Editor’s Note: The following is the tenth 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.
Resoluteness, or strong determination, took the face of a dead squirrel lying on the black top in our alley recently. On first sighting, I didn’t think much about the poor fellow—lots of squirrels and rabbits and birds die on our block thanks to plentiful cat and car predators. But no one scooped his body up so I had a chance to watch him decompose until heavy spring rains washed him away.
The squirrel was severed into parts—his tail separate from his body. His light gray coat of fur was still intact, but his head had gone missing. He didn’t stink at first, not until after the temperature rose into the 70s. The flies liked him. One afternoon I came down the alley and only saw flashing green and yellow lights—the sun rippling off the massive tent of flies that hovered over the squirrel parts. Such a splendid feast! About four evenings into the decomposition, the squirrel parts grew noticeably smaller, and less stinky. He was dry, more earth than water; he was cool, more air than fire. When the rains arrived a few days later, they scooped him easily up—washing what remained of him off the black top and into the earth.
The squirrel’s fate reminded me of my own. Like a squirrel, we humans are made up of organs and a head (hopefully not gone missing). We have fur (not quite as thick or long as the squirrels) and we, too, get stinky when the heat rises and we can’t hop in the shower to rinse off. The fine composition of elements and body parts and sentience that we’re given in this lifetime is temporary. At any moment, we, too, could be splayed out in a grand finale of death. That makes the life we do have so very precious. With this feeling of preciousness comes firm resolve to really take advantage of what this lifetime can teach.
The Buddha encouraged us to cultivate resoluteness near the end of the ten paramis, or the perfections. In fact, it’s the eighth parami, followed only by two final biggies—loving kindness and equanimity. The Buddha had plenty of resolve when he determined not to get up from the Bodhi Tree. He said famously, “Let just the blood and flesh of this body dry up and let the skin & sinews fall from the bones. I will not leave this seat before having attained that absolute supreme Enlightenment!”
But how do we practice resoluteness?
I began experimenting with resoluteness while on retreats with a former TCVC visiting teacher back in the early 1990s. He encouraged us to try strong determination sits. Remain solid like a rock for a whole hour, he counseled. I discovered that I could force my body into stillness. This stillness resulted in some increased concentration, yet there was a price. During those willpower-driven sits, my mind generated stories of victory and shame. I didn’t have the wisdom or compassion to investigate the ‘very good meditator’ and ‘very bad meditator’ stories that cropped up. So by the end of some of those old retreats, my mind was a bit like a body builder on steroids—all puffed up without a stable base of support.
On the other hand, completely giving up determination is another pitfall we can fall into. How many times a day do I give up resolve to be mindful and follow my breath? Many! But the Buddha wouldn’t have reached ‘supreme Enlightenment’ if he wasn’t determined and neither will we in the short time we have in this body. I try to remember that poor squirrel!
So where do we find the balance between ego-fueled determination and giving up completely?
The Buddha offers one suggestion in an old Pali story from Cariyapitaka, or The Basket of Conduct. It illustrates that our resoluteness—to end suffering for ourselves and for all beings—is best practiced with wisdom and compassion.
Long ago, the story goes, the Buddha was born into a high position in a kingdom. He was afraid that he would be appointed King. The Buddha didn’t want to be king because he would have to punish criminals and he didn’t want to harm any beings, not even criminals. So he resolved not to show his intelligence while he was growing up in this kingdom. For sixteen years, he pretended that he could not hear or speak. Talk about strong determination! But, he finally broke this determination when his own life was at stake. Just as he was about to be buried alive, he spoke up and saved his own life!
The squirrel in my alley this spring reminds why we practice with determination. Heat and flies and heavy rains will wash us away, too. But the Buddha’s resoluteness shows we should channel our determination with wisdom and compassion for oneself and for all beings. For now, my resolve is to meet my goal to explore all ten paramis for the Common Ground blog before Kamala Masters returns to Minnesota for the June TCVC retreat. Two more to go!