The etymology of the Sanskrit and Pāli term pāramitā was a contested issue in classical India. One representation considered that the term was derived from pāram, “other (side),” plus the past participle ita, “gone.” This derivation is later preserved in the standard Tibetan translation pha-rol-tu phyin-pa, “gone to the other shore,” implying that such virtues lead to the blissful shore of nirvāṇa and away from the side of saṃsāra, the conditioned world of repeated rebirth and redeath. Other interpretations advocated that this etymology was misguided, and derived pāramitā from the term parama, “excellent, supreme.” The noun pāramitā is translated in early Chinese through “double translation” composed by tu wu-chi, meaning “crossed over” (tu) plus “limitless” (wu-chi), which brings together both of the traditional etymologies.
The conception of the perfections as a specific set of practices is not found in the earliest layers of Buddhist literature. Rather, the perfections as a set of practices developed sometime before the common era as an alternative group of spiritual practices in conjunction with revised notions of buddhahood as well as newly considered notions of what constitutes the path leading to buddhahood. The lists of perfections varied according to the genre of literature in which they appeared. What practices constituted the varied lists of perfections and how the perfections were conceived differed not only among groups but also among scholarly authors. The perfections appear in Buddhist literature as a group in varying lists, but the lists of perfections are notoriously unfixed, with six and ten perfections being the most common. The Theravāda tradition recognizes ten, although only eight are listed in the Buddhāpadāna and seven in the Cariyāpiṭaka. The ten perfections in the Theravāda tradition are (1) generosity (dāna), (2) morality (sīla), (3) renunciation (nekhamma), (4) insight (pañña), (5) energy (viriya), (6) patience (khanti), (7) truthfulness (sacca), (8) resolution (adhiṭṭhāna), (9) loving-kindness (metta), and (10) equanimity (upekkhā). This list differs from the list of ten perfections found in Buddhist Sanskrit literature. A set of six perfections became common among some genres of mainstream Buddhist literature and developed into a standard list in a number of Mahāyāna sūtras. However, other lists of four, five, or seven perfections also occurred. In time, a set of six perfections became standard in Mahāyāna sūtras. The six are (1) generosity (dāna), (2) morality (śīla), (3) patience (kṣānti), (4) vigor (vīrya), (5) concentration (dhyāna), and (6) wisdom (prajñā). This list was expanded to complement the ten stages (bhūmi) traversed by a bodhisattva in the course leading to full buddhahood. The additional perfections were (7) skill-in-means (upāya-kauśalya), (8) resolution (praṇidhāna), (9) strength (bala), and (10) knowledge (jñāna). The manner in which the perfections were understood in different Buddhist cultures, such as in East Asia, Tibet, or Southeast Asia, was dependent on the Buddhist literature that was accessible or acceptable to the particular culture and the interpretative attention given to that literature.
Keywords: perfection; supremacy; mastery; excellence; virtues; transcendental virtues; six perfections; bodhisattva practice
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