The Paramitas in Buddhism not just abstract philosophical concepts, but actionable principles that can transform your life and the lives of those around you. The term Paramita originates from Sanskrit and can be understood as “perfections” or “transcendent qualities.” They are the virtues that the Buddha himself embodied and taught to his disciples as the path to awakening.
Each Paramita signifies a journey from ignorance to wisdom, from self-centeredness to selflessness, and from suffering to liberation. They are like stepping stones across a river, helping us navigate the currents of desire, anger and ignorance, and reach the far shore of wisdom and enlightenment.
What are the Paramitas?
The term “Paramitas,” derived from Sanskrit and Pāli languages, primarily refers to “perfections” or “virtues” in the context of Buddhist philosophy. A compound of ‘parama,’ meaning ‘highest, utmost, or most distant,’ and ‘-ita,’ which can be translated as ‘having arrived’ or ‘gone to,’ the term essentially connotes the completion or culmination of certain virtues.
The paramitas embody the essence of the bodhisattva’s spiritual practice – a being on the path to achieving full enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Buddhist texts typically list six or ten paramitas, depending on the tradition (Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana).
The six paramitas, usually mentioned in Mahayana texts such as the Lotus Sutra and the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, are as follows:
- Dana Paramita: Perfection of generosity
- Sila Paramita: Perfection of morality or ethical conduct
- Kshanti Paramita: Perfection of patience or forbearance
- Virya Paramita: Perfection of vigor or effort
- Dhyana Paramita: Perfection of meditation or concentration
- Prajna Paramita: Perfection of wisdom
Some Buddhist traditions expand the list to ten paramitas. The additional four are:
- Upaya Paramita: Perfection of skillful means
- Pranidhana Paramita: Perfection of vow or determination
- Bala Paramita: Perfection of strength
- Jnana Paramita: Perfection of knowledge
Each paramita signifies a specific virtue to be cultivated to attain the ultimate goal of Buddhahood. They are not merely moral precepts but profound practices that serve as a guide for the practitioner’s spiritual journey. The paramitas, therefore, represent the holistic and comprehensive approach of Buddhist spiritual practice, addressing both personal transformation and the universal aspiration to benefit all beings.
Six Paramitas: Meaning of Bodhisattva’s six perfections
In the context of Mahayana Buddhism, the Six Paramitas, also known as the Six Perfections, delineate the path that a Bodhisattva must tread in pursuit of this goal. Each paramita represents a virtue that is to be perfected, fostering both personal spiritual growth and the broader aim of universal welfare.
1. Meaning of Dana Paramita (Perfection of Generosity)
Dana Paramita (Perfection of Generosity) is the first of the Six Paramitas, that form the core of a Bodhisattva’s practice in Mahayana Buddhism. The term “Dana” is derived from Sanskrit and Pali, denoting “giving” or “gift,” while “Paramita” implies reaching the other shore or perfection. Hence, Dana Paramita can be construed as the cultivation and perfection of the virtue of generosity.
Dana Paramita extends beyond the simplistic act of giving material goods or alms. It encapsulates a broad spectrum of selfless acts, including the sharing of time, knowledge, emotional support, and even the Dharma (Buddhist teachings). It underscores an altruistic willingness to give without the expectation of reciprocation or personal gain.
This virtue is integral to the Bodhisattva path as it helps to erode the deep-seated human tendencies of selfishness and attachment, both of which are identified as primary sources of suffering within Buddhist doctrine. The practice of Dana Paramita cultivates an attitude of open-handedness and encourages the recognition of interdependence among all beings, fostering a compassionate and caring disposition.
Moreover, Dana Paramita signifies the ideal of boundless generosity. A Bodhisattva’s practice of Dana Paramita is not circumscribed by their resources; instead, it involves the continual aspiration to give, demonstrating a generosity of spirit that transcends physical limitations. This perfection also embodies a profound understanding of the nature of reality. The act of giving without expecting anything in return acknowledges the inherent emptiness and interdependence of all phenomena, which are fundamental insights in Mahayana Buddhism.
By perfecting the virtue of generosity, a Bodhisattva advances on the path toward enlightenment, developing qualities of compassion, wisdom, and selflessness, which are essential in achieving Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. Dana Paramita, thus, is not only an ethical practice but also a spiritual discipline integral to the cultivation of wisdom and the realization of ultimate reality.
2. Meaning of Sila Paramita (Perfection of Ethical Conduct)
Sila Paramita, or the Perfection of Ethical Conduct, is the second of the Six Paramitas in Mahayana Buddhism, and it represents a critical juncture in the path of a Bodhisattva towards ultimate enlightenment. Deriving from Sanskrit and Pali, “Sila” generally refers to morality, virtue, or ethical conduct. Sila Paramita denotes the cultivation and perfection of ethical behavior.
This paramita primarily concerns the observance of precepts or moral guidelines that aim to promote harmonious relations within society and foster inner tranquility. In the context of Buddhist monasticism, these precepts often include principles such as refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and the use of intoxicants. However, for lay practitioners and Bodhisattvas, the practice of Sila Paramita extends beyond these fundamental precepts to encompass a more comprehensive framework of ethical behavior.
Sila Paramita is not merely about abstinence from harmful activities but also involves active engagement in beneficial actions that promote the welfare of all beings. It includes qualities such as honesty, respect for others’ rights and property, fidelity in relationships, truthfulness in speech, and maintaining a clear mind, free from the clouding influence of intoxicants. The underlying principle is to avoid causing harm to oneself and others and to act in ways that foster mutual trust, respect and harmony.
Sila Paramita, therefore, serves as a moral compass guiding a Bodhisattva’s conduct, ensuring alignment with the overarching objective of benefiting all sentient beings. It is believed that by maintaining ethical conduct, a Bodhisattva cultivates a peaceful mind and creates conducive conditions for the development of concentration (Dhyana Paramita) and wisdom (Prajna Paramita).
3. Meaning of Kshanti Paramita (Perfection of Patience)
Kshanti Paramita, or the Perfection of Patience, is the third of the Six Paramitas in the practice of a Bodhisattva within Mahayana Buddhism. Derived from Sanskrit, “Kshanti” denotes patience, tolerance, or forbearance. Hence, Kshanti Paramita involves the cultivation and perfection of patience and tolerance.
This paramita is particularly centered around the ability to endure hardships, discomfort, and the difficulties that life invariably presents. It calls for patience not only in the face of external adversity but also with the internal struggles that arise within one’s mind. The practice of Kshanti Paramita involves enduring these difficulties without harboring negativity or resentment, but instead with a calm and undisturbed mind.
However, Kshanti Paramita is not to be mistaken for mere passive endurance or suppression of feelings. Rather, it involves a deep understanding and acceptance of the nature of life’s impermanence, acknowledging that suffering and difficulties are integral parts of human existence. By accepting this reality, one can remain undisturbed in the face of adversity, and even transform such experiences into opportunities for personal growth and spiritual development.
Kshanti Paramita also extends to forbearance with others, implying patience and tolerance towards those who may cause harm or offence. Instead of reacting impulsively or with anger, a Bodhisattva practicing Kshanti Paramita responds with understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. This aspect of patience is grounded in the realization that all beings are subject to their karma (actions and their consequences) and are, like oneself, trying to navigate their way through suffering.
Furthermore, Kshanti Paramita involves patience in the spiritual journey towards enlightenment. Progress on the path may be slow or filled with obstacles, and the fruits of one’s practice may not be immediately evident. Patience in this context signifies persistent effort and an unwavering commitment to the path, regardless of the challenges encountered.
4. Meaning of Virya Paramita (Perfection of Energy or Effort)
Virya Paramita, often translated as the Perfection of Energy or Effort, constitutes the fourth of the Six Paramitas, the core principles that underpin a Bodhisattva’s path to enlightenment in Mahayana Buddhism. The term “Virya” comes from Sanskrit and Pali, signifying “energy,” “vigor,” or “effort”. Therefore, Virya Paramita can be interpreted as the perfection and cultivation of the virtue of diligent effort.
The scope of Virya Paramita extends well beyond the simple concept of physical energy or enthusiasm. It encompasses the persistent, tireless application of effort toward the practice of Dharma, the pursuit of wholesome deeds, and the eradication of unwholesome actions. It represents an active, unremitting engagement with the path to enlightenment, manifesting as the unwavering determination to cultivate virtues and liberate sentient beings from suffering.
Virya Paramita is a dynamic and forward-propelling energy that serves to mitigate the tendency towards laziness or complacency, which are seen in Buddhist teachings as significant obstacles on the path to liberation. It’s an energy that does not wane in the face of challenges but is fueled by a profound understanding of the Four Noble Truths, the impermanence of life, and the interconnectedness of all beings.
This Paramita underscores the importance of a strong resolve and tenacity in maintaining one’s spiritual practice despite setbacks. The Bodhisattva employing Virya Paramita does not allow their energy to be diminished by failure or discouragement but instead uses every situation, whether conducive or adverse, as a stepping stone toward achieving their spiritual goals.
However, the perfection of energy in Buddhism is not merely about exertion but also about wise and balanced effort. The principle of the Middle Way—avoidance of extremes of indulgence and austerity—guides the application of effort. Consequently, Virya Paramita denotes not only an enthusiastic, resilient pursuit of the Buddhist path, but also the discernment of when to exert effort and when to let go, thus avoiding the pitfalls of excessive or misdirected energy.
5. Meaning of Dhyana Paramita (Perfection of Meditation or Concentration)
Dhyana Paramita, often translated as the Perfection of Meditation or Concentration, stands as the fifth of the Six Paramitas. “Dhyana” stems from Sanskrit and Pali, indicating “meditation” or “concentration,” while “Paramita” symbolizes reaching the other shore or achieving perfection. Therefore, Dhyana Paramita can be understood as the perfection and cultivation of the virtue of focused meditation.
Going beyond the basic act of meditation, Dhyana Paramita encapsulates the development and refinement of deep, unwavering concentration, leading to a clear, peaceful, and enlightened state of mind. It signifies a state of unity between the observer, the object of concentration, and the act of observation itself, where distinctions dissolve and a profound understanding of the true nature of reality emerges.
Dhyana Paramita operates as an antidote to distraction and scattered thought, which are regarded as significant impediments on the path to liberation in Buddhist teachings. By cultivating a stable, focused mind, a Bodhisattva can effectively investigate the true nature of phenomena, leading to insights into impermanence, suffering, and the non-self nature of beings and phenomena.
Importantly, this Paramita highlights the significance of maintaining steady, disciplined mindfulness in daily life and spiritual practice, allowing for the continuous presence of clear awareness. The Bodhisattva practicing Dhyana Paramita does not allow their mind to be swept away by the currents of desire, aversion or ignorance. Instead, they remain resolutely anchored in the present moment, employing the sharp tool of mindfulness to cut through the illusions of the world.
Moreover, Dhyana Paramita symbolizes an embodiment of the Middle Way principle in meditation. The Bodhisattva’s practice is not limited by rigidity or laxity; instead, they skillfully navigate the middle path of focused yet relaxed attention, avoiding the extremes of hyper-concentration and scattered thought.
Intriguingly, Dhyana Paramita also encapsulates a profound understanding of the nature of reality. The deep concentration developed through this perfection allows for direct experiential insight into the emptiness and interdependence of all phenomena, fostering a clear understanding of the ultimate truth as taught in Mahayana Buddhism.
6. Meaning of Prajna Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom)
Prajna Paramita, typically translated as the Perfection of Wisdom, is the sixth and final of the Six Paramitas, the fundamental practices guiding a Bodhisattva’s journey towards enlightenment in Mahayana Buddhism. The term “Prajna” originates from Sanskrit and Pali, meaning “wisdom” or “insight”. Consequently, Prajna Paramita can be comprehended as the perfection and cultivation of the virtue of wisdom.
Beyond mere intellectual understanding or knowledge, Prajna Paramita encapsulates a deep, direct understanding of the nature of reality as taught in Buddhism. This profound wisdom penetrates the veil of appearances to perceive the emptiness and interdependence of all phenomena, thereby leading to liberation from suffering.
Prajna Paramita acts as an antidote to ignorance, which is seen in Buddhist teachings as the root cause of suffering and the cyclic existence of Samsara. Through the cultivation of Prajna, a Bodhisattva gains insight into the Four Noble Truths, understanding the reality of suffering, its origin, cessation, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.
This Paramita underlines the significance of developing discerning wisdom that distinguishes beneficial from harmful, eternal from transient, and the real from the unreal. The Bodhisattva practicing Prajna Paramita does not allow their understanding to be clouded by delusions or misconceptions but uses wisdom to navigate the spiritual path, transforming all experiences into steps towards enlightenment.
Moreover, Prajna Paramita exemplifies the principle of the Middle Way in understanding. The Bodhisattva’s practice does not lean towards nihilism or eternalism; instead, it navigates a middle path that recognizes the empty yet interdependent nature of all phenomena, thereby avoiding the extremes of denying or clinging to existence.
Prajna Paramita also embodies the integration of wisdom with compassion. A Bodhisattva’s wisdom is not a cold, detached understanding but is coupled with a warm-hearted compassion for all beings caught in the cycle of suffering. This combination of wisdom and compassion motivates the Bodhisattva’s tireless efforts to liberate all beings from suffering.
How to cultivate the Paramitas in daily life
Cultivating the Paramitas or perfections in daily life is an integral aspect of the spiritual practice in Mahayana Buddhism. Integrating these perfections into daily life is not only about practicing specific rituals or meditations, but also involves cultivating a holistic, compassionate and mindful approach to living.
- Dana Paramita (Generosity): Cultivate an attitude of generosity in your day-to-day actions. This can involve material giving, such as donations to charity, but also encompasses generosity of spirit—giving time, energy, and kindness to others. Generosity also involves giving fearlessly and unconditionally, without expecting anything in return.
- Sila Paramita (Ethical Conduct): Practice ethical conduct by adhering to the Five Precepts: refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. Aim to act in ways that are non-harming and beneficial to others. Sila also involves integrity—being honest and authentic in all aspects of your life.
- Kshanti Paramita (Patience): Develop patience by learning to accept and tolerate life’s difficulties without anger or resentment. This involves being patient with oneself, with others, and with the vicissitudes of life. Mindfulness practice can be particularly helpful in cultivating patience, as it helps you to stay present and composed, even in challenging situations.
- Virya Paramita (Energy or Effort): Foster a sense of energetic effort towards wholesome activities and spiritual practice. This involves diligence in maintaining your meditation practice, studying Buddhist teachings, and working to benefit others. Remember, however, that this effort should be balanced and sustainable—not leading to burnout or extreme austerity.
- Dhyana Paramita (Meditation or Concentration): Regularly engage in meditation to cultivate concentration and mindfulness. Start with short periods of meditation and gradually increase the duration as your concentration improves. Importantly, try to integrate mindfulness into all aspects of your daily life—not just during formal meditation.
- Prajna Paramita (Wisdom): Cultivate wisdom through study, reflection, and meditation on the Buddhist teachings. This involves understanding the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and non-self nature of existence, and directly realizing the interdependent and empty nature of phenomena. As wisdom is integrally linked with experience, regular meditation and mindful living are crucial for the cultivation of Prajna Paramita.
In conclusion, cultivating the Paramitas in daily life involves integrating these virtues into one’s daily actions, thoughts, and attitudes. It is a continuous process of self-improvement and spiritual development, requiring commitment, patience and mindfulness.