Parami (Paramitas) and Sinxay — Part 1

Parami (Paramitas) and Sinxay — Part 1

In our last post we showed how That Luang is actually designed to show case the three levels of parami. King Saysetthathirath, who considered himself a bodhisatta, in approximately 1560 added thirty smaller stūpas around the much taller stūpa that were meant to represent the three levels of each of the ten parami:

1. Parami (perfections)

2. Upaparami (superior perfections) and

3. Paramatthaparami (supreme perfections).

Theravādan Buddhists believe that when the Buddha recounted his previous lives, he referred to himself as a bodhisatta, a life where he was working on his own enlightenment, inferring that he was unenlightened as a bodhisatta and his goal in mastering the parami was to gain enlightenment.

Mahāyāna Buddhists, unlike the Theravādans, believe anyone can become a bodhisatta, as is recounted in The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, Volume Three:

“The bodhisattva—the renowned ideal of Mahāyāna Buddhism—is not a god ordeity but a way of being we can all aspire to . . . Those who take the bodhisattvavow make one simple commitment: to put others first, holding nothing back for themselves . . . It is a statement of willingness to give up one’s own well-being,even one’s own enlightenment, for the sake of others. And a bodhisattva is simply a person who lives in the spirit of that vow, perfecting the qualities known as thesix paramitas (perfections)—generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation,and t ranscendental knowledge—in his effort to liberate beings.”

In our own writing, we use the Theravāda Pali spelling of parami, because Sinxay is a Theravāda Jātaka tale, but in the Mahāyāna tradition, the parami are more commonly referred to with the Sanskrit spelling paramitas. The word parami originates from parama, “supreme,” and implies the importance of mastering these virtues by a bodhisatta in the long course of his spiritual development.

The Sanskrit word paramita is often defined as crossing over to the other shore, but can also be translated as “perfection” or “perfect realization.” Through the practice of the six paramitas, Mahāyāna Buddhists believe they cross over from ignorance and delusion to enlightenment.

Within the Theravāda tradition, the six paramitas are expanded to ten perfections, as seen in the Pāli canon’s Buddhavamsa:

Dāna parami : generosity, giving of oneself

Sīla parami : virtue, morality, proper conduct

Nekkhamma parami : renunciation

Paññā parami : transcendental wisdom, insight

Viriya parami : energy, diligence, vigor, effort

Khanti parami : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance

Sacca parami : truthfulness, honesty

Adhi hāna (adhitthana) parami : determination, resolution

Mettā parami : loving-kindness

Upekkhā (also spelled upekhā) parami : equanimity, serenity

 

Shaw writes in The Jātakas about the importance of these ten perfections, so central to the vow the Bodhisatta takes when he becomes a Bodhisatta,

“This moment, the seed of all the stories, introduces the idea of the perfections, the openings on to the ‘great highway’ that leads to complete awakening. Makinghis resolve, the Bodhisatta says, ‘So few are all the things in this world that bring awakening to maturation, that bring about Buddhahood and that are to be fulfilled by Bodhisattas. Beyond these ten perfections there are no others. These ten perfections do not exist in the sky above; they do not exist in the earth below, or in any of the directions that start with the East. They are established right in the depths of my heart.’” (Jātaka 1 25)

While doing our research on Sinxay in Laos and Isan, we always made sure to ask the monks we talked with what parami (perfection) they thought Sinxay, as a bodhisatta, might be working on in the story. While some Jātakas might not have the bodhisatta working on parami, texts composed in imitation of the Theravāda Jātaka collection seem to maintain a key focus on the perfections, and so it is with Sinxay.

According to Appleton, “The whole theory of the paramis is that they are only mapped onto the text after it has already been collected together and named as a Jātaka.” In any case, determining which perfection the bodhisatta might be working on can be challenging, as in a long story like Sinxay, all ten virtues might have their respective supporting roles. A majority of the monks, when responding to our question did reply that viriya parami seemed to take center stage in Sinxay, while a smaller number of monks told us the khanti parami seemed equally important.

In our retelling, Sinxay is born after his twin brother, Sangthong, and as Pangkham writes in Sang Sinxay, “Tradition is that when there were twins the baby born last is considered the older one and he was given the name Sinxay, meaning he who will triumph by his virtues.” The intimate connection between virtue and viriya parami is exquisitely highlighted in a famous Mahāyāna text called the Bodhicaryāvatāra (A Guide to the Bodhisatta’s Way of Life) written in AD 700 in Sanskrit verse by Shantideva, a Buddhist monk at Nālandā Monastic University in India.

In the seventh chapter about the “The Practice of Joyous Effort” and the importance of viriya parami, Shantideva writes:

Thus with patience I will bravely persevere

Through zeal it is that I shall reach enlightenment.

If no wind blows, then nothing stirs,

And neither is there merit without perseverance.

Heroic perseverance means delight in virtue.

(Bodhicaryāvatāra 7.2)

 

“Heroic perseverance means delight in virtue” succinctly describes Sinxay!

 

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