Pāramitā (Pāli, pāramī; Tibetan, pha rol tu phyin pa; Chinese, boluomi) refers to the spiritual practice accomplished by a bodhisattva. The term has been interpreted variously as meaning, for example, "perfection," "to reach the other shore," or "to cross over." In Japanese Buddhism the term has been used to indicate the spring and autumn equinox. The literal meaning of the Tibetan pha rol tu phyin pa is "to reach the other shore," a meaning with which the Chinese translation dao bian agrees. Traditionally, the term pāramitā comprises four groups: the group of six pāramitās; the group of ten pāramitās; the group of four pāramitās; and the perfections of esoteric Buddhism. However, the constituents of each grouping differ according to the sūtra or śāstra in which they are discussed.
The understanding of pāramitā in the sense of "to reach the other shore" suggests that one goes from the ordinary world of saṂsĀra (this shore) to the realm of nirvĀṆa (the other shore). Depending on the text, this formula may mean, for example, that a buddha is one who has reached the other shore already, while an ordinary being is one who has not yet reached the other shore (Maitreyaparipṛccha-sūtra). "Reaching the other shore" may mean that, in accordance with one's practice, one attains the final goal with nothing remaining, or that one reaches reality-as-it-is (just as all streams finally return to the ocean), or that one attains the incomparable fruition (of awakening).
The group of six pāramitās includes dĀna (giving), śīla (ethical behavior), kṣānti (patience), vīrya (endeavor or effort), dhyĀna (contemplation or meditation), and prajÑĀ (wisdom). Dāna means to give an ordinary gift, to give the gift of the dharma, or to give the gift of mental peace and tranquility to another. Śīla means to honor and practice proper ethical behavior. Kṣānti means to endure hardship. Vīrya means to strengthen one's mind and body and to practice continuously the other five perfections. Dhyāna means to focus one's mind and make it firm and stable. Prajñā means to awaken to the defining characteristics of existence. Of these, the first five can be understood to describe the practices manifested in a bodhisattva's activities of karuṆĀ (compassion) and the last a bodhisattva's wisdom. Because prajñā is so foundational to the other five perfections, it is referred to as the "mother of all buddhas."
When four more perfections—upĀya (appropriate action), praṇidhāna (vow), bala (strength), and jñāna (understanding)—are added to the former six, the grouping of ten pāramitās is established. Upāya means that a bodhisattva assists sentient beings by means of utilizing his expertise (upāyakauślya). Praṇidhāna means that having become awakened, a bodhisattva makes the highest vow to save all sentient beings from the round of saṃsāra. Bala refers to the power to guide sentient beings to proper spiritual practices. Jñāna refers to the attainment of peace that comes with awakening and the instruction of sentient beings to attain the all-inclusive wisdom. Along with perfecting one's self, these ten perfections serve the purpose of benefiting all sentient beings. These comprise the bodhisattva's spiritual practices completed on each of the ten stages of the Daṣabhūmika-sūtra.
The group of four pāramitās refers to an explanation of the perfections found in the Śūraṅgama (sāmadhi)-sūtra and includes permanent perfection—a perfection that is completely everlasting; bliss perfection—a perfection that is completely peaceful; material perfection—a perfection that has the nature of being completely substantive; and pure perfection—a perfection that has the nature of being wholesome. These four can be understood to comprise the four virtues of one who has attained nirvāṇa (the extinction of the cause of suffering).
The perfections of esoteric Buddhism are focused on Vairocana Buddha who is located at the center of the Vajradhātumaṇḍala. These postulate vajrāparamitā (diamond scepter perfection) in the East, ratna-pāramitā (jewel perfection) in the South, dharma-pāramitā (doctrine perfection) in the West, and kāma-pāramitā (desire perfection) in the North.
Aside from these, TheravĀda Buddhism, in texts such as Cariyapiṭaka, Buddhavaṃsa, and Dhammapadaṭṭhakathā, postulates the following ten perfections: dāna (charity), sīla (ethical behavior), nekkhamma (liberation), paññā (wisdom), viriya (endeavor or effort), khānti (patience), sacca (truth), adhiṭṭhāna (resolve), mettā (loving kindness), and upekkhā (equanimity).
Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sankrit Literature. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1932.
Dutt, Nalinaksha, ed. BodhisattvabhṢmiḥ. Patna, India: K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, 1978.
Kawamura, Leslie, ed. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1981.
Ogihara, Unrai, ed. Bodhisattva-bhṢmi: A Statement of Whole Course of the Bodhisattva. Tokyo: Sankibo Buddhist Book Store, 1971.
Leslie S. Kawamura