The evolution of the pāramīs in late Pali canonical texts and their relation to the Mahayana

Following up on:

Let’s look briefly at the two main lists (from Wikipedia):

  1. Dāna pāramī: generosity, giving of oneself
  2. Sīla pāramī: virtue, morality, proper conduct
  3. Nekkhamma pāramī: renunciation
  4. Paññā pāramī: wisdom, discernment
  5. Viriya pāramī: energy, diligence, vigour, effort
  6. Khanti pāramī: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
  7. Sacca pāramī: truthfulness, honesty
  8. Adhiṭṭhāna pāramī: determination, resolution
  9. Mettā pāramī: goodwill, friendliness, loving-kindness
  10. Upekkhā pāramī: equanimity, serenity


  1. Dāna pāramitā: generosity, giving of oneself
  2. Śīla pāramitā: virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct
  3. Kṣānti pāramitā: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
  4. Vīrya pāramitā: energy, diligence, vigour, effort
  5. Dhyāna pāramitā: one-pointed concentration, contemplation
  6. Prajñā pāramitā: wisdom, insight

I’m sure there is more serious scholarship on this, but just my rough thoughts.

The two lists have a lot in common, but I don’t think they are historically related. Similarities in later traditions can be explained in two ways: either they borrowed from each other, or they both drew from similar older sources. In this case, most of these items are found throughout the EBTs, so there’s no real need for them to borrow from each other.

The only really new idea is adhiṭṭhāna, which is not really found as a virtue in the EBTs, and certainly not as a major doctrinal item. But it’s required by the Bodhisattva theory: the determination to enter a path that will take many lifetimes.

The other interesting addition, found in both lists, is khanti (“patience”, “acceptance”). This is found in the EBTs, but not in any major doctrinal groups. This might make it a candidate for an idea shared between the two.

In this case, however, I think it is directly lifted from DN 14 Mahāpadāna. This is a prime source work for the idea of many Buddhas, and hence the idea of the pāramīs. And the doctrinal core, the “teaching of the Buddhas” (plural) begins with:

Khantī paramaṁ tapo titikkhā,
Patient acceptance is the ultimate austerity.

This doesn’t just elevate the somewhat marginal status of khanti as a virtue, it connects it directly with tapas, the (pre-Buddhist) practice of self-mortification. In the EBTs, khanti means things like being able to put up with the discomforts of insects and weather while meditating. In the Jatakas, the famous Khantivadajātaka depicts the Bodhisatta patiently enduring as his limbs are chopped off.

Remember, while the Jatakas as texts are late, in theory, and often in actuality, they depict an earlier, pre-Buddhist stage of Indian spirituality. Here we see the gradual seeping of self-mortification practices into mid-period Buddhism under the idea of khanti. From here it is no great leap to practices like suicide by fire that became common in later days.

So even though khanti is not derived from a standard list of teachings on the path, I think it it is likely that both traditions derived it from the Mahāpadānasutta. So it does not establish that the lists borrowed from each other.

Thus I would disagree with Bodhi as quoted in Wikipedia, that there was a shared core of the pāramīs before the split in schools. Maybe there was, but I don’t think the lists as such establish this. (FWIW this view of Bodhi is cited from his work in the 1970s and I don’t know what his current views on this are.)

It seems likely to me that the ideas of the bodhisattva, the Jātakas, the evolution of the Buddhas, and then the systematic practice of the pāramīs were all common features that evolved in post-Ashokan Buddhism. I don’t think we know enough to be able to say that they were found in all the “eighteen” early schools, but they were found in many at least. Of course there were differences: the Dīpavaṁsa says that the Mahāsaṅghikas rejected “some of the Jātakas”.

This being so, I think there would have been a gradual evolution from “the Bodhisattva gradually perfected his virtues over many lives” to “this is the list of the virtues the Bodhisattva perfected over many lives”. The former is common Buddhism, the latter lists are sectarian (although of course they may be shared among several schools too). The “general idea” of the perfections would have been coming to emphasize notions such as patience and determination, but the formalism is not established.

Now, clearly the 6 pāramitas are Mahayanist as they are found in the Prajñapāramita. But did they invent them, or did they draw from early schools such as Mahāsaṅghika and Sarvāstivāda? I’m not clear on this point.

If we accept that the two lists developed independently, then the question arises as to their historical sequence. If they are directly related, then it would be natural to think that the ten of the Theravada is expanded from the six of the Mahayana, and hence would be dated late, probably post 3rd century CE. However, if as I contend this is not the case, then we have no particular date apart from “post-Ashokan”.

The fact that the ten has more items than the six does not mean that it is later: it’s just a list. It’s easy to add items, and this doesn’t require a long period of development. Indeed, sometimes more haphazard early lists are rationalized into shorter later lists (think, say, the five aggregates of the EBTs vs. rūpa, citta, cetasika of the late Pali Abhidhamma).

Now, the list of ten pāramīs occurs in a few places in the Pali.

Other late Pali canonical texts don’t seem to use pāramī in this technical sense (Milinda, Netti, Peṭakopadesa, Niddesa, even the Jātakas). Rather they use it as in the EBTs, as a descriptor of “perfection” in various aspects of meditation, etc. This also seems to be the case with the internal references in the Apadānas, i.e. the Apadānas themselves rather than the introduction. This suggests that the formal doctrine of the ten pāramīs was not necessarily a major feature of all aspects of this period of Buddhism, but rather was introduced via these specified texts.

The Cariyapiṭaka is the only one of the canonical texts that mentions the ten without the thirty. It is also marked by a rough and unsystematic approach, summarizing some Jātaka stories, without any real attempt at explaining or synthesizing a coherent theory of the pāramīs. Both the Buddhavamsa and the Apadāna mention the thirty, and they seem to take the idea for granted.

On this admittedly slim evidence, it seems to me that the Cariyapiṭaka is the earliest of these three. It introduced the idea of the pāramīs by drawing on the preexisting and already well-known Jātaka tradition. We know that the Jātakas were already popular in the post-Ashokan period, as some of them are illustrated at Sanchi and Bharhut (1st or 2nd century BCE). In those texts that discuss the bodhisattva this rapidly expanded to the “thirty”. But the notion didn’t permeate widely through early Buddhist thought, being restricted mostly to discussions about bodhisattvas. The essence of the Mahayana, it seems to me, is not to invent these ideas, but to take them as the core theory and practice.

This doesn’t give us a date for these texts, but it does suggest that there is no real reason to conclude on a very late date (3rd century CE). In my opinion the Pali Tipitaka was mostly finalized by about 4 centuries after the Buddha, and I don’t see any reason to change that view here.


Nice! I find this hypothesis quite convincing. :pray: Sādhu!

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I agree that the lists of ten perfections are largely not derived from each other, and there is only some similarity between the Indian systems, and the system in Sri Lanka. But I’m curious about whether the idea of ten perfections may have influenced the Pali system to match the number from the Indian system. But I’m not sure if it’s even possible to know whether that is true at this point.

I think they were shared by the vast majority of groups in Indian Buddhism. There are sectarian works in the Chinese Buddhist canon, but the six perfections seem to be mostly universal, with a handful of Mahayana texts using the later (Mahayana) ten perfections. But maybe initially codifying the six perfections was something due in part to influence from very early Mahayana on sectarian Buddhism?

In the 1990’s, Ulrich Pagel focused on an obscure but quite large text (maybe 1000+ pages if translated into English) embedded in the Maharatnakuta collection, called the Bodhisattvapitaka. According to that study, the text is a discourse on the six perfections, but it likely represents a stage prior to the development of Prajnaparamita literature. With the Prajnaparamita sutras, some Mahayanists were pushing for Prajnaparamita as the ultimate all-encompassing perfection. That implies there must have been a previous situation with a balanced treatment of all six perfections, and a matching set of transitional ideas exists within the Bodhisattvapitaka, which also has numerous references to the Jatakas.

Some of these terms also become confusing because different groups in India also seem to have equated the Bodhisattvapitaka with collections of Mahayana sutras. So there is some difficulty with inconsistency in naming. In this regard, though, the idea of having a “pitaka” for bodhisattva conduct (i.e. bodhisattvacarya) may also be relevant, given the name of the Cariyapitaka (?).

Yeah, the number of Jatakas common across traditions was only like 30-34 or so. But the Pali tradition has hundreds of Jatakas. So if the Mahasamghika in southern India held the Jatakas to be sacred and were also literalists about bodhisattva lore, it makes sense that they would reject additional Jatakas. But relatively little exploration of those ideas has happened, as far as I know.

There are some presumptions of Mahayana Buddhism like the existence of vast space, in which buddhas may exist within other realms. That makes cosmic buddhas and bodhisattvas more possible, because bodhisattvas are not limited to this realm (in which Maitreya is presumed to be the next buddha). If the Cariyapitaka is sort of Mahayanist in the sense of having a bodhisattva path for people to follow, then there are questions about cosmology that come up as well. But if the perfections as presented in the Cariyapitaka are mainly for generating merit, then it may be a more conventional situation.


I dunno, the number ten was popular from early times (cf. Rig Veda). In this case, if it is significant, I would think it’s a “perfection” of the number eight as in the eightfold path. The sequence 4 ( = truths), 8 (= path), 10 (= paramis) corresponds with the primary numerological metaphier for these numbers: the four directions, the intermediate directions, and above and below. The meaning of ten is a “universal” coverage of “all” directions to an even greater extent than the eight, which fits well.

Okay, I suspected as much.

Oh interesting.


Do you know where this has been studied?


Though I don’t know when it started, at some point the Theravada came to embrace Sanskritic Buddhism’s list of six as well, treating the hexad and decad as just two ways of describing the same qualities.

From the Cariyāpitaka Commentary:

Ko saṅgahoti? Ettha pana yathā etā vibhāgato tiṃsavidhāpi dānapāramiādibhāvato dasavidhā, evaṃ dānasīlakhantivīriyajhānapaññāsabhāvena chabbidhā.

How are they synthesized? Just as the ten pāramīs become thirtyfold through analysis, so they become sixfold through their specific nature: as giving, virtue, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom.

Etāsu hi nekkhammapāramī sīlapāramiyā saṅgahitā, tassā pabbajjābhāve, nīvaraṇavivekabhāve pana jhānapāramiyā kusaladhammabhāve chahipi saṅgahitā. Saccapāramī sīlapāramiyā ekadeso eva vacīviratisaccapakkhe, ñāṇasaccapakkhe pana paññāpāramiyā saṅgahitā. Mettāpārami jhānapāramiyā eva. Upekkhāpāramī jhānapaññāpāramīhi. Adhiṭṭhānapāramī sabbāhipi saṅgahitāti.

When this set is considered, the perfection of renunciation, as the going forth into homelessness, is included in the perfection of virtue; as seclusion from the hindrances, in the perfection of meditation; and as a generally wholesome quality, in all six pāramīs. One part of the perfection of truthfulness, i.e., its aspect of truthful speech or abstinence from falsehood, is included in the perfection of virtue, and one part, i.e., its aspect of truthful knowledge, in the perfection of wisdom. The perfection of loving-kindness is included in the perfection of meditation, and the perfection of equanimity in the perfections of meditation and wisdom. The perfection of determination is included in all.

(translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The All-Embracing Net of Views)


Another thing to keep in mind is that Mahayana was not alien to Theravada lands, including Sri Lanka. We know there was a thriving Mahayana movement within the Sinhalese Theravada, particularly at Abhayagiri. This dissipated after Parākramabāhu I (1153–1186) but for centuries Mahayana was widespread in Sinhalese Theravada, in some periods the Abhayagirivihara was even the dominant and largest tradition.


Just a couple points: As @llt alluded to, there was a system of ten perfections in Mahayana sources that was developed by adding four: Skillful methods, vows, powers, and knowledge. They revolve around a bodhisattva approaching ever nearer the level of a Buddha. It would make sense to me that this was done when the Dasabhumika texts were written. A bodhisattva in those higher stages is more of a deity like Maitreya than a human practitioner. So, I think it’s understandable that Theravadins wouldn’t have included that in their system. They were more down to earth.

Also, I know that there’s at least one Jataka collection in Chinese that’s explicitly organized around the perfections. The stories are sorted by perfection, and they serve as the chapter headings. Myself, I suspect that bodhisattva theory developed in these types of paracanonical texts, and then was incorporated into fourth pitakas in the different early Buddhist schools. Theravadins even appear to have done this with their own Jataka collections.

I’ll be releasing a translation of the Ekottarika’s introduction soon (this weekend). It depicts a fourth division being created during the first council after Maitreya insists that the teachings of the six paramitas shouldn’t be discarded. This happens right after Ananda compiled the traditional Tripitaka. Ananda thinks that only arhats and those liberated by faith would believe bodhisattva practices, so he demurs and isn’t directly involved. Instead, “those in the four assemblies who were resolved on bodhi” compile a fourth pitaka. The story (which is entirely in verse) seems to have had some additions made to it to explain how the fourth pitaka was added to the early canon, and perserving the bodhisattva pitaka was the main reason why it was created.


This sounds very like the Cariyapitaka. I wonder if they are related, or if they just used the same (fairly obvious) idea?

Interesting! This would seem to imply that the peculiar composition of the Ekottara as a whole was driven, or at least affected by, the desire to legitimate the bodhisattva path. A bit like how the Vedas were compiled with the opening and closing “unity books”.


Yes. There’s a prose introduction after the verse introduction that argues that the Ekottarika contained all of the Buddha’s teachings and that the past six buddhas had entrusted it to their disciples, too. So, it seems that the school that it belonged to 1) put the Ekottarika first among the Agamas and 2) fully embraced the Mahayana teachings as legitimate.

I finally started reading Palumbo’s book studying the history of the EA’s translation, and he makes a convincing argument that T1507 is indeed an aborted commentary by the Chinese translation team. Since the introduction is discussed at length, it must have belonged with the original text that they were translating. There’s a comment in T1507 that the Sarvastivada version didn’t have the introduction and had been greatly enlarged, both in size and number of sutras. So, I’ve discarded my doubt that it may have been added later.


I took a look at the Chinese Jataka collection and your translation. I gather that the actual stories are packed away in a commentary, or do the verses all refer to stories in the Jataka collection?

The Chinese text is Taisho 152. It’s all stories and no verse, and it looks to be larger. The generosity chapter has 26 stories (but they are quite short, almost summaries, so it’s not a huge text). I scanned the Pali translation and the Chinese a bit, and I did find a Chinese version of the story about the rabbit offering itself as a gift. I’m think they are different collections, but the Jatakas may overlap across traditions.


So excited about the EA!!! As a Mahayanist who loves EBTs, seeing this “missing link” in English will be like a dream come true. You’re awesome Charles!

From what you’ve seen so far, I was wondering what you think about the school affiliation, Mahasamghika perhaps? If so, it would make sense their paramita list diverged earlier from the Theravadin one. I also remember that there was a paramita list of just four paramitas in the Sarvastivada school, so it seems there were various different lists of these going around.


It may well be some offshoot of the original Mahasamghika branch (there was a bunch of them). I’ve read in Bareau’s book that there were early schools from the Sthavira branch, like the Dharmaguptakas, who converted to Mahasamghika-like thought and Mahayana teachings in later history. So, that’s a possibility too.

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They all refer to Jatakas. The Caraiyapitaka commentary also retells the stories, but I haven’t studied it to see how it relates to the Jatakas.

Okay, thanks.

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I probably should have qualified that, but from what I can tell, the Jatakamala was the common Jataka text that was widely accepted in India and generally in the areas directly influenced by India. That collection has just 34 jatakas, most of which are in the Pali jataka collection, with less overlap with the jatakas in the Cariyapitaka. In Kern’s (very old) publication of the Sanskrit Jatakamala, he has a table of jatakas shared between the Jatakamala, the Pali Jataka collection, and the Cariyapitaka. At the time, I think he considered that the Cariyapitaka’s number of jatakas to be analogous to the number in the Jatakamala, since the Jatakamala has 34 jatakas, and the Cariyapitaka has 35 jatakas.

There are some other jataka collections, with up to about 100 jatakas or so, but I haven’t seen anything similar to the 547 in the Pali tradition. If someone knows of a similarly large collection, though, I’m interested.

An interesting but maybe very time-consuming project would be to find all jataka references in the Chinese Buddhist canon, and tie them back to some unique canonical name for the particular jataka. That might give a pretty good idea of how common each jataka was in India and Central Asia, at least in terms of references.