Divisions of the 6 Perfections: Four Tibetan Traditions

[For background, see: The Ten Perfections in Theravada, Mahayana and Bon]

The various Tibetan Buddhist traditions present slightly different division schemes of the six far-reaching attitudes (pha-rol-tu phyin-pa, Skt. paramita; perfections). The diversity indicates the wide range that each of the six covers. It also indicates the assortment of names that different traditions or masters have occasionally chosen for the same divisions. The most easily accessible place to find these schemes is in each tradition's main presentation of the sutra path practiced as a preliminary to tantra practice. There are many arrangements of this sutra path – for example, according the lam-rim (graded stages of motivation); the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma; parting from the four types of clinging; the four noble truths; or basis, pathway, and result.

Here, we shall examine the main division schemes found in the Kagyu, Nyingma, and Gelug traditions. The most common presentation of the sutra path in Sakya, A Filigree for Beautifying the Three Appearances (sNang-gsum mdzes-rgyan; The Three Visions) by the early 16th-century master Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrub (Ngor-chen dKon-mchog lhun-grub), does not divide the six far-reaching attitudes into their varieties.

For Dagpo Kagyu in general, and especially for Karma Kagyu, we shall refer to A Precious Ornament for Liberation (Thar-pa rin-po-che'i rgyan; Jewel Ornament of Liberation) by the early 12th-century master Gampopa's (sGam-po-pa Zla-'od gzhon-nu).

For Drigung Kagyu, we shall cite An Ocean of Quotations Explaining Well Drigungpa's "Essence of the Mahayana Teachings" (Theg-chen bstan-pa'i snying-po legs-bshad lung-gyi rgya-mtsho) by the late 12th-century master Ngoje Repa (Ngo-rje ras-pa Zhe-sdang rdo-rje).

For Nyingma, we shall refer to Personal Instructions from My Totally Excellent Guru (Kun-bzang bla-ma'i zhal-lung; The Words of My Perfect Teacher) by the 19th-century master Paltrul (rDza dPal-sprul O-rgyan 'jigs-med chos-kyi dbang-po). We shall also make reference to Resting and Healing in the Nature of the Mind (Sems-nyid ngal-gso; Kindly Bent to Ease Us) by the 14th-century master Longchenpa (Klong-chen Rab-'jams-pa).

For Gelug, we shall refer to A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo) by the late 14th-century master Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa).

Far-Reaching Generosity

Gampopa presents three types of generosity:

  • generosity with material things,
  • generosity with a state of no fear, such as saving or protecting the lives of others,
  • generosity with the Dharma, such as by explaining or making it available to others.

The three make, respectively, the physical existence, the lives, and the minds of others secure. Moreover, the first two bring happiness to others in this lifetime, whereas generosity with Dharma brings happiness to others in future lives. Further, Gampopa divides generosity with material things into two:

  • generosity with inner things – one’s body, life, or limbs,
  • generosity with outer things – material objects or one's family members.

Ngoje Repa presents the same three main divisions as Gampopa does, but explains generosity with the Dharma before generosity with a state of no fear.

Paltrul gives all three of Gampopa's divisions, in Ngoje Repa's order. He divides generosity with material things into three categories, corresponding to Longchenpa's three divisions:

  • giving common objects, such as food or wealth,
  • giving precious objects, such as one's animals or family members,
  • giving extremely precious objects, such as one’s body, life, or limbs.

Tsongkhapa also lists the same three divisions as does Gampopa, and in Ngoje Repa's order.

A fourth division of generosity appears in anuttarayoga tantra, in the context of the four practices that bond one closely (dam-tshig, Skt. samaya) to Ratnasambhava. This is generosity with love – namely the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. Moreover, giving a state of no fear is expanded to include giving equanimity, so that others have nothing to fear from our clinging to them, being angry with and rejecting them, or ignoring them as if they did not conventionally exist.

[See: Common Bonding Practices for the Buddha-Families.]

Far-Reaching Ethical Self-Discipline

All four masters present the same set of three divisions of far-reaching ethical self-discipline:

  • the ethical self-discipline of restraining from faulty behavior,
  • the ethical self-discipline of assembling constructive factors – namely, the six far-reaching attitudes and all positive actions such as meditating,
  • the ethical self-discipline of working for the benefit of others.

The only noticeable difference is that Ngoje Repa reverses the order of the second and third types.

Gampopa and Tsongkhapa include in the ethical self-discipline of restraining from faulty behavior both keeping the pratimoksha set of vows for individual liberation as a layperson or as a novice or full monk or nun, as well as keeping the bodhisattva vows. Paltrul includes keeping the bodhisattva vows as part of the ethical self-discipline of assembling constructive factors.

Far-Reaching Patience

Gampopa divides far-reaching patience into three types:

  • the patience of not thinking anything about by those who do harm – in other words, not getting angry at them,
  • the patience of readily accepting one's own suffering – namely, the suffering and difficulties involved in working toward enlightenment and in helping others,
  • the patience involved in gaining certitude about the Dharma.

Ngoje Repa has the same list of three as Gampopa, but reverses the order of the first and second types. For the patience of readily accepting one's suffering, he places the emphasis on the suffering involved with helping others. He divides the patience involved in gaining certitude about the Dharma into two:

  • the patience not to become discouraged or fatigued at the difficult practices and taming behavior one needs to follow on account of the Dharma,
  • the patience not to become frightened at the profound points of the Dharma.

Paltrul presents, under different names, the first two divisions listed by Gampopa. For the third, he specifies only Ngoje Repa's second type of the third division:

  • the patience of bearing maltreatment from others,
  • the patience of enduring hardships for the sake of the Dharma,
  • the patience not to become frightened at the profound points.

Tsongkhapa presents the same three divisions as Gampopa does.

Far-Reaching Perseverance

Gampopa presents three divisions of far-reaching perseverance:

  • armor-like perseverance – never to give up effort in constructive acts in order to lead each and every limited being to enlightenment, no matter the difficulties involved,
  • perseverance applied (to constructive actions),
  • insatiable perseverance – never feeling that one has made enough effort until one has attained enlightenment.

There are three types of perseverance applied to constructive actions:

  • the perseverance to rid oneself of disturbing emotions,
  • the perseverance of actualizing the constructive factors – namely, the six far-reaching attitudes, with no regard for one's body or even one's life,
  • the perseverance of working for the benefit of limited beings – even if one has to do so all by oneself.

Ngoje Repa lists the same three main divisions as Gampopa does, but reverses the order of the first two.

Paltrul also presents the same three main divisions, but in the order that Gampopa follows.

Tsongkhapa presents:

  • armor-like perseverance,
  • the perseverance to assemble constructive factors,
  • the perseverance of working for the benefit of limited beings.

The first division in Tsongkhapa's presentation is the same as that in Gampopa's. The last two are the same as the last two types of Gampopa's second division, the joyful perseverance applied to constructive actions.

Far-Reaching Mental Stability

Gampopa divides far-reaching mental stability (concentration) into three types:

  • the mental stability that places one in states of bliss in this lifetime – namely, the four levels of mental stability possessing single-pointedness of mind, exhilarating states of physical and mental fitness (shin-sbyangs), and temporarily parted from disturbing attitudes, conceptual thoughts of existence or nonexistence, and the experience of gross forms of physical phenomena,
  • the mental stability for actualizing good qualities – both those shared in common with shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, and those not shared in common with them,
  • the mental stability for working for the benefit of limited beings.

Ngoje Repa presents:

  • the mental stability for untainted constructive factors (zag-pa med-pa; uncontaminated) – namely, concentration on opponents for the disturbing emotions, such as on ugliness and foulness as an opponent for attachment, patience and love for anger, and so on,
  • the mental stability for thoroughly differentiating meanings – divided into a stilled and settled state of shamatha (zhi-gnas) and an exceptionally perceptive state of vipashyana (lhag-mthong),
  • the mental stability for actualizing good qualities, such as the extrasensory and extraphysical powers gained with the four levels of mental stability.

Paltrul explains the following divisions:

  • the mental stability enjoyed by the childish – namely, the level that has attachment to the bliss, clarity, and non-conceptuality gained with this stability,
  • the mental stability that performs a supreme purpose – namely, the level that is free of the previous three attachments, but is still attached to a concept of voidness,
  • the mental stability for the constructive factors of a Thusly Gone Buddha – namely, the level that is free of the previous attachment, and which has non-conceptual cognition of voidness beyond all four extremes.

Tsongkhapa divides far-reaching mental stability in three ways. The two divisions according nature:

  • ordinary (worldly) mental stability – that of a non-arya mind, a mind that lacks non-conceptual cognition of voidness,
  • extraordinary (trans-worldly) mental stability – that of an arya mind.

The three divisions according to type:

  • the mental stability of a stilled and settled state of shamatha,
  • the mental stability of an exceptionally perceptive state of vipashyana,
  • the mental stability of a state of mind that joins the pair.

The three divisions according to function:

  • the mental stability that places one in a state of physical and mental bliss in this lifetime,
  • the mental stability for actualizing good qualities – namely, the good qualities shared in common with shravakas, such as extrasensory abilities,
  • the mental stability for working for the benefit of limited beings.

This last set of divisions corresponds to the three divisions made by Gampopa.

Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness

Gampopa divides far-reaching discriminating awareness (wisdom) into:

  • ordinary (worldly) far-reaching discriminating awareness – namely, that which is gained through the study of medicine, logic, grammar, or arts and crafts,
  • modest extraordinary (lesser trans-worldly) far-reaching discriminating awareness – namely, that which is gained through the listening, thinking, and meditating of shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, such as, in reference to the aggregates, their uncleanliness, suffering, and lack of an impossible "soul" (selflessness),
  • vast extraordinary (greater trans-worldly) far-reaching discriminating awareness – namely, that which is gained through the listening, thinking, and meditating of Mahayana practitioners, such as on the voidness of true existence of all phenomena.

Ngoje Repa presents:

  • the discriminating awareness that is aware of superficial (conventional) truths,
  • the discriminating awareness that is aware of deepest (ultimate) truths,
  • nondual discriminating awareness.

Paltrul divides:

  • the discriminating awareness that arises from listening,
  • the discriminating awareness that arises from thinking,
  • the discriminating awareness that arises from meditating.

Tsongkhapa delineates:

  • the discriminating awareness that comprehends deepest truths,
  • the discriminating awareness that comprehends superficial truths,
  • the discriminating awareness for working for the benefit of limited beings.