Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Year-Round Resolution

New Year is coming and so is the time to reflect on 2008 and plan for 2009. Yes, it is the time we make yet another set of New Year's resolutions.

Photo courtesy of the Bangkok Post

Making resolutions does not sound that complicated. But how about the success rate? If a 2007 UK-based survey is to be any indication, it is only 12%. This says a lot about us humans. As it is less than two weeks now before New Year arrives, how about some reflection on the tradition of the New Year's resolution itself? Is there a way to make it stick?

First of all, let us take a brief look at history. When was this tradition started, and by whom? S urely it could not be a recent tradition that came together with the invention of the refillable, leather-covered yearly diary?

When it comes to calendars, our top-of-mind recollection is likely to be about the Romans. And in fact some historians believe that the ancient Romans also invented New Year's resolutions in 153 BC. Many Romans looked for forgiveness from their enemies and also exchanged gifts before the beginning of each year. (Source: )

Yet there are others who contend that New Year's resolutions date back even further, to the early Babylonians who started celebrating New Year 4,000 years ago. Their popular resolution? To return borrowed farm equipment. Sort of makes us wonder what the Babylonians and the Romans would think of our modern-day resolutions. According to a recent survey by the US government, the top resolution for contemporary Americans is to lose weight. (Sources:; holidays/newyear.htm )

Unlike other noisy, exhausting and group-oriented activities to ring in New Year, resolution-making requires us to give quality time solely to ourselves, quietly examining our own life - what we have achieved so far and what our goals in the upcoming year should be.

In other words, a time to make our New Year's resolution is a time when we stop our usual hustle-and-bustle and see life in perspective. Suddenly, it may occur to us that we still could not really grasp what the ultimate goal of our life is, or should be. Indeed, this is a crucial question that every responsible adult should make a point to ponder, whether during New Year's holidays or otherwise.

What is it that we are living for?

The path to the answer to that question is another story altogether, and subject to one's spiritual affiliation. For practicing Buddhists, we are in this world to strive diligently, with full effort, in every waking moment, to achieve the Ultimate Enlightenment.

In the scriptures, there are many ways to describe this effort. One of them is to refer to the whole ordeal as the effort to create or make complete one's Parami (Baramee in Thai), or perfection. The Theravada tradition has 10 Parami in total, while the Mahayana's, known in Sanskrit as Paramita, has six.

Simply put, to create one's Parami is to cultivate certain virtues. Among the 10 Parami in the Theravada version, there is one that is related to the idea of New Year's resolution. It is Adhitthana Parami or the Perfection in Resolution.

What are the Buddhist resolutions?

But what is it that Buddhists should make resolutions about? The answer can be found in Adhitthana Dhamma, or the virtues that should be established in the mind. Here is the list of those Virtuous Resolutions that could help you refine your New Year's resolutions. They are 1) wisdom; 2) truthfulness; 3) renunciation; and 4) tranquility.

To be specific, the scriptures suggest that one should make a resolution 1) not to neglect wisdom; 2) to safeguard truthfulness; 3) to foster generosity (by renouncing first one's worldly possessions and, later, one's mental defilements); and 4) to train oneself in tranquility.

In this regard, the Romans' tradition to ask for forgiveness and to exchange gifts would fit nicely under the third category, while the Babylonians' vow to return farm equipment could be under the second. As for weight loss, well, the author is not sure. Can it fit under truthfulness?

To be successful in one's Adhitthana Parami, the Perfection in Resolution, Buddhist teaching provides practical guidelines in the form of accompanying perfections.

First and foremost, we must strive to attain Sacca Parami, the Perfection in Truth. This means we must have truthfulness in our thoughts, words and deeds.

The second perfection that would help we keep our resolutions is Viriya Parami, the Perfection in Effort. This is straightforward enough.

Third, Upekkha Parami, the Perfection in Equanimity. By equanimity, Lord Buddha means we should strive to achieve unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner poise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honour and dishonour, praise and blame, pleasure and pain.

And last, but by no means least, Panna Parami, the Perfection of Wisdom. The wisdom here refers to the wisdom that is based on the direct realization of the essence of Buddhism such as the Four Noble Truths, or the Law of Impermanence. It can also refer to skilfulness in staying true to one's resolution.

For many of us, to strive for "perfection" does not seem to be a viable goal. Don't be discouraged yet. For there are many levels of Parami. This means if we make a point to strive to achieve at least the first level of any Parami, it is not beyond a human capacity to continue to make it to the top. Truthfulness, for example, is an everyday virtue that many people could perfect. And there are noble people all over the world who have proven that that could achieve just that.

Moreover, it is recognized that, for anyone who does not aim to become a full-fledged Buddha (self-enlightened with the ability to teach), the perfection of just a few Parami is enough to deliver us from suffering. In fact, Lord Buddha himself once said that "just the sheer merit of effort [Viriya Parami] alone, beings can transcend suffering".

There you go. If keeping New Year's resolutions is a struggle, try self-empowerment through the various Parami. A resolution is not just a casual, wishful thinking about some loose goals, but a culmination of wisdom, truthfulness and renunciation in an unshakeable mind.

You can also adapt a monastic approach of repeating one's vows everyday, at both the beginning of the day and at day's end, to remind yourself of your life's ultimate purpose. After all, Adhitthana Parami is not just for New Year, but is here to stay until we get enlightened, whether within this lifetime or otherwise.

Have fun making this year's resolutions - and, more importantly, keeping them!

Weight loss, anyone?

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