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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Comparison of Buddhist Traditions > The Ten Far-Reaching Attitudes in Theravada, Mahayana, and Bon

The Ten Far-Reaching Attitudes
in Theravada, Mahayana, and Bon

Alexander Berzin,
April 2005

Introduction

The ten far-reaching attitudes (pha-rol-tu phyin-pa, Skt. paramita, Pali: parami; perfections) are found in the Theravada, Mahayana, and Bon traditions. Literally, they are states of mind that bring bodhisattvas to the far shore – namely, to enlightenment. Although shravakas (listeners to Buddha's teachings who aim for the liberation of an arhat) may also develop these attitudes, they are not considered "far-reaching" unless they are conjoined with a bodhichitta aim.

The Theravada version of the Previous Life Accounts (sKyes-rab, Skt. Jataka) of Buddha when he practiced as a bodhisattva speaks of ten far-reaching attitudes. The Sarvastivada version has only six. Within Mahayana, both The Prajnaparamita Sutras (Pha-rol-tu phyin-pa'i mdo; Sutras on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness, Perfection of Wisdom Sutras) and The Sutra of the White Lotus of the Hallowed Dharma (Dam-pa'i chos pad-ma dkar-po zhes-bya-ba theg-pa chen-po'i mdo, Skt: Saddharmapundarika-nama Mahayana Sutra; The Lotus Sutra) discuss only six. The Sutra of the Ten Bodhisattva Levels of Mind (Sa bcu-pa'i mdo, Skt. Dashabhumikasutra), however, lists ten and correlates them with the ten levels of mind of an arya bodhisattva – a bodhisattva who has attained nonconceptual cognition of voidness.

The Bon tradition also lists ten, but calls them the "ten unsurpassable attitudes" (bla-na med-par phyin-pa). They appear in A Cavern of Treasures (mDzod-phug), unearthed as a treasure text by Shenchen Luga (gShen-chen Klu-dga') in the early eleventh century.

Theravada

Buddhaghosa's early fifth-century Path of Purification (Pali: Visuddhimagga) explains that, by properly cultivating the four immeasurable attitudes – love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, bodhisattvas automatically develop the ten far-reaching attitudes.

[See: The Four Immeasurable Attitudes in Hinayana, Mahayana, and Bon]

In other words, the basis for the ten far-reaching attitudes is (a) wishing all others to be happy and not unhappy, by being free of enmity, aggression and anxiety, (b) wishing them to be free from suffering, (c) rejoicing in their higher happiness and wishing for it to endure, and (d) being even-tempered toward all others in the sense of even when helping, not becoming too involved or indifferent. On that basis, bodhisattvas develop the ten far-reaching attitudes in the following order:

  1. Generosity (Pali: dana), the attitude with which bodhisattvas give material things to all beings, so that they may be happy, without investigating whether or not they are worthy.
  2. Ethical self-discipline (Pali: sila), the attitude with which they avoid doing any harm to others, by keeping their vows, free from anger or ill-will even if others harm them.
  3. Renunciation (Pali: nekkhama), the attitude with which they give up all attachment to worldly possessions, social status, and even to their bodies.
  4. Discriminating awareness (Pali: pañña), the attitude with which they understand and discriminate between what is beneficial and what is harmful for others.
  5. Perseverance (Pali: viriya), the attitude with which they constantly and courageously exert effort in helping others and in being able to help.
  6. Patience (Pali: khanti), the attitude with which they do not become angry at others' shortcomings, mistakes, or cruel deeds.
  7. Being true to one's word (Pali: sacca), the attitude with which they keep their promises, even if their lives are at stake.
  8. Resolution (Pali: adhitthana), the attitude of determination with which they never abandon what they need to do in order to benefit others.
  9. Love (Pali: metta), the attitude with which they work to bring about the welfare and happiness of others, even when doing so requires self-sacrifice.
  10. Equanimity (Pali: upekkha), the attitude with which they do not expect anything in return for their help, being indifferent to pleasure and pain, and to any benefit or harm they might receive.

The Theravada tradition also points out that each of the ten far-reaching attitudes has three levels: ordinary, medium and highest. An example of the highest generosity is a bodhisattva giving his body to others to eat. In a previous life as a hare, when a beggar asked him for food, the Buddha threw himself into a fire so that the beggar would have something to eat.

Mahayana

In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-'jug, Skt. Bodhisattvacharyavatara), the eighth-century Indian master Shantideva explains in detail that the six far-reaching attitudes are states of mind, and not necessarily the actions motivated by them. For instance, "If the perfection of generosity," he writes (V 9-10), "were that the poverty of wandering beings was all gone; then how could the Guardians of old have perfected it, since wandering beings have hunger still now? The perfection of giving is said to be through the mind that would give away to everyone all that is mine, together with its results; thus it's the mind itself."

The ten far-reaching attitudes explained in the Mahayana tradition are:

  1. Generosity (sbyin-pa, Skt. dana), the mental urge (sems-pa, Skt. cetana) that leads bodhisattvas to wish to give to others all that is theirs – their bodies, material wealth, and the roots of their constructive actions. Giving these "roots" means dedicating the positive force of their constructive actions for the benefit of others.
  2. Ethical self-discipline (tshul-khrims, Skt. shila), the mental urge that leads them to safeguard the actions of their bodies, speech, and minds. This urge comes from having turned their minds away from any wish to cause harm to others and from the disturbing and destructive mental factors that had motivated them to harm others.
  3. Patience (bzod-pa, Skt. kshanti), the mental urge that leads them to be unperturbed by those who do harm and by suffering. With this urge, bodhisattvas never become angry.
  4. Joyful perseverance (brtson-'grus, Skt. virya), the mental urge that leads them to have zestful vigor (spro-ba, Skt. utsaha) for being constructive. With this urge, bodhisattvas never are lazy.
  5. Mental stability (bsam-gtan, Skt. dhyana, concentration), single-pointed placement of their minds on any constructive focal object, without any wandering. It is a stable state of mind that is not only free of flightiness and dullness, but is also not distracted by any disturbing emotion of the plane of sensory desires (Desire Realm). In advanced states of mental stability, other mental factors, such as feelings of happiness, also do not distract the mind.
  6. Discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajna, wisdom), the mental factor that makes correct differentiations among phenomena.

    [See: Comparison of Tibetan Buddhist Division Schemes of the Six Far-Reaching Attitudes.]
  7. Skill in means (thabs-mkhas, Skt. upaya), the special discriminating awareness concerning the most effective and appropriate internal methods for actualizing the Buddha's teachings and the most effective and appropriate external methods for ripening limited beings (making them ripe for attaining liberation and enlightenment).
  8. Aspirational prayer (smon-lam, Skt. pranidhana), the aspiration never to be parted from a bodhichitta aim in all their lifetimes and for the continuity of their far-reaching activities for benefiting all beings never to be broken. This mental factor is a special discriminating awareness concerning phenomena toward which to aspire.
  9. Strengthening (stobs, Skt. bala, strength), the special discriminating awareness employed for expanding their discriminating awareness and not letting it be crushed by countering factors, such as attachment to anything. There are two types: (a) far-reaching strengthening through thorough analysis (kun-brtags-pa'i stobs) and (b) far-reaching strengthening through (stabilizing) meditation (bsgoms-pa'i stobs).
  10. Deep awareness (ye-shes, Skt. jnana), the special discriminating awareness employed for having the defining characteristic of all phenomena as voidness integrate fully with their minds. With full integration, bodhisattvas will gain simultaneous and equal awareness of the two truths about everything: superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, Skt. samvrttisatya; conventional truth) and deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, Skt. paramarthasatya; ultimate truth).

It is clear from the definitions that the last four far-reaching attitudes are divisions of the sixth, far reaching discriminating awareness. Note that the Mahayana list does not include the Theravada far-reaching attitudes of renunciation, being true to one's word, resolution, love, or equanimity. It adds far-reaching mental stability and the four divisions of discriminating awareness, and changes the order of the attitudes shared in common.

Bon

The ten unsurpassable attitudes in the Bon tradition resemble the ten far-reaching attitudes in Mahayana, but with several differences:

  1. generosity,
  2. ethical self-discipline,
  3. patience,
  4. joyful perseverance,
  5. mental stability,
  6. strengthening,
  7. compassion,
  8. aspirational prayer,
  9. skill in means,
  10. discriminating awareness.

Note the addition of far-reaching compassion, the change in order of several of the attitudes, and the omission of far-reaching deep awareness.