What Are The 6 Perfections of Buddhism?

Category: Buddhist Path | Recent Meditation Posts

Image of a lake within snow mountains - metaphorically the 6 paramitas of Buddhism

The Six Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism

Typically translated as six perfections, Buddhism’s six paramitas describe the transcendent qualities of a bodhisattva, one who has taken a vow to serve others. In other words, these are the characteristics enlightened beings have perfected. For us mere humans, just practicing these ideals moves us in the direction of selflessness, and self-realization.

Generally we hear the word ‘perfection’ and we want to run in the opposite direction. More often than not, our perfectionism is the cause of our suffering, not the way to freedom. But the six perfections of Buddhism can indeed liberate us from our discomfort and pain. To understand how, we take a closer look at the role of these six qualities along the path to enlightenment.

The six paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism give us a clear view of what living as a bodhisattva might really look like. We hold them up as perfections not to measure ourselves against them, but as an inspirational reminder of what we practice in Mahayana Buddhism, and why.

The Sanskrit word paramita can be translated as ‘that which goes to the far shore.’ These far-reaching qualities are transcendent in that they are the attitudes and actions that help carry us beyond our present confusion to the actualization of wisdom and compassion.

If we truly want to learn and grow and heal ourselves to more effectively help others, the path of the six perfections will help us to get out of our own way and make it happen.

Practicing The Six Perfections Of Mahayana Buddhism

Of the six transcendent perfections, the first four describe skillful actions we can practice, while the last two relate more to the cultivation of wisdom. We might also view the first five as means of cultivating merit, while the last pertains to wisdom. The six perfections, and how to practice them, are as follows.

1. Giving (Dāna)

Mahayana Buddhism’s six paramitas begin with generosity, the antidote to our greed and attachment. Giving is one of the most effective means we have for softening our attachments around ‘me and mine.’ Generosity thus sets the foundation for selflessness and the skillful practice of subsequent perfections.

To practice generosity, we can cultivate a generous attitude, give material objects, or give our own skills and time. We can freely share the dharma and the lessons we’ve learned that might help ease the suffering of others.

As we move toward the perfection of giving, we become increasingly capable of giving joyfully. We give without regret and without any expectation of getting something in return.

2. Ethical Self-Discipline (Śīla)

The late Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes transcendent discipline as naturally arising from transcendent generosity. He says, “With discipline, you do not get tied up in your generosity. You don’t have any hangover from giving away too much, and you don’t develop any heroism from giving so much away.”

To be morally disciplined is to avoid doing harm. When practiced with intention, non-harming leads to the accumulation of merit. When practiced with an understanding of karma and the connection between self and other, it can be an act of wisdom.

3. Patience (Kṣānti)

Patience is the antidote to our anger and aggression, a very human mental affliction which puts us at odds with non-harming. Thus patience is a bi-product of moral self-discipline, but also, describes a capacity for tolerance, steadfastness or endurance.

When we’re patient we’re less reactive. To practice patience is to accept that things don’t always go our way, that there’s a truth to the all-pervasive existence of suffering. In this acceptance lies an opportunity to stand rooted in kindness and compassion for ourselves and all others, no matter the tumultuousness of the moment.

4. Joyful Effort (Vīrya)

With patience, habitual reactivity begins to slow as does our everyday hurried sense of urgency. We begin to act with greater presence, and yes, even joy. Joy is the great motivator. When we meditate and apply ourselves to our practice with joy, we’re better able to overcome laziness.

To practice with joyful effort, it helps to remember your why. The cultivation of ethics, meditation and wisdom is not something we do because we’re told or because there’s a prize waiting at the end. These practices can improve our lives here and now, and by extension, improve the lives of everyone.

If we apply ourselves to meditation with joyful effort, we can develop meditative concentration. This stability of mind sets the foundation for insight and wisdom. This same stability also keeps us grounded, focused, and emotionally balanced in everyday life.

The practice of mental stability begins with mindfulness meditation, but we can practice freedom from distraction in other ways too. We can put down our smartphones, mindfully listen, pause before responding, and finish each task we have started.

Wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) is both the result of practicing the previous paramitas and the impulse that drives us to practice. When we are wise, we see things as they are. We can perfectly discern all knowable things. We have reached the far shore.

Wisdom allows the bodhisattva to respond perfectly to the suffering of others. There is no indecision, no indecisiveness. The bodhisattva leaps to compassionate action when needed and does the right thing, knowing what will be of the greatest benefit. We can use the 7-point mind training slogans to stop our minds and make that bodhisattva leap on the spot.

As with the other paramitas, listening to our intuition is not something we should wait to practice. With the intent to help others (versus ourselves) and to do no harm, with patience, tirelessness and a steady mental state, we too can and should step forward in response to suffering. We may not always get it right, but it is practice that makes perfect.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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