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How to Transform Suffering

Great dharma talk online with David Nichtern last night the six paramitas, which are teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. David offers these every Tuesday at 7 pm, ET. He was my first and is my foremost buddhist teacher.

Paramita means perfection or perfect relationship. I also read that the Chinese character for this word means “crossing over to the other shore,” which according to Thich Nhat Hanh means the shore of peace, non-fear, and liberation.

There are six:

  1. Generosity (dana)
  2. Discipline, precepts, mindfulness training (shila)
  3. Patience, inclusiveness, capacity to receive, bear, transform pain inflicted on you (kshanti)
  4. Exertion, energy, perseverance (virya)
  5. Meditation (dhyana)
  6. Discernment, wisdom, insight, understanding (prajna)

I was reading up on these concepts in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (p. 195-196) regarding generosity, what can we give?, he asks. He answers – our stability (or solidity), our freedom (freedom from craving, anger, jealousy, despair, fair, and wrong perceptions), our freshness, peace (and lucidity), space.

The person we love needs space in order to be happy. In a flower arrangement, each flower needs space around it in oder to radiate its true beauty. A person is like a flower. Without space within and around her, she cannot be happy….And the more we offer, the more we have. When the person we love is happy, happiness comes back to use right away. We give to her, but we are giving to ourselves at the same time.

Giving is a wonderful practice. The Buddha said what when you are angry at someone, if you have tried everything and still feel angry, practice dana paramita. When we are angry our tendency is to punish the other person. But when we do, there is only an escalation of the suffering. The Buddha proposed that instead, you send her a gift. When you feel angry, you won’t want to go out and buy a gift, so take the opportunity now to prepare the gift when you are not angry. Then, when all else fails, go and mail that gift to her, and amazingly, you’ll feel better right away…You get what you offer. Instead of trying to punish the other person, offer him exactly what he needs. The practice of giving can bring you to the shore of well-being very quickly.

When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That is the message he is sending. If you are able to see that, offer him what he needs – relief. Happiness and safety are not an individual matter. His happiness and safety are crucial for your happiness and safety. Wholeheartedly wish him happiness and safety, and you will be happy and safe also.

What else can we offer? Understanding. Understanding is the flower of practice…when you offer others your understanding they will stop suffering right away.

The first petal of the flower of the paramitas is dana paramita, the practice of giving. What you give is what you receive, more quickly than the signals sent by satellite. Whether you give your presence, your stability, your freshness, your solidity, your freedom, or your understanding, your gift can work a miracle. Dana paramita is the practice of love.

When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That is the message he is sending if you are able to see that, offer him what he needs – relief. Happiness and safety are not an individual matter. His happiness and safety are crucial for your happiness and safety. Wholeheartedly wish him happiness and safety, and you will be happy and safe also.

I also really loved what Thich Nhat Hanh says about patience. He notes,

Kshanti is often translated as patience or forbearance, but I believe “inclusiveness” better conveys the Buddha’s teaching. When we practice inclusiveness, we don’t have to suffer or forebear, even when we have to embrace suffering and injustice. The other person says or does something that makes us angry. he inflicts on us some kind of injustice. But if our heart is large enough, we don’t suffer.

The Buddha offered this wonderful image. If you take a handful of salt and pour it into a small bowl of water, the water in the bowl will be too salty to drink. But if you pour the same amount of salt into a large river, people will still be able to drink the river’s water. (Remember, this teaching was offered 2,600 years ago, when it was still possible to drink from rivers!) Because of its immensity, the river has the capacity to receive and transform. The river doesn’t suffer at all because of a handful of salt. If your heart is small, one unjust word or act will make you suffer. But if your heart is large, if you have understanding and compassion, that word or deed will not have the power to make you suffer. You will be able to receive, embrace, and transform it in an instant. What counts is your capacity. To transform your suffering, your heart has to be as big as the ocean.

I just love that.