The Birth of Intent for Buddhahood.
Four incalculables and one hundred thousand eons before our present age – which is to say a very, very, very long time ago – in the city of Amaravati, there lived a very rich couple, of noble unimpeached and inherited from their respective forbears. They had an only son named Sumedha who was pleasing to behold.
Without engaging in any other work, Sumedha acquired the highest education. While still in his youth his parents died. Sumedha inherited his parents’ colossal assets. The family treasurer showed Sumedha the family tree which laid out the names of his forbears who were once owners of the legacy. Sumedha asked why did they leave such fortune behind. The treasurer answered that the world was such that upon death nothing could be taken along. Sumedha was greatly affected by this truth but wisely reflected: “My parents and forefathers who had amassed this wealth were not able to take a single coin or jewel with them when they left this world; but should I now live out my life as if I can take this wealth along with me?”
With resolve, he opened his treasure-houses and gave all his possessions away until he was left with nothing. Afterwards he went forth to Himavanta and made himself an ascetic. Within seven days, he attained the supreme psychic power and was able to travel by flight.
Ascetic Sumedha, who was at most times in the bliss of his mental concentration, was oblivious to the goings on in the world and had entirely missed the news that the Buddha of that time, Dipankara, was spreading the wisdom of liberation. One day, Buddha Dipankara, while on his wanderings together with thousands of Arahants, had reached the city of Rammaka, a neighbouring city to Amaravati. He was welcomed with much joy and glorious devotions by the people of Rammaka.
The people of Amaravati had also invited Dipankara Buddha and his disciples to their land to receive offerings. The people busied themselves building large halls, levelling roads, putting up decorative arches and adorning roadsides with banners, flags and flowers –in preparation for the day to welcome Dipankara Buddha. The road that was to be used by The Buddha and his disciples was strewn with white sand. Everybody was eager and joyous.
Meanwhile, the hermit Sumedha while travelling across the sky by his own supernormal power, saw the hive of activity and became curious. He came down to enquire and was told that a Perfectly Enlightened One, Buddha Dipankara had arose in the world, and was residing in Rammaka together with thousands of Arahants; the people of Amaravati had invited the Blessed One for a meal; and the route which would be taken by the Blessed One was now being decorated.
To hear the mention of the word ‘Buddha’ roused up a powerful aspiration in Sumedha, knowing fully then that such a Blessed being can surely liberate him from the cycle of birth and death. Sumedha thought of his great fortune: “The very word ‘Buddha’ is indeed rare in this world, and more so the appearance of such a one.”
He asked to join in the work of decorating the road that would be used by Buddha Dipankara. The people knew Sumedha possessed supernormal powers and thus gave him the task of filling up a crevice filled with muddy water along a road. Sumedha thought to himself that if he accomplished this task merely by exercising his supernormal powers he would not be satisfied. He exerted physical effort and soon there remained only a small portion of the crevice that was left to be filled. Before Sumedha could complete his task, Dipankara Buddha and his disciples, together with a large retinue, were walking down the road to where he was working.
Celestial gods rained heavenly flowers and perfumes and celestial music resounded. Sumedha, with wide-open eyes, beheld the Blessed One, in all His immeasurable glory and majesty — extraordinarily radiant, emitting Buddha-rays, and all around him was filled with exuberant colours.
Sumedha knew he could perform a great act of merit “for his lasting weal and happiness.” He at once untied his hair and spread out his garments covering his back, and fully prostrated himself face down across the muddy crevice such that The Buddha and his disciples could walk on his body like a bridge. Lying like this with his hands put together in anjali, Sumedha again opened his eyes beholding the majesty of the Blessed One.
At that moment, Sumedha, knew he could accomplish Arahantship by listening to the teachings from Dipankara Buddha and become released from the cycle of birth and death. He reflected thus:
“”If I want salvation now for myself, I can get it in the presence of this Buddha. But why should I not aspire to become a Buddha myself in the future and thus save countless number of living beings from the miseries of birth, old age, disease and death?” He then made his earnest wish to become a Buddha himself. It was an act of a true Bodhisattva, one who forgoes their own salvation in order to work for the liberation of the world.
As the great teacher passed, Dipankara Buddha read Sumedha’s mind, understood his aspiration, and predicted that the ascetic Sumedha would fulfill his vow to become a Buddha at a time four incalculables and a hundred thousand eons in the future.
The celestial beings of the ten thousand world systems perceiving that Sumedha was proclaimed by Dipankara Buddha to be a confirmed Bodhisatta, rejoiced and at once appeared around the scene. For once, manussa loka (the human realm of existence) became like a celestial realm. Human folks at the scene could see celestial beings mingling with them; and earthly music blended in harmony with heavenly music (when at ordinary times such a scenario is impossible).
It was also revealed to Sumedha that had he not made the aspiration to become a Buddha, he would have realized full enlightenment that day by listening to a discourse from Dipankara Buddha. This would have ended Sumedha’s own suffering and also his chain of rebirths. But the bodhisattva chose instead to devote inconceivable lifetimes of practice to gain the ultimate goal, buddhahood.
Having resolved on this goal, Sumedha then retired to his cave to reflect. “How can I make this vast journey?” he wondered. “What aspects of mind and heart do I need to develop in order to become a Buddha?” As he reflected, he saw by piercing and unshakable insight that there were ten wholesome qualities that he would need to bring to strength and maturity. The factors came into his mind one by one. Generosity (dana). Virtue (sila). Renunciation (nekkhamma). Wisdom (pañña). Energy (viriya). Patience (khanti). Truthfulness (sacca). Determination (aditthana). Lovingkindness (metta). Equanimity (upekkha).
He called this set the paramis, which has usually been translated as the “perfections.” He then began the journey of innumerable lifetimes to develop the perfections of heart and mind that finally unfolded in his full enlightenment as Gotama Buddha under the bodhi tree in Northern India more than 2500 years ago.
One of the beautiful features of the paramis (Ten Perfections), is that qualities like generosity, virtue, patience, and truthfulness can be developed strongly in daily life, while aspects like energy, wisdom, and equanimity may develop more fully through formal meditation. The paramis thus span what the Mahayanists call the two accumulations required for liberation: the accumulation of merit and the accumulation of wisdom. That is, in order to be liberated, we need to perform a lot of wholesome actions and also generate a great deal of insight. This is true whether we are practicing for buddhahood or arahantship. The list of paramis highlights this balance. We understand that the two accumulations together have the power to uplift us and sweep us to liberation.
The meaning of the ten perfections points to this. Thanissaro Bhikkhu mentions two etymologies: “They carry one across to the further shore (param); and they are of foremost (parama) importance in formulating the purpose of one’s life.”
In their blend of merit and insight, the paramis convey the two key qualities of Buddhist life, compassion and wisdom. As Acariya Dhammapala says in his treatise:
Through his wisdom the bodhisattva perfects within himself the character of a Buddha,
through his compassion the ability to perform the work of a Buddha.
Through wisdom she brings herself across (the stream of becoming),
through compassion she leads others across.
Through compassion he trembles with sympathy for all,
but because his compassion is accompanied by wisdom
his heart is unattached.
Continue to First Perfection: Generosity.