How does an ordinary, suffering person become a fully-awakened Buddha? When the followers of the Buddha reflected on their teacher’s amazing qualities, they identified a set of ten powerful practices that seemed to have been brought to perfection in him, and the idea developed that he must have cultivated them over many lifetimes. These practices came to be known as the “perfections” (pāramī), and they cover everything from the relational trainings in ethics and generosity, to supports for long-term discipline like energy and resolve, all the way to the mature qualities of wisdom, lovingkindness, and equanimity.
The ten perfections are the qualities necessary for full awakening, a description of how awakened beings move through the world, and a map for bringing the Dharma into everything we do.
The ten perfections
Like many of the lists, the pāramīs are both a set of qualities to work on all at once and a sequence that moves from foundational practices to more advanced and liberating ones. It begins as the Buddha often taught, with giving (dāna), ethics (sīla), and renunciation (nekkhamma). These foundational disciplines set us on the path and create the conditions for inner transformation.
In this article, we look at each of the pāramīs in brief, with links to discourses for further study of each one, and offer a selection of talks by Spirit Rock teachers exploring the practice of the pāramīs. While the Perfections are not mentioned as a list in the Pāli discourses (suttas), they are central to the Jātaka stories, folk tales and mythical narratives associated with the many previous births of the Buddha and his disciples. The Jātaka associated with each pāramī are:
- Dāna: Ja 95, Ja 31
- Sīla: Ja 506
- Nekkhamma: Ja 9, Ja 538, Ja 539
- Pañña: Ja 402
- Viriya: Ja 1, Ja 55, Ja 539
- Khanti: Ja 75, Ja 313
- Sacca: Ja 75
- Adhiṭṭhāna: Ja 20, Ja 538
- Mettā: Ja 75, Ja 385, Ja 540
- Upekkhā: Ja 94, Ja 273
The list begins, as the Buddha’s instructions in the “gradual training” always did, with dāna, the practice of giving. As we cultivate the heart of generosity, compassion, and joy, we let go of obsession with individual gain and the mindset of scarcity. The Buddha said “if sentient beings only knew, as I do, the fruit of giving and sharing, they would not eat without first giving, and the stain of stinginess would not occupy their minds.” (Iti 26)
Dāna is considered the foundation of the path, and one of the most direct ways we begin to loosen clinging from the mind and open the heart to interconnection. Monastics in the Theravāda Buddhist tradition—as in many other traditions as well—are fully supported by dāna, and in the global Insight Meditation tradition we have crafted a version of this beautiful practice. In addition to Spirit Rock relying on donations for much of our operating costs, teachers on most retreats offer the Dharma and their time "on dāna," receiving only what participants offer. In this way we bring the perfection of giving into real practice as we create together a spiritual community. Read more about dāna at Spirit Rock.
The practice of ethics is relational, oriented toward creating safety for ourselves and others in spiritual community, as well as a deep purification for our own heart. Sīla is usually presented in the form of the five precepts, commitments to refrain from:
Taking that which is not offered
Lying and unskillful speech
Abuse of intoxicants
The precepts are not commandments, but practices to investigate in our own ever-changing lives and relationships. As we engage with them over time, our actions come more into line with our deep values, we start to be free from regret and shame, and we become people others trust and value. The Buddha called the precepts “streams of merit,” which ripen as happiness (AN 8.39). Ethics are central to the Noble Eightfold Path in the form of the three limbs of wise speech, action, and livelihood.
Renunciation is the practice of contentment, and letting go of that which we do not need. Learning to let go is not about forcefully denying ourselves what we want—though with some kinds of addictive patterns that can be helpful—but about growing out of that which no longer serves us. Like many kinds of maturity, renunciation is ultimately joyful and peaceful, as we realize that we can be happy with less stimulation and consumption, free from desires that can never be fully satisfied.
The Buddha consistently praised renunciation as the basis of inner peace, and in a generous talk to a householder named Tapussa described eagerness for renunciation as the basis for an entire sequence of meditative states leading to full liberation (AN 9.41).
While wisdom is usually thought of as a result of practice and insight, it is also a discipline itself. We practice wisdom when we connect with spiritual friends, study the teachings, listen to teachers, ask questions, and explore the Dharma in our own lives. When we practice mindfulness and meditation, and reflect on impermanence and the characteristics of experience, we cultivate the conditions for insight and wisdom to arise (AN 8.2). Wisdom is closely associated with the first two limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Energy in our practice is both somatic and emotional, including physical vitality and wakefulness as well as enthusiasm, purpose, and determination. We cultivate the perfection of energy by caring for the body through food, exercise, sleep, and wise relationship with the external world, and caring for the heart through appropriate engagement with information, teachings, distraction, and connection with others. Energy is part of many lists of wholesome factors, including the five spiritual faculties (AN 5.2) and the seven awakening factors (SN 46.51).
Patience in the Buddha’s teachings is not just the ability to wait for something to happen without anxiety or restlessness, but the ability to endure unpleasant things without distress (dukkha). In this sense, it is often translated as “forbearance.” We train in patience by tolerating unpleasant experiences when necessary, reflecting on their impermanence and how they’re dependent on conditions. This does not mean we don’t take action when needed to bring about a more wholesome state, but that we recognize that the nature of embodied life is that there will be pain sometimes. Patience thus has a strong connection to wisdom, as we draw upon the insights into impermanence and interconnectedness as support for equanimity and resilience.
In a colorful story, Sakka, the king of the gods, gives a beautiful talk about patience and not responding in anger to insults from a defeated demon king (SN 11.4).
The perfection of truthfulness, like the fourth ethical precept, stands for the limb of wise speech in the Noble Eightfold Path. Wise (or “right”) speech is often divided into four aspects of speech to avoid (MN 41):
Nonsense, or “idle chatter”
The Buddha compared speech to flowers when it is truthful, dung when it is false, and to honey when it is gentle and kind (AN 3.28).
Resolve, or persistence, is connected with the limb of wise effort in the Noble Eightfold Path. Though the Buddha encouraged wholehearted engagement with practice (AN 10.51), wise effort is not about striving intensely as much as cultivating states of heart and mind that are supportive on the path. The four applications of wise effort are to:
Restrain unskillful qualities that have arisen
Give up unskillful qualities that haven’t yet arisen
Develop skillful qualities that haven’t yet arisen
Preserve skillful qualities that have arisen (AN 4.69)
In a famous and helpful teaching, the Buddha taught a monk named Soṇa, who had been a musician, to practice with effort that was neither too tight or too loose, as he had done when tuning the strings on his instrument (AN 6.55).
Lovingkindness, or friendliness, is one of the most important and beloved qualities we cultivate on the path. The practice of mettā, whether in meditation or in daily life, opens our hearts to tolerance and compassion for all beings, soothes the suffering of interpersonal and social life, and develops concentration. Lovingkindness is the first of the four brahmavihāra, or divine abodes.
Lovingkindness meditation takes many forms, including the classical form of radiating love in all directions (Snp 1.8, SN 46.54), and the later practice of using phrases to focus the heart, as described in the commentary The Visuddhimagga (Vsm IX.8, p. 292). Use of phrases is one of the main ways our lineage has taught mettā, directing the wish for well-being to a series of beings: self, benefactor, good friend, neutral person, difficult person, all beings. One traditional version of the mettā phrases is:
May [I / you / all beings] be safe from harm of all kinds, inner and outer.
May [I / you / all beings] be happy and peaceful.
May [I / you / all beings] be strong in body and mind.
May [I / you / all beings] live with ease and well-being.
Lovingkindness can bring insight and liberation when cultivated fully, resulting in “the heart’s release by love” (Iti 27, SN 46.54). The Mettā Sutta (Snp 1.8), often chanted on retreat, describes a path of practice based in radiating lovingkindness in all directions, and includes the famous evocation of the care and protectiveness a mother feels toward their child.
One of the most subtle and misunderstood qualities in the Dharma, equanimity is a state of peace and acceptance that is both a heart quality and a manifestation of wisdom. Equanimity is the last quality of both the four brahmavihāras and the seven awakening factors. Classically, equanimity is based in the understanding that “all beings are owners of their actions,” pointing the heart toward the letting go that happens when we accept the conditioned nature of every situation and understand how dissatisfaction arises because of clinging (AN 5.57, AN 10.216). Equanimity is one of the deep fruits of practice, bringing profound peace of mind and heart based on true maturity and understanding of the world.
When we bring the pāramīs into our lives, they serve as reminders of the wholesome qualities of the path, and invite us to lean into our practice with devotion, creative engagement, and our sights set on the liberation from suffering that is the fruit of the path.