We often hear the word Enlightenment used. What does it mean and how do we actually attain it? There are many different kinds of beings, so there are many ways to talk about Enlightenment. Here’s one.

Buddha taught 2 main paths:

A.) The Personal Liberation Path, leading to Nirvana (Liberation from cyclic existence).

B.) Enlightenment Thought Path (Mahayana), leading to Perfect Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Perfect Enlightenment itself is the perfection of all good qualities and the elimination of all negative ones. The actual cause of Perfect Enlightenment is the Enlightenment Thought. (Bodhicitta).[1]

But what is the path? How do we actually do it? For the Enlightenment Thought Path (Mahayana), the path is the practice of the 6 Perfections. So, in one sense, the way to get Enlightened is to practice the 6 Perfections.  What are the 6 Perfections and how are they practiced?

The 6 Perfections are:

  1. The Perfection of Generosity
  2. The Perfection of Morality
  3. The Perfection of Patience
  4. The Perfection of Joyous Enthusiasm
  5. The Perfection of Meditative Concentration
  6. The Perfection of Wisdom

How are they actually practiced?

The Perfection of Generosity

There are three aspects to the Perfection of Generosity:

A.) Giving material goods.

B.) Taking away a being’s fear. For example, saving their life.

C.) Giving the gift of Dharma: Giving beings Dharma teachings or helping them access the Dharma in some way for their benefit.

It is not by chance that Generosity is the first Perfection.The Enlightenment Thought Path (Mahayana) is based on generosity. It is the path of attaining Perfect Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The basis of generosity is compassion. The motivation should be, “What does this being in front of me really need?” Giving your surplus is generosity, but it’s not the Perfection of Generosity which is focused solely on benefiting others according to their needs. There are many benefits, both worldly and spiritual, to practicing the Perfection of Generosity.

Each of the 6 Perfections has two “seals” or two necessary characteristics in order for it to be perfected: The Perfection must be sealed with The Enlightenment Thought and it must be sealed with the Wisdom of Interdependent Origination.

Being sealed with The Enlightenment Thought means that whatever practice is being done is done with the altruistic motivation of wanting to benefit all beings. So renewing the motivation before doing the actual practice is essential, otherwise the practice is not perfected.

Being sealed with the Wisdom of Interdependent Origination means that all the components of the practice are viewed as being without substantial permanent solidity. They are interdependent on (not independent of) causes and conditions. They have no independent existence. For example, in the case of generosity, neither the giver, the gift, nor the receiver exists independently.

The practitioner must keep in mind these two seals when practicing in order for the practice to be perfected. Thus we say the practices are “sealed”.

The Perfection of Morality

There are three aspects to the Perfection of Morality:

A.) The disciplined practice of abstaining from the 10 non-virtuous acts[2].

B.) Integrating all good behaviour, sometimes referred to as gathering virtuous factors.[3] Likewise, the factors opposed to virtue should be avoided.

C.) Practicing well and benefiting sentient beings.

Morality is like fertile soil. It is the foundation for producing other beneficial results. Non-virtue can be removed by confession, otherwise it creates negative karma which must be experienced later.[4]

As with all Perfections, Morality must be sealed with the two seals in order to be perfected.

The Perfection of Patience

In Clarifying the Sage’s Intent Sakya Pandita defines Patience as the mind that remains untroubled in the face of harm done by others.

There are three aspects to the Perfection of Patience:

A.) Willingness to endure hardship. This refers to being willing to undergo whatever is necessary in order to practice Dharma for the benefit of all beings.

B.) Patience analyzing the nature of reality. This is a bit more subtle. With careful analysis, we can see that the nature of reality is suffering. This is the first of the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths.[5] Being patient in our acceptance of this truth, we will not get angry when people or situations are annoying. Geshe Tashi Namgyal said that getting angry at annoying beings is like getting angry because people in hospitals are sick.

C.) Not retaliating. There are several reasons for this aspect of the practice of Patience.

First is the realization that all sentient beings, in the past, have been our kind mother, giving us our life. It is not appropriate to return that kindness with anger.

Secondly, difficult people give us an opportunity to practice the Perfection of Patience. Without that opportunity we could never obtain Enlightenment. They are actually giving us a gift.

Thirdly, difficult or harmful beings are the condition for exhausting the karma of our bad deeds. If someone harms us it is because we have harmed them in the past and that karma is ripening (and finishing) now. If we don’t retaliate, the whole matter ends there. If, on the other hand, we retaliate, the cycle is perpetuated again.

The practice of the Perfection of Patience, when properly sealed, brings innumerable benefits. In the short term life becomes easier and our troubles diminish. In future lives you will be born with a beautifully excellent body and you will live long and be free from illness. You will have a good reputation. Upon reaching Enlightenment you will attain the 112 marks of a Buddha and you will attain a body and voice that beings find captivating.

The Perfection of Joyous Enthusiasm

Joyous Enthusiasm (sometimes referred to as Diligence) is joy and enthusiasm for what is virtuous, in order to benefit others. It is enthusiasm for virtue.

There are three aspects to the Perfection of Joyous Enthusiasm:

A.) Armour-like effort. Practitioners of the Enlightenment Thought Path (Mahayana) must learn to develop courage and determination towards the noble goal of attaining Perfect Enlightenment for the sake of all beings.There are obstacles along the path and Joyous Enthusiasm will help us to persevere

B.) Joy in practicing virtue. If we do a practice begrudgingly or merely out of duty, chances are we won’t continue that practice over time. A practice done with joy will not be tiring.

C.) Diligence for other’s benefit. The Mahayana Path, by definition, is practiced for the benefit of all beings. If we truly realize that in past lives, all sentient beings have been out mothers, and they are suffering in cyclic existance, we will develop Joyous Enthusiasm in our practice of attaining Perfect Enlightenment in order to free them. [6]

In Clarifying the Sage’s Intent, Sakya Pandita explains the possible obstacles that might arise to stifle the practice of each of the Perfections. To discuss every obstacle here would make this presentation too long. However, in the case of Joyous Enthusiasm, it’s beneficial to analyze one of the major obstacles: laziness.

There are many ways of discussing laziness. Geshe Tashi Namgyal taught about three types of laziness to be avoided:

-The first type of laziness is what we normally think about when we think of laziness. We could perhaps characterize it as simply thinking, “I really should do that, but frankly, I don’t feel like it, so I won’t.”  Sometimes we may tack on elaborate rationalizations to make ourselves feel better (or less guilty). Sometimes we are too lazy to even do that!

-The second type is the laziness of busyness. We lead a busy life and we use that as an excuse to not practice the Perfection of Joyous Enthusiasm. We tell ourselves that we would really love to practice if we only had time. We let our job, our family, our friends, our hobbies, our errands, our sleep, our social media, and so on, take priority. Our practice gets shoved down to the bottom of the list.

To salve our conscience we tell ourselves that, yes indeed, we will get around to practicing as soon as…(fill in the blank) we retire, we finish the laundry, we finish  our taxes, etc., etc. But the reality is that the activities of daily life never finish. For that reason we must be on guard not to be sideswiped by the laziness of busyness. We need to remember that our life-span is unpredictable and therefore we should not put off practicing until later. There is a saying, “You never know what will come first, your next breath or your next life.”

-A third type of laziness could be characterized as a sort of “spiritual low self-esteem.” We tell ourselves that we simply couldn’t practice  the Perfection of Joyous Enthusiasm. We are not good enough. We are not “holy” enough. We are not a saint. We are not a great practitioner. We don’t have what it takes. We are not cut out for such a lofty ideal. We are not…(fill in the blank). The antidote to this type of laziness is to receive teachings on Buddha Nature from a qualified teacher.[7]

As with all Perfections, Joyous Enthusiasm must be sealed with the two seals:  The Enlightenment Thought and the Wisdom of Interdependent Origination in order to be perfected.

The Perfection of Meditative Concentration

Sakya Pandita defines Meditative Concentration as placing the mind in calmed focus for the sake of attaining complete perfect Enlightenment. If that Meditative Concentration has proper preparation, actual practice, and completion, it becomes the Perfection of Meditative Concentration. There are many types of meditation and many different approaches to practicing them.

There are three aspects to the Perfection of Meditative Concentration.

A.) Accomplishing “Calm Abiding” (shamata). This is the ability to continuously focus the mind in one-pointed concentration on a wholesome object.

B.) Applying Special Insight meditation to discern the true nature of reality.

C.) Practicing Meditative Concentration for the benefit of others, e.g. “Taking and Giving” (Tonglen), Equalizing Self and Others, and Exchanging Self for Others, etc. [8]

The Perfection of Meditative Concentration is one of the main skillful means for accomplishing Perfect Enlightenment.

The Perfection of Wisdom.

The Perfection of Wisdom refers to the realization of the exact knowledge of the nature of reality. It is the last and most important Perfection. There are three aspects to the Perfection of Wisdom. In order to have a clear, wholesome object for our Meditative Concentration to focus on, we need to go through a three-step process:

A.) Hearing knowledge. We need to hear teachings from qualified teachers on the topic of the Perfection of Wisdom. It is an extensive subject.

B.) Contemplation Knowledge. We need to contemplate what we have heard from these qualified teachers about this topic. We need to think about it. We need to clarify any questions or doubts. We need to understand very well what the topic is about and what it is not about. Only then are we able to meditate on it correctly.

C.) Concentration knowledge. This is where we apply the skills we have developed in the Perfection of Meditative Concentration. That is, we actually meditate on the wisdom realizing the true nature of reality. This is a vast topic and it is the culmination of the the Six Perfections. The first five Perfections create the conditions for the realization of the Perfection of Wisdom. In a sense, the realization of the Perfection of Wisdom is synonymous with Enlightenment.

A concluding note.

The attainment of Complete Perfect Enlightenment for the sake of all beings is the supreme spiritual accomplishment. This has been a brief outline of how the practice of the actual skillful means of the Enlightenment Thought Path (Mahayana) accomplishes this. It bears noting however that the practice of all of the Six Perfections explained above (and indeed all Mahayana practices) are always formatted in a three step process:

  1. ) Going For Refuge
  2. ) The Practice
  3. ) The Dedication

The practices of Going for Refuge and Dedication have not been covered here because their inclusion would have made the discussion too lengthy. Those interested in understanding what these practices are and how they are woven into a complete whole are encouraged to seek out qualified teachers in order to be able to understand and practice them correctly. The benefits for oneself and others are incalculable. 


Clarifying the Sage’s Intent by Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, translated by David P. Jackson, Wisdom Press

Teachings on Sakya Pandita’s Clarifying the Sage’s Intent by Khenchen Appey Rinpoche, Vajra Publications

The Way of the Bodhisattva, by Shantideva, Shambhala Publications 


[1] The Enlightenment Thought. (Bodhicitta) is the actual cause of Perfect Enlightenment. The Enlightenment Thought has two types: Relative and Absolute. Relative is further divided into two types: Aspiring and Entering. Understanding and practicing the Enlightenment Thought correctly is crucial. Therefore it is imperative to receive these teachings from a qualified teacher.

[2]       1. Killing—taking the life of a living being. 2. Stealing—taking what is not freely given. 3. Unwise and unkind sexual behavior. 4. Lying—deliberately deceiving others. 5. Divisive, disharmonious speech. 6. Harsh speech. 7. Idle talk. 8. Coveting. 9. Ill will or maliciousness. 10. Wrong views, such as not believing in karma and re-birth.

[3] The thirty-seven factors of enlightenment are thirty-seven practices, presented in seven groupings, They are found in Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana Sutra.

[4] Negative karma is purified by such purification practices as The Confession To The 35 Buddhas or the practice of Vajrasattva.

[5]  The Truth of Suffering, the Truth of Cause, the Truth of Cessation, the Truth of Path.

[6] See note 4.

[7] In Clarifying the Sage’s Intent Sakya Pandita succinctly explains the two types of Buddha Nature.

[8] All of these meditations need to be learned from an authentic teacher and then practiced.