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A bodhisattva benefitting sentient beings. Palm leaf manuscript. Nalanda, Bihar, India

Pāramitā (P. pāramī [alt. pāramitā]; T. pha rol tu phyin pa ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་; C. boluomi; J. haramitsu; K. paramil 波羅蜜) is commonly translated as "perfection," "transcendental perfection," etc.

In the context of the path of the bodhisattva, the paramitas represent qualites that the bodhisattva strives to perfect in order to purify karma and kleshas and develop bodhicitta to the highest degree possible.

The Sanskrit tradition defines a set of six paramitas (which is expanded to ten paramitas in the context of the five paths).

The Pali tradition presents a distinct, yet similar, set of ten paramitas (paramis).


Contemporary scholar Donald Lopez states:

The term pāramitā, commonly translated as "perfection," has two etymologies. The first derives 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").[1]

Sanskrit tradition

The Sanskrit Mahayana point of view is the basic orientation of East Asian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

Six paramitas

Within the Sanskrit tradition, the path of a bodhisattva is described in terms of six paramitas:

  1. Dana paramita: to cultivate the attitude of giving
  2. Śīla paramita : refraining from harm
  3. Kshanti paramita: the ability not to be perturbed by anything
  4. Virya paramita : to find joy in what is virtuous, positive or wholesome
  5. Dhyāna paramita : not to be distracted
  6. Prajnaparamita : the perfect discrimination of phenomena

Note that this list is also mentioned by the Theravāda commentator Dhammapala, who says it is equivalent to the list of ten paramitas.[2]

Ten paramitas

In the context of the teachings on the ten bhumis, a list of ten paramitas is enumerated, in which the last four paramites are identified as aspects of the paramita of wisdom. In this scheme, four addtional paramitas are added to the list of six paramitas (described above). The four additional paramitas are:

7. Upāya pāramitā: skillful means
8. Bala pāramitā: spiritual power
9. Praṇidhāna pāramitā: vow, resolution, aspiration, determination
10. Jñāna pāramitā: knowledge

Transcendent action

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche translates "pāramitā as "transcendent action":

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.[3]

In Vajrayana

According to the perspective the Vajrayana path of Tibetan Buddhism, Mahayana practitioners can choose between two practice paths:

  • the path of the paramitas (Sanskrit: pāramitā-yāna) or
  • the path of tantra (Sanskrit: tantra-yāna), which is the Vajrayāna.

Pali tradition

Ten paramis

In the Pali tradition, the path of the bodhisattvas is described in terms of ten paramis (Pali):

  1. Dāna pāramī : generosity, giving of oneself
  2. Sila pāramī : virtue, morality, proper conduct
  3. Nekkhamma pāramī : renunciation
  4. Paññā pāramī : transcendental wisdom, insight
  5. Viriya (also spelled vīriya) pāramī : energy, diligence, vigour, effort
  6. Khanti pāramī : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
  7. Sacca pāramī : truthfulness, honesty
  8. Adhiṭṭhāna (adhitthana) pāramī : determination, resolution
  9. Mettā pāramī : loving-kindness
  10. Upekkhā (also spelled upekhā) pāramī : equanimity, serenity

Two of the above paramis, metta and upekkha also comprise two of the "four immeasurables" (brahmavihāra).

Within Pali texts

Teachings on pāramitās can be found within the texts of the Pali Canon (Jātaka, Apadāna, Buddhavaṃsa, Cariyāpiṭaka) and it's commentaries.[4][5] Note that 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).[6]

The path of the bodhisattva

Bhikkhu Bodhi (2005) suggests 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 back-story 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.[7]

Usage of terms "'parami" and "paramita"

While, technically, pāramī and pāramitā are both Pāli, the Pāli literature makes far greater reference to pāramī. Bikkhu Bodhi 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."[7]


  1. 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 [1]
  2. The passage is translated in Bodhi (1978), p. 314.
  3. 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.
  4. "[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
  5. Regarding the Cariyāpiṭaka, Horner (2000), Cariyāpiṭaka section, p. vi, writes that it is "[c]onsidered to be post-Asokan...."
  6. "[the Theravādins’] early literature did not refer to the pāramitās." Nalinaksha Dutt (1978) Buddhist Sects in India. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (Delhi), 2nd Edition: 228
  7. 7.0 7.1 Bodhi (2005). (Converted the document's original use of the Velthuis convention to Pāli diacritics.)


External links

Pali tradition

Sanskrit tradition

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