A Treatise on the Pâramîs, from the Commentary to the Cariyâpitaka

A Treatise on the Pâramîs, from the Commentary to the Cariyâpitaka

by Acariya Dhammapala
Trans. Bhikkhu Bodi. Kandy, SriLanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1996. Pp. 76.

The third section of H. P. Blavatsky's spiritual guidebook, The Voice of the Silence, called "The Seven Portals," is devoted primarily to a consideration of the Buddhist paramitas, or transcendent qualities to be developed on the Path. The paramitas are generally associated with Northern Buddhism as the qualifications to be developed by a Bodhisattva, but they appear in the Southern canon as well, as does also the concept of the Bodhisattva. The Southern exposition of these qualities is the subject of this book.

The early suttas of Southern Buddhism, written in the sacred language Pali and corresponding to the Sanskrit sutras, mention three types of persons who have attained Nirvana by following three distinct "vanes" or vehicles (that is, spiritual paths):
1. sammasambuddha, a perfectly enlightened Buddha, who achieves Buddhahood without the aid of a teacher, and teaches the dharma to others, founding a dispensation;
2. paccekabuddha, a solitary enlightened person, who achieves Buddhahood without the aid of a teacher, and does not reach others or found a dispensation;
3. arahat, a disciple who achieves Buddhahood through the instruction of a perfectly enlightened Buddha and then teaches others within the bounds of the dispensation of a sammasambuddha.

Later Buddhist writings include stories about the backgrounds of these three types of enlightened persons, including the Bodhisattva, a candidate for Buddhahood, a "germinal Buddha" of the first type. The Bodhisattva became the great ideal of the Northern School, which then tended to treat the other two types (in Sanskrit pratyekabuddha and arhat) as merely provisional or lesser ways. Although the Bodhisattva concept was present also in the Southern School, it lacked the privileged status it had in Northern Buddhism.

One of the jataka (or previous birth) tales of the Southern canon tells that eons ago, the Buddha, then a Bodhisattva born as the ascetic Sumedha, vowed before the Buddha Dipankara (the twenty-fourth Buddha of antiquity) that he would renounce his right to enter nirvana so that he might become a teaching Buddha in the future and thus save multitudes of beings. Having made that vow, he reflected on the qualities needed to achieve it; they were the ten "paramis" (Sanskrit "paramitas''}, which became the "requisites of enlightenment."

The Sanskrit term "paramira'' is from the root "param'' meaning "supreme, beyond." The word is sometimes analyzed as ending in "ita" meaning "gone" and thus is interpreted as "gone beyond" or "gone to the supreme," the notion being that these qualities are those needed by the one who has so gone. The ten paramitas were described by the sixth century Pali commentator Acariya Dhammapala in his "Treatise on the Paramis" as qualities necessary for deliverance. That treatise is put into English in this short book.

The Sanskrit and Pali canons give the following lists of Paramiras:

Sanskrit                                                Pali
giving (dåna)                                         giving
virtue (shîla)                                          virtue                            renunciation
patience (kshânti)                                  patience                        determination
energy (vîrya)                                       energy                          equanimity
meditation (dhyâna)                              [meditation]                  loving-kindness
wisdom (prajñā)                                   wisdom                        truthfulness

The Sanskrit canon has six basic paramitas (those in the first column above, for which Sanskrit terms are given). The Pali canon typically has ten paramis (listed in the second and third columns above). Meditation is not one of those ten, but is added when the ten qualities are reduced to six; then the five qualities in the third column are included in the six of the second column, which are identical with the traditional six paramitas of the Sanskrit tradition.

To these six qualities, Blavatsky added another, which she put in the fourth position, namely virâga, translated as "nonattachment'' or "indifference to pleasure and to pain." They are the seven keys to the seven portals on the path of The Voice of the Silence.

The transcendent qualities are the Buddhist equivalent of the Christian seven cardinal and theological virtues (fortitude, temperance, prudence, justice, faith, hope, and charity). They are part of a universal tradition of ideals of conduct on the Path. The value of this short Treatise is that it sets forth clearly and helpfully the Southern Buddhist version of that tradition.


July 1997