The Six (or Seven) Paramitas

Katinka Hesselink, 2004

The paramitas are the six perfections that bodhisattvas try to live up to, according to Mahayana Buddhism.

H.P. Blavatsky, one of the first practicing Buddhists in the West, wrote the following of the paramitas:

"The sixteen Paramitas are not for priests and yogis alone," as said, but stand for models for all to strive after; and neither priest nor yogi, chela nor Mahatma, ever attained all, at once. Again, the idea that sinners and saints are expected to enter the Path is emphatically stated in The Voice of the Silence, p. 40, where it is said that "not one recruit can ever be refused the right to enter on the path that leads toward the field of battle."

It is very easy to get confused about the number of paramitas, especially if one follows the theosophical tradition. The mahayana tradition names 6 paramitas; The Hinayana tradition names 10 (similar) virtues; and as if to confuse the issue even further, Blavatsky uses the number 16, but elaborates on 7 paramitas (she calls them keys) in her classic The Voice of the Silence. These 7 paramitas are the six mahayana paramitas plus a seventh one.

1. DANA, the key of charity and love immortal.
2. SHILA, the key of Harmony in word and act, the key that counterbalances the cause and the effect, and leaves no further room for Karmic action.
3. KSHANTI, patience sweet, that nought can ruffle.
4. VIRAGA, indifference to pleasure and to pain, illusion conquered, truth alone perceived.
5. VIRYA, the dauntless energy that fights its way to the supernal TRUTH, out of the mire of lies terrestrial.
6. DHYANA, whose golden gate once opened leads the Narjol* toward the realm of Sat eternal and its ceaseless contemplation.
[*A saint, an adept.]
7. PRAJNA, the key to which makes of a man a god, creating him a Bodhisattva, son of the Dhyanis.
(Voice of the Silence, Fragment III)

The first, Dana, is usually explained as generosity. This starts with generosity with things. It grows to include loving protection and loving understanding. In all three cases it is important to give without attachment and without the need to get something (even a smile) in return.

The second is Shila (or sila), usually interpreted as living by the rules and precepts of Buddhism. In general this means to live right -and ultimately this will lead to 'harmony in word and act', like Blavatsky says above.

The third is Kshanti, or patience. Buddhists usually explain this with the words of Jesus: 'Turn the other cheek'. In other words: don't take revenge on people. Buddhism teaches that each will get what they deserve anyhow (the doctrine of karma). So you probably deserved what is coming to you anyhow, and if you didn't you will be rewarded. The person who mistreats you will be punished by life, and it isn't your duty to bind yourself to them by returning evil with evil.

The fourth is the one Blavatsky added: Vairaga (or Viraga), 'indifference to pleasure and to pain, illusion conquered, truth alone perceived.' This is a basic Buddhist thought. As long as we let emotion, our senses and the world around us control our thoughts and actions, we aren't master of ourselves. On the Buddhist path self mastery is one of the prime objectives.

The fifth is strength, or perseverance. The ability to follow through on our good intentions, for instance.

The sixth is meditation. From simple contemplation of spiritual truths and how to live a good life, to observing what is, to (finally?) perception of what's real and inner silence.

The seventh is wisdom. This starts with worldly wisdom, develops into what's called smaller transcendent wisdom and finally into the highest transcendent wisdom. Ultimately the ability to look beyond the surface to the causes of things. The ability to see things in a larger, ultimately cosmic connection. Also the ability to act right in all circumstances. Prajna (wisdom) includes all of the above virtues.