The six Pāramitās

The six pāramitās are essentially a set of virtues or practices that a Buddhist should follow in order to progress towards awakening. They are mentioned repeatedly in major Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus sutra or the Vimalakirti sutra. The pāramitās guide bodhisattvas - mythical Buddhist protectors who have vowed to become Buddhas and to save all beings - as they live through many, many cycles of birth and death. On the way they progressively refine the virtues to ever higher degrees of perfection.

The unknown authors of the Mahayana sutras most commonly refer to six pāramitās (Williams 1989):
  • Dāna (giving)
  • Śīla (morality)
  • Kṣānti (patience)
  • Vīrya (effort)
  • Dhyāna (meditative concentration)
  • Prajñā (wisdom)
As a programme of recommended practices, the pāramitās are an alternative to the famous eightfold path that Buddha Shakyamuni has revealed in his first teaching following his awakening (The Buddhist Society 2019). So why are there two different paths in Buddhism? A list of ten pāramitās can already be found in the Pali Canon, comprising the canonical texts of the Theravada tradition. But the pāramitās are assumed to be somewhat younger than the eightfold path as they are mentioned in a more recent section of the canon. One theory suggests that the pāramitās became necessary as early Buddhist began to create an elaborate system of the legendary previous lives of Buddha Shakyamuni before his historical enlightenment in the 4th or 5th century BCE in North India. In their view the Buddha could not have reached enlightenment without slowly progressing through the various stages of bodhisattva-hood in hundreds of previous existences. But how did he do it without the benefit of the eightfold path that was only revealed after his awakening? An alternative system was needed. And this is where some scholars see the origin of the pāramitās (Wikipedia - pāramitā.)

Although I call them “virtues”, “pāramitā” literally means either “perfection” or “that which has reached the other shore” (Wikipedia - pāramitā.) Both expressions are legitimate translations of the Sanskrit word. “That which has reached the other shore” relates to the powerful Buddhist metaphor according to which the way seeker has to cross a dangerous expanse of water (samsara) to reach the safe shore of nirvana. Pāramitā as “perfection” hints at a special relationship between the sixth pāramitā - wisdom - and the other pāramitās. The Mahayana sutras assign a leading role to prajna pāramitā over the other five virtues. Prajna is wisdom that intuitively sees the true nature of all phaenomena. According to the Theravada tradition and other non-Mahayana schools there is a fixed number of ultimate realities, called “dharmas”. The literature that addresses these ultimate realities is called Abhidharma. The Theravada Abhidharma specifies 82 physical and mental dharmas such as water, earth, volition or consciousness (Williams 1989, p. 15.) Wisdom or prajna in the Theravada sense is the ability to see these ultimate realities behind all worldly phaenomena. This allows the follower of the Theravada way to deconstruct the objects of her attachments and thus end the cycle of painful rebirth. For the authors of the Mahayana sutras this analysis did not go far enough. They saw all phaenomena - including the dharmas as described in the Abhidharma - as void of inherent or ultimate existence. All experienced objects are ultimately “empty” or “śūnya” in the Mahayana view. Going beyond the analysis of dharmas as described in the Abhidharma is what turns prajna into prajna pāramitā - the “perfection of wisdom” (Williams 1989, p. 42-44.) Note however that prajna pāramitā is not a rejection of the Abhidharma-thinking as such, but rather an extension of it.

How then are the other five virtues (giving, morality, patience, effort and mediation) turned into perfections of virtues? By seeing them with the eye of prajna pāramitā - the wisdom that sees the emptiness of all phaenomena of all inherent existence. Giving becomes the perfection of giving (dana pāramitā) when the act happens without a notion of somebody who gives, who receives or an object that is given. Practicing giving in such a way it becomes an act of true selflessness. When we give we don’t expect anything in return. When we receive we don’t become obliged to a patronising benefactor. And when we see the gift as empty we will not be attached to it. Dana pāramitā is not limited to material gifts. Time, attention, helpful acts and solidarity are also worthy offerings. For Roland Yuno Rech giving really is the first of the pāramitās because it allows us to overcome greed and selfishness (Rech 2006). In this sense giving also is the basis for all the other perfections.

The second perfection - śīla pāramitā or morality - is usually presented as a summary of a number of Buddhist precepts. The individual precepts vary according to the tradition and the type of person they apply to. There are different sets for monks and nuns, laypeople and bodhisattvas (Sotoshu - precepts). The first five precepts however are the same for all Buddhists in all traditions:
  • To abstain from killing
  • To abstain from stealing
  • To abstain from sexual misconduct
  • To abstain from lying
  • To abstain from mind clouding intoxication
(Conze 1959, p. 70.)

The various precepts merit a discussion by themselves. Here it is enough to say that they sum up what it means to lead an ethical life based on kindness and respect for fellow human beings, non-human life and the whole natural environment. Seeing morality under the aspect of ultimate emptiness - prajna pāramitā - protects us against developing a sense of pride and ethical superiority when following the precepts too rigidly. Śīla pāramitā - the perfection of morality - is always guided by kindness towards others and ourselves (Rech 2006.)

Kṣānti (patience), vīrya (effort) and dhyāna (meditative concentration) also become their respective perfections when practiced without a notion of self and others. Kṣānti pāramitā means not to lose one’s temper and to endure adversity on the Buddhist way and in daily life. Vīrya pāramitā requires us to put energy and dedication into everything we do without expecting anything from it. And for a follower of the Zen way, dhyāna pāramitā means to practice zazen without any notion of anybody meditating.

Summary of a teaching delivered at the Caledonian Road dojo on 28 December 2019.



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