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PĀRAMITĀS . The term pāramitā, Sanskrit and Pali for "perfection," refers to the virtues that must be fully developed by anyone aspiring to become a Buddha, that is, by a bodhisattva. The practice of the pāramitā s makes the career of a bodhisattva exceedingly long, but their fulfillment transforms the enlightenment process from one that benefits only the individual to one that is, in the words of the Visuddhimagga, "for the welfare and benefit of the whole world."

The idea of the pāramitā s as a group is not found in the oldest Buddhist literature. Such a notion developed in the general expansion of Buddhist thought and practice before the beginning of the common era, which movement gave new recognition to types of religion other than renunciation. The pāramitā s provided an alternative scheme of religious practice more in tune with newly developed conceptions of the Buddha and the nature of a bodhisattva than were the older schemes of morality, meditation, and wisdom (śīla, samādhi, prajñā ) and the Noble Eightfold Path.

When the pāramitā s appear as a group, their number varies; six and ten occur most often, but lists of five and seven are also found. It is sometimes suggested that six may have been the original number, because of an apparent progression in difficulty in such enumerations. The six are "giving" (dāna ), "morality" (śīla ), "patience" (kānti ), "vigor" (vīrya ), "contemplation" (dhyāna ), and "wisdom" (prajñā ). Such lists are found in early Mahāyāna texts (e.g., the Saddharma-puarīka Sūtra and the Prajñāpāramitā literature) and in the Mahāvastu of the Mahāsaghika school. The lists of ten, which include the additional virtues of "skill-in-means" (upāya or upāyakauśalya ), "resolution" (praidhāna ), "strength" (bala ), and "knowledge" (jñāna ), occur in later texts, for example, the Daśabhūmika Sūtra (fourth century). In such texts, the pāramitā s are correlated with the ten stages (bhūmi ) of a bodhisattva 's career.

Other independent and relatively early enumerations of the perfections are found in the Cariyāpiaka and the Buddhavasa, both written in Pali and considered canonical by the Theravāda school. While the Cariyāpiaka lists seven perfections, the Buddhavasa gives ten. These have become standard in the Theravāda traditions: "giving" (dāna ), "morality" (śīla ), "renunciation" (nekkhamma ), "wisdom" (paññā ), "vigor" (viriya ), "patience" (khanti ), "truthfulness" (sacca ), "determination" (adhihāna ), "loving kindness" (mettā ), and "equanimity" (upekkhā ).

The Sanskrit and Pali noun pāramitā is derived from the adjective parama, meaning "high, complete, perfect." The Thervāda has consistently understood the term in this way and has commonly used another derivative, pāramī, as a synonym. In contrast, the Mahāyāna tradition has analyzed the term as consisting of two words, pāram ita, meaning "gone to the beyond," indicating its character as a scheme of spiritual progress. The Chinese and Tibetan translations of the term pāramitā (tu and pha rol tu phyin pa, respectively) reflect this latter understanding of its meaning.

These interpretations may differ along sectarian lines, but the applications they suggest are found in each of the Buddhist schools. In the Theravāda, the perfections afford the practitioner one way of celebrating the significance and superiority of the Buddha, whose fulfillment of them is often said to be incomparable. Similarly, Mahāyāna devotees focus their reverence on the enormous toils of great bodhisattva s such as Avalokiteśvara, who are engaged in practicing the perfections.

The pāramitā s also provide a set of norms to structure the reading of the Jātakas, the collection of stories about the Buddha's previous lives. These tales, often non-Buddhist in origin and obscure in meaning, assume a Buddhist character when read with the pāramitā s as guidelines. The Cariyāpiaka, the Buddhavasa, and later Theravāda works (e.g., the Nidānakathā, the fifth-century introduction to the Jātaka collection) group and order some of the stories according to the practice and attainment of each perfection. We also see this template for reading in Mahāyāna works such as the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Śāstra.

The same pattern guides the illustrations of Jātakas as evidenced by such Buddhist art forms as the friezes on religious monuments of ancient India and the paintings decorating temples in modern Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. In short, the pāramitā s transformed the Jātakas into effective and popular sources for didactic art and literature. As Richard Gombrich observed in his study of Buddhism in modern Sri Lanka, Precept and Practice (Oxford, 1971), "There is a general tendency for those Jātakas which are canonically associated with the Bodhisattva's acquisition of a particular perfection to be more widely known" (p. 93).

The superposition of the pāramitā s on the Jātakas, in turn, altered the perception of the perfections themselves. As gradations of the virtues became apparent, it proved practical to subdivide the ten perfections into thirty. Each pāramitā was divided into three degrees: an ordinary perfection (pāramī ), an inferior perfection (upapāramī ), and a superior perfection (paramatthapāramī ). For example, in the Theravāda, the ordinary perfection of giving is "sacrifice of limbs," the inferior perfection is "sacrifice of external goods or property," and the superior perfection is "sacrifice of life."

The Jātakas also provide models for practicing the pāramitā s. Through these stories about the Bodhisattva'sand thus, the Buddha'sinvolvement in the world, the virtues represented by the perfections are inculcated and come to be highly valued as qualities in individuals.

As the Mahāyāna analysis of the term suggests, these virtues are not merely a random assortment but are an ordered group leading to a goal. When the Mahāyāna replaced the notion of the arhat with the idea of the bodhisattva as the religious ideal to which all should aspire, the pāramitā s provided a practical program that could be followed by new aspirants. This replacement altered some of the basic assumptions of spiritual progress. Under this new dispensation, as the arhat follows the Noble Eightfold Path he destroys the defilements that perpetuate rebirth but becomes enlightened only to the degree necessary to obtain release from rebirth. The bodhisattva, in contrast, renounces the enlightment of the arhat in order to pursue what is perceived as the higher and more complete enlightenment attained by Buddhas. The bodhisattva prepares himself for this attainment by practicing the perfections, which represent a program of positive moral development for the benefit of others. The Mahāyāna devotees negatively assess the practice of the arhat s, claiming that it is based on restraint and removal and is without overt altruism. The perfections project the attainment of the goal into an inconceivable future and displace the sense of urgency and immediacy that motivates the arhat 's quest. As a result, virtues such as patience, resolution, strength, and determination, which had a small place in early Buddhism, became prominent as pāramitā s. Vigor, for instance, which had complemented the urgency felt by the disciple following the Eightfold Path, became an antidote to fatigue and despair during the bodhisattva 's long career.

The idea of the perfections as a graduated soteriological path was developed and emphasized in the Mahāyāna, but it had a place in the Theravāda as well. This can be seen in a lengthy discussion in the Cariyāpiaka commentary by Dhammapāla, the sixth-century Pali commentator, where the perfections are treated as a spiritual path accessible to all. Some of the perfections (e.g., renunciation and equanimity) reinforce the basic assumptions of the arhat program, which the Theravāda never rejected.

To function as a progressive scheme leading to the final goal of enlightenment all of the perfections must be fulfilled. We can see, however, that certain perfections have assumed a greater importance. Doctrinally, wisdom (prajñā ), the last of the six perfections, is often given pride of place in Mahāyāna writings. The Bodhicaryāvatāra says that "the Buddha taught that this multitude of virtues is all for the sake of wisdom"(Matics, 1970, p. 211). Prajñā is said to be greater than all the other virtues and to be that perfection that makes all others effective. Practically, the perfection of giving (dāna ) has great importance. Emotive stories of the practice of this perfection (e.g., the Jātaka stories of King Śibi and Prince Viśvantara) are enormously popular throughout the Buddhist world and have been favorite subjects for Buddhist art and literature. As the first and easiest of the pāramitā s, dāna is accessible to the humblest Buddhist when he or she aspires to enter the path to enlightenment. Its importance as a preparation for enlightenment is amply attested by the Viśvantara (Vessantara ) Jātaka, in which the future Buddha perfects dāna in his penultimate birth.

See Also

Avalokiteśvara; Bodhisattva Path; Eightfold Path; Prajñā.


A survey of the pāramitā s in Mahāyāna literature may be found in Har Dayal's The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (London, 1932; reprint, Delhi, 1975). It provides detailed interpretations of each of the perfections and relates them to other aspects of Buddhist thought. A beautiful account of the pāramitā s and their place in the career of a bodhisattva, as understood by the Indian Mādhyamika tradition, is Śantideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra, translated by Marion Matics as Entering the Path of Enlightenment (New York, 1970). The Cariyāpiaka and the Buddhavasa have been translated by both B. C. Law (Oxford, 1938) and I. B. Horner (London, 1975) in volumes 11 and 31, respectively, of the "Sacred Books of the Buddhists" series. Dhammapāla's "Treatise on the Pāramī s," from the Cariyāpiaka commentary is available in translation in The Discourse on the All-Embracing Net of Views: The Brahmajāla Sutta and Its Commentarial Exegesis, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Kandy, 1978). A summa of Buddhist thought on the perfections is the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Śāstra, attributed to Nāgārjuna and translated from the Chinese by Étienne Lamotte as Le traité de la grande vertu de sagesse (Louvain, 19441980). This is an indispensable source for the study of the pāramitā s. Lamotte's annotations themselves are a mine of information for literacy references to the pāramitā s and for references to the many publications that treat their iconography.

New Sources

Aitken, Robert. The Practice of Perfection: The Paramitas from a Zen Buddhist Perspective. New York, 1994.

Sanam Richen, Geshe. The Six Perfections: An Oral Teaching. Translated and edited by Ruth Sonam. Ithaca, N.Y., 1998.

Charles Hallisey (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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