Editor’s Note: The following is the first in a series of posts by Nora Murphy about the “10 paramis,” or qualities of heart-mind. With these posts, she’ll take an informal, personal approach to each of the paramis, in an effort to reveal the simple, everyday lesson in each. This first piece was written in early September.
At the beginning of September, a call of alarm slices through my mind, “Fall is coming, fall is coming.” The signs are everywhere. There are only a few more days left of the State Fair. Darkness arrives earlier each evening. As a parent, it also means back to school time. Two days ago, I packed one son off to the freshman dorm at the University of Minnesota and this morning my youngest headed off to junior high. This leaves me with rare quiet time to reflect on the moving arc of mindfulness.
September is almost the half-way mark between the two residential retreats that TCVC sponsors each year. Every June, Steve Armstrong and Kamala Masters offer a ten-day retreat. In early winter, TCVC sponsors a second retreat, like the upcoming January 2012 one with Rebecca Bradshaw. I was fortunate enough to attend both TCVC retreats in 2011. But I’ve noticed that at this half-way mark, my mindfulness muscles are little out of shape.
What to do if we strive for continuous mindfulness? The Buddha stressed the importance of Sangha in the path toward awakening. For this reason, the ongoing supports available daily at Common Ground are so nourishing. But what about those days in between retreats or visits to Common Ground? Like these early September days when we’re rubbing the residue of sticky cotton candy onto our jeans at the Fair? Fretting over the difference in pencil packs at Office Max? Or rushing through supper so there’s still light on our evening walk?
Last June, Kamala Masters reminded our group of 40+ retreatants that the Buddha provided clear guidance for lay practice. Cultivate the paramis. Kamala explained that the root word for ‘parami’ is the same as the root word for ‘paramount.’ Paramount, according to one dictionary means, “supreme, or more important than anything else.” That’s big. Really big.
So what are the paramis? They are ten qualities of heart-mind: generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, lovingkindness, and equanimity. Honestly, that doesn’t sound that supreme, does it? I mean, these are the same things I’ve always tried to teach my sons. The list could just as easily read: Share. Be good. Get some exercise. Don’t be stupid. Try hard. Wait your turn. Don’t lie. Set a goal. Love one another. Be cool. On the other hand, neither of my boys have any one of the ten paramis down perfectly. Then again, neither do I and I turn fifty later this fall.
Turns out it’s not so easy to perfect the paramis. Vipassana teacher Guy Armstrong explains that it took Gautama Buddha 100,000+ eons to perfect them. Back then, Gautama Buddha wasn’t a Buddha yet. Instead he was an ascetic named Sumedha who was very near enlightenment. One day Sumedha met a Buddha named Dipankara. Sumedha was really moved by this encounter. He decided that rather than attain personal enlightenment and relieve his own suffering, he would strive to become a Buddha and help all beings. Just at that moment, the ascetic Sumedha noticed that Dipankara was about to step into some wet mud. To express his heart’s deepest aspiration for buddhahood, Sumedha fell to the ground to cover the mud. Dipankara and his traveling retinue then stepped over Sumedha, keeping their feet and robes clean. It is said that as Dipankara Buddha stepped across, he predicted that Sumedha would indeed realize his goal for Buddhahood in “four incalculables and 100,000 eons in the future.”
But after Dipankara left and Sumedha was on his own again, the Buddha-to-be had a kind of early September moment like me—fervent, but a little lost at the Midway. He asked himself how he was going to reach his goal. As he sat in his cave reflecting, the list of ten wholesome qualities arose in his mind—the paramis. He understood that he would have to cultivate each one to perfection before he could become a Buddha.
We don’t need to aspire to Buddhahood to cultivate the paramis in our daily lives. This fall, my own goal is to maintain continuity with mindfulness. But whatever our goal, practicing the paramis can help. We don’t have to wait until the next retreat or until we run into a Buddha to get started. Nor do we have to let our imperfect attempts at these ten qualities discourage us. Remember, it took Gautama Buddha eons to perfect them. We, too, can practice the paramis—right here, right now. All we have to do is fall forward into our daily lives.