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Retreat Meditations for Perfection

By Cindy Lee

In January, Lama Marut led a retreat on “The Perfection of Wisdom” at the sacred site of Borobudur in Java, Indonesia. The Perfection of Wisdom refers to the sixth perfection (paramita) - or “perfection-izer” - that one tries to cultivate as a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva can be described as someone who has an awakening mind, a mind that is awakening to reality – the way things truly exist.

During the Perfection of Wisdom retreat, I led a meditation on the first five of the six perfections: Generosity (dana), Ethical Living (shila), Patience (kshanti), Joyful Effort (virya) and Meditative Concentration (samadhi), followed by two meditations on the sixth, the Perfection of Wisdom (prajna). Awakening Journal has suggested that people might enjoy using these meditations for a weekend or short-term retreat practice. I’ll briefly introduce this path to perfection.

Meditation on the first five perfections:

Meditation #1 on the 6th perfection: “one and many”:

Meditation #2 on the 6th perfection: “emptiness of self”:

According to the Lam Rim, if we want to practice being a bodhisattva we have to realize (and wrestle with) a few things before we begin these six trainings. Let’s briefly review the Lam Rim, “Steps on the Path to Enlightenment.”

Before we begin a journey, we need an idea of the destination we’d like to reach. How about complete freedom or enlightenment, meaning perceiving ourselves with a body and mind free of suffering, and a world free from suffering too?

To be this goal we need to see this goal first in the form of finding and serving a teacher. We must recognize that the only time to reach this goal is now. “All lights are green” for us to practice, and that window of opportunity could close at any time.  To prevent the loss of this incredible good fortune, we take refuge in the way that our hurtful actions toward others result in similar consequences for ourselves. Therefore we become more observant and careful of our behaviour toward fellow beings.

All of us, equally, are trying to avoid pain. Conceptualizing yourself as different from others makes you the same as most everyone else, but noticing you are essentially the same as all beings makes you different. This growing love and equanimity toward others, combined with a mind that is awakening to the true nature of reality, inspires us to feel a sense of responsibility for our world and the beings in it, like we would our own mother.

When a bodhisattva has detached from the causes of their own suffering, and re-attached to trying to cause happiness in others, they are ready to begin to perfect themselves through the Six Perfections.

This is the most important point to recognize before you begin your retreat. As we journey through our spiritual practice, we can gauge its success in regards to whether we are feeling more available and connected to others - which is true happiness - or whether we are cherishing ourselves to the point of feeling alienated and victimized, or victimizing others.  As stated above, a bodhisattva has detached from the causes of their own suffering - and the cause of our own suffering is cherishing ourselves. The cause of our true happiness is cherishing others. In other words, we’re unhappy because we’re selfishly obsessed with our own happiness, but if we were interested in being ultimately happy, we would be obsessed about the happiness of others.

Master Shantideva, who wrote a guidebook for aspiring bodhisattvas, writes:
Chap 8, verse 129: "All the unhappiness in the world has come from wishing for one’s own happiness. All the happiness in the world has come from wishing for the happiness of others".

The first step we mentioned in the steps on the path is that a bodhisattva has an idea of the destination of their journey – perceiving their body and mind as free from suffering. The first three perfections are essentially designed to create the momentum for perceiving a perfect body (and world). You will notice that giving, living ethically and not getting angry all focus on how we relate to others with our body, speech and mind. We are focusing very pointedly on others and how we can protect and help them.

The last two perfections, meditative concentration and wisdom, fundamentally create the causes for a perfect mind and are therefore more focused on the inner self. Roughly, the first three perfections help us detach from our self-cherishing, and the last two help us detach from our belief in self-existence. The forth perfection, virya, is required to balance out our tendencies to either be too attached to either worldly activities (the first three) or solitary activities (the last two). Virya is translated as “joy in doing good,” meaning that we happily work hard for the true causes of happiness.

Ultimately, if we cherish others instead of ourselves, we naturally detach from our belief in self-existence. And if we begin to understand the absence of self-existence to an object, including ourselves, we are able to stop cherishing a self that is essentially ephemera.

The first way to cherish others is to practice generosity toward them. Necessarily this requires us to detach from the things that we think are “ours” and become more expansive through giving and sharing what we have.  It follows then that a foundation of true generosity is not harming others with our body, speech and mind, and actively engaging in an ethical life. Not harming others requires patience! The essence of the third perfection is not getting angry when you are feeling provoked. To practice patience, we need some elbow grease in the form of joyful effort. These first four perfections quiet the mind to the point where your energies are stilled enough for meditation. Essentially, everything that you have practiced up to this point is for the purpose of meditating on wisdom.

The second most important advice for this retreat: if you don’t feel ready to do it alone, just have a quiet weekend with family or friends and contemplate the Six Perfections, or use these meditations as a daily practice. There is no inherent goodness in retreat, especially if you are not ready.

The most important advice: enjoy, be happy and kind to yourself and do this retreat with the motivation of it benefiting others.

Some helpful notes on how to do a short-term retreat:


Cindy Lee teaches Tibetan Buddhism, meditation and yoga philosophy with Lama Marut in retreat settings throughout the U.S and abroad. For more information, please visit: