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The Six Perfections

In August of 1996, Ajari Tanaka conducted our very first Summer Intensive.  This event was a ten-day program held on the grounds of the original Vermont home of Mandala Buddhist Center.  Mandala Buddhist Center was an old, eighty acre farmstead in Lincoln Vermont complete with a rambling house and a big, red barn.  Situated in a broad mountain valley just west of Mount Abraham that for generations had been the home of Vermont hill farms and their families, Mandala was a beautiful place.  

Though meditation and recitation practice were the core of this first Summer Intensive, the program included many different activities and a handful of “firsts” for most of the students attending.  Mrs. Tanaka (who holds a fourth dan in Shoto-kai Karate and was a student of Shigeru Egami Sensei during her college years) taught Karate lessons on the front lawn.   Ajari Tanaka gave calligraphy lessons for the first time since leaving New York City in 1987.   There was also plenty of what Ajari called “samu.”  We recognized it simply as work.  Ajari Tanaka patiently introduced us to Shomyo, an elegant, elaborate and highly musical form of chanting traditionally practiced by Shingon priests and monks.  Much to our delight, “Takki Gyo”, or waterfall practice was part of our routine. After sessions of hot, messy work dunking under the cool waterfall on the nearby New Haven River was thoroughly enjoyable. 

All and all it was a wonderful program with many memorable experiences.  This first “summer camp” (as Ajari often calls it) set the pattern and traditions for the many programs Ajari  has conducted since.   Except, of course, we don’t work so hard anymore. 

In addition to all the activities and practices, Ajari taught and discussed at length on a great many topics.   We heard from him about his many traveling experiences, his teachers, his early life and family.  He shared his thoughts and opinions on everything.  We heard practical advice about practicing Dharma in our busy modern lives, the changes happening in contemporary Japanese society, world events, and of course Ajari spoke often about our future together and his vision for establishing Shingon in North America.   Even those students who had spent many years studying with Ajari had never known him teach so broadly and speak so openly on so many topics.  It was a great experience for the handful of students who attended this first Summer Intensive.

On one particular occasion, when asked about the bodhisattva way and practices, Tanaka Sensei gave a fantastic little description of the Six Perfections.  Most Buddhists know very well the Six Perfections and, indeed, they were very familiar to most of the students attending the Intensive.  Ajari Tanaka covered this ground, carefully and methodically explaining each perfection individually.  He reminded everyone of the basic, but essential quality of the Six Perfections.  Though familiar, everyone enjoyed hearing his thoughts on these important teachings.  The participants were all inspired by this discussion and felt a renewed appreciation of these practices.   

After Ajari Tanaka had finished his descriptions of the Paramitas, he surprised the group with something we had not heard before. Ajari explained that, in the Shingon tradition, each Perfection is represented on our shrine as one of the many offerings.  This piece of information came as a very pleasant surprise to the assembled students as this was something new.

The Six Perfections as shrine offerings are as follows:

                        Generosity                            Water

                        Discipline                               Powdered Incense

                        Patience                                 Flowers

                        Effort                                      Stick Incense

                        Meditation                              Rice

                        Wisdom                                 Candle Light

The shrine, like everything else in Shingon is very elaborate, full of ritual objects and offerings, statuary, color, texture and complexity.  This lesson about the symbolism of the offerings created a little window of clarity within the mostly unexplained details of Shingon.  Whenever Ajari “lifts the veil” and shares the traditions and specifics of his Dharma lineage, it is always met with surprise and gratitude.  Though many of the students attending the Intensive had been  practicing Shingon meditations and studying with Ajari Tanaka for varying lengths of time, there was still so much of the lineage, traditions and history we know very little about.

Ajari Tanaka finished his talk by explaining that these Six Perfections are fundamental teachings to all Mahayana Buddhism.  The Six Pefections are a core set of principles and practices that all Mahayana Schools look to as guide posts and share in common.  In fact, he continued, the Six Perfections are the basis of the bodhisattva way and are an essential part of our Vajrayana practice. 

As students of Ajari Tanaka and the Shingon tradition , we should all reflect well on the lessons of the Six Perfections as well as the symbolism and teaching of the offerings.  We cannot neglect this basic discipline and practice.  We should, each in our own way, undertake to develop a clear  understanding and a solid practice of the Six Perfections. 

By making pleasing offerings on our shrines,

We offer the Six Perfections with gratitude and appreciation

To the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Ten Directions and the Three Times

For the teachings we have received.

In our daily lives,

Practicing these same Six Perfections,

The essence of the bodhisattva way,

We make continuous offerings of good action to the world around us.