The Sanskrit term pāramitā (devanāgarī पारमिता) is a feminine noun indicating "leading to the opposite shore" or "reaching the opposite shore" or even "completing a path," as an adjective (here lacking the diacritic in the last vowel a hence pāramita) indicates that which has "reached the opposite shore" or that which has "crossed over."
As a feminine noun in compound terms it denotes "perfection in" and, specifically in Buddhism, the "transcendent virtues" i.e., "not worldly."
In Buddhism pāramitā denotes those "virtues" that those who wish to embark on the path of the bodhisattva, and thus realize the state of buddhahood, must fully develop.
Also in the Buddhist sphere, the term has been differentially analyzed by the schools of the Pāli Canon tradition i.e., the Theravāda school, compared to the schools of the Chinese and Tibetan Canon tradition i.e., the Mahāyāna schools.
For the Theravāda school, which uses pāli as its canonical language, the term pāli pāramitā is derived from the adjective parama in the meaning of "perfect" or "complete" and thus uses indifferently the terms pāramitā or its derivative, also pāli, pāramī.
For Mahāyāna schools, the Sanskrit term pāramitā would instead be composed of pāram ("beyond") and ita ("gone") thus indicating the development of the spiritual path.
The listings of pāramitā differ from text to text. They are generally understood as six or ten, but works can be found in which they are enumerated as five or seven.
Charles Hallisey notes that the doctrine of pāramitā is not found in the earliest Buddhist literature and believes that the original enumeration may have been that of six.
In Buddhist circles, the Sanskrit term pāramitā is rendered as follows in other Asian languages:
in Chinese: 波羅蜜 bōluómì;
in Japanese: haramitsu;
in Korean: 바라밀 baramil or paramil;
in Vietnamese: ba la mật;
in Tibetan: ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་, pha-rol-tu phyin-pa.
The Cariyāpiṭaka (one of the fifteen-or eighteen-component texts of the Khuddaka Nikāya included in the Sutta Piṭaka of the Pāli Canon) as well as the Buddhavaṃsa (also a component of the Khuddaka Nikāya), list different numberings of the pāramitās that a bodhisattva must complete in his many existences before realizing the bodhi of buddhas.
The Cariyāpiṭaka lists seven while the Buddhavaṃsa ten. Following are the ten pāramitā listed in the Buddhavaṃsa (terms are given in Pāli language):
Dāna : generosity, helpfulness;
Sīla : virtue, morality, appropriate conduct;
Nekkhamma: renunciation of material possessions, pleasures and family;
Pañña: transcendent wisdom, understanding;
Viriya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort;
Khanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance;
Sacca (pāramitā): truth, honesty, consistency;
Aḍḍhiṭhana: determination, resolution;
Mettā: loving kindness, benevolence;
Upekkha : equanimity.
Mahāyāna Buddhism inherits the listing of the six pāramitā proposed in the texts of two schools of Nikāya Buddhism: the Lokottaravāda and the Sarvāstivāda.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism, however, the function of the pāramitās is different.
Since the "Mahāyāna" goal is the bodhisattva and not the arhat, and since the condition of the bodhisattva is attainable by anyone who has the sincere intention to take that path and not only by extraordinary beings as per the schools defined here as hīnayāna, pāramitās are constantly practiced by bodhisattvas for the purpose of attaining the buddha state. C
harles Halley notes in this a profound point of rupture with the Nikāya schools of Buddhism, in that the pāramitā of the bodhisattvas came to replace the "noble eightfold path" of the arhats considered a doctrine and practice of the hīnayāna i.e., "inferior" and negatively evaluated.
For the "mahayanist" who follows the "way of the bodhisattva" (bodhisattvayāna), the pāramitās have the primary purpose of "saving" all sentient beings by enabling them to realize the buddhas' bodhi, or Anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.
Thus comes to an end, according to Mahayanists, the urgency of arhat for one's own, personal, salvation. It follows that those pāramitās such as the Kṣanti and the Vīrya, little considered in Nikāya Buddhism, acquire considerable importance in this sphere.
The list of six pāramitā inherited from the schools of Nikāya Buddhism but having a quite different role here are:
Dāna: generosity, helpfulness;
Śīla: virtue, morality, appropriate conduct;
Kṣanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, imperturbability;
Vīrya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort;
Dhyāna: concentration, contemplation;
Among these six pāramitā the Mahāyāna literature absolutely privileges Prajñā which turns out to be the most important and summarizing pāramitā of all the others. Thus Philippe Cornu:
"Without the development of prajñā through joint study and practice, one cannot speak of pāramitā , but only of ordinary actions. Indeed, pāramitā result from the Vision of absolute bodhicitta, vacuity applied to action."
(Philippe Cornu. Dictionary of Buddhism. Milan, Bruno Mondadori, 2003, p.455)
The Mahāyānic work that offers a comprehensive examination of the pāramitā according to these schools is the Śūraṃgamasamādhi sūtra.
To these six pāramitā, another mahāyānic work, corresponding to the XXXI chapter of the Avataṃsakasūtra i.e., the Daśabhūmika-sūtra (十住經, Shízhù jīng, Jūjū kyō, Sūtra of the Ten Lands, preserved in the Huāyánbù at T.D. 286) adds four more:
7. Upāyakauśalya: skillful means;
8. Pranidhāna: vow, resolution, aspiration of the bodhisattvas;
9. Bala: spiritual strength;
10. Jñāna: knowledge.