EA and the Paramitas

In July of 2019 I made a se­ries of posts in the Bud­dhists in EA Face­book group con­nect­ing Bud­dhist teach­ings on the parami­tas (perfec­tions) to EA. I de­cided to col­lect them to­gether and post them here for a wider au­di­ence to give you a taste of the kind of al­ign­ment I think can ex­ist be­tween EA and Bud­dhism.

Th­ese were rel­a­tively low-effort posts I made to help get the group started, so please ex­cuse their lack of pol­ish and the awk­ward turns-of-phrase I didn’t edit away. A cer­tain amount of in­ter­pre­ta­tion is in­volved here, so un­der­stand that this re­flects my un­der­stand­ing of Bud­dhists teach­ings as they have been con­veyed to me and there may be other rea­son­able in­ter­pre­ta­tions by Bud­dhists prac­tic­ing in other lineages. Fur­ther, in the in­ter­est of get­ting this shared ever rather than never, I’ve only lightly ed­ited the posts to­gether and left them mostly as-is, so non-Bud­dhists may find it nec­es­sary to do some search­ing to make sense of some of this, al­though I’ve tried to add a few links to add helpful con­text.

Introduction

This is a se­ries of brief posts on how the parami­tas in­ter­sect with EA.

I’m think­ing about this be­cause I’m read­ing my former teacher’s new book, Deep Hope, about the (Ma­hayana) parami­tas. So as I finish each chap­ter I’ll re­flect a lit­tle here on how each paramita re­lates to EA.

Dana

The first paramita the book ex­plores is dana. This seems like maybe the eas­iest to re­late to EA, since dana is of­ten trans­lated as “char­ity”. Dana asks us to be open to give and re­ceive, to con­sider all liv­ing be­ings, to have the courage to give all that we can, and to hold noth­ing back out of self­ish­ness or ill-will. This paramita asks us to act on our com­pas­sion, and to ac­cept the com­pas­sion of oth­ers in turn.

And this brings up an in­ter­est­ing point. EA fo­cuses a lot on giv­ing, but not as much on re­ceiv­ing. There has been some think­ing about this in terms of sus­tain­ing our abil­ity to give, but it’s of­ten apolo­getic that we must care for our­selves to give more and fo­cused on the ends of giv­ing rather than the prac­tice of it. I think dana has a lot to teach us in EA about what giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing is deeply about, and how we can en­gage with it as part of a com­plete prac­tice of car­ing for all.

Shila

The sec­ond paramita ex­plored in Deep Hope is shila. There’s no di­rect trans­la­tion of shila into English, just like there’s not an ex­act trans­la­tion of dana, but I think both “skil­lful ac­tion” and “virtue” cap­ture it best, or if we want to go out on a limb, maybe we could trans­late it as “effec­tive­ness”.

The “effec­tive” in “effec­tive al­tru­ism”, ini­tially con­ceived within a con­se­quen­tial­ist frame­work, is origi­nally about driv­ing to­wards ac­tions that ac­tu­ally do what you in­tend. But as Bud­dhists I think we can un­der­stand “effec­tive” in a broader con­text where we of­ten don’t know ex­actly what the con­se­quences of our ac­tions will be, and so we can in­stead turn to the virtues we may take as vows in the pre­cepts and our de­vel­op­ment of skil­lful­ness at nav­i­gat­ing karma (cause and effect) as we ac­cu­mu­late ex­pe­rience with the world.

We of­ten speak of “skil­lful means”, the care­ful ac­tions we take to effect change in the world with­out un­in­tended con­se­quences, rec­og­niz­ing that even at our most skil­lful we can still cause harm be­cause even at our most awake we are finite be­ings. And this seems to me a healthy way to ap­proach effec­tive­ness with our al­tru­ism. The pow­er­ful op­ti­miz­ing ten­dency within the EA com­mu­nity can some­times leave out what is im­por­tant, and an im­por­tant way we can ex­tend our prac­tice into EA spaces is to bring care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of whether or not our at­tempts to make things bet­ter might ac­ci­den­tally make things worse.

So the next time you think about how to do the most good, con­sider how you might ac­ci­den­tally do so much good you make other things worse. In this we can honor the wis­dom of shila.

Kshanti

To­day we look at the paramita of kshanti.

Once again we get a paramita with a hard to trans­late name, “kshanti”. We could ren­der this as pa­tience, for­bear­ance, tol­er­ance, or even en­durance or for­ti­tude. None of those words quite get at it, though, be­cause they are all ei­ther too pas­sive or too ac­tive. Kshanti lies some­where in the mid­dle, rest­ing just enough in quiet for­bear­ance that we don’t re­act un­skil­lfully, but not so quiet that we let suffer­ing come into the world through our in­ac­tion.

I think we en­counter kshanti mostly strongly in EA in its ded­i­ca­tion to re­search and will­ing­ness to re­main skep­ti­cal. It’s tempt­ing to jump to ac­tion when there is suffer­ing or waste or risk that we can do some­thing about right now, but that some­thing might not skil­lfully move us in the right di­rec­tion. We need to have the pa­tience to put in the work to think, rea­son, and dis­cuss be­fore tak­ing ac­tion, but to also not think, rea­son, and dis­cuss so long that we un­nec­es­sar­ily de­lay our­selves. It’s a care­ful bal­ance be­tween too much haste and not enough, and kshanti in­vites us to find it.

Virya

The next paramita we’ll con­sider is virya, or effort.

We should un­der­stand virya not to be about try­ing or work­ing hard, but in­stead about giv­ing things your all. Whole-hearted effort is a good way to de­scribe virya. It’s a sim­ple get­ting on with things be­cause they are what is to be done.

The ob­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship to EA is the sim­ply get­ting on with the work of EA and not get­ting dis­tracted by other things. Do­ing the most good of­ten means work­ing hard, es­pe­cially for those peo­ple on-the-ground do­ing di­rect work.

The less ob­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship is in how we ap­proach our EA work. Within EA there can be folks who get ob­sessed with per­sonal effi­ciency, scrupu­los­ity, or oth­er­wise be­come hy­per-con­cerned with always do­ing the most good and never leav­ing room for them­selves. Virya in­vites us to con­sider whether or not that is helpful effort, or if that is a self-cen­tered at­tach­ment to do­ing more than we re­ally can. Effort ap­plied that is not mind­ful of the con­di­tions in which it is be­ing ap­plied and that tries to ig­nore re­al­ity as it is leads to more suffer­ing even as it may yield good things.

Right effort de­mands we har­mo­nize what we think needs to be done with what is re­ally “needed”. When we give up our pre­con­cep­tions of what we or oth­ers “need”, we may find ways for­ward that al­low us to sim­ply get on with do­ing good in a way that hon­ors oth­ers and our­selves.

Dhyana

We now come to what seems one of the hard­est parami­tas to con­nect to EA, dhyana, or med­i­ta­tion.

As a Westerner who grew up in a sec­u­lar Protes­tant house­hold, med­i­ta­tion seemed to be the essence of Bud­dhist prac­tice, and I think it con­tinues to look that way in the West. Be­fore I learned to med­i­tate, it seemed like some weird, mys­ti­cal, spe­cial thing that peo­ple did, and I wasn’t “spiritual” enough to be part of that. But even­tu­ally I first trusted and then dis­cov­ered for my­self that it was noth­ing other than get­ting back to the fun­da­men­tal way of be­ing we are all born into and for­get how to no­tice we are always already in. Through many differ­ent skil­lful means, we can come to have knowl­edge of our Bud­dha na­ture via dhyana.

So what could that pos­si­bly have to do with EA? I ad­mit, it seems a stretch, but I think there is some­thing about med­i­ta­tion that re­ally pulls all of parami­tas to­gether and we can ex­tend that as­pect of it to EA. As EAs we may or may not prac­tice med­i­ta­tion, but as EAs we are all some­how in­volved in al­tru­is­tic works, and through perform­ing those works we man­i­fest our al­tru­ism, skill, pa­tience, effort, and wis­dom (we’ll talk about pra­jna next time) into the world, just as med­i­ta­tion al­lows us to man­i­fest the other parami­tas all at once to­gether for the benefit of our­selves and oth­ers. Whether that work is di­rect ac­tion, re­search, com­mu­nity build­ing, learn­ing, or sim­ply car­ing, it’s a chance for us to ex­press all that we are for the bet­ter­ment of oth­ers.

So treat your work al­tru­is­tic work as med­i­ta­tion, and see how it af­fects your effec­tive­ness. I think you’ll be satis­fied with the re­sults.

Prajna

At last we come to the sixth and fi­nal paramita, pra­jna, trans­lated as “wis­dom” or “see­ing clearly”.

A lot can and has been said about pra­jna be­cause, while it’s sim­ple, it’s very hard to grasp be­cause our minds have, through the con­di­tion­ing of our lives, be­come dis­tanced from it. Sim­ply put, pra­jna asks us to see the world as it is, to see that it is just this. Talk of form, empti­ness, non-du­al­ity, and the rest are ways to point at and talk around, though, some­thing that can only be di­rectly ex­pe­rienced. Pra­jna is ul­ti­mately some­thing you feel down to the depth of your be­ing.

I think there is a clear link here to the “effec­tive” as­pect of effec­tive al­tru­ism. In seek­ing to be effec­tive, we need to see clearly enough to both know that we are be­ing effec­tive and to know what would work. This can­not be done if we are de­luded by our opinions, judge­ments, and con­cep­tions. Even, ul­ti­mately, think­ing we know some­thing can be a threat to effec­tive­ness. Re­main­ing epistem­i­cally hum­ble, be­ing open to new ideas, and always ques­tion­ing if we’re re­ally do­ing the most good given our re­sources are ex­pres­sions of the deep wis­dom of see­ing the world as it is and know­ing that any at­tempt to in­ter­act with it us­ing our finite be­ing will always leave some­thing out. We must ever try to see more clearly, a hori­zon to ap­proach that we can never reach, if we wish to be as effec­tive as we can.

That con­cludes this se­ries of posts, as I both finished the book (Deep Hope) and we’re out of parami­tas.

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