanese house, if it follows the old tradition, will have paper walls that slide back to allow a cooling, summer breeze free access, whereas some other houses may be on stilts, right on a river-bank. None of these houses is right or wrong, only appropriate to the place where they belong. So, too, the way the Path is followed varies with the changes wrought by time, place and accident of history. What is important is that each house bestows on those who see or dwell within it blessings, merit, and an invitation to follow a proven path, tailored to each person’s individual needs and abilities.

Nowadays, new house styles are developing, some of which may be a great success, whilst others may turn out to be failures. We should not be afraid to allow the experimental, but at the same time we must carefully ensure that ancient wisdom is not washed away by modern enthusiasm. Someone, somewhere, designed the very first house and that has endured and adapted to serve our needs, just as the adaptations, interpretations and translations of the Buddha’s teachings have endured to ensure that His Path is still available for us to follow.

The building lesson is over. The soft furnishings: the puja curtains and meditation cushions in your house may be a little different from those in my particular house but, undoubtedly, the teachings on which they rest are the same.

(Author: Ato Rinpoche, the Eighth Tenzin Tulku of Ato Nezang)

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