The Six Perfections

If asked to summarize Mahayana Buddhism, I would tend to think of the Six Perfections as they describe what you've actually got to do. Effort is the most important as it's impossible to do the others without it but in general they're supposed to be used in harmony and balance. It's useful to concentrate on improving the areas at which you're weakest rather than developing areas you're already good at.

  1. Generosity
  2. Morality
  3. Patience
  4. Effort
  5. Concentration
  6. Wisdom


Generosity is a method to overcome selfishness. Selfishness if left unchecked is an enormous obstacle to the rest of the path. Selfishness leaves us unable to see others' viewpoints. Seeing others' viewpoints is absolutely critical to wisdom. Not just seeing them but acknowledging their worth and significance. That doesn't mean agreeing with everything they say but we have to at least realize that just because an opinion is ours doesn't mean it's right. Although learning from others can help us the important thing here is just to really be aware that other people can be experiencing different things to us in the same situation.

The way generosity works is to transfer our attention and effort from protecting our ego to doing something that will actually help. Often this takes the form of giving materially to others and the often repeated suggestion is that you should give away old posessions that you no longer need. But giving can take many forms and could involve investing time and effort to help others or making sure your creativity and interests are expressed in a way which benefits others. Whether or not your efforts are successful this will benefit you because it will help change your motivation. However to really benefit others most successfully we need to develop some of the more initial and basic aspects of wisdom. This simply means that we need to be aware of which action will benefit others the most. Researching which action will be most effective in benefiting others is an act of generosity in itself.


Morality simply means recognizing that some actions bring good results and some actions bring bad results, and then making a firm commitment to deliberately performing the actions which bring good results and avoiding the actions which bring bad results. Generally actions which bring good results are characterized by the fact that they benefit everyone and not just yourself. Actions that bring bad results are those which either ignore others' interests or deliberately harm them. Of course deliberate harm is much worse but harm done out of sheer ignorance can still be very bad indeed.

In Buddhism there is a list of ten unwholesome actions which it is recommended that you avoid in order to avoid harming both others through the effects of your actions and yourself through the negative emotions and motivations which these actions involve. There is also of course the possibility of negative external consequences for us as the effects of our actions come back to us. The actions are:

Actions of mind:

Actions of speech: Actions of body:


Patience is the antidote to anger. Anger is considered to be the most destructive of the negative emotions in Buddhism. Although it may be rarer than desire, when it happens it is much worse. When we feel the urge to act out a negative emotion such as anger or desire, simply waiting a while rather than acting on it immediately can give us enough space for the urges and emotion to die down, and then we avoid an action which may have been very stupid indeed.

The principle of non-reaction is an important factor in mind training. Most of the events which seem to cause us to suffer, whether they are external events or internal thoughts and feelings, do not actually directly cause us to suffer. We only experience suffering because we react to them or resist them. When we experience unpleasant thoughts we must realize that they are not inherently unpleasant and it is the fact that we consider them to be unpleasant that makes them seem unpleasant. The advice usually given for dealing with mental objects and events is to neither pull them closer nor push them away, and this is often good advice in external situations too. When we have a thought which we dislike it is important not to try to override it with another thought, as this just feeds the energy of the thought process which created the unpleasantness in the first place. Just leave it alone and the energy will dissipate by itself. Everything changes and we can completely rely on the fact that nothing lasts forever.

This doesn't mean that when an injustice happens we don't do anything about it. Our action should be whatever is of greatest benefit to all sentient beings. This may involve doing something about something bad that is happening or preventing it from happening again. But we must make sure that we are acting from a calm centre and not out of anger. This means that if we feel anger in response to an injustice we should let it die down before deciding what to do.

The calm and joy that comes from patience is amazing, and in some respects patience is the passive part of the same thing which concentration is the active part of: the proper use of attention. Patience is the negative part, where we withdraw attention from our reactivity, and concentration is the positive part, where we deliberately focus on something helpful.


Effort is the motivation required to pursue the spiritual path. Without this motivation we will not perform the necessary actions to develop and therefore nothing will be achieved. There are two motivations described in Buddhism, one from basic Buddhism and one from Mahayana. I think it is important to use these two motivations together as they are less effective used by themselves. The motivation from basic Buddhism is to eliminate one's own suffering. The motivation from Mahayana is called bodhicitta and means the desire to develop one's own capabilities to the fullest in order to be able to benefit others most effectively. If one ignores the basic motivation one is missing out on the very powerful effects of one's natural desire not to suffer. Bodhicitta both harnesses our compassion to speed our progress and empowers our compassion to be of greater benefit.

Many things can get in the way of the practical side of effort, which is actually carrying out the actions as well as intending to. Not having enough time is one of them. We can get our priorities wrong. Buddhism has a very interesting and quite amusing definition of laziness: it means spending too much time on activities which are not relevant to the path.


Concentration is the deliberate focusing of attention. The main aim is to develop our ability to control where we put our attention, which has many benefits. Broadly speaking the practice of concentration falls into two categories: formal meditation practice and mindfulness in everyday life. An important factor in concentration is being aware of what our mind is doing, because only when we are aware of where our attention is can we control it. If we are not aware then we're usually also unaware of our intention to practice concentration: we have temporarily forgotten it. Being aware of where our our attention is so that we can correct our mistakes is called vigilance.

Generally the things we try to concentrate on in both meditation and mindfulness are things in the physical world, the information we recieve from our physical senses. Feel the wind on your face, the earth beneath your feet, the sound of someone's voice. As attention is focused on these kinds of things it will automatically and effortlessly remove itself from many things which seem harmful. Thoughts and feelings will calm down by themselves. It is important to focus on the sensual content itself and not its meaning: this is especially true of words. You will not lose the ability to understand language because of this!

Formal meditation practice means focusing deliberately on one single object for a set period of time, and the most common object is the sensation of breathing. The breath meditation which I am familiar with involves focusing on the sensation of the breath going through the nostrils. There are many recommendations about the right environment and physical posture for meditation, with the most significant probably being that you should sit reasonably upright as this makes you more alert. Although a peaceful environment where you will not be disturbed is recommended you can actually get away with a much worse environment if you really have no choice. The important thing is that you keep trying and don't give up. Usually it is recommended that you start with a short period of maybe five or ten minutes and gradually build up to periods of up to half an hour. To do this once a day is great but many meditators do this twice a day.

One's attention will almost inevitably drift away from the object, although how much this happens depends enormously on your state of mind. It is important to let go of any idea of success or failure in meditation; the important thing is to try. Just because your attention has drifted doesn't mean you are doing it wrong. One of the most important effects of meditation is that you realize just how much your mind wanders and you see the current state of your ability to concentrate. As I said before, observing where your attention and concentration currently are is a great help towards improving them. When you find your attention has wandered, gently but firmly bring it back to the object.

Both mindfulness and meditation but particularly meditation will produce small gaps in the stream of thought. We are so used to our constant stream of thoughts that we think it is part of who we are. When we start to experience some small gaps in the stream of thoughts we start to realize actually this is not who we are. This has a profound effect at releasing us from many forms of thinking which appear to hurt us. If we think we are our thoughts then we often subconsciously feel the need to protect them, which is responsible for many of our reactive drives. This explains why people often feel so hurt by criticism; the physical self-protection instinct is being applied to something to which it is utterly inappropriate.

There are stringent warnings in Buddhism about getting too attached to meditative joy. Joy is not the purpose of meditation; the purpose is transformation. Nevertheless there is nothing wrong with joy as long as you are not attached to it.


The foundation of Buddhist wisdom is impermanence. Phenomena appear, persist for a while and then dissipate. This may seem blindingly obvious but we can be very resistant to change. Once we have formed an idea about how something is, it becomes part of who we think we are and therefore we feel the need to protect that idea. Then the situation changes and the idea becomes false. The idea continues to be defended despite the fact that it's now wrong and this causes conflict. This is similar to J.K. Galbraith's idea of the conventional wisdom.

A central and defining part of Buddhist teaching is the wisdom realizing emptiness. What does that mean? Unfortunately most descriptions sound pretty arcane and I don't think mine is going to be much better. The common phrase is that we need to realize the "absence of inherent existence" but that isn't going to mean much to the average person. The ideas involved particularly in the latter stages of learning about emptiness are so far removed from most people's everyday beliefs that one worries that if one's honest about them they will just meet with outright rejection. However this distance from our normal beliefs is precisely why the realization of emptiness has such a profound effect. Our normal, everyday, seemingly innocent, seemingly rational belief system is what's causing our suffering and the wisdom realizing emptiness utterly destroys it.

In my thinking it has four main aspects: the incoherence of fixed beliefs, the way our mind inflicts concepts on our experience, the way the same things seem different from different viewpoints, and the difference between appearances and reality.

Sometimes it seems that things just "are the way they are", without the possibility for change and without there needing to be a reason for it. On closer examination, however, life is much more complicated than this. Trying to reason about why things are the way they are, recognizing that things were different in the past and will be different in the future, seeing the causes which made things the way they are, seeing the effects that the present situation will have in the future; all these suggest otherwise. This is one aspect of what's meant by the idea of inherent existence: the idea that things are "inherently" the way they are. Most importantly these beliefs are often plain wrong. Things may not even be the way we think they are at the moment. I've sometimes felt afraid of the word "inherent" wherever it turns up but it's important to realize that the word "inherent" is not inherently bad or wrong, it's just a word which, in this context, is being used to help describe a common human mistake.

Because language is such a fundamental part of our mind we subconsciously categorize everything in our experience according to the words which represent them. This makes objects in our perception seem like separate, static, unchanging entities and it makes different things represented by the same word seem alike or even identical. Take for example a prejudice against a particular type of person. How could you possibly believe that all people represented by a particular word are the same? But this happens all the time. This is what I call "inherent nature": the idea that an object is inherently the way it is. Our idea of the inherent nature of something is closely related to our idea of the meaning of the word which denotes it. Often we are walking around in a world of words rather than anything remotely resembling reality. And because of this it is so important that our words are true and accurate, that we do not have any false prejudices, that we are prepared to change beliefs when we are wrong.

The word "emptiness" means that things are "empty" of inherent nature or inherent existence.

If one travels to different places one often finds that the different attitudes of the people living in different places mean that they view the same actions or events in completely different ways. It is obvious that when two people have different opinions they often view the same act with completely different judgements. Depending on people's past conditioning they often have completely different views on the same subjects. Sometimes one is right and the other wrong but often it's far more complex than that. Their opinions are the result of causes and conditions that happened in the past, and ultimately right and wrong are just concepts, sometimes useful, other times not (usually depending on how much ignorance they are mixed up with).

The crucial point here is that if multiple people see different things when looking at the same thing, none of them can possibly be right. Some viewpoints are more helpful than others but that's all. The sensual apparatus of different animals, for instance, is generally designed by nature specifically to be most suitable to the animal's particular purpose, and animals with different sensory apparatus have very different sensual perceptions of the same physical situations.

So what's actually there?

Clearly our experience is actually happening. The fact that we are actually experiencing what we experience proves that our experience itself is real. However we believe that our experience indicates that something beyond our experience is actually there. This is false.

Whenever we think we see something external to us in the world what we are actually experiencing is some aspect of our own mind. The only reason we see similar and comparable things to each other is because we have similar and comparable minds. However, clearly, although our personal experiences may differ vastly from one another, we are still together in the same world. The world we are able to describe and communicate about is called conventional reality (by me, at least). Conventions are created by minds and communicated through language. However their ultimate nature is illusory. No matter how many people agree on an illusion it is still an illusion.

All phenomena are in the nature of emptiness, that is, any ideas we have about them are made up by our own mind and do not exist in the object itself. This goes not just for ideas but for sense impressions too. What we see is created by our eyes and mind. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Of course, to talk about objects or phenomena at all is to reify the aforementioned issue of the division of the world into separate and distinct objects. While this remains a useful ability in order to function in the world in any way, it's useful to take a step back from it so we can see things as a whole and stop trying to make sense out of everything. The desire to categorise, control and predict is ultimately a defence against the ever-changing and mysterious nature of reality. It is impossible for one person to completely understand the world, and society doesn't usually do a much better job. However there are still differing levels of accuracy within people's perceptions and beliefs, and as mentioned earlier in the essay, this makes a huge difference to people's long-term happiness.

So the phrase "the absence of inherent existence" means that things do not have the power of existence by themselves. Their existence is not self-caused or "inherent". Their existence is given to them by the mind, and also by the complex web of causes and conditions within the world. The separation of the world into distinct and different objects, as I said above, is also an illusion which is inflicted upon our perception by our conceptual thinking. It is all one.

An intellectual understanding of these issues is very helpful indeed, but it's necessary to apply the ideas to things in our everyday lives to actually gain the benefits.

This essay is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.