What are the paramitas (paramis)?

The paramitas (Sanskrit), or paramis (Pali), translated as “perfections” or “transcendent virtues,” are a collection of qualities Buddhists strive to cultivate. A popular teaching in many Buddhist traditions, the perfections are most commonly associated with bodhisattvas seeking to perfect themselves and become buddhas. 

Mahayana traditions, such as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, typically list six perfections:
1. Generosity (dana)
2. Morality (sila)
3. Patience (ksanti)
4. Energy (virya)
5. Meditation (dhyana/samadhi)
6. Wisdom (prajna)

In The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, the Buddha tells his disciple Ananda that the paramita of wisdom includes the other five perfections. The sixth paramita, prajnaparamita, or the perfection of wisdom, is sometimes considered the pinnacle of the bodhisattva path. 

The paramitas became linked to another path of development for bodhisattvas called bhumis (ground or land in Sanskrit). The ten bhumis, described in the Avatamsaka or Flower Garland Sutra, are lands through which a bodhisattva must travel to achieve awakening, which the Lankavatara Sutra calls the eleventh bhumi. Four perfections were added to the list to correspond with some of the ten bhumis:

  1. Skillful means (upaya)
  2. Resolve (pranidhana)
  3. Power (bala)
  4. Knowledge (jnana)

The paramitas’ importance to Mahayana Buddhism can hardly be overstated. Some Tibetan sources even divide the Mahayana into two paths or vehicles—the Mantrayana, which emphasizes the recitation of mantras, and the Paramitayana, which focuses on the perfections.

The bodhisattva ideal was also popular in non-Mahayana Buddhist traditions, such as the Theravada. The Jataka tales, which describe past lives of the bodhisattva as he prepared to become the Buddha, remain among the most popular pieces of Buddhist literature to this day. The Vessantara Jataka, depicting the bodhisattva’s final birth before he became the Buddha, is especially popular and important in Southeast Asia. 

Another set of perfections emerged in the Theravada along with the celebration of the Buddha’s previous lifetimes as a bodhisattva. Known by the Pali name paramis, the ten perfections on this list are taught today in Theravada and Vipassana communities. 

  1. Generosity (dana)
  2. Morality (sila)
  3. Renunciation (nekkhamma)
  4. Wisdom (panna)
  5. Energy (viriya)
  6. Patience (khanti)
  7. Truth (sacca)
  8. Determination (adhithanna)
  9. Lovingkindness (metta)
  10. Equanimity (upekkha)

Tricycle is more than a magazine

Gain access to the best in sprititual film, our growing collection of e-books, and monthly talks, plus our 25-year archive

Subscribe now