The six perfections, or “transcendental perfections” are found in both foundational texts such as the Pali Buddhavaṃsa and in Mahayana teachings. The prior lives of the Buddha, the Jataka tales, also describe the path of a Bodhisattva, or buddha-to-be, as one who engages in these practices.
According to the Tibetan etymology, the Sanskrit word pāramitā can be divided into the syllables pāra and mita. Pāra means “beyond”, or “the further bank or shore” and mita, “that which has arrived,” or ita, “that which goes.” In this interpretation, pāramitā means “that which has gone beyond,” or “transcendent.” The Tibetan translation parol tu chinpa reflects that understanding.
On the Mahayana path, these are considered to be the core trainings in the bodhichitta of application and are to be practiced in daily life situations as well as in meditation sessions. The Prajñapāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom sutras) and a number of other Mahayana texts list six perfections:
- Dāna pāramitā: generosity or giving (Tibetan, སྦྱིན་པ jinpa)
- Śīla pāramitā: ethics, virtue, morality, discipline, proper action or conduct (Tibetan ཚུལ་ཁྲིམས tsultrim)
- Kṣānti pāramitā: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance (Tibetan བཟོད་པ zöpa)
- Vīrya pāramitā: joyful diligence, vigour, effort (Tibetan བརྩོན་འགྲུས tsöndrü)
- Dhyāna pāramitā: one-pointed concentration, non-distraction, contemplation (Tibetan བསམ་གཏན samten)
- Prajñā pāramitā: wisdom, discernment, insight (Tibetan ཤེས་རབ sherab)
The first five perfections comprise the first of the two accumulations–that of merit. The sixth is the accumulation of wisdom.
The sixth paramita can also be divided into four, resulting in ten paramitas. In this system, the ten include:
- Upāyakauśala pāramitā: skillful means (Tibetan ཐབས་ལ་མཁས་པ་, tap la khepa)
- Bala pāramitā: strength or power (Tibetan སྟོབས་, top)
- Praṇidhāna pāramitā: aspiration (Tibetan སྨོན་ལམ་, mönlam)
- Jñāna pāramitā: primordial wisdom (Tibetan ཡེ་ཤེས་, yeshe)
In the following extract from an advice text written by the great Indian master Atisha, he describes the process of adopting the practice of the perfections rather than taking a mundane path aiming at temporary happiness.
It is futile to lose yourself to luxury and wealth. Instead, adorn yourself with the glory of giving.
It will bring beauty in this life and bliss in the next, so maintain a pure and constant discipline.
In these degenerate times aggression is on the rise, so don the armor of patience, free from aggression.
It is our laziness that keeps us here, so rekindle your efforts in practice like a blazing pyre.
Our lives run out in constant distraction, so now let us train in meditation.
Swayed by wrong views, we fail to realize the natural state, so let us examine the genuine nature of things.
Dear friends, here in the swamp of samsara there is no happiness, so let us journey to the dry shore of liberation.
Train correctly in the Guru’s instructions; dry up the ocean of samsara’s suffering.
Take these words to heart. They are words spoken sincerely and so are worthy of attention.Excerpt from Heart Treasure for the Warriors Who Long for Liberation, translated by Samye Translations.
If you do so, you will bring joy to me, and happiness to yourself and others too.
I humbly request you to take heed of these instructions that I, this foolish man, have given.