The word parami, commonly translated as “perfection,” is used to refer to Buddhist ideals, such as generosity, patience, and wisdom. But its literal meaning tells us more about how Buddhists have viewed these virtues.

In Sanskrit and Pali the word para means something like “far, farther, and farthest” in both space and time, and includes such senses as “beyond,” “ultimate,” and “final.” Building on this is the superlative parama, meaning “most excellent” or “supreme.”

The related word pāra (with a long a) is applied particularly to both crossing a river to the opposite shore and to that other shore itself. In an image widely used in Buddhist tradition (there are a lot of rivers to cross when traveling in north India), one crosses over the flood of suffering and rebirth to reach the safety of the other shore, nirvana.

The word parami is abstracted from parama with the meaning of completeness or the highest state possible, hence “perfection.” This perfection is applied to the qualities needed for one to attain awakening. As the Buddhist tradition developed, the view emerged that one needs to cultivate and perfect a particular set of qualities—often over multiple lifetimes. These are the ten paramis: giving, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, lovingkindness, and equanimity.

This list of paramis does not appear in the early books of the Pali canon, but they occupy a prominent place in later texts assembled in the Khuddaka Nikaya, a miscellaneous collection of discourses included in the Sutta Pitaka. The Buddhavamsa (“Chronicles”) and Cariyapitaka (“Basket of conduct”) both describe how the Buddha, in his earlier lives as a bodhisattva, gradually developed each of the ten perfections before becoming eligible for awakening. The 547 Jataka stories, adapted from early folklore, are also part of the Khuddaka Nikaya; they chronicle these adventures in poignant and often amusing detail.

In Sanskrit literature the abstract noun paramita is favored and forms part of the title of the Mahayana’s foundational series of texts, the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) sutras. In these scriptures six perfections are listed, including five from the aformentioned list (giving, virtue, patience, energy, and wisdom), with concentration added. In some contexts the final member, wisdom, is augmented by four (skillful means, aspiration, spiritual power, and knowledge), which brings us back to ten. But most Mahayana texts emphasize six paramitas.

The Buddhist path is a way of perfecting human nature, both by eliminating its toxic imperfections and by gradually nurturing those inner qualities of heart and mind that can help us cross over the many difficulties we face to arrive safely on the further shore.

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