April 29, 2016; revised November 22, 2018; September 10, 2022
1. Pāli is a “phonetic language”: some meanings come from how words are pronounced, and sometimes grammar rules are bypassed (or Pāli has its own rules, particularly when combining words). This is why people sometimes get into trouble applying grammar rules to Pāli.
- Luckily, most Pāli words have related Sinhala words, so one with good Sinhala knowledge and the basics of Buddha Dhamma can understand many Pāli terms. This is called “pada nirutti” or clarifying via using some key phrases and sounds. (But it takes a special knowledge or “patisambidhā ñāna” of a jāti Sōtapanna to glean the meanings of keywords like anicca, dukkha, and anatta, without anyone’s help).
- The word “pāramitā” comes from “pireema“, or to fulfill. Certain conditions must be met while purifying one’s mind to become a Buddha. Buddha’s 80 great disciples (mahā sāvaka) must also fulfill less stringent conditions.
- Attaining magga phala — including Arahantship — does not have such specific requirements (at least, I have not seen them). Yet, those also require cleansing one’s mind over multiple lives. No goals can be achieved without effort. Even when one wins a lottery, there is a reason (a good kamma vipāka from previous lives).
- See “Difference between a Wish and a Determination (Pāramitā)” for a simple explanation of pāramitā.
2. The above paragraphs may give the impression that one “knows” that one is fulfilling pāramitā to be a Buddha or a great disciple. They do not know that they are gradually fulfilling such requirements. It is only when a Bodhisattā reaches a certain stage of progress that he gets told by Buddhas at those times:
- First, he gets “aniyata vivarana” meaning a Buddha tells him that he is likely to become a Buddha in the future because he has acquired “Buddha gati” through his moral gati and his drive to find truth in past lives.
- Then when more “Buddha gati” are acquired and firmly established with time, a later Buddha may give “niyata vivarana,” i.e., that he will definitely become a Buddha.
- We discussed this in detail in the post, “Animisa Locana Bodhi Poojawa – A Prelude to Acts of Gratitude.”
3. At first, this “niyata vivarana” seems to say that the future can be deterministic. But in most cases, the future is not deterministic. One can change one’s future drastically by one’s determined efforts; see, “What is Kamma? – Does Kamma determine Everything?“.
- The key lies in one’s gati (āsava and anusaya are related). It is comparatively easy to remove/change those gati that one has recently acquired, but the longer one acts according to those gatis, the more deeply embedded they become. One gets “niyata vivarana” when one’s Buddha gati is unshakable.
- This is closely related to the fact that when one attains any stage of a magga phala, that is never removed in future rebirths.
4. To give a very simple example, a child who has just memorized but not grasped the concept of adding may be able to give the correct answer if that particular addition has been memorized. But a child who has grasped the concept of addition can add any two numbers, and that “knowledge base” cannot be removed from him.
- This is the same thing that happens when one attains the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna, for example. When one grasps that nothing in these 31 realms can be maintained to one’s satisfaction for a long time, That “base level of comprehension of the nature of this world” is not going to change ever, even though future lives.
- With that level of understanding, one does not have to consciously think to avoid the drastic immoral actions that make one eligible to be born in the apāyās; thoughts of such actions never come to a Sōtapanna‘s mind.
5. In another example from the Tipiṭaka, once there was going to be a war between two factions. Bhikkhus asked Ven. Sariputta, which side was going to win, and Ven. Sariputta named the winning side.
- But when the war was fought months later, the other side won. The bhikkhus were perplexed; how can a prediction of Ven. Sariputta be wrong? They went and asked the Buddha. The Buddha said that Ven. Sariputta’s prediction was correct based on the conditions at that time. But as unforeseeable factors came into play, the outcome changed.
6. The world is extremely complex, and it is impossible to make predictions most of the time. This is related to the anicca nature: any sankata can undergo unexpected change, called viparināma.
- But some gati and kamma can become so strong that it becomes virtually impossible to change the outcome. For example, if one kills one’s parent, it is impossible to avoid birth in an apāya in the next birth.
- In the same way, when one’s views about this world become clear to some level, and one can truly “see” the dangers of births in the apāyās or the unfruitfulness of such actions, one’s mind becomes permanently averse to such actions. That is when one becomes a Sōtapanna.
- Through the next two stages (Sakadāgāmi and Anāgāmi), one’s mind becomes purified to the extent that one will cease to enjoy sense pleasures automatically, and then one will never be born in kāma lōka. At the Arahant stage, one sees the dangers of rebirth anywhere in the 31 realms.
7. But all those stages can be attained only if one is taught the correct path by a Noble Person, who has attained one of the four stages of Nibbāna. The special aspect of a Buddha is the ability to figure out that without anybody’s instructions. And the mind of a Buddha is much purer than an Arahant‘s.
- Even when one attains Arahanthood, some saṃsāric habits remain. Those are not defilements but just habits in the sense of doing something in a particular way, for example. Many such cases are mentioned in the Tipiṭaka. One Arahant could not remove the habit of addressing others inappropriately, even though no malice was involved. Another Arahant had the habit of jumping over puddles on the road.
- But the mind of a Buddha was perfect. Not even a minor behavioral problem could be detected in a Buddha.
8. This can be compared to removing dirt from a glass of water. One could filter the water and get rid of the big pieces of contaminants first. Then one could use better filters to remove even smaller particles. Now there may not be any visible contamination. But for all practical purposes, the water is clean, and that can be compared to an Arahant.
- But there may still be some contaminant molecules that can be uncovered only with a chemical analysis. Perfectly pure water without even a single molecule of a contaminant can be compared to the purity level of a Buddha.
- Another meaning of “pāramitā” is “pereema” or “to filter.” As one keeps filtering out contaminants (defilements) from one’s mind, it becomes purer. Filtering to the ultimate level is fulfilling “pāramitā.”
9. A person who eventually becomes a Buddha starts as a scientist or a philosopher in today’s terminology. It is started via two paths, and both need to be fulfilled: “kim sacca gavēsi, kim kusala gavēsi“: investigations of truth and morality.
- Sacca (pronounced “sachcha”) means the truth; “kusala” is, of course, morals, and “gavēsi” is one who investigates. One starts with the intention of finding out how nature works, what morals are, and the origins of morals.
- Even today, we can assign such labels to many scientists and philosophers. Of course, only a minute fraction of them will eventually become a Buddha or a great disciple, but that is how one starts.
10. That habit (gati) of looking into the truth and morals grows through successive lives. Most of them drop off due to external influences and unexpected circumstances. But those few who get to cultivate those gati keep cultivating them. As I said before, one may not have even heard of a Buddha for many eons while cultivating such gati. It is just that when one is on the right (or even wrong) path, nature starts guiding one: “Dhammō ha vē rakkhati dhammacāri.”
- By the way, one could start as a man or a woman, but only a man attains Buddhahood. This and several other things “that would not happen” are discussed in the “Bahudhātuka Sutta (MN 115)“.
- In our rebirth process, one could change sex. Sex change can happen even during a lifetime (these days, such transgenders are common).
- In the rebirth process, we have been born a man and a woman innumerable times. If I remember correctly, the Bodhisatva was a woman when she started cultivating pāramitā to become Buddha. But at some point (probably after getting niyata vivarana), he had been a male.
- There is a slight difference between males and females. That may not be politically correct to say these days, but that is the reality. One is a man or a woman because one has cultivated the corresponding gati. No matter how many laws are passed, the military will always be dominated by men, for example.
11. In the Tipiṭaka, it says the usual progression of one’s character (gati) buildup is dāna (giving), sila (moral conduct), bhāvanā (mostly loving kindness towards others), and culminating in paññā (wisdom).
- While these main ones are being cultivated, others simultaneously cultivate, and the set of ten is called dasa pāramitā. The others are sacca (truth), viriya (effort), khanti (patience), adhitthāna (determination), metta (loving-kindness), nekkhamma (renunciation), and upekkhā (equanimity).
- The process has been analyzed in great detail. For example, each of those ten grows into higher stages: upa pāramitā (middle) and paramatta pāramitā (ultimate). As one keeps making progress through successive lives, such gati get amplified, and one makes advances to those higher stages.
- As we saw in the previous post, “Animisa Locana Bodhi Poojawa – A Prelude to Acts of Gratitude, “it takes an unimaginably long time to purify the mind and get to the perfect mind of a Buddha.
12. As an example, let us consider the dāna pāramitā. Here one starts with mundane giving (dāna), i.e., giving to the needy, animals, elders, yogis, etc.
- Then one advances to the abhaya dāna. Here one comprehends that every being values its life the most and thus does everything possible to save all lives. It also has an even deeper meaning: Abhaya means remove “bhaya” or fright. Thus the metta pāramitā grows simultaneously too. Most categories are interrelated and grow together.
- The highest is dhamma dāna. Of course, it starts with teaching others morals while living an exemplary life. When one becomes a Buddha, one starts teaching the Buddha Dhamma (the way to “eliminate bhava” or “bhava uddha” and attain Nibbāna).
13. As I said before, such instructions about dasa pāramitā are unknown to the world even through eons. There are many mahā kalpās where not a single Buddha is born. Thus it is not like following a set of instructions. Those qualities grow as one’s saṃsāric gati without even realizing that one is fulfilling such requirements.
- Even today, many people engage in such activities regardless of their religions or cultures. Many of today’s scientists, teachers, physicians, philanthropists, etc., could be in such early stages.
- Thus, we should always respect and honor those who live exemplary lives regardless of their religions, cultures, or any other categorization. One is considered “suitable for paying respects” only based on one’s actions.
14. It is informative to see why there are special categories of five Buddhas, seven Buddhas, 24 Buddhas, and 28 Buddhas in Buddhist literature. All these Buddhas are named and discussed in the following Wikipedia article:
- After striving for a long time, as discussed in #3 above, our Bodhisattā first obtained “niyata vivarana” that he will definitely become a Buddha in the future, from Buddha Dipankara, who was the 24th Buddha preceding Buddha Gotama. A Bodhisattā customarily obtains “niyata vivarana” from 24 Buddhas before attaining the Buddhahood. The last Buddha our Bodhisattā obtained “niyata vivarana from” was Buddha Kassapa.
- Before obtaining “niyata vivarana,” our Bodhisattā obtained “aniyata vivarana” or “not confirmed, but very likely” from three Buddhas named Tannankara, Medhankara, and Saranankara. As the Bodhisattā kept fulfilling the requirements, they were first fulfilled during the time of Buddha Deepankara, as mentioned above.
- The special aspect of the seven Buddhas is that those were the most recent Buddhas. There have been four Buddhas (Kakusanda, Konagama, Kassapa, Gotama) in this mahā kappa, and there were 30 mahā kappā before that, which did not have even a single Buddha. In the mahā kappa before that, there were 2 Buddhas (Siki and Vessabhu); Before that, there was only a single Buddha going back to 91 mahā kappas. So, there have been only 7 Buddhas within the past 91 mahā kappā, and the timeline is discussed in the “Mahāpadāna Sutta (DN 14)“.
- The present mahā kappa is a very special one, having the maximum number (five) of Buddhas in a given mahā kappa. We have had four Buddhas so far, and there will be one more, Buddha Maitreya, before this mahā kappa ends.
15. Finally, pāramitās are also associated with one striving to become one of the 80 disciples of a future Buddha.
- Furthermore, one striving to attain the Arahanthood (or Nibbāna) is also fulfilling pāramitā.