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The ‘Six Pāramitās’: Spiritual Friend of a Bodhisattva

Tara, Buddha and enlightened savior goddess. From Tumblr.

Like committing oneself to a vow, the p?ramit?-s (P?li: p?ram?) are another most important aspect constituting the bodhisattva path in the Mah?y?na tradition. A bodhisattva begins his journey by taking refuge in the triple gems, especially in the Buddha, and making an aspiration (pra?idh?na/adhimukti) of achieving the state of Buddha-hood himself in the future. From the time of taking the vow or aspiration until attaining Buddhahood, he undertakes the practice of fulfilling the six perfections.

His going for refuge and aspiring for supreme Buddhahood are very unique. Unlike others who take refuge in the Buddha just to receive the teachings which, if rightly practiced, would bring about liberation from sa?s?ra, a bodhisattva takes refuge in the Buddha with the aspiration that he too must attain the body of the Buddha ornamented with the thirty two marks of the Great Man (1). This volition in the form of a resolution is so strong karmically that it remains as a force in him throughout his sa?s?ric journey until the attainment of Buddhahood. This force in Sarv?stiv?da is called the avijñ?pti-r?pa or unmanifested-matter. Thus, what in fact propels a bodhisattva to pursue the path to Buddha-hood, the practice of six perfections, is this aspiration or deep resolution (adhi??h?na).

The six p?ramit?-s that a bodhisattva undertakes as a practice in his journey towards Buddha-hood are: 1) giving (d?na), 2) ethical alignment (??la), 3) patience (k??nti), 4) vigour (v?rya), 5) meditation (dhy?na) and 6) wisdom (prajñ?). Before defining the six perfections it is important to learn why they are actually called perfections or p?ramit?s. What are their characteristics and how did they come to be developed?

The term ‘p?ramit?’ is often rendered in English as ‘perfection’. Etymologically it is derived from ‘parama’ meaning ‘supreme’ or ‘highest’. It means whatever perfection (act of giving etc.) a bodhisattva should cultivate to reach the state of Buddhahood, should be done for a long period of time (parame?a k?lena) until he is perfected which eventually would yield the highest fruit (parama? phalam) (2). Thus they are called p?ramit?. ?c?riya Dhammap?la, however, holds a slightly different view. He says, the bodhisattvas by way of their distinguished qualities (of giving, virtue etc.) are supreme and the highest (parama) of beings. Activities of the bodhisattvas, since they excel in them, are called p?ram? (3).

However, there is another interpretation that came to be popularized especially in the Chinese and the Tibetan traditions. Here the term is explained as consisting of ‘p?ra’ (other [shore]) + √i (to go) + ta (past participle suffix), and hence the meaning is ‘gone to the other shore’. This interpretation is based on the idea that with the perfection of wisdom (prajñ?-p?ramit?) a bodhisattva, crossing over the river-like sa?s?ra, reaches to the other shore, that is, nirv?na.

P?ramit? as a bodhisattva path had developed over time. This is clear from the early Buddhist discourses where not a single mention of the term ‘p?ram?’ is found. The early Buddhist ideal which everyone was expected to strive for was the attainment of arahanthood. The path leading to that ideal was the noble eightfold path (?riya-a??ha?gika-magga) also called the three fold training (tisso-sikkh?). Proponents of the bodhisattva ideal probably were not happy with the arahant ideal as it was less altruistic compared to that of the Buddha. Therefore looking at the records in the scriptures of the previous lives and struggles of the Buddha, they mapped out a path leading to the attainment of Buddhahood.

That the p?ramit? idea was a later development is also clear from the different sets of categories found in scriptures of different schools. For example the Therav?da tradition speaks of ten p?rami-s, Sarv?stiv?da has four and Mah?y?na though initially mentioning six, later added four more to make it ten. However, as ?c?riya Dhammap?la rightly remarks, they correlate and coincide with the basic set of six (or even four) pointing to a central core (4). A close look into the six p?ramit?-s reveals that they have developed based on the earlier teachings on the threefold training, fivefold spiritual faculties, et cetera.

So far we have discussed the meaning, significance and development of the concept of p?ramit?. Now we shall look into the vital role that the six p?ramit?-s play in achieving the final goal of a bodhisattva, i.e. the supreme Buddhahood.

Of the six p?ramit?-s, giving (d?na) represents the altruistic dimension of the bodhisattva’s spiritual practice. It is the external manifestation of his unconditional love (maitri) and compassion (karu??). In his practice of giving a bodhisattva should provide gifts to all suppliants (arth?, y?caka) irrespective of caste, color, and region and so on. The worthiest recipient, however, of all is mentioned to be the Buddha (5). About the object of giving, a bodhisattva should give all that he possesses. This includes his wealth, body parts, wife and children and merit (pu?ya). He should not give things that are in any way harmful to the receiver. Also, he should not provide a means of gratifying their sensual appetites and passions (rati-kr???-vastu). He should give gifts with a happy and joyful heart, without reluctance and from any personal selfish desire. More importantly in his act of giving, a bodhisattva does not apperceive the giver, gift and the receiver as independent entities.

??la-p?ramit? is the second of the six p?ramit?-s. It represents the aspect of self-practice as it is related to the act of self purification and restraint. A bodhisattva in his practice of ??la-p?ramit? should act in body, speech and mind without being influenced by the three unwholesome roots (lobhadve?a and moha). It is said that “These three dire causes of all evil are like a devastating fire. A Bodhisattva frees himself from them in the third or fifth bh?mi” (6). Being freed from the unwholesome roots of evil he performs ten wholesome or meritorious actions (dasa-ku?ala-karma-path??). However, throughout his practice of ??la-p?ramit? a bodhisattva is constantly guided by hr? (moral shame) and ?tma-lajj?/apatrap?, P?li: ottappa, (moral dread).

K??nti, the third p?ramit?, represents the passive aspect or femininity of the practice. Though it is generally described as mere forbearance or tolerance because it stands against krodha (anger), dve?a (hatred), pratigha (repugnance) and vy?p?da (malice). In its true sense it is the practice of gentle endurance and more importantly acceptance of the truth.  Hence a bodhisattva in his practice of k??nti is always receptive in every situation.

Perfection of v?rya or vigour on the contrary represents the active aspect or masculinity of the practice. It is such an important p?ramit? that nothing could be achieved without its practice. “Enlightenment entirely depends on v?rya; where there is v?rya, there is bodhi.” It is said to be “the great energy or vigour of the mind in the accumulation of meritorious principles” (cittasy?tyuts?ha? ku?ala-dharma-sa?graha) (7). With v?rya a bodhisattva strives so hard to overcome all evils (p?pa) and defilements (kle?a) and replace them with good and skillful qualities (ku?ala-dharma).

Dhy?na, the fifth p?ramit? represents the inner aspect of the practice as it is mainly concerned with the internal psychological phenomena of the practitioner (yogi). It is the basis for the arising of prajñ?Dhy?na is the meditation of concentration or one-pointedness without any distractions in the mind. Bodhisattvabh?mi defines it as “concentration and stability or fixity of the mind” (cittaik?graya? citta-sthiti?) (8). For the arising of prajñ? a bodhisattva should go through different stages of the practice of dhy?na until he is perfected in it. In the absolute one-pointedness of the mind there is not the slightest distraction. It is the state of complete serenity. In such a mind then appears the knowledge (or prajñ?) concerning the suchness of all things.

Prajñ? which is the sixth and last p?ramit? is the summum bonum of Mah?y?na Buddhism. It represents the external dimension of the bodhisattva’s attainment of enlightenment. How important it is in the entire Buddhist spiritual path is clear from its mention in different lists of spiritual training, e.g.: the five powers, the five spiritual faculties, the sevenfold noble treasure (?riya-dhana?), threefold training etc. Prajñ?-p?ramit? is said to be the mother of all Buddha’s and bodhisattvas. It is greater than all the other p?ramit?s, as the moon is greater than the stars. Prajñ?subsumes all the other p?ramit?s. The A??as?hasrik? Prajñ?p?ramit? S?tra in this regard reads;

“Wisdom controls him who gives gifts,

And also morality, patience, vigour and concentration.

She takes hold of the wholesome dharmas so that they may not be lost.

She alone is also the one who reveals all dharmas” (9)

In the prajñ?-p?ramit?literature, prajñ? is discussed as the knowledge of emptiness of all dharma-s. In the prajñ?-p?ramit?-h?daya-s?tra, for example, the bodhisattva Avalokite?vara says: “??riputra, form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form, form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form. What is form is emptiness and what is emptiness is form” – (iha ??riputra r?pa???nyat???nyataiva r?pa? | r?p?? na p?thak ??nyat???nyat?y? na p?thak r?pa? | yadr?pa? s???nyat?, y???nyat? tadr?pam). The other aggregates too are explained in the same manner. In the vajracchedika-prajñ?-p?ramit? text prajñ? is defined as the realization of emptiness of all things. “It declares that there are no individuals, no qualities, no ideas, no doctrine, no beings to be delivered, no production or destruction, no bodhisattva, no Buddha and no bodhi.” (10) Thus though a bodhisattva practices six p?ramit?s for a long period of time with the desire of attaining the supreme bodhi, he does so with the three-fold purity (trima??ala-pari?uddhi). For example, while practicing d?na-p?ramit? he does not perceive himself as a giver nor does he perceive gifts, nor the receivers as an ontologically independent entity. In the same way he maintains the three-fold purity with regard to the other p?ramit?s too. He is able to do that because he possesses the knowledge of the highest truth (param?rtha-jñ?na<

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