P?ramit? (Sanskrit, Pali) or p?ram? (P?li), is a Buddhist term often translated as "perfection". It is described in Buddhist commentaries as noble character qualities generally associated with enlightened beings. P?ram? and p?ramit? are both terms in Pali but Pali literature makes greater reference to p?ram?, while Mahayana texts generally use the Sanskrit p?ramit?.
Donald S. Lopez, Jr. describes the etymology of the term:
The term p?ramit?, commonly translated as "perfection," has two etymologies. The first derives it from the word parama, meaning "highest", "most distant", and hence "chief", "primary", "most excellent". Hence, the substantive can be rendered "excellence" or "perfection". This reading is supported by the Madhy?ntavibh?ga (V.4), where the twelve excellences (parama) are associated with the ten perfections (p?ramit?). A more creative yet widely reported etymology divides p?ramit? into p?ra and mita, with p?ra meaning "beyond", "the further bank, shore or boundary," and mita, meaning "that which has arrived," or ita meaning "that which goes." P?ramit?, then means "that which has gone beyond," "that which goes beyond," or "transcendent." This reading is reflected in the Tibetan translation pha rol tu phyin pa ("gone to the other side").
Theravada teachings on the p?ram?s can be found in late canonical books and post-canonical commentaries. Theravada commentator Dhammapala describes them as noble qualities usually associated with bodhisattvas. American scholar monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, describes them as perfections (param?) of character necessary to achieve enlightenment as one of the three enlightened beings, a samma sambuddha a pacceka-buddha or an arahant.
The Therav?din teachings on the p?ram?s can be found in canonical books (Jataka tales, Apad?na, Buddhava?sa, Cariy?pi?aka) and post-canonical commentaries written to supplement the P?li Canon at a later time, and thus might not be an original part of the Therav?din teachings. The oldest parts of the Sutta Pi?aka (for example, Majjhima Nik?ya, Digha Nik?ya, Sa?yutta Nik?ya and the A?guttara Nik?ya) do not have any mention of the p?ram?s as a category (though they are all mentioned individually).
Some scholars even refer to the teachings of the p?ram?s as a semi-Mah?y?na teaching added to the scriptures at a later time in order to appeal to the interests and needs of the lay community and to popularize their religion. However, these views rely on the early scholarly presumption of Mah?y?na originating with religious devotion and appeal to laity. More recently, scholars have started to open up early Mah?y?na literature, which is very ascetic and expounds the ideal of the monk's life in the forest. Therefore, the practice of the p?ramit?s in Mah?y?na Buddhism may have been close to the ideals of the ascetic tradition of the ?rama?a.
Bhikkhu Bodhi maintains that, in the earliest Buddhist texts (which he identifies as the first four nik?yas), those seeking the extinction of suffering (nibbana) pursued the noble eightfold path. As time went on, a backstory was provided for the multi-life development of the Buddha; as a result, the ten perfections were identified as part of the path for the bodhisattva (P?li: bodhisatta). Over subsequent centuries, the p?ram?s were seen as being significant for aspirants to both Buddhahood and arahantship. Bhikkhu Bodhi summarizes:
in established Therav?da tradition the p?ram?s are not regarded as a discipline peculiar to candidates for Buddhahood alone but as practices which must be fulfilled by all aspirants to enlightenment and deliverance, whether as Buddhas, paccekabuddhas, or disciples. What distinguishes the supreme bodhisattva from aspirants in the other two vehicles is the degree to which the p?ram?s must be cultivated and the length of time they must be pursued. But the qualities themselves are universal requisites for deliverance, which all must fulfill to at least a minimal degree to merit the fruits of the liberating path.
Religious studies scholar Dale S. Wright states that Mah?y?na texts refer to the p?ramit?s as "bases of training" for those looking to achieve enlightenment. Wright describes the Buddhist p?ramit?s as a set of character ideals that guide self-cultivation and provide a concrete image of the Buddhist ideal.
This list is also mentioned by the Therav?da commentator Dhammapala, who describes it as a categorization of the same ten perfections of Theravada Buddhism. According to Dhammapala, Sacca is classified as both la and Prajñ?, Mett? and Upekkh? are classified as Dhy?na, and Adhih?na falls under all six. Bhikkhu Bodhi states that the correlations between the two sets shows there was a shared core before the Theravada and Mahayana schools split.
In the Ten Stages Sutra, four more p?ramit?s are listed:
The Mah?ratnaka S?tra (? , the Sutra of the Heap of Jewels) also includes these additional four p?ramit?s with number 8 and 9 switched.
According to the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, Mah?y?na practitioners have the choice of two practice paths: the path of perfection (Sanskrit: p?ramit?y?na) or the path of tantra (Sanskrit: tantray?na), which is the Vajray?na.
Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche renders "p?ramit?" into English as "transcendent action" and then frames and qualifies it:
When we say that paramita means "transcendent action," we mean it in the sense that actions or attitude are performed in a non-egocentric manner. "Transcendental" does not refer to some external reality, but rather to the way in which we conduct our lives and perceive the world - either in an egocentric or a non-egocentric way. The six paramitas are concerned with the effort to step out of the egocentric mentality.
The first four perfections are skillful means practice while the last two are wisdom practice. These contain all the methods and skills required for eliminating delusion and fulfilling other's needs. Also, leading from happy to happier states.