The Ten Perfections of Theravada Buddhism

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The Ten Perfections of Theravada BuddhismIn Buddhism, there are several lists of "perfections" (parami, Pali; paramita, Sanskrit). These various lists are of qualities that lead to buddhahood if practiced diligently and to perfection. Many of the lists include ten or six perfections, also lists that include seven or eight perfections are also found.

The following list of ten paramis comes from early Buddhism and is associated with the Theravada school. These ten paramis are presented several times in the Jataka Tales, as well as in the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Tipitika. They are listed in a deliberate order, with one quality leading to the next.

Perfection of Giving (Dana)

When giving, or generosity, is perfected, it is selfless. There is no measure of gaining or losing. There are no strings attached and no expectations of thanks or reciprocation. The giving is gratifying in and of itself, and there is no hint of reluctance or loss to the act of giving.

Giving in this unencumbered way loosens the grip of greed and helps to develop non-attachment. Such giving also develops virtue and leads naturally to the next perfection, morality.

Perfection of Morality (Sila)

Although it is said that moral behavior flows naturally from releasing selfish desires, it's also the case that releasing selfish desires flows naturally from moral behavior.

In much of Asia, the most basic Buddhist practices for laypeople are giving alms to monastics and practicing the Precepts. The Precepts are not a list of arbitrary rules so much as they are principles to apply to one's life, in order to live harmoniously with others.

Appreciation of the values of giving and living in harmony with others leads to the next perfection, renunciation.

Perfection of Renunciation (Nekkhamma)

Renunciation in Buddhism can be understood as letting go of whatever binds us to suffering and ignorance. Although this sounds simple, it is easier said than done, because those things that bind us are the very things we mistakenly think we must in order to be happy.

The Buddha taught that genuine renunciation requires thoroughly perceiving how we make ourselves unhappy by grasping and greediness. When we do, renunciation naturally follows, and it is a positive and liberating act, not a punishment.

Renunciation is said to be perfected by wisdom, which is the next parami.

The Perfection of Discerning Wisdom (Panna)

Wisdom in this case means seeing the true nature of the phenomenal world--the inherent emptiness and impermanence of all things. Wisdom also entails a deep insight into the Four Noble Truths--the truth of suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path toward cessation.

Wisdom is perfected by the next parami--energy.

Perfection of Energy (Virya)

Energy, virya, refers to walking the spiritual path with the fearlessness and determination of a warrior. It means following the path with diligence and steadfast interest in spite of all obstacles. Such fearlessness follows naturally from the perfection of wisdom.

The perfection and channeling of energy and effort help bring about patience.

Perfection of Patience (Khanti)

Having developed the energy and fearlessness of a warrior, we can now develop patience, or khanti. Khanti means "unaffected by" or "able to withstand." It could be translated as tolerance, endurance and composure, as well as patience or forbearance. To practice the parami of patience is to accept all that happens with equanimity and an understanding that whatever happens, it is a part of the spiritual path. Khanti helps us endure the hardships of our own lives, as well as the suffering created by others, even when we try to help them.

Perfection of Truthfulness

Having developed patience and forbearance, we are better able to speak the truth even when people don't want to hear it. Truthfulness manifests excellence and honesty and helps develop determination.

It also means acknowledging the truth to ourselves, and it goes hand-in-hand with the development of discerning wisdom.

Perfection of Determination (Adhitthana)

Determination helps us to clarify what is necessary for enlightenment and focus upon it, ​and to eliminate or ignore whatever is in the way. It is a resolve to continue along the path no matter what obstacles present themselves. The clear, unfettered path helps develop loving kindness.

Perfection of Loving kindness (Metta)

Loving kindness is a mental state cultivated by practice. It involves a deliberate and total abandonment of self-centeredness in favor of understanding that the suffering of others is our own suffering.

Perfecting metta is essential to doing away with the self-clinging that binds us to suffering. Metta is the antidote to selfishness, anger and fear.

Perfection of Equanimity (Upekkha)

Equanimity allows us to see things impartially, without the influence of the tyranny of ego. With equanimity, we are no longer pulled this way and that by our passions, likes, and dislikes.

Thich Nhat Hanh says (in The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, p. 161) that the Sanskrit word upeksha means "equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upa means 'over,' and iksh means 'to look.' You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other."

By Barbara O'Brien