The 6 Paramitas (and the 10 Paramis)
The six paramitas and ten paramis are qualities in Buddhism that can lead us to awakening. The lists differ between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, but the premise remains the same. With the cultivation of the qualities on the list, you will achieve full awakening, or nirvana.
The lists differ slightly. In Mahayana schools you will find six perfections.
The Six Paramitas
In Theravada schools, the list is a bit longer, including a few additional qualities.
The Ten Paramis
The teaching of the perfections is much more prevalent in Mahayana schools of Buddhism, but this is a Buddhist teaching that can be found across traditions. We’re going to focus on the full list of ten here.
The first of the paramitas is dana, or generosity. Although we may think of money in relation to generosity, there are actually many ways we can cultivate this quality. Dana is the action of giving, whether it is our money, resources, food, time, or attention. As with all of the paramis, it is a practice for us to investigate ourselves.
As we grow in our generosity, we loosen the grips of greed and clinging. The perfection of generosity allows us to experience joy and love without clinging, and make space for the difficult and painful times. With generosity, we create an openness to experience free from craving.
The second perfection is sila, which may be understood as virtue, morality, or ethics. In Buddhism, ethics may be most simply understood as living in a way that does not cause harm to others. This includes following the five precepts, living with both internal and external mindfulness, and taking care of how our actions impact our own wellbeing.
With proper moral conduct, we are given quite a few benefits. We don’t have to live in regret or worry in our daily lives. We also become more effective in our meditation practice. Wholesome ethics help us build concentration in practice, as the mind is not wandering away to harms we have caused. Buddhist ethics are often believed to be training rules, and not strict laws for laypeople. We can use the teachings of virtue as a framework for investigating our actions.
The third of 10 paramitas is nekkhama, or renunciation. Renunciation is not just about giving away our things and moving to a monastery. Instead, we are to work on our relationship to things, people, and experiences. We don’t just get rid of things while still craving them; we practice letting go mentally and lessening our attachment.
With renunciation, we are able to take things as they come and leave them when they go. This is another perfection that can help us with craving and clinging, one of the three poisons. Renunciation is a liberating quality that allows us to see we have and are enough as is.
Panna, or wisdom, is the fourth parami and sixth paramita. Panna is simply seeing things as they are, not as we are conditioned to see them. There is a section of the Eightfold Path on wisdom, including Wise View and Wise Intention. Wisdom also includes seeing the Four Noble Truths clearly in our lives.
The perfection of discerning wisdom allows us to see clearly in practice and life. As we grow to see experience clearly, we work with ignorance or delusion. This leads to less suffering, less clinging, less aversion, and more freedom. Like other qualities on the list, wisdom is inter-related with other qualities like ethics, generosity, and equanimity.
Energy, or virya, is found on both lists of perfections. It is sometimes translated as diligence or effort, but the idea is simple: we put forth energy to cultivate wholesome qualities. This means we meditate, recognize when we are causing harm and learn to stop taking that action, and recognize when we are cultivating wholesome qualities in order to continue our growth.
With energy and diligence, we continue practicing without fear or hesitation. Whether our practice is pleasant and easy or difficult and a strain, we continue to orient ourselves toward liberation. This perfection is about the intention and actions, not the end result.
Khanti is a tough word to translate. It is often called patience, tolerance, forgiveness, or acceptance. Whatever word we use to describe khanti, it comes down to the same quality. The paramita of khanti is the patient acceptance of experience as it arises and passes. Similar to equanimity, khanti includes a drive to continue practicing. When the hardships arise, we continue to use our energy to practice and aren’t as impacted in our journey.
Khanti gives us some resilience. We have all had the experience of something knocking us off our game. With patience, we are able to continue moving toward growth when the difficulties arise. We turn toward forgiveness and are able to work with the pain. One of the translations of khanti is to be “able to withstand,” pointing toward the resiliency that comes from this parami.
The perfection of sacca is often called truthfulness in English, but I like the word honesty a bit more. Sacca isn’t just about not lying. We also must not omit truths. Furthermore, we are to be honest with ourselves. This doesn’t mean we are brutally and harmfully honest to others, but we do practice a wise practice of honesty.
Honesty helps us in many ways. With others, we are able to build more wholesome relationships. We don’t have anything to hide. This is a less energy-intensive way to live mentally. Internally, we practice honesty with ourselves. This goes hand-in-hand with panna, as we see clearly and don’t deny our own experience.
Resolve, or adhitthana, is the perfection that helps us stay determined. The perfection of resolve is what drives us to practice and grow. Closely related to Wise Effort and the paramitas of energy and khanti, resolve is the continued movement toward liberation. It’s important to note that we must practice the Middle Way, neither being lazy with the path nor burning ourselves out.
Cultivating resolve gives us drive to continue. We all naturally have some resolve. We want to be happier, develop insight, and experience less stress. We need to be mindful of this, recognizing that we have a choice in how we move toward freedom. Whether we are happy and excited or sad and fearful, we continue to dedicate ourselves to the dharma.
Loving-kindness, or metta, is also one of the four heavenly abodes in Buddhism. Loving-kindness is the quality of mind and heart that care for the wellbeing of others and ourselves completely. This perfection helps us see the interdependence of all beings, respond with gentleness, and care for the welfare of all.
We can work with this perfection in loving kindness meditation, dedicating effort and energy to opening the heart. It takes time, but we grow to see the humanity of all beings and care for their happiness and suffering deeply.
Finally, there is upekkha, or equanimity. Also one of the four brahma-viharas, equanimity is a spaciousness that allows things to arise and pass without knocking us so far off balance. We see what is happening clearly, but don’t become so attached or dependent upon what is arising and passing.
Equanimity is found on many Buddhist lists, and is one of the highest qualities we can cultivate. This perfection allows us to see clearly as we aren’t so entangled in experience. Things can come and go, and we see them clearly without being swayed into defeat or pride.
Together, these ten perfections (or six paramis) serve to help us awaken. They are practices that we take on. Although they are called perfections, the teaching is not that we should be absolutely perfect with them immediately. Instead, we work to grow these qualities within ourselves until they are indeed perfected. It takes time, diligence, patience, and continued work.
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