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Pāramitā (Pāli; Sanskrit; Devanagari: पारमिता) or pāramī (Pāli)) is "perfection" or "completeness." In Buddhism, the pāramitās refer to the perfection or culmination of certain virtues. In Buddhism, these virtues are cultivated as a way of purification, purifying karma and helping the aspirant to live an unobstructed life, while reaching the goal of enlightenment.
Scholar Donald Lopez describes the etymology of the term:
The term pāramitā, commonly translated as "perfection," has two etymologies. The first derives it from the word parama, meaning "highest," "most distant," and hence, "chief," "primary," "most excellent." Hence, the substantive can be rendered "excellence" or "perfection." This reading is supported by the Madhyāntavibhāga (V.4), where the twelve excellences (parama) are associated with the ten perfections (pāramitā).
A more creative yet widely reported etymology divides pāramitā into pāra and mita, with pāra meaning "beyond," "the further bank, shore or boundary," and mita, meaning "that which has arrived," or ita meaning "that which goes." Pāramitā, then means "that which has gone beyond," "that which goes beyond," or "transcendent." This reading is reflected in the Tibetan translation pha rol tu phyin pa ("gone to the other side").
- Dāna pāramī : generosity, giving of oneself
- Sīla pāramī : virtue, morality, proper conduct
- Nekkhamma pāramī : renunciation
- Paññā pāramī : transcendental wisdom, insight
- Viriya (also spelled vīriya) pāramī : energy, diligence, vigour, effort
- Khanti pāramī : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
- Sacca pāramī : truthfulness, honesty
- Adhiṭṭhāna (adhitthana) pāramī : determination, resolution
- Mettā pāramī : loving-kindness
- Upekkhā (also spelled upekhā) pāramī : equanimity, serenity
The Theravādin teachings on pāramitās can be found in canonical books (Jātaka, Apadāna, Buddhavaṃsa, Cariyāpiṭaka) and post-canonical commentaries which were written to supplement the Pāli canon at a later time, and thus they are not an original part of the Theravādin teachings. The oldest parts of the Sutta Piṭaka (for example, Majjhima Nikāya, Digha Nikāya, Saṃyutta Nikāya and the Aṅguttara Nikāya) do not have any mention of the pāramitās as a category (though they are all mentioned individually).
Some scholars even refer to the teachings of the pāramitās as a semi-Mahāyāna teaching which 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. However, these views rely on the early scholarly presumption of Mahāyāna originating with religious devotion and appeal to laity. More recently, scholars have started to open up early Mahāyāna literature which is very ascetic and expounds the ideal of the monk's life in the forest. Therefore, the practice of the pāramitās is closer to the ideals of the ascetic tradition of the śramaṇa in Buddhism.
Bodhi (2005) maintains that, in the earliest Buddhist texts (which he identifies as the first four nikāyas), those seeking the extinction of suffering (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 bodhisattva (Pāli: bodhisatta). Over subsequent centuries, the pāramīs were seen as being significant for aspirants to both Buddhahood and arahantship. Thus, Bodhi (2005) 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.
- Dāna pāramitā: generosity, giving of oneself (in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, 布施波羅蜜; in Wylie Tibetan, sbyin-pa)
- Śīla pāramitā : virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct (持戒波羅蜜; tshul-khrims)
- Kṣānti (kshanti) pāramitā : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance (忍辱波羅蜜, bzod-pa)
- Vīrya pāramitā : energy, diligence, vigor, effort (精進波羅蜜, brtson-’grus)
- Dhyāna pāramitā : one-pointed concentration, contemplation (禪定波羅蜜, bsam-gtan)
- Prajñā pāramitā : wisdom, insight (般若波羅蜜, shes-rab)
In the Ten Stages (Daśabhūmika) Sutra, four more pāramitās are listed:
- 7. Upāya pāramitā: skillful means
- 8. Praṇidhāna pāramitā: vow, resolution, aspiration, determination
- 9. Bala pāramitā: spiritual power
- 10. Jñāna pāramitā: knowledge
According to the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, Mahāyāna practitioners have the choice of two practice paths: the path of perfection (Sanskrit:pāramitāyāna) or the path of tantra (Sanskrit:tantrayāna), which is the Vajrayāna.
Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche renders "pāramitā" into English as "transcendent action" and then frames and qualifies it:
When we say that paramita means "transcendent action," we mean it in the sense that actions or attitude are performed in a non-egocentric manner. "Transcendental" does not refer to some external reality, but rather to the way in which we conduct our lives and perceive the world - either in an egocentric or a non-egocentric way. The six paramitas are concerned with the effort to step out of the egocentric mentality.
- Pañca-Parameṣṭhi – "Five Perfections" in Jainism
- Dale S. Wright – The Six Perfections - Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character
- For the Pāli terms, see, e.g., Rhys Davids & Stede, 1921–25, p. 454, entries for "Pāramī" and "Pāramitā," retrieved 23 Mar 2010 and 30 Jun 2007, respectively. For the Sanskrit term, see, e.g., Apte (1957–59), p. 111, entry for pāramita, retrieved 24 Mar 2010.
While, technically, pāramī and pāramitā are both Pāli, the Pāli literature makes far greater reference to pāramī. Bodhi (2005) states:
- "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." (Velthuis convention lettering replaced with Pāli diacritics.)
- Lopez, Donald S., Jr. The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries (1988) State Univ of New York Pr. ISBN 0-88706-589-9 pg 21 
- Buddhavaṃsa, chapter 2. For an on-line reference to the Buddhavaṃsa's seminality in the Theravāda notion of pāramī, see Bodhi (2005).
In terms of other examples in the Pāli literature, Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 454, entry for "Pāramī," (retrieved 2007-06-24) cite Jātaka i.73 and Dhammapada Atthakatha i.84. Bodhi (2005) also mentions Acariya Dhammapala's treatise in the Cariyāpiṭaka-Atthakatha and the Brahmajala Sutta subcommentary (ṭika).
- "[Prose portions of the Jātakas] originally did not form part of [the Theravādins] scriptures": Nalinaksha Dutt (1978) Buddhist Sects in India. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (Delhi), 2nd Edition: 224
- Regarding the Cariyāpiṭaka, Horner (2000), Cariyāpiṭaka section, p. vi, writes that it is "[c]onsidered to be post-Asokan...."
- "[the Theravādins’] early literature did not refer to the pāramitās." Nalinaksha Dutt (1978) Buddhist Sects in India. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (Delhi), 2nd Edition: 228
- "The incorporation of pāramis by the Theravādins in the Jātakas reveals that they were not immune from Mahāyānic influence. This happened, of course, at a much later date[.]" Nalinaksha Dutt (1978) Buddhist Sects in India. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (Delhi), 2nd Edition: 219
- "It is evident that the Hinayānists, either to popularize their religion or to interest the laity more in it, incorporated in their doctrines the conception of Bodhisattva and the practice of pāramitās. This was effected by the production of new literature: the Jātakas and Avadānas." Nalinaksha Dutt (1978) Buddhist Sects in India. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (Delhi), 2nd Edition: 251. The term "Semi-Mahāyāna" occurs here as a subtitle.
- "As scholars have moved away from this limited corpus, and have begun to explore a wider range of Mahāyāna sutras, they have stumbled on, and have started to open up, a literature that is often stridently ascetic and heavily engaged in reinventing the forest ideal, an individualistic, antisocial, ascetic ideal that is encapsulated in the apparently resurrected image of “wandering alone like a rhinoceros.” Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 494
- Bodhi (2005). (Converted the document's original use of the Velthuis convention to Pāli diacritics.)
- The passage is translated in Bodhi (1978), p. 314.
- Ray, Reginald A. (ed.) (2004). In the Presence of Masters: Wisdom from 30 Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist Teachers. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambala. ISBN 1-57062-849-1 (pbk.: alk. paper) p.140.
- Keown, Damien (ed.) with Hodge, Stephen; Jones, Charles; Tinti, Paola (2003). A Dictionary of Buddhism. Great Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press. P.270. ISBN 0-19-860560-9
- Apte, Vaman Shivaram (1957-59). Revised and enlarged edition of Prin. V. S. Apte's The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Poona: Prasad Prakashan.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (1978). The All-Embracing Net of Views. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (1978, 2005). A Treatise on the Paramis: From the Commentary to the Cariyapitaka by Acariya Dhammapala (The Wheel, No. 409/411). Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
- Horner, I.B. (trans.) (1975; reprinted 2000). The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon (Part III): 'Chronicle of Buddhas' (Buddhavamsa) and 'Basket of Conduct' (Cariyapitaka). Oxford: Pali Text Society. ISBN 0-86013-072-X.
- Rhys Davids, T.W. & William Stede (eds.) (1921-5). The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English Dictionary. Chipstead: Pali Text Society.
- Renunciation by T. Prince, a free distribution article on the Buddhist conception of renunciation
- Lama Zopa Rinpoche's view of the Six Perfections
- A Zen view of the Six Perfections
- Six paramitas, Chinese Buddhist website
- Theravada Buddhist Dhamma Talk Album: "Ten Paramitas (Suc 06)", By Ajahn Sucitto