Treatise on the Paramis

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Treatise on the Paramis is a text by Dhammapala in which he explains the path of the bodhisattva by means of the ten paramis of the Pali tradition.

Bhikkhu Bodhi states:

The treatise draws upon various sources for its material, both Theravāda and Mahāyāna, and thus represents a perhaps unique instance of a classical style Theravāda work consciously borrowing from its northern cousin; in matters of philosophical doctrine, however, the work never deviates from the Theravāda perspective.[1]


Bhikkhu Bodhi states:

The work introduces itself as a treatise composed “for clansmen following the suttas who are zealously engaged in the practice of the vehicle to the great enlightenment, in order to improve their skillfulness in accumulating the requisites of enlightenment.”
Followers of the suttas (suttantikas) are specified probably because those who aspired to follow the bodhisattva course had to work selectively from various suttas to determine the practices appropriate for their aim, as the text itself illustrates in filling out its material. The mention of the “vehicle to the great enlightenment” (mahābodhiyāna, or possibly “great vehicle to enlightenment”) does not signify the historical Mahāyāna, but rather the greatness of the bodhisattva career in the loftiness of its goal and in its capacity to provide for the emancipation of a great number of beings.
The “requisites of enlightenment” are the pāramīs themselves, the main topic of the treatise. The word “pāramī” is derived from parama, “supreme,” and thus suggests the eminence of the qualities that 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 list of pāramīs in the Pāli tradition differs somewhat from the more familiar list given in Sanskrit works, which probably antedates the Mahāyāna and provided a ready set of categories for its use. Our author shows that the two lists can be correlated in section xii, and the coincidence of a number of items points to a central core already forming before the two traditions went their separate ways. The six pāramitās of the Sanskrit heritage are: giving, virtue, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. Later Mahāyāna texts add four more—resolution, skillful means, power, and knowledge—in order to co-ordinate on a one-to-one basis the list of perfections with the account of the ten stages of the bodhisattva’s ascent to Buddhahood. The Pāli works, including those composed before the rise of Mahāyāna, give a different though partly overlapping list of ten: giving, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving kindness, and equanimity. Unlike the Mahāyāna, the Theravāda never developed a theory of stages, though such may be implicit in the grading of the pāramīs into three degrees as basic, intermediate and ultimate (section xi).
The treatise draws upon various sources for its material, both Theravāda and Mahāyāna, and thus represents a perhaps unique instance of a classical style Theravāda work consciously borrowing from its northern cousin; in matters of philosophical doctrine, however, the work never deviates from the Theravāda perspective. The set of ten pāramīs itself comes from the Buddhavaṃsa, as does the discussion of the great aspiration (abhinīhāra) with its eight qualifications. All of this had become part of the standard Theravāda tradition by the time the work was composed and was easily absorbed. Other Pāli sources — the suttas, jātakas, later canonical works, the Visuddhimagga, etc. — have all contributed to the overall composition of the treatise. The basic methodology of the commentaries is evident in the analysis of the ten pāramīs by way of the fourfold defining device of characteristic, function, manifestation, and proximate cause (section v). The heritage of the oral traditions of various teachers in later Pāli scholasticism is seen in the different views expressed on the three grades of practice for each pāramī (section xi), on the correlation of the four foundations with the different stages of the bodhisattva’s career (section xii), and on the classification of time required for the completion of the pāramīs (section xiv). Perhaps the influence of another early school, the Sarvāstivāda, lies behind the dyadic treatment of the six pāramitās (section xii).
The main Mahāyāna work utilized by the author is the Bodhisattvabhūmi, the fifteenth chapter of the Yogācārabhūmi, a voluminous text of the Yogācāra school ascribed to Maitreyanātha, the teacher of Asaṅga. The Bodhisattvabhūmi provides the model for the four conditions of the great aspiration, the four causes, the traits of the great man adumbrating his future perfections, the characteristics of the good friend and the four powers. The originals, however, have all been divested of their specifically Mahāyāna features to make them fit in with the Theravāda perspective. The Bodhisattvabhūmi has also contributed to the sections on the practice of the pāramīs, particularly the first, on the four shackles to giving, and on the special accomplishments resulting from the pāramīs. Mahāyāna influence may further be discernible in the emphasis on compassion and skillful means, in the vows to benefit all beings, in the statement that the bodhisattva causes beings “to enter and reach maturity in the three vehicles,” etc.
On points of doctrine, as we have mentioned, the work remains well within the bounds of Theravāda orthodoxy. Its section on the perfection of wisdom has nothing more in common with the Prajñāpāramitā literature than the core of the Buddhist doctrine shared by all the schools. There is nothing about the identity of nibbāna and saṃsāra, the triple body of the Buddha, the suchness and sameness of all dhammas, mind-only, the provisional nature of the disciple and paccekabuddha vehicles, or any of the other ideas distinctive of the Mahāyāna. Even the mention of emptiness (suññatā) is restricted to the absence of a self or an ego-entity and is not carried through to the radical ontology of the Mahāyāna sūtras. The discussion of wisdom draws entirely upon the Pāli suttas and the Visuddhimagga, but only makes the stipulation that the bodhisattva must balance wisdom with compassion and skillful means and must postpone his entrance upon the supramundane path until his requisites of enlightenment are fully mature.
It should be noted that in the established Theravāda tradition the pāramīs are not regarded as peculiar to candidates for Buddhahood alone but are seen as practices that 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 he must cultivate the pāramīs and the length of time during which he must pursue them. The qualities themselves, however, are universal requisites for deliverance, which all must fulfill at least to a minimal degree to merit the fruits of the liberating path.[1]



  1. 1.0 1.1 Acariya Dhammapala 2005, "Introduction" by Bhikkhu Bodhi.