Overview of Buddhism as the Basis of the Six Perfections

The Two Truths and the Four Noble Truths 

Indian religions vary among those that (1) do or do not rely on cause and effect over previous lives, (2) do or do not aim at liberation and (3) do or do not rely on internal or external means to achieve it. There is also a nihilist and eternalist division possible regarding the self. In Buddhism, we posit, instead, a self that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the aggregates and that aims for liberation.

There are two types of distorted views (log-lta) about the self and about all phenomena that need to be refuted: the repudiation that denies what exists and the interpolation that adds what does not exist to what does exist. To refute the first, Buddha taught conventional, superficial truth. To refute the second, Buddha taught deepest truth, the void nature of conventional truth. We need these two truths – the conventional and the deepest truths – and both require the backing of valid cognition. 

There are the four noble truths, taught during the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, which first establish the actual situation of what exists, namely the state of true suffering in which limited beings find themselves. We see that the true cause of this suffering is our holding these two types of distorted views. To attain their true cessation (true stopping), we need the true pathway mind (true path) of valid cognition of the two truths on the basis of all phenomena. Thus, the second turning of the wheel, where the Buddha propounded the third and fourth noble truths, supplements the first where he taught the first and second. In this second turning, Buddha also taught about the two truths in relation to the basis, path and its result.

The Four Hallmarks of the Dharma

What further differentiates Buddhism from other philosophies are the four hallmarks of the Dharma, which are:

[1] Impermanence – all affected phenomena (conditioned phenomena) are impermanent. Affected phenomena refer to those phenomena that are affected by causes, conditions, parts and so on. Thus, the Vaibhashika system teaches about the arising, abiding, aging and perishing of all affected phenomena. However, perishing starts right from the second moment, and thus the main point here is subtle impermanence, whereby phenomena are changing moment by moment. 

[2] Suffering – all tainted phenomena are suffering. They are tainted by the disturbing emotions, especially the three poisonous ones, with the root being naivety or ignorance. This ignorance (unawareness) causes us suffering not just through us “not knowing” how everything exists, but rather through knowing it in an inverted manner because of the above-mentioned distorted views. 

Our aggregates are phenomena that are affected by that wrong knowing and thus come from causes built up from ignorance and distorted views – namely, further disturbing emotions and compulsive karmic impulses. In terms of this, we have both coarse and subtle disturbing emotions, just as our unawareness has coarse and subtle levels. Therefore, our aggregates are examples of all-pervasive suffering. This is the deepest meaning of this point about suffering, and all-pervasive suffering is what we need to renounce. 

Even animals want freedom from the suffering of suffering. Non-Buddhists want freedom from the suffering of change and so emphasize the attainment, in meditation, of absorbed concentration (samadhi) and the four levels of mental constancy (the four dhyanas) in order to reach a stage beyond ordinary happiness to a state of equanimity. Therefore, Buddhist renunciation is specifically aimed at overcoming the third type of suffering, all-pervasive suffering. This renunciation is the determination to be free of the ordinary aggregates, which arise from being affected by unawareness, which perpetuate that unawareness, and which then perish due to impermanence.

[3] Voidness (emptiness) – all phenomena are void and without a self. In terms of the Madhyamaka understanding of this point, Chandrakirti taught that the conceptually implied object (zhen-yul) of our grasping for true existence – something representing truly established existence – is a mental representation of a mode of existence that does not exist at all. Therefore, there is nothing backing up and supporting what we imagine to be the case. Because of that, a mind that is opposite to this grasping, and which is backed up by reason, can overcome our unawareness that our distorted view is false. Thus, suffering, which relies on our distorted view, can be removed. When we investigate the conceptually implied object of our grasping – an example of truly established existence – we discover that it cannot be found to correspond, either ultimately or even conventionally, to anything. We then understand that true existence is an interpolation, with no backing from phenomena themselves.

[4] Nirvana – nirvana is peace. Nirvana is peace in the sense that it is a pacification, a true cessation of suffering and its causes. The true pathway mind leading to its attainment is the discriminating awareness (shes-rab, wisdom) of the arya’s (highly realized beings, noble ones) based on the three higher trainings in higher ethical self-discipline, higher concentration and higher discriminating awareness. Therefore, nirvana is attainable. So, thinking in terms of these four hallmarks, then either with the motivation of renunciation make effort to realize your own liberation, or with a bodhichitta motivation work for enlightenment and the liberation of all beings. 

The Mind That Attains Enlightenment

The second turning of the wheel of Dharma emphasized the deepest truth, while the third turning emphasized conventional truth in terms of a mind that focuses on voidness. The conventional nature of the mind that focuses on voidness is clarity (gsal) and awareness (rig). Clarity means appearance-making and this aspect of the nature of the mind gives rise to the appearances of conventional truth. Awareness, as the other aspect of mind’s nature, engages in these appearances. This is discussed in texts such The Furthest Everlasting Continuum (rGyud bla-ma, Skt. Uttaratantra), based on A Sutra on the Womb for a Thusly Gone One (De-bzhin gshegs-pa’i snying-po’i mdo, Skt. Tathagatagarbha Sutra) from the third turning. Nagarjuna also discussed this in his two Praises texts. 

The emphasis in these texts on the mind having the nature of clear light (od-gsal) is the very basis of tantra. The Vajra Tent Tantra (rDo-rje gur, Skt. Vajrapanjara Tantra) is the origin of the four classes of tantra, and the practices of the first three classes of tantra serve as the foundation for the clear light practices of the fourth class, anuttarayoga tantra. 

The root of the mind that will attain the omniscient state of enlightenment is bodhichitta. All other Mahayana aspects are preliminaries, trainings and branches of bodhichitta. Maitreya’s Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamaya-alamkara) and Haribhadra’s commentary to it, A Commentary Clarifying the Meaning (Grel-ba don-gsal, Skt. Sphutartha) explain bodhichitta with two aspirations – the wish to help all limited beings and the desire to achieve enlightenment in order to be able to do this. So, bodhichitta focuses on fulfilling the two purposes – those of others (to help them reach liberation and enlightenment) and our own (to reach enlightenment in order to be able to do this).

In order to develop compassion, we need the root of compassion, which is heart-warming love. This is feeling close to those who suffer, being able to appreciate their suffering and feeling terrible if they were to suffer more. To develop this heart-warming love, we can use either the seven-part cause and effect method, or the method of equalizing and exchanging self and others. The seven-part method of vast conduct comes from Maitreya, while the method of equalizing and exchanging self and others comes from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland (Rin-chen ’phreng-ba, Skt. Ratnavali) and Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Conduct (sPyod-’jug, Skt. Bodhisattvacharya-avatara). In order to recognize suffering, we need to examine the four noble truths, perceiving the suffering in ourselves and in all others. In this way, we will go beyond striving merely for our own liberation and simply becoming an arhat. 

Arhats, after all, can even manifest destructive actions of body and speech. These arise not from any disturbing emotion, since they have rid themselves of them, but rather from the habits of them and from the obscurations to omniscience. The cause of their manifesting destructive behavior is that arhats cling to the peace of nirvana. The antidote to this is to work for non-abiding nirvana, where we don’t abide in the extremes of either apathetic peace or compulsive samsaric existence. Therefore, we need to work to attain enlightenment.

Developing Bodhichitta

To develop bodhichitta to work for the benefit of everyone, we need first to develop equanimity toward all of them. Developing equanimity, as the basis of the seven-part cause and effect method, is like leveling the ground and then fertilizing it. Love is the water, compassion the seed, and bodhichitta is the tree, a wish-fulfilling tree, that grows from it. In the 25,000-Verse Prajnaparamita Sutra, it says not just to recognize the suffering of our mother, but also our father, relatives and friends, and to generate a mind that wishes to repay their kindness. How to repay it? By bringing them happiness and relieving them of suffering – so by developing love and compassion.

Shantideva explains the method of equalizing and exchanging self and others in the chapters on patience and concentration in his Engaging in Bodhisattva Conduct. The development of heart-warming love, with which we feel close to others and would feel terrible if anything bad happened to them, develops more strongly from this method than it does from the seven-part cause and effect method. The stronger the heart-warming love, the stronger the compassion will be that develops from it. The stronger the compassion, the stronger will arise the exceptional resolve to attain enlightenment in order to help them gain freedom from suffering. The stronger that resolve, the stronger our generation of bodhichitta will be. The stronger our bodhichitta, the stronger the positive force it will give us for gaining a correct understanding of voidness. 

This heart-warming love, with which we cherish everyone as being close and related to us and cannot stand if they suffer, strengthens when we see that we are all equal in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. Because of that, we can exchange ourselves with others and take on and feel their suffering. Through this practice of exchanging ourselves with them, we naturally feel closer, more related to others, and thus can no longer be indifferent to their suffering. Shantideva refers to this exchange practice as “secret” or “hidden.”

Developing bodhichitta and gaining a correct understanding of voidness reinforce each other. Those with sharp faculties work to gain a correct understanding first and then generate bodhichitta. Their development of refuge and renunciation are strengthened and helped by their correct understanding of voidness. This is because, with a correct view of voidness, they understand the third and fourth noble truths and therefore want to renounce the first and second noble truths. Their understanding of voidness, in turn, strengthens their development of bodhichitta, since it acts to eliminate their self-cherishing and destroy their self-grasping. Those with duller faculties work to develop bodhichitta first. The positive force built up from their development of bodhichitta and from their helping others provides support for gaining a deep understanding of voidness. 

The Four Ways to Gather Others 

There are four ways to gather others to us so that we can help them. Firstly, we can be generous, which provides the circumstance for attracting others and gathering them around us. Secondly, we can speak pleasantly to them in terms of helping them. Thirdly, we can speak meaningfully to them, encouraging them to practice the methods for reaching the meaningful goals of liberation and enlightenment. Fourthly, we ourselves can act in accord with those methods so as to help them gain confidence in them. 

For a good quality of mind to be a paramita, a far-reaching attitude (a perfection), one that can bring us all the way to the attainment of the Three Enlightening Bodies of a Buddha, it must be accompanied with a correct understanding of voidness and a motivation and aim of bodhichitta. If the quality of mind is not accompanied by these, it is not a paramita, it is not far-reaching. It will not be a mind that is going beyond the limitations of a sentient being or one that has gone beyond – the paramitas have both a path and a resultant level. Developing the six far-reaching attitudes mature our own minds and practicing these four ways to gather others ripen the minds of others. These four, however, are included in the six perfections.   

Being generous by giving others material help makes them receptive to us and helps turn their minds to the Dharma. Speaking pleasantly to them means teaching them the Dharma in accord with each of their individual dispositions. Speaking meaningfully means encouraging them to lead a Dharma life; and living a Dharma life ourselves inspires them to do the same.

Different Meanings of Voidness Being Permanent

Developing the far-reaching attitudes, then, requires a correct understanding of voidness. But what is the correct understanding and how to describe it? 

Nagarjuna wrote in his Root Verses on the Middle Way, Called Discriminating Awareness (dBu-ma rtsa-ba shes-rab, Skt. Prajna-nama-mulamadhyamaka-karika):

(XXIV.19) There does not exist anything that does not dependently arise. Because of that, there does not exist anything that is not devoid.

The Jonangpa master, Dolpopa, on the other hand, wrote that all affected phenomena dependently arise in the Chittamatra sense of being other-powered (gzhan-dbang) and so, by way of contrast, thoroughly established phenomena (yong-grub), being permanent, must go beyond them and so are truly established as existent. 

In Filigree of Realizations, Maitreya defined voidness as the Buddha-nature trait that is our naturally abiding state (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs):

(VIII.1) The Essential Nature Body of an Able One is an untainted phenomenon. The purity of all the (Buddha’s other) aspects attained, it is the naturally (abiding) trait.

The Furthest Everlasting Continuum and anuttarayoga tantra then describe our naturally abiding state as being one of clear light (’od-gsal-ba) and as referring to the clear-light nature of the mind. As Maitreya wrote in The Furthest Everlasting Continuum:

(I.62) The self-nature of awareness, namely clear light, is something which, similar to a lack of impediment for spatial existence, never alters.

Nagarjuna, agreeing that the abiding Buddha-nature refers to the voidness of the mind and warning against conceiving this voidness to be truly existent [as Dolpopa claimed], said in Root Verses on the Middle Way:

(XIII.7) If something not void were to (truly) exist, then something void would also (truly) exist; but as something not void does not (truly) exist, how could something void (truly) exist? 
(XIII.8) The Triumphant One has declared that voidness is the renunciation of all views. It is said of those who make voidness into a view that they will be unaccomplished.

Aryadeva, in Four Hundred Verse Treatise (bZhi rgya-pa, Skt. Chatuhshataka), agreed:

(XVI.8) If the position (of voidness) were (truly) existent, then the position that was not that would (also) take on the nature of a (truly existent) position. But as a (truly) existent position that is not that does not (truly exist), how could what is counter to that be a (truly existent) position?

There are many disadvantages to not understanding voidness correctly. We may fall to the extreme of either nihilism, where we assert that nothing exists, or absolutism, where we assert that voidness truly exists.

In tantra, the continuity of our clear light mind has no beginning or end. As a continuum, it is everlasting and, from the point of view of its being eternal, it is therefore permanent. When we speak of the voidness of mind as being permanent, however, it actually means that its voidness is not affected by causes and circumstances. When we say that the clear light is unaffected, this is in reference to its pure nature, whereby it is not affected by stains, which are merely adventitious and fleeting (glo-bur). We need to be clear about all these differences.