Pāramitā – How a Puthujjana Becomes a Buddha

Pāramitā means the lengthy process for an average human (puthujjana) to purify the mind and attain the Buddhahood.

April 29, 2016; revised September 10, 2022; June 9,2024

A Human Mind Can Attain Any Status/Existence 

1. A Buddha (or a Deva, Brahma, or an animal) starts that process while being an average human (puthujjana.)  

  • The word puthujjana can be interpreted two ways (some words can have multiple meanings not only in Pāli but in other languages, too). (i) “Puthu” means “many” or ‘majority,” and “jana” means “population.” Thus, in this way, puthujjana means “most people.” (ii) The word puthujjana may also come from “pothu” (meaning “not of much use” like the “bark of a tree”) and “janika” means to “generate.” Thus, it could mean “average humans who engage in foolish activities (because they are unaware of the teachings of a Buddha.) That latter meaning is evident in the “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)“: “Yo cāyaṁ kāmesu kāmasukhallikānuyogo hīno gammo pothujjaniko anariyo anatthasaṁhito, yo cāyaṁ attakilamathānuyogo dukkho anariyo anatthasaṁhito.”
  • Any Sammasambuddha, Paccekabuddha, Arahant, or anyone with magga phala would have started off as a puthujjana.
  • Furthermore, births in other realms also occur due to kammic energies generated while being a human. Think about that and ask questions in the forum. 
Pāramitā” Means “to Fulfil”

2. 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 (especially Sanskrit 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 using 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).
  • 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.
Niyata and Aniyata Vivarana

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 will likely 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.
  • In the above, “vivarana” means “a pledge/confirmation,” “niyata” means “without a doubt or will happen,” and “aniyata” means “likely to happen.” In the “aniyata vivarana” stage of a Bodhisatta, a Buddha can see that it is likely to happen. Still, the Bodhisatta has not yet completed all the requirements to attain Buddhahood. A subsequent Buddha will confirm if that Bodhisatta had fulfilled the requirements by that time.
  • 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, it is not deterministic. One can drastically change one’s future 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 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, it is never removed in future rebirths.
Future Cannot be Predicted Most of the Time

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. However, 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 similar to what 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” will not ever change, 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 could Ven. Sariputta’s prediction be wrong? They asked the Buddha. The Buddha said that Ven. Sariputta’s prediction was correct based on the conditions at that time. However, as unforeseeable factors came into play, the outcome changed.

6. The world is extremely complex, and in most cases, it is impossible to make predictions. This is related to the anicca nature: any sankhata 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 clarified 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.
Cleansing of a Mind

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 things out 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 mere 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. First, one could filter the water and remove the big pieces of contaminants. 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.

  • However, 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.”  It becomes purer as one keeps filtering out contaminants (defilements) from one’s mind. Filtering to the ultimate level is fulfilling “pāramitā.”
The Beginnings in the Pāramitā Fulfilling Process

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 where morals come from.
  • 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 more common due to social influences).
  • In the rebirth process, we have been born a man and a woman innumerable times. If I remember correctly, the Bodhisatta 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.
Dasa Pāramitā

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 are simultaneously cultivated, 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 progresses through successive lives, such gati get amplified, and one advances to those higher stages.
  • As we saw in the previous post, “Animisa Locana Bodhi Poojawa – A Prelude to Acts of Gratitude,“ purifying the mind and attaining the perfect mind of a Buddha takes an unimaginably long time.

12. Let us consider the dāna pāramitā as an example. Here, one starts with mundane giving (dāna), i.e., giving to the needy, animals, elders, yogis, etc.

  • Then, one would advance to the abhaya dāna stage. Here, one comprehends that every being values their 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 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 religion, culture, or other categorization. One is considered “suitable for paying respects” only based on one’s actions.
Past Buddhas

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:

List of the named Buddhas

  • After striving for a long time, as discussed in #3 above, our Bodhisattā first obtained “niyata vivarana” that he would 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 fromwas  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 theMahāpadāna Sutta (DN 14)“.
  • The present mahā kappa is very special, having the maximum number (five) of Buddhas in a given mahā kappaWe have had four Buddhas so far, and there will be one more, Buddha Maitreya, before this mahā kappa ends.
Pāramitās for Attaining Various Objectives

15. Finally, pāramitās are also associated with one striving to become one of the 80 disciples of a future Buddha.

  • Furthermore, striving to attain Arahanthood (or Nibbāna) also fulfills pāramitā to attain that state (i.e., pāramitā means to engage in activities leading to a given status).

Note: This post was previously entitled “Pāramitā and Niyata Vivarana – Myths or Realities?”

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