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The Six Perfections: An Oral Teaching

The Six Perfections: An Oral Teaching

by Geshe Sonam Rinchen, Ruth Sonam

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The Six Perfections of generosity, ethical discipline, patience, enthusiastic effort, concentration, and wisdom are practiced by Bodhisattvas who have the supreme intention of attaining enlightenment for the sake of others. These six are perfections because they give rise to complete enlightenment. Practice of them also insures the attainment of an excellent body and


The Six Perfections of generosity, ethical discipline, patience, enthusiastic effort, concentration, and wisdom are practiced by Bodhisattvas who have the supreme intention of attaining enlightenment for the sake of others. These six are perfections because they give rise to complete enlightenment. Practice of them also insures the attainment of an excellent body and mind in the future and even more favorable conditions for effective practice than those we enjoy at present. Generosity leads to the enjoyment of ample resources, ethical discipline gives a good rebirth, patience leads to an attractive appearance and supportive companions, enthusiastic effort endows the ability to complete what is undertaken, fostering concentration makes the mind invulnerable to distraction, and wisdom discriminates between what needs to be cultivated and what must be discarded and leads to greater wisdom in the future.

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Chapter One


Generosity is the willingness to give, and its practice consists of willingly giving one's body, possessions or positive energy. Simply overcoming miserliness, which is an aspect of clinging attachment, is not enough. Hearer and Solitary Realizer Foe Destroyers, who have gained liberation from cyclic existence, have eliminated the disturbing emotions but have not perfected generosity. Its perfection is not measured by, for instance, how much poverty one has alleviated but by how complete is one's willingness to give. Clearly, however, generosity expresses itself in action.

    How is generosity developed and increased? The first step is to think about the disadvantages of attachment and clinging and about the great benefits of giving. The Buddha stressed the importance of overcoming clinging to our body and life:

When living beings cling
To their ever-decaying body and life,
Transient and beyond their control,
Like dreams and magical illusions,
They perform extremely unwholesome acts.
Under the influence of confusion
Their demonic mount bolts with the unwise
Into the bad state of the hells.

Seeing the body as a putrefying mass of unclean substances and recognizing that our life is unstable and our progress towards death as relentless as a mountain torrent rushing downhill lessens our clinging to them. Both our body and life are governed by other factors in the form of compulsive actions and disturbing emotions and have no independent existence whatsoever but are deceptive like dreamsand magical creations. Out of our attachment to them we perform many negative actions and our mount, death, bolts with us into bad rebirths.

    The self seems to have independent and true existence but is not as it appears. The body appears to be clean and pleasurable but isn't. Our life-force seems to be enduring but in fact is highly unreliable. These things are deceptive and all the while our clinging to them stops us from being generous. We act with miserliness because of the tight grasp we have on our bodies and property. By overcoming attachment we rid ourselves of a major source of strife.

    Attachment to dwellings, places and countries causes conflict. No matter how hard we cling and try to resist change, we cannot hold on to them because it is in their nature to be unstable. Our body, possessions and dwelling places are ungrateful, for despite our efforts to care for them they automatically disintegrate and must be relinquished in the end. Ridding ourselves of clinging to them is the best way to decrease anxiety and tension and to prolong our life. A short life is the result of killing, an action which frequently is the result of conflict rooted in attachment.

    It is better to let go now before death forces our hand. There is still time to extract some essence from what we own by using it for the good of others. Though we are not yet ready to sacrifice body and life, we can develop greater willingness to part with what is ours. Give what you can now and make a strong wish to become able to let go of what you find most difficult to relinquish.

    Bodhisattvas practice generosity and the other perfections with six kinds of excellence: they maintain the excellent motivation to attain enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. They incorporate as many excellent features into their acts of generosity as they can and, though they give only what is appropriate in a particular situation, they cultivate the readiness to give everything—body, possessions and positive energy. They practice as many forms of giving as possible, such as giving not only things but instruction and protection, to perfect their generosity and make it complete.

    Their excellent aim is to bring living beings temporary and ultimate happiness. They employ the excellent skillful means of a conceptual or non-conceptual understanding that nothing has inherent existence. They make an excellent dedication for the benefit of all living beings and practice excellent purification in that everything they do is intended to eliminate obstructions formed by the disturbing emotions which prevent liberation and the obstructions which prevent knowledge of all phenomena. Even if we are not already Bodhisattvas, we can begin to emulate them.

    The practice of any perfection incorporates the other five. Generosity alone will not protect you from the bad rebirths which result from negative actions. For instance, although you give when requested, you may feel tempted to speak harshly if the recipient shows dissatisfaction with what you have given, demands more or tries to return your gift. You need patience when faced with such an ungrateful or provocative response, otherwise anger will destroy the virtue you have created.

    Don't lazily put off a generous action but enthusiastically seize every opportunity that presents itself. Appreciating the benefits of giving and the drawbacks of miserliness, concentrate fully on the generous action you are performing. Your practice of generosity must be wise: it is essential to have a clear understanding of what is appropriate to give, to whom and under what circumstances. Also remember that the giver, the gift and the recipient are dependent on one another and lack intrinsic existence. Even giving a handful of food while remembering these principles becomes an excellent practice.

    Lay-people may find it easier to give protection and material help while, in general, it is easier for the ordained to give spiritual instruction, but this does not preclude lay-people from giving such advice. It is a mistake for ordained people to give up teaching and instead try to acquire material goods or amenities for others, since many actions contrary to the code of discipline for the ordained may be created in the process. An ordained person's main tasks are to study, listen and think about the teachings, to meditate and practice concentration in order to overcome what needs to be eliminated and to work for the spiritual community. Ordained people should be engaged in at least one of these activities. On the other hand, if an ordained person has ample resources, it is a fault not to use these to help others. If you really want to give, you will give whatever you can. Owning a lot is useless if your hands are tied by miserliness.

   In his Compendium of Training Shantideva mentions four additional factors which apply to the practice of all the perfections. Giving is the first factor and refers to a willingness, for example, to give your body or physical energy. Protecting is the second factor and involves not sacrificing your body until the time to give it has really come. You should only give your body when you can do it as easily as you would give someone a vegetable. When vegetables are scarce, as they are sometimes during the monsoon season in India, you might feel reluctant to part even with them!

    The third factor is to keep your generous action pure from the polluting presence of disturbing emotions. The final factor is to insure increase. This could be taken to mean that by using your present body and mind well and generously, you insure good future rebirths in which you will enjoy a long life, an attractive appearance, good status, wealth, power, credible speech and a strong body and mind.

    The same four factors apply to giving possessions, which should not be squandered but safeguarded until you have the opportunity to give them to those with great qualities, those who have helped and been kind to you or those who are suffering and in need. Purity in this context signifies that what is given should not have been acquired by wrong means, such as by deceit or extortion. Increase occurs because the more you give, the more resources will come your way.

    Give the virtue you have created by dedicating it to the happiness of others. Since anger destroys virtue, protect it by practicing patience and keep it pure by insuring that neither self-interest nor concern for the well-being of this life adulterate it. Increase the virtue by rejoicing in the good you have done.

    Generosity is universally praised in all spiritual traditions. Approaching it in these ways enriches your practice and makes it more profound, while certain thoughts and attitudes undermine it. Adherence to aberrant ideologies may lead one to believe that practicing any of the three forms of generosity is fruitless or that inflicting harm, for instance through ritual blood-sacrifice, is an appropriate gift to the gods. One may give in the belief that it will bring good luck or free one from attachment or think it proper to give protection to a single being at the expense of many others.

    Give without humiliating the recipient of your generosity, without condescension, competitiveness or pride in giving more lavishly than others or in bestowing more effective protection. The conceit of thinking, for instance, that one gives the best teachings, uses the most eloquent language to communicate them or has the deepest grasp of the meaning spoils one's generosity, as do thoughts of the greatness and fame one hopes to achieve. Showing disdain for the miserly when one is generous may anger them and lead to their bad rebirth.

    Give with joy and without discouragement at the thought of giving even as liberally as a Bodhisattva. Avoid feelings of incompetence and regret after being generous. Sometimes people give lavishly in a moment of drunken generosity and regret it later when they are sober! Take delight in the act of giving and overcome reluctance and aversion when called upon to be generous.

    Bias in wanting to give only to friends and loved ones but not to enemies must also be avoided. We don't like to give anything to those we dislike and even feel irritated when someone else is generous with them. Try to give to friends and family without attachment. To those who harm you give with love, and to those who have neither helped nor harmed you give not with indifference but with affection.

    Giving silver in the hope of receiving gold, thinking of the future riches one's material generosity may bring, hoping to become a great scholar because one gives teaching or to be powerful because one gives protection turns one's generosity into a business venture. In his Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas Aryadeva says:

When one thinks that by giving gifts now
There will be a great result,
Receiving and giving are like trade
For profit, which will be criticized.

Nevertheless the fact remains that any karmic seed which is planted will grow and proliferate if it remains undamaged, just as in nature a single seed can produce a healthy plant with many uses and bountiful fruit from which will come many more seeds.

    There are three thoughts to cultivate: when we are asked for something, it is a wonderful opportunity to perfect generosity which leads to enlightenment. The teachings, things or protection which others request in fact already belong to them because as practitioners of the Great Vehicle we have promised them everything we own and they are merely claiming what is theirs. The person who makes the request is our teacher of generosity.

    Generosity is of true value when it is wholehearted. To teach what is easy but conceal what is profound shows a lack of generosity. In teaching a craft, for example, it is important to pass on everything one knows and not to withhold essential instructions for fear of being surpassed by one's students. It is inadequate to give only partial protection when one has the ability to do more. Often people keep things until they go bad or until their expiration date has passed and only then give them to others. Such gifts fail to bring joy because nobody likes to be given bad or worthless things.

    Our generosity is directed to all living beings, who may be grouped into ten kinds: enemies, friends and neutral people, those with and without special qualities, equals, inferiors and superiors, and those who are happy and unhappy. To people with special qualities, such as those maintaining ethical discipline, give with liking and respect and give with compassion to the suffering or the unethical. Give without pride to inferiors, without jealousy to superiors and to equals without trying to impress. Give with love to the harmful and with equanimity to the helpful, always maintaining a lack of bias. Then dedicate the merit and the fruit of such generosity for the good of the person who requested help and for the happiness of all living beings.

    Never disparage, mock, denigrate by innuendo or intimidate the recipient of your gift. Give from the heart with a smile, with sweet and kind words and with respect. As a result you will receive friendly help and service in the future. By giving at the time when your gift is needed your wishes will be fulfilled. Many people acquire wealth and property but seem unable to retain them because they are stolen or destroyed. Not causing any harm when you give makes your future resources stable. Giving with your own hands insures that those resources will increase. Patiently bearing any difficulties which your generous actions entail causes you to be surrounded by affectionate people. How can you be sure that these results will follow? The connection between actions and their effects is complex and subtle, but thinking about these statements and observing your experiences will help you to develop greater conviction.

    There once was a man who found it very hard to let go of his possessions. To overcome his reluctance he began by passing things from one hand to the other and eventually he became able to give with ease. If we have trouble being generous, we should begin by giving small things, of which we can easily let go. The daily offering of fresh water placed on Buddhist shrines is an easy gift to make, since most of us have no difficulty in parting with water, yet good clean water is a precious gift in a hot country.

    If someone you know wishes to give but is hesitant to begin or doesn't quite know how, encourage them, for instance by saying, "I have some clothes to give away. If someone asks you for clothes, would you mind giving them these?" or "Please tell them to come to me." Sometimes only a little encouragement is needed.

    When giving spiritual teaching or instruction, do so with the three features described before: remember that your aim is enlightenment, that what you give has already been dedicated to others and that the recipient is your teacher of generosity. With a pure intention communicate what you know as fully as possible. If, as a result, the other person becomes more knowledgeable or more capable than you, all the better. Bestowing vows of any kind also counts as generosity of giving the teachings. But you don't need to be an official teacher to give valuable advice to someone who needs help, seems confused or appears to be going astray.

    Learning texts by heart or reciting them may also be regarded as giving the teachings, if it is done with the wish to benefit others. Reciting texts can benefit those who hear them. A pigeon used to spend the night perched on a beam in a monk's room. This monk began reciting the Compendium of Teachings Sutra every morning before dawn. Up on the beam the bird heard this, but, depending on the season, when the monk had finished reciting half or two-thirds of the text it grew light and the bird flew away. Hearing the text purified many karmic obstructions so that the bird was reborn as a human who had faith in the Three jewels and eventually became ordained. He is said to have been a disciple of the great Indian master Vasubandhu. Without having to make any effort to memorize it, he could recite by heart the part of the text he had heard repeatedly in his previous life.

    Even if you live in a cave and have no students you could imagine giving teachings to the beings of the six realms through which you help them attain liberation. Too many people believe that they will find happiness through material possessions, but even when they get the things they desire they still feel empty and unsatisfied and their problems continue. The only way to rid ourselves of this deep dissatisfaction is through inner changes which come from practicing the teachings. Nowadays an increasing number of people sense this and long to receive spiritual instruction but lack the opportunity. I have encountered groups of people who are eager to practice meditation. They meet once or twice a week but nobody has any clear idea how to bring about genuine inner transformation. Imagine yourself confidently giving them instruction and guidance.

    Giving protection includes helping those oppressed by despotic rulers, governments or criminals, those who have been attacked or are threatened by wild animals, wild animals themselves who belong to endangered species and all who are at peril from the elements, for instance those caught in floods or fires. We may not be able to do anything on a very grand scale personally, but we can be active in or contribute to organizations which have the expertise to help.

    There are many opportunities in daily life to save small creatures from drowning, burning or being otherwise hurt. Millions of beings live in fear. Imagine rescuing them and making them safe and comfortable, freeing the thousands of fish caught in huge modern fishing nets, releasing battery hens or penned animals who never see the light of day. Imagine the fish gliding through the water and the animals in fields and pastures gamboling, playing and feasting on lush green grass.

    It is certain that we must eventually leave our body, possessions, friends and relatives behind. We create many negative actions out of attachment and hostility because we see the roles of friend and foe as fixed. What we are attached to cannot accompany us when we go, but the negative actions we have created will. If we can rid ourselves of clinging now, we will be able to face the inevitable separation from what we cherish without difficulty or regret at death. The highest form of generosity is non-attachment. A snake sheds its skin without any attachment to it. How easy it would be if this is how we felt about our possessions.

    If we understand impermanence and are genuinely compassionate, we will regard our possessions as others' belongings which they have entrusted to us for safekeeping and which must be returned to them. With that attitude our property will not be a source of anxiety. If instead of giving them away we hoard things at home, they must be protected and become a cause of worry, discontent and wasted time.

    Once there was a greedy monk who found it hard to refuse anything he was offered. A friend decided to help him and said, "I'll give you lots of presents, but each time you must say `I don't want it.'" At first it required a huge effort even to pretend he didn't want the gift, but with practice it became easier to say the words. In the end he was able to refuse with all sincerity and overcame his greed. We too can remind ourselves not to be greedy by saying, "I don't really need it." Miserliness, greed and possessiveness are aspects of attachment which distort the objects to which they cling. We can cherish people and things without these constricting emotions. True love and compassion are realistic, spacious and allow others freedom.

    Material generosity consists of giving our body and possessions, food, drink, clothing, shelter, conveyances and so forth. Giving our body doesn't necessarily demand the sacrifice of our life and limbs. It can be the use of our physical strength to care for the sick or aged, temporarily to relieve others who do this or to help with different kinds of light and heavy work.

    If we have possessions, it is hypocritical simply to imagine giving. On the other hand lack of possessions need not be an impediment to the practice of generosity, since we can imagine emanating many bodies and giving lavishly. In meditation we enjoy unlimited resources and can give all that is needed, for instance supplying whole refugee camps or countries where there is famine with cooked or uncooked food and fresh clean water.

    What we give should cause no harm nor have been misappropriated by us but should have been acquired in ways that accord with the teachings. It should be in good condition and look, smell, taste and feel agreeable. As a result we will enjoy an attractive appearance, fame, joy and an enduringly youthful body in the future.

    When asked for help, don't let others suffer first for a while or exploit them by making them do what is contrary to the teachings or to social conventions before you give. Do not promise a lot or something good and later give less or something inferior. Do not flaunt your generosity, make a big fuss about it or remind the recipient and others of how kind you are.

    At one time while the great Indian master Atisha was in Tibet he received offerings of barley from people living in Lhasa which he carefully stored in a temple. As his disciple Dromtönpa was retiring to bed, he felt perturbed about Atisha's seemingly acquisitive behavior and decided that the next day he would find out from his master what he intended to do with this large quantity of barley. Early in the morning on his way to see Atisha he passed the temple and noticed to his amazement that all the barley was gone. When Dromtönpa asked Atisha what he had done with it, he merely said, "I'm good at giving."

    Instead of giving everything at once, we may be tempted to give a little at a time over a long period to make the recipient indebted to us or we may feel stingy about giving what we receive and hoard it first for a while before giving it away. This taints our generosity.

    Those in authority should not take advantage of their position to give the wives, children and property of others to those they favor or wish to impress. Nor should one coerce others to give or forcibly take what belongs to one's parents, family members or servants and use it as if it were one's own to give away. What one gives should not cause trouble nor have been obtained in ways that conflict with one's code of ethical discipline.

    The ideal donor is someone who lacks greed and is endowed with the seven jewel-like qualities of the exalted ones: faith, ethical discipline, generosity, extensive learning, understanding and a healthy sense of shame and embarrassment. The finest motivation with which to give is the altruistic intention. When we practice generosity in meditation, we imagine ourselves as powerful Bodhisattvas with the altruistic intention to take responsibility for the beings of the six realms and with the capacity to bear that responsibility.

    Give without fearing deprivation, without intending to fool the recipient, without dislike, anger, hesitation or distraction, without impatience if the recipient is ungrateful and without wishing to draw attention to his or her faults or deceitfulness.

    Special effort is needed when you find things particularly hard to give or when you fear that you might go short yourself. You have been much richer and owned more splendid possessions in previous lives but have had to let go of everything and will definitely have to again, so why not begin now?

    A shopkeeper has no trouble letting go of his goods when a customer makes a purchase because he receives money in return. Our aim is to dedicate body, possessions and virtue to others with the same ease but without any hope for reward. For instance, we might think that when our generosity comes to the attention of those in authority, they will think highly of us and reward us with goods and services. A generous action done with such expectations may bring the desired results but will not act as a cause for liberation or enlightenment, since it wasn't undertaken for that purpose.

    Instead of harboring the hope for return, remember that those who seek your help lack happiness, are on fire with craving and are powerless to remove their own suffering. Seeing this, think of nothing but helping them. Without hoping that your action will bring you a good rebirth or wealth, think only of highest enlightenment.

    There is no need to give if the request is made to test or exploit you, if it is made by someone insane, if you are asked for profound or secret teachings by someone who is not ready for them or if you sense that the other person simply intends to use the information for commercial purposes or personal fame. Nor should you agree to a request if you suspect that there is trickery involved. For instance someone may ask for a statue, claiming that they are doing practices connected with the deity it represents and that they wish to make prostrations and offerings to it, but you may suspect that they actually intend to sell it. Both in real life and in imagination generosity requires the exercise of wisdom and intelligence, without which we may do more harm than good. In his Summary of the Stages of the Path Tsongkhapa says of generosity:

Giving is a wish-granting jewel
Fulfilling the hopes of living beings,
The best weapon with which to cut the knot of miserliness,
A Bodhisattva action which gives rise to indomitable
      courage And spreads one's fame in the ten directions.
Knowing this the wise follow the good path
Of completely giving body, possessions and virtue.


By Lobsang Gyatso
Translated by Gareth Sparham
Edited by Gareth Sparham

Snow Lion Publications

Copyright © 1998 Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Geshe Sonam Rinchen (1933–2013) studied at Sera Je Monastery and in 1980 received the Lharampa Geshe degree. He taught Buddhist philosophy and practice at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, as well as in dharma centers around the world.

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