Over the next several verses, Shantideva explains how each of the six perfections is an action, or training of the mind, not of the body. We need to be very clear about what minds we are trying to generate.
(5.9) If completing the perfection of giving
Were eliminating the poverty of living beings,
Since hungry beings still exist,
How could the previous Buddhas have completed that perfection?
Many Christians struggle with the seeming paradox of God being both omnipotent and perfectly good. If he is omnipotent, then he has absolute power over everything and can accomplish everything. Yet if that is the case then why hasn’t he ended all suffering, such as poverty. Surely, if he was perfectly good he would do so. The doubt therefore arises, how can he both be omnipotent and perfectly good? If he is omnipotent, he can’t be perfectly good because suffering exists. If he is perfectly good, then he can’t be omnipotent because if he was he would have already ended suffering long ago.
In the same way, we might generate doubts thinking, how can a Buddha have completed the perfection of giving if poverty still exists? Nagarjuna says for whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible. Surely, then, a Buddha could emanate everything necessary to end all poverty. Since poverty still exists, then either a Buddha hasn’t completed the perfection of giving (and thus could not have become a Buddha) or Nagarjuna is wrong and not everything is possible.
Shantideva explains the answers to these paradoxes. First, giving is not perfected by having given everything to everybody, rather we perfect the mind of giving when we wish, without reservation, to give everything to everybody, including any merit we might accumulate from that act of giving. In many of the Bodhisattva trainings, we need to set aside useless thoughts thinking there is no point generating virtuous wishes if we are we are unable to fulfill them. For example, imagine 20 people come to you asking for help, but due to the constraints of having only one body you can only help one of them. At such times, we could easily imagine wishing 20 people hadn’t come to us because we can’t fulfill all their wishes. This is completely wrong. Even though (at present) we lack the ability to help all 20 people simultaneously, we should nonetheless generate the desire wishing we were able to help all of them. Just like Avalokiteshvara, our heart should burst forth with a burning desire to help everyone even when we can’t (at present) do so. This burning wish will drive us to seek a means of being able to fulfill this virtuous desire. The only way being by becoming a Buddha who has such power. In the same way, we should not dim in any way our desire to give everything to everybody simply because we are unable to do so. We should cultivate this wish to its fullest, and then seeing we can’t fulfill it, we will naturally feel pushed to find a way to do so – in other words, by becoming a Buddha. The perfection of giving, therefore, is the mind consumed by the burning wish to give everything to everybody, including the merit that would flow from such giving. This mind drives us relentlessly to enlightenment.
Nagarjuna is still correct because implicit within a correct understanding of emptiness is an understanding of the laws of karma. Je Tsongkhapa explains that when the wisdom realizing emptiness confirms karma, and our understanding of karma reveals emptiness then our understanding of both emptiness and karma is correct. The wisdom realizing emptiness does not bestow upon us some magical power with which we can break the laws of nature, rather the wisdom realizing emptiness enables us to harness the laws of karma towards any end we may wish. One of the laws of karma is if an action is not completed, the effect cannot be experienced. Poverty is the karmic result of miserliness and wealth is the karmic result of giving. Even though a Buddha would want to give everything to everybody and thereby end their poverty, if other living beings have not created the karma of giving for themselves, their poverty will not end. We might then wonder what is the point of becoming a Buddha wishing to free all living beings if living beings themselves still need to do all the work? The answer is as a Buddha we will be able to be by their side for the rest of eternity, gradually helping guide them to the path of giving. It may not be a quick fix solution, but who ever said such a solution existed? (As a side note, from the perspective of a Buddha, once they attain enlightenment they will experience all beings as having always been enlightened, so it will be as if everyone instantaneously attains enlightenment with them. They do not see things in this way because it is objectively true, rather they see things in this way because this view helps ripen living beings in the swiftest possible way).