The term Pāramitā or Pāramī (Sanskrit and Pāli respectively) means "Perfect" or "Perfection." In Buddhism, the Paramitas refer to the perfection or culmination of certain virtues, which purify karma and help the aspirant to live an unobstructed life on the path to Enlightenment.
The six perfections (paramita) are also an important part of the bodhisattva path found in Mahayana Buddhism. This path involves the dedication of the Bodhisattva to postpone his or her enlightenment in order to save all other beings from suffering. Thus, the paramitas play an integral role in the cultivation of Buddhist wisdom and compassion, as well as their actualization in daily life. They are an example of Buddhist ethical engagement in the world of suffering.
"The word pāramī derives from parama, 'supreme,' and thus suggests the eminence of the qualities which must be fulfilled by a bodhisattva in the long course of his spiritual development. But the cognate pāramitā, the word preferred by the Mahāyāna texts and also used by Pāli writers, is sometimes explained as pāram + ita, 'gone to the beyond,' thereby indicating the transcendental direction of these qualities."
The Paramitas in Theravada Buddhism
The Theravadin teachings on Paramitas can be found in religious texts and commentaries such as the Buddhavamsa, Jatakas and Avadanas, which were added to the Pali Canon at a later time, and thus they are not an original part of the Theravadin teachings. ‘The Jatakas originally did not form part of the Theravadins scriptures'  The oldest parts of the Sutta Pitaka (for example: Majjhima Nikaya, Digha Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya and the Anguttara Nikaya) do not have any mention of the paramitas. Nalinaksha Dutt writes, "The incorporation of paramis by the Theravadins in the Jatakas reveals that they were not immune from Mahayanic influence. This happened, of course, at a much later date."
Some scholars even refer to the teachings of the paramitas as a semi-Mahayana teaching that was added to the scriptures at a later time, in order to appeal to the interests and needs of the lay-community, and to popularize their religion.
- Dāna parami : generosity, giving of oneself
- Sīla parami : virtue, morality, proper conduct
- Nekkhamma parami : renunciation
- Paññā parami : transcendental wisdom, insight
- Viriya (also spelt vīriya) parami : energy, diligence, vigor, effort
- Khanti parami : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
- Sacca parami : truthfulness, honesty
- Adhiṭṭhāna (adhitthana) parami : determination, resolution
- Mettā parami : loving-kindness
- Upekkhā (also spelt upekhā) parami : equanimity, serenity
Two of the above virtues, Metta and Upekkha, also comprise two of the Four Immeasurables (Brahmavihara).
Traditional Theravada practice
Bodhi maintains that, in the earliest Buddhist texts (which he identifies as the first four nikayas), those seeking suffering's extinction (nibbana) pursued the Noble Eightfold Path. As time went on, a backstory was provided for the multi-life development of the Buddha; as a result, the ten perfections were identified as part of the path for the Buddha-to-be (Pali: bodhisatta; Sanskrit: bodhisattva). Over subsequent centuries, the paramis were seen as being significant to both aspirants of Buddhahood and of arahantship. Thus, Bodhi summarizes:
- "It should be noted that in established Theravāda tradition the pāramīs are not regarded as a discipline peculiar to candidates for Buddhahood alone but as practices which must be fulfilled by all aspirants to enlightenment and deliverance, whether as Buddhas, paccekabuddhas, or disciples. What distinguishes the supreme bodhisattva from aspirants in the other two vehicles is the degree to which the pāramīs must be cultivated and the length of time they must be pursued. But the qualities themselves are universal requisites for deliverance, which all must fulfill to at least a minimal degree to merit the fruits of the liberating path."
The Paramitas in Mahayana Buddhism
In Mahayana Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika) identifies the Six Perfections as follows: (Sanskrit terms used)
- Dāna paramita: generosity, giving of oneself (in Chinese, 布施波羅蜜)
- Śīla paramita : virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct (持戒波羅蜜)
- Kṣānti (kshanti) paramita : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance (忍辱波羅蜜)
- Vīrya paramita : energy, diligence, vigor, effort (精進波羅蜜)
- Dhyāna paramita : one-pointed concentration, contemplation (禪定波羅蜜)
- Prajñā paramita : wisdom, insight (智慧波羅蜜)
Note that this list is also mentioned by the Theravada commentator Dhammapala, who says it is equivalent to the above list of ten.
In the Ten Stages (Dasabhumika) Sutra, four more Paramitas are listed:
- 7. Upāya paramita: skillful means
- 8. Praṇidhāna (pranidhana) paramita: vow, resolution, aspiration, determination
- 9. Bala paramita: spiritual power
- 10. Jñāna paramita: knowledge
The Bodhisattva Path
Bodhisattva (Sanskrit: meaning “Awakened Truth”) refers to a set of distinctive beliefs and practices in Mahāyāna Buddhism to cultivate saviour-like qualities as well as specific celestial beings who are freed from the cycle of birth and death (Samsara), but create emanation bodies (nirmanakaya) in this world in order to help other sentient beings attain freedom from suffering. Bodhisattvas are known for embodying compassion. They take the "Bodhisattva Vow" to forsake the individual enlightenment (nirvana) of an arhat, and vows to remain in this world in order to aid in the awakening (bodhi) of all beings. This doctrine provides an engaged form of Buddhism that does not run away from the suffering of the world, but actively seeks to end it for all beings.
The bodhisattva path (often referred to by Vajrayāna practitioners as the “gradual path of perfections and stages”) offers Mahāyāna Buddhists a systematic guide to their development through the use of special vows, the generation of the six paramita (perfections), and a map of personal development through ten bhumi (stages), all of which is said to culminate in full buddhahood. This path is outlined in detail in Mahāyāna literature by authors such as Nagarjuna (the Precious Garland), Chandrakirti ("Entry Into the Middle Way"), Asanga ("The Stages of a Bodhisattva"), Shantideva (the Way of the bodhisattva), and Gampopa (the Jewel Ornament of Liberation).
The Bodhisattva Vows
The fundamental vow of the bodhisattva is to delay their nirvana until all beings have been liberated from suffering. This aspiration is expressed in the formal vow that, when taken, signifies one's entrance into the path of the bodhisattva:
The fourfold vow is indicated below in several languages:
|Sino-Japanese||English||Chinese (pinyin)||Chinese (hanzi)|
|Shi gu sei gan||The Four Great Vows||Sì hóng shì yuàn||四弘誓願|
|Shu jo mu hen sei gan do||I vow to liberate all beings, without number||Zhòng shēng wúbiān shì yuàn dù||眾生無邊誓願度|
|Bon no mu jin sei gan dan||I vow to uproot endless blind passions||Fánnǎo wújìn shì yuàn duàn||煩惱無盡誓願斷|
|Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku||I vow to penetrate dharma gates beyond measure||Fǎ mén wúliàng shì yuàn xué||法門無量誓願學|
|Butsu do mu jo sei gan jo||I vow to attain the way of the Buddha||Fó dào wúshàng shì yuàn chéng||佛道無上誓願成|
In addition to this formal bodhisattva vow, Mahāyāna texts enumerate dozens of other vows (see  for a full list), and there are variations from country to country (most noticeably between Tibet and others). The ten most common and important vows are as follows:
1 Not to harm any being
2 Not to take that which is not given
3 Not to engage in any form of sexual misconduct
4 Not to misuse speech
5 Not to take intoxicants
6 Not to gossip about the faults and misdeeds of others
7 Not to praise oneself or disparage others
8 Not to be stingy or abusive towards those in need
9 Not to harbor anger or resentment or encourage others to be angry
10 Not to criticise or slander the Three Jewels
In the Tibetan tradition, laypeople are often encouraged to take on the first five vows as a way of producing good karma and avoiding actions that produce negative results:
"At any given time, one may swear to one, two, up to all five precepts. In one typical tradition, one takes vows only for one day. If someone wants to carry the practice to the next day, he or she will take the vow again the next morning…. The daily taking of precepts is important… one's commitment to them needs to be renewed frequently to keep one's intention and investment fresh." 
The Six Perfections
The six perfections (paramita) are another aspect of the practice path of the bodhisattva. The word paramita literally means "other shore," and implies that these six (or ten in some sources) qualities lead to enlightenment. The six paramitas are found in the Pali canon :
1. Dāna : generosity, giving of oneself. This perfection places its emphasis on having an attitude of generosity. It does not necessarily mean that bodhisattvas give away everything they own, but rather that they develop an attitude that undermines clinging to one's wealth, whether it be material or nonmaterial. The most important possession that a bodhisattva needs to give away generously is the teachings of the dharma.
2. Sīla : virtue, morality, proper conduct. This perfection is important for the bodhisattva to develop because it leads to better rebirths in which they can further their development, and because not engaging in misdeeds results in a calm mind undisturbed by guilt, or eventually even the mental dispositions that lead to negative actions 
3. Ksānti : patience. Shantideva (6th - 7th C.E.) explains the importance of patience to the Mahāyāna path in the opening stanzas of the chapter on patience in his Way of the Bodhisattva:
- 1. Good works gathered in a thousand ages,
- Such as deeds of generosity,
- Or offerings to the blissful ones (buddhas) -
- A single flash of anger shatters them all.
- 2. No evil is there similar to anger,
- No austerity to be compared with patience.
- Steep yourself, therefore, in patience -
- In all ways, urgently, with zeal. (Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, 78)
Thus patience is the key to the accumulation of good merit, as it prevents negative emotions from destroying the results of positive actions.
4. Virya: vigor, energy, diligence effort. Like all of the perfections, vigor is to be combined with the others in order to mutually reinforce each-other. Again, Shantideva explains in his chapter entitled "Heroic Perseverance":
- 1. Thus with patience I will bravely persevere.
- Through zeal (virya) it is that I shall reach enlightenment.
- If no wind blows, then nothing stirs,
- And neither is there merit without perseverance. (Ibid, 98).
Buddhists believe that the journey to Buddhahood is long and arduous, so the bodhisattva must practice their path with diligence in order to quickly attain complete awakening so that they can best help to liberate all beings.
5. Dhyāna: meditation, concentration (samādhi). All of the other perfections are strengthened by the practice of meditation. Through these practices, one is said to be better able to practice non-attachment due to a recognition of the emptiness (sunyata) of all things, which in turn leads to a stronger ability to practice generosity, moral conduct (due to a reduced attachment to negative mental states), and patience. As well, through meditation, the practitioner develops a one-pointed mind that concentrates all of its energy into the task at hand, allowing them to accomplish tasks with vigor and focus.  Conversely, the mental equanimity and momentum that the bodhisattva develops through the other paramita aids them in their meditation practice by ridding them of a mind distracted by conflicted emotions and lethargy.
6. Prajña: wisdom. The sixth paramita refers to the realization of the greatest truth (paramartha-satya), which is the realization of the unity, or non-duality, of all things. Wisdom is both the culmination and ground of the other perfections. For example, Mahāyāna practitioners believe that if one were to practice generosity with the conceptual notions of themselves as giver and another as the receiver, then only the Hinayāna (lesser vehicle) amount of merit will be created. However, "the bodhisattva is asked to recognize no giver, no receiver, and no action of giving. He or she is asked to engage in giving in a completely nonconceptual space… Thus one gives - literally without giving it a thought" . It is only once the bodhisattva is able to engage in their interactions in this way that they can be said to be practicing the paramitas which are the activities of "the other shore" of enlightenment.
In addition to the original six perfections found in early Mahāyāna literature, later writers added an additional four:
7. Upāya Kausalya: skillful means. In this perfection, the bodhisattva develops their ability to work skillfully with other beings in order to bring about their advancement toward enlightenment. Upaya can take what may seem to some as startling forms, such as the exchanges between Zen masters and their students made famous in koans, or in the "crazy wisdom" displayed by tantric masters. However strange their actions may seem, Buddhists believe that their motivation is compassion and their goal is to lead their students to awakening.
8. Pranidhāna : determination, aspiration. This perfection refers to the bodhisattva's resolve to realize full buddhahood. Until this is perfected (see the eighth bhumi below), there is always the danger of going backwards on the path, or off of it altogether. They must work constantly, with the help and encouragement of their teacher and sangha (Buddhist community), to keep their determination to realize their goal .
9. Bala: spiritual power. Powers explains that
- "because of their mastery of the four analytical knowledges (doctrines, meanings, grammar and exposition) and their meditation they are able to develop the six perfections energetically and to practice them continually without becoming fatigued." .
As well, as the bodhisattva advances in their practices, they are said to attain various supernatural abilities which aid them in realizing their goal of liberating all being from samsara.
10. Jñana : knowledge, exalted wisdom. This is the realization of a fully awakened being, a buddha. When the bodhisattva reaches this level of attainment, it is said that this limitless wisdom permeates all of the other perfections, and completes them.
Through the perfection of these qualities, the bodhisattva is able to realize their vow to attain full buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. These paramita are directly related to the bhumi, or stages, that they progress through on their journey to awakening.
- A Treatise on the Paramis: From the Commentary to the Cariyapitaka by Acariya Dhammapala. www.accesstoinsight.org. Retrieved October 29, 2007.
- Nalinaksha Dutt. Buddhist Sects in India. (Delhi: Motilal Banararsidass Publishers, 1978), 224
- Ibid., 228
- Ibid., 219
- Ibid., 251
- Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Discourse on the All-Embracing Net of Views: The Brahmajaala Sutta and Its Commentaries. 1978.
- The passage is translated in Bodhi (1978), 314.
- Reginald A. Ray. Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. 2002) , 288)
- Donald W. Mitchell. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 112
- John Powers. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1995), 100
- Mitchell, 114
- Ray, 346
- Powers, 109
- Ibid., 110
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu, ed. A Treatise on the Paramis: From the Commentary to the Cariyapitaka by Acariya Dhammapala. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1996. ISBN 9552401461
- __________. The Discourse on the All-Embracing Net of Views: The Brahmajaala Sutta and Its Commentaries. 1978.
- __________. The All-Embracing Net of Views. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1978.
- Davids, T. W., T.W. Rhys, and William Stede, eds. The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English Dictionary. Chipstead: Pali Text Society.
- Dutt, Nalinaksha. Buddhist Sects in India. Delhi: Motilal Banararsidass Publishers, 1978
- Gampopa. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1559390921.
- Huntington, C. W., Jr. 1994. The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Mādhymika. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0824817125.
- Lampert, K. Traditions of Compassion: From Religious Duty to Social Activism. London: Palgrave-Macmillan; ISBN 1403985278.
- Mitchell, Donald W. 2002. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195139518.
- Powers, John. 1995. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1559390263.
- Ray, Reginald A. 2002. Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1570629102.
- Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva, Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group (2003). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1590300572
- White, Kenneth R. The Role of Bodhicitta in Buddhist Enlightenment: Including a Translation into English of Bodhicitta-sastra, Benkemmitsu-nikyoron, and Sammaya-kaijo. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005; ISBN 0889460507.
All links retrieved November 18, 2022.
- The Six Perfections taken from Lama Zopa Rinpoche
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