Helping others toward Nirvana. This is the goal of the Bodhisattva. Practicing the Six Paramitas allows the Bodhisattva to give the Dharma to others. The Six Paramitas are Generosity, Morality, Patience, Energy, Meditation, and Wisdom. Achieving these six perfections is not easy, but doing so is transformative. The translation of the Sanskrit word “Paramita” means “that which has reached the other shore.”
The Perfection of Generosity (Dana Paramita) is the giving of spiritual and material offerings to others without concern for receiving anything in return. Even more, this is the act of giving without regard for self or other. The Perfection of Morality (Shila Paramita) is the practice of the three limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path which relate specifically to conduct. The Perfection of Patience (Kshanti Paramita) allows the transformation, over time, of negative actions and thoughts into positive negative actions and thoughts. This is ability to bend without breaking while striving ever-onward for the benefit of all beings. The Perfection of Energy (Virya Paramita) requires the direction of focused effort toward the Bodhisattva goal. The Perfection of Meditation (Dhyana Paramita) is the application of concentration and mindfulness (two limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path) in service of unequivocally spreading compassion. The final perfection, the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajna Paramita) is a full understanding of the nature of emptiness. In this spirit, exposition of the Six Perfections is found scattered through the larger Prajnaparamita Sutras.1
Giving (Dāna): The Prajnaparamita Sutras distinguish two types of giving: material giving and the sharing of the Dharma.2 Giving without conception of a giver and a receiver is the truest form of the Dana Paramita.
Patience (Kshānti): The perfection of patience is noted as a way of putting a positive spin on the reality of suffering; by understanding and enduring suffering, one can oppose suffering rather than succumb to it.3
Morality (Shīla): Perfect speech, perfect action, and perfect livelihood: the three components of morality contained within the Eightfold Path.
Energy (Vīrya): The perfection of energy is the attacking, “with all one’s might,” both pleasure and hardship.4 The importance of energy cannot be overstated, in spite of its relatively undercooked role in Buddhist thought. Energy in its various forms and purposes is the most common concept in the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment.
Meditation (Dhyāna): The perfection of meditation is crucial to Buddhist thought and its development throughout time. The terms Ch’an and Zen are translations of Dhyana. Dhyana is the combination of Mindfulness, Concentration, and Effort.
Wisdom (Prajñā): This is the keystone of the Six Paramitas, just as it is of the Noble Eightfold Path. Wisdom is an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, the nature of change, and the non-existence of self (or the non-existence of all things, according to Mahayanists). Existence in these instances refers to self-nature.
The Flower Ornament Scripture identifies a further four more5 advanced paramitas: means, vows, power, and knowledge. Means refers to the skill of application and direction of enlightening efforts. Vows involve the commitment to behavioral modification. Powers refer to the mental skills acquired through the enlightening effort. Knowledge refers to the understanding of mystical truths.
1Edward Conze, 1975, 129-130, 143, 417-418, 549-550.
2Dale Wright, 2009, 18.
3Junjiro Takakusu, 1947, 22.
4Junjiro Takakusu, 1947, Ibid.
5Thomas Cleary, 1993, 1525.