Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Perfections (1 of 6)

Heart and Soul

Yesterday I brought up the issue of attachment to homeland and family. It's a potent topic, especially for those of us that think it's not.

The question I've been playing with is:
To what extent if any can family ties transcend worldly attachment to "me and mine?"

Anyone with children knows the profound feelings of cherishing another, of being fully responsible for their safety and well-being and of simple adoration that arises naturally as part of making a human. These feelings are part of our nature, even more so it seems for the mother than the father. Call it part of being womb-born, like having to eat and shit: there's no sense aggressively fighting it off, and anyway it would seem to be a subtle form of asceticism to reject these feelings.
What we can do however is apply what we know about interdependence and shunyata, suffering and non-focused compassion so that our place and meaning within the family is seen as the immediate, particular example of how we beings are all "in this together," and need to help one another.

Dāna what t'do?

Dāna, generosity, is the first in the list of six pāramitās in the Mahayana tradition. Despite being first, it is actually quite difficult to practice. [There are loads of excellent articles written by authentic teachers on the net about the outer, inner and subtle aspects of the six perfections, so I won't bother trying to explain the details. If you need some direction, please let me know and I'll point you there.]
We're charged with practicing the six pāramitās within the so-called "three empty spheres," being the awareness that the person acting, the act itself and the person/being receiving are all three empty of inherent nature, and so the effectiveness of our practice is immediately gauged by our understanding of the nature of things, which understanding is of course always deepening — but we start where we are.
It might make immediate sense to think that parents have a knack, forced as they are, to give generously... but I haven't seen it. Taking care of your own is not particularly a higher deed, it's standard samsaric M.O.  Every creature takes care of its young.
Just because I hand my paycheck over to "the family," and take the small glass of morning smoothie when I don't make enough, and take time to read to my kids at night...I won't say I'm not a decent dad, but these aren't the actions of pāramitā. What we need is to translate that caring and generosity to all beings, and again our relationship with our children can give us a solid starting point.
I feel like my relationship with my spouse is, in a sense, a bridge from that relationship with my kids as provider, to the relationship I have with others in the world: she's in charge of her own fate, and yet I care for her deeply and find it easier to give for her happiness than I do for a stranger. It's like my kids are showing me this precious and fragile egg, which I can then carefully bring to show my wife, and from there have an easier time taking it out the door to share with others. (Does that make any sense whatsoever to anyone else?!)

Quid pro quo

With this pāramitā in particular, there really is a sense of giving to get. I wonder if it's part of why it's listed first. The other five are easier when we "get" that the losing-its-opposite is actually a treasure. When we give, people treat us better, we have more energy, and we gain stability beyond these temporal collections we lean on. This in turn helps us clear the way for understanding this "emptiness of the three spheres" in a way that's not just intellectual theory. But first we have to appreciate that the having and keeping are the problem, and the giving is actually the treasure. That little bit of figuring is why we listen, contemplate and meditate on the teachings.

Is the need to support and provide for your children an obstacle to practicing generosity in the world?
How can this be overcome?


  1. I find that within the family, there are many occasions that come up in which I can practice generosity - especially those times when I realize I don't want to! Lots of shen-pa to watch. Sometimes it is a struggle to balance generosity "within the family" with generosity for "the others" . (haha) I want to comment some more, but I have a little Mr. here who needs my attention - so rumination for me and more comments later.

  2. Yes, Sarah. Some days, just being nice about cooking breakfast can be genuine generosity for me! When we really wake up to those feelings of serving the unappreciative, it opens up the chance to apply the wisdom of "the empty three spheres," where the giving is completely for its own sake and is seen as just a bunch of rainbows.
    And let's face it, to mangle an old expression, "when Pappa's happy, everybody's happy."