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Original Publication should be cited:

Apple J.B. (2017) Pāramitā. In: Sarao K.T.S., Long J.D. (eds) Buddhism and Jainism.
Encyclopedia of Indian Religions. Springer, Dordrecht

Pāramitā

James B. Apple
University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta
jbapple@ucalgary.ca

Synonyms: perfection, supremacy, excellence, virtues, transcendental virtues, six perfections.

Definition: The pāramitās, or perfections, are virtues that are fully developed by a bodhisattva

(Buddha-in-training) to become a Buddha.

The pāramitās (Pāli, pāramī; Tibetan, pha rol tu phyin pa; Chinese, boluomi; Japanese,

haramitsu) are the virtues that are fully developed by a bodhisattva (Buddha-in-training) to

become a Buddha. A number of Buddhist traditions acknowledge that the perfections are

practiced through multiple lifetimes extending over aeons of time for the purpose of achieving

full Buddhahood for the welfare of beings.The Sanskrit and Pāli noun pāramitā is derived from

the adjective parama, meaning “high, complete, perfect.” In this sense, pāramitā is an old noun

denoting ‘the highest point’ [1, pp. 547-548]. The Theravāda has consistently understood the

term in this way and has commonly used another derivative, pāramī, as a synonym. In contrast,

Mahāyāna traditions have analyzed the term as consisting of two words, pāram itā, meaning

“gone to the beyond,” signifying its purport for progress in the bodhisattva path. The Chinese

and Tibetan translations of the term pāramitā (du 度 and pha-rol-tu phyin-pa, respectively)

reflect this latter understanding of its meaning. These interpretations may differ between

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mainstream Buddhist (nikāya) and Mahāyāna traditions, but the understandings they imply are

found among most Buddhist schools. One representation “saw the term as derived from pāram

“other (side)” plus the past participle ita “gone” [2, p. 153n35]. This derivation is later preserved

in the standard Tibetan translation pha-rol-tu phyin-pa “gone to the other shore.” Other

interpretations advocated that this etymology was misguided, and derived pāramitā from the

term parama “excellent, supreme.” The noun pāramitā is translated in early Chinese through

“double translation” composed by du wuji 度無極, meaning “crossed over” (du 度) plus

“unexcelled, limitless” (wuji 無極) which brings together both of the traditional etymologies

[3,153]. A number of Buddhist works provide semantic etymologies for pāramitā, etymologies

which explain the meaning of term rather than its linguistic origin, based on contextual

underlying factors that a text is trying to advocate. The understanding of pāramitā in the sense

of “to reach the other shore” generally conveys the idea that a perfection enables one to go from

the realm of saṃsāra, the world of repeated rebirth and redeath, to the blissful realm of nirvāṇa

[4].

The conception of the perfections as a set is not found in the earliest layers of Buddhist

literature [5]. Rather, the perfections as a set of practices developed sometime before the

common era as an alternative group of spiritual practices in conjunction with revised notions of

Buddhahood as well as newly considered notions of what constitutes the path leading to

Buddhahood. The pāramitās furnished an arrangement of Buddhist thought and practice that

focused on the ideal of the bodhisattva and how a bodhisattva was imagined to fulfill the

immeasurable qualities and virtues necessary for the attainment of Buddhahood. The qualities of

the pāramitās and their outlines for practice were extensions of earlier mainstream Buddhist

arrangements of practice, such as the three trainings (triśīkṣa) of morality (śīla), concentration

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(samādhi), and insight (prajñā), but were modified with the underlying ethos, aspirations, and

commitments for attaining incomparable Buddhahood for the welfare of all beings.

The lists of perfections varied according to the genre of literature in which they appeared.

What practices constituted the varied lists of perfections and how the perfections were conceived

differed not only between groups, but also between scholarly authors. The pāramitās appear in

Buddhist literature as a group in varying lists but the lists of perfections are notoriously unfixed

with six and ten perfections being the most common.

Perhaps the earliest genre of Buddhist literature in which the pāramitās appear are the

collections of Jātakas, the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives. The pāramitās in these stories

provide major underlying themes such as self-sacrifice, ethical virtue, and patience that

demonstrate the magnificent qualities developed by the Buddha in his previous lives by carrying

out moral acts as a bodhisattva on the bodhisattva path. In the Aviṣahya Jātaka, for example, the

bodhisattva cultivates the perfection of generosity (dānapāramitā) by donating alms to

supplicants in spite of being reduced to poverty. The bodhisattva is a boy who refuses to steal,

even after encouragement from his brahmin teacher to do so, in the Brāhmaṇa Jātaka, to

illustrate the cultivation of the perfection of morality (śīlapāramitā). In the Kṣāntivādin Jātaka,

the bodhisattva is an ascetic who cultivates the perfection of forbearance (kṣāntipāramitā) by

tolerating being violently disfigured by an angry king [6, pp. 36-37]. Most Buddhist groups

(nikāya) had collections of Jātakas that differred in length and number. Buddhist groups and

movements also understood the purport of the Jātakas differently, with mainstream groups like

the Theravāda seeing the perfections in the Jātakas as qualities to be admired while Mahāyāna

movements understood the perfections in the Jātakas as models to emulate.

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Theravāda Buddhist works, such as the Cariyāpiṭaka, arrange Jātaka tales based on a

hierarchy of perfections. The Theravāda tradition recognizes ten perfections, although only eight

are listed in the Buddhāpadāna and seven in the Cariyāpiṭaka [7]. In Theravāda traditions, the

perfections provide Buddhists with a set of ideals to worship and venerate the Buddha as a model

of incomparable spiritual significance and superioroity. The ten perfections that have become

commonly accepted among Theravāda traditions serve as guides to structuring the stories of the

Buddha’s previous lives, the Jātakas, and give evidence to the supremacy of the Buddha who has

fulfilled these virtues in his awakening. The ten perfections in the Theravāda tradition are (1)

generosity (dāna), (2) morality (sīla), (3) renunciation (nekhamma), (4) insight (pañña), (5)

energy (viriya), (6) patience (khanti), (7) truthfulness (sacca), (8) resolution (adhiṭṭhāna), (9)

loving-kindness (metta), and (10) equanimity (upekkhā) [8].

A set of six perfections became common among some genres of mainstream Buddhist

literature and developed into a standard list in a number of Mahāyāna sūtras. However, other

lists of four, five, or seven also occurred. For instance, the Māhavibhāṣa of the Sarvāstivādin

tradition defends a list of four perfections (dāna, śīla, vīrya, and prajñā), claiming that the other

perfections are subsumed under these [9, p. 184,n.25]. The Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra, or

“Lotus sūtra” recognizes a tradition with six perfections but also lists five perfections in some

sections of the text. Likewise, the Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā-sūtra provides lists of five or six but

also provides lists at two places in the text which include seven or eight perfections. As modern

scholarship has noted, [10, p.53, n.36], aberrant lists of pāramitās may be found in the

Lalitavistara, the larger Sukhāvatīvyūha, the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, and the Mahāvastu. In time, a

set of six perfections became standard in Mahāyāna sūtras. The six are (1) generosity (dāna), (2)

morality (śīla), (3) patience (kṣānti), (4) vigor (vīrya), (5) concentration (dhyāna), and (6)

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wisdom (prajñā). This list was expanded to complement the ten stages (bhūmi) traversed by a

bodhisattva in the course leading to full Buddhahood. The additional perfections were (7) skill-

in-means (upāya-kauśalya), (8) resolution (praṇidhāna), (9) strength (bala), and (10) knowledge

(jñāna) [11].

The perfections are discussed in varying ways in Mahāyāna sūtras and it is important to

recognize the heterogeneous character of the presentation of perfections in early Mahāyāna

discourses. The perfections as they appear in sūtras that become classified as Mahāyāna provide

the themes and practices entailed in the bodhisattva ideal and constitute the practices a

bodhisattva seeks to fulfill in carrying out their initial spiritual resolution (bodhicitta) and vows

(praṇidhāna) to achieve Buddhahood for the welfare of all beings. The discussion of pāramitās

found in the great and diverse variety of Mahāyāna sūtras generally appears in three different

ways: those sūtras that center on the pāramitās, those which partially discuss the pāramitās, and

sūtras that focus on a specific perfection. For instance, the Ugraparipṛcchā focuses on the

perfection of generosity (dāna) and the Upāliparipṛcchā discusses morality (śīla) [12, pp. 107-

109]. Sūtras which discuss the pāramitās as a set of six group them into subsets based on their

overall orientation. For instance, the Prajñāpāramitā literature will group the six perfections

into a subset of five which is supported by the overarching perfeciton of wisdom

(prajñāpāramitā). Other sūtras outline the perfection into subsets that approach the pāramitās in

terms of whether they constitute the equipment for merit (puṇyasaṃbhāra), usally including the

perfections of dāna, śīla, and kṣānti, or the equipment of knowledge (jñānasaṃbhāra), usually

including dhyāna and prajñā, with vīrya as a shared member between the equipment subsets [13,

pp.63-64].

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In addition to Mahāyāna sūtras, a number of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist śāstras, or

technical digests, that have been preserved discuss the perfections directly. Nāgārjuna,

considered to be one of the major figures for the rise of Mahāyāna traditions and famous for his

articulation of the philosophy of emptiness (śūnyatā), composed two letters addressed to kings

which advocate practicing the perfections on the bodhisattva path. Nāgārjuna’s “Letter to a

Friend” (Suhṛllekha, vs. 8) [14] and Ratnāvalī (iv.80), or ‘Precious Garland,’[15] both mention

the six perfections to be carried out by an aspiring bodhisattva. Maitreyanātha, a figure who is

considered one of the founders of the Yogācāra tradition, elucidates the perfections in several

works attributed to him that are preserved in Tibetan and Chinese. The Ornament for Clear

Realization (Abhisamayālaṃkāra) and the Ornament of the Mahāyāna Sūtras

(Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra) both have sections which discuss the perfections. The Ornament for

Clear Realization (Abhisamayālaṃkāra) [16], an important technical digest that outlines the

bodhisattava path, discusses the perfections throughout the text and the sixteen chapter of the

Ornament of the Mahāyāna Sūtras [17] provides a summary on the six perfections. The

Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra, an enormous commentary on the “Larger Prajñāpāramitā”

composed in the fourth century, attributed to Nāgārjuna and preserved in Kumārajīva’s Chinese

translation, the Dazhidulun 大智度論, contains numerous chapters that extensively outline the

perfections [18]. Āryaśūra (fourth century) composed his Compendium of the Perfections

(Pāramitāsamāsa) a Sanskrit text in verse which outlines doctrines and practices for the six

perfections [19]. Candrakīrti, an important seventh century Indian Buddhist thinker, composed

his Madhyamakāvatāra which outlines the bodhisattva path in ten stages (bhūmi) based on the

Daśabhūmika sūtra and correlates the stages with ten perfections leading to Buddhahood from a

Madhyamaka perspective [20]. Śāntideva, a seventh century Indian Buddhist scholar-monk who

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is also considered a Madhyamaka philosopher, composed two major works that survive in

Sanskrit, the Bodhicaryāvatāra (‘Introduction to the Practice of Awakening’) [21] and

Śikṣāsamuccaya (‘Compendium of Training’) [22], which both discuss the Mahāyāna path of

perfections. The Bodhicaryāvatāra is one of the earliest major Madhyamaka works to take the

perfections of the bodhisattva as a focus for articulating the Mahāyāna path. The work outlines

how the first five perfections are guided by and auxilarly to the sixth perfection, the perfection of

wisdom (prajñāpāramitā).

The diversity of Mahāyāna Buddhist sources provided various and specific accounts of

the perfections, and the perfections did not become systemematized into a set of six or ten until

Mahāyāna movements became more developed. Even after Mahāyāna Buddhist movements

became more popular in India, authors provided different accounts of the six or ten perfections

emphasizing distinctive points for their practice. Nevertheless, the characteristics of the six or ten

perfections as found in Mahāyāna Buddhist literature share a number of general features. In

general, the perfections were sequentially ordered in the Mahāyāna path to reflect a progressively

developed cultivation of virtues leading to the goal of Buddhahood. According to Candrakīrti,the

bodhisattva may simultaneously practice acts of generosity, morality, patience, and so forth but

they are mastered or perfected in a sequential order beginning with generosity (dāna) and

culminating with awareness (jñāna) [23]. The perfections were infused with the spiritual intent

for awakening (bodhicitta), the resolutions (praṇidhāna) to attain the goal for others, as well as

the dedication or turning over (pariṇāmana) of the merit from one’s cultivation of virtues for the

benefit of all living beings in the course of reaching Buddhahood [24, pp. 54-55]. The most

common occurrence of the perfections among Mahāyāna sūtras was in a set of six, which have

the following general chacteristics.

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The perfection of generosity (dānapāramitā) is often listed first and foremost among the

perfections. Dāna means to give an ordinary gift, to give the gift of the dharma, or to give the gift

of mental peace and tranquility to another. Dāna in Mahāyāna discourses serves as a symbol of

self-sacrifice [25, p. 70]. The perfected act of giving is a statement of great compassion which

indicated the dedication of a bodhisattva to others and a commitment for the sake of

omniscience. The perfection of giving is based on the earlier models of giving found in

mainstream Buddhist literature, particularly the Jātakas. The story of Sadāprarudita in the

Aṣṭasāhasrikā prajñāpāramitā reflects the importance of giving in the Perfection of Wisdom

literature as he gives away everything for the sake of highest awakening [26]. There multiple

types of giving in Mahāyāna literature include dharmadāna, the gift of the teaching, and

āmiṣadāna, material gifts. Mahāyāna sūtras also mention abhayadāna, the giving of

fearlessness. Bodhisattvas seek to mentally renounce the body as well as thought of ownership.

Sūtras often speak of the dharmayajña ‘dharma-offering’ to fulfill the perfection of giving [27].

Mahāyāna sūtras and technical digests will often discribe the perfection of generosity as acts of

giving that are perfected acts free of concept (nirvikalpakapāramitā) being triply pure

(trimaṇḍalapariśuddha) in making no distinction between the thing given (deya), the donor

(dāyaka), and the recipient (pratigrāhaka) [28]. Śāntideva sums up this perfection by stating that

“the perfection of generosity is said to result from the mental attitdue of relinquising all that one

has to people, together with the fruit of the act” [29].

The perfection of morality or ethical discipline (śīlapāramitā) is the attitude of abstention

which refrains from harming others and in turn, helping sentient beings by encouraging them to

cultivate moral virtue. In this manner, bodhisattvas must purify their own conduct before

installing others in practice. The sūtras primarily discuss the perfection of morality in relation to

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the ten virtuous paths of actions (daśakuśalapatha), pure modes of conduct based on compassion

and service to sentient beings [30, p. 80). The ten modes of pure conduct was often combined

with the five precepts (pañcaśīla) as a synthetic list of eleven moral precepts (śikṣāpada) [31, pp.

107-11). The ten virtuous paths of actions, as listed, for example, from the

Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna sūtra [32, p. 81], consists of the following abstentions: abstention

from taking life (prāṇātighātād virati), abstention from taking what was not given (adattādānād

virati), abstention from wrong conduct regarding the passions (kāmamithyācārād virati),

abstention from speaking falsehood (mṛṣāvādāt prativirati), abstention from calumny (paiśunyāt

prativarati), abstention from harsh speech (pāruṣyāt prativarati), abstention from frivolous

speech (saṃbhinnapralāpāt prativirati), abstention from covetousness (abhidhyāyāḥ prativirati),

abstention from malice (vyāpādāt prativirati), and abstention from wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭeḥ

prativirati). Later technical digests will arrange the perfeciton of morality into three categories:

the discipline of vows (saṃvara–śīla), the discipline of collecting virtuous dharmas

(kuśaladharmasaṃgrāhaka–śīla), and the discipline of effecting the aims of sentient beings

(sattvārthakriyā–śīla). The discipline of vows (saṃvara-śīla) is constituted by the ten virtuous

paths of action. The discipline of collecting virtuous dharmas (kuśaladharmasaṃgrāhaka–śīla)

seeks to increase virtuous qualities in the mind and not degenerate virtues already developed.

The discipline of effecting the aims of sentient beings (sattvārthakriyā–śīla) focuses on welfare

of living beings and accomplishing their aims in a suitable manner without wrongdoing [33].

Śīla as a perfection is not concerned only with one’s own morality but focuses on the moral

condition of the entire world [34, p. 86].

The perfection of forbearance or patient endurance (kṣāntipāramitā) signifies cultivating

a range of emotional and intellectual qualities to endure numerous types of hardship for the

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benefit of living beings. The Pañviṃśatisāhasrikā prajñāpāramitā mentions a twofold division

of this perfection in terms of forbearance in regards to sentient beings (sattvakṣānti) and

forbearance with regard to dharma (dharmakṣānti). Śāntideva notes in both his

Bodhicaryāvatāra [35, pp. 51-61) and Śikṣāsamuccaya [36], based on the Dharmasaṅgīti Sūtra,

that kṣānti has three aspects: forbearance towards the endurance of suffering, forbearance in

discerning the Dharma; and forbearance in the endurance of injuries from others (kṣāntis trividhā

dharmsaṅgītisūtre’bhihitā duḥkhādhivāsanakṣāntiḥ dharmanidhyānakṣāntiḥ

parāpakāramarṣanakṣāntiś ceti /). The perfection of forbearance is considered an interior mental

quality that is developed within one’s own mind and is not contingent upon changing other

people’s behavior or other external circumstances. The mental cultivation of the perfection of

patient forbearance consists just in the perfect fulfillment of the mind’s proficiency in ceasing

one’s own anger.

The fourth perfection, vīrya may be translated as “energy,” “striving,” “exertion,”

“vigor,” or “joyous perseverance.” Śāntideva sums up vīrya as a perfection in his

Bodhicaryāvāra (7.2)[37], “What is vīrya? The endeavor to do what is skilful.” Vīryapāramitā is

the enthusiastic engagement in accumulating virtuous qualities and working for the welfae of all

living beings. A number of Mahāyāna sūtras classify vīrya into two types: corporeal striving and

mental striving [38, pp. 93-94]. Mahāyāna scholastic texts, such as the Bodhisattvabhūmi,

recognize three types of vīrya: armor-like exertion (saṃnāhavīrya), exertion which collects

virtuous qualities (kuśaladharmasaṃgrāhakavīrya), and exertion carried out for the benefit of

sentient beings (sattvārthakriyāvīrya) [39, pp. 208-209]. Vīrya is devotion to courageous

bodhisattva action, which aims at universal liberation, and is commited to working for the benefit

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of sentient beings. Vīrya strives for the strengthening of virtue and supports steadfastness to

persevere in cultivating the other five perfections.

The fifth perfection, dhyāna, the perfection of meditative absorption or meditative

stabilization, is a one-pointed state of mind, stabilized on virtue, that is able to fixate on an object

of meditation without distraction [40, pp. 206-207]. Dhyāna is therefore a technical term used

by Buddhists to describe higher levels of consciousness that are attained through the practice of

quiescence or śamatha meditation [41, p. 75]. Bodhisattvas cultivate and master all forms of

meditations, including liberations (vimokṣa), concentrations (samādhi), and attainments

(samāpatti) [42, p. 183). The discussion on dhyānapāramitā in Mahāyāna sūtras focuses on the

ways in which meditative absorption may contribute to the actualization of the bodhisattva vow

to be of benefit to sentient beings [43, p. 217]. The preliminary practices leading up to

dhyānapāramitā build upon practices found in mainstream Buddhist meditative practices, and

therefore Mahāyāna discourses on dhyānapāramitā center upon the mastery of supersory

knowledge (abhijñā) and cognitive knowledge (jñāna). Through dhyānapāramitā the bodhisattva

is said to attain five supersensory powers (abhijñā) that assist the bodhisattva in helping other

beings and installing them in the practice of the six perfections. The five supersensory powers

are the divine eye (divyacakṣus), the divine ear (divyaśrota), knowledge of others’ thoughts

(paracitttajñāna), remembrance of previous births (pūrvanivāsānusmṛti), and supernormal power

(ṛddhi) [44, pp. 99-100].

The sixth perfection, prajñā, often translated as ‘wisdom’ or ‘insight’, is the analytical

discernment that cognizes the ontological status of things. The acquirement of prajñā was

considered essential to establish the other perfections of genorosity, morality, patience, striving,

and meditative absorption as actual ‘perfections.’ Prajñā as a perfection served as a guide for

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directing the other perfections toward Buddhahood, and the other perfections worked

synergistically with prajñā to actualize awakening. Prajñāpāramitā was the insight or wisdom

that constituted Omniscient cognition (sarvajñatā) and was identified with the end itself, perfect

awakening (saṃbodhi). Prajñāpāramitā was considered to be non-dual (advaya) awareness that

was beyond all thought constructions (vikalpa) permeated with insight that was absolutely pure

(atyantaviśuddhi), neither born nor extinguished (anutpādānirodha), and imperishable

(akṣaya)[45, pp.159-160]. Prajñāpāramitā was generally regarded as exclusively teaching the

realization of emptiness (śūnyatā), the reality of the essencelessness of things

(dharmanairatyma) and of people (pudgalanairatyma). Buddhist sources provide multiple

classifications for prajñā, including worldly (laukika) and supermundane (lokottara), along with

a number of different forms of analysis and reasonings. Within Buddhist scholastic sources,

prajñā as a perfection developed within a sequence of understanding beginning with the

discernment or wisdom acquired from hearing (śrutamāyi-prajñā), leading to discernment or

wisdom acquired from reflection (cintamayā-prajñā), that culminates in discernment or wisdom

cultivated in meditation (bhāvanāmayī-prajñā) [46].

In the course of the development of Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, perfections were

added to the list of six to complement the ten stages or levels (bhūmi) traversed by a bodhisattva

on the way to Buddhahood. Four perfections—skilful means (upāya-kauśalya), resolution

(praṇidhāna), power (bala), and knowledge (jñāna)—were added to establish a group of ten

perfections (daśapāramitā). Skilful means (upāya-kauśalya) refers to the deft and proficient

strategies or expedients that a bodhisattva utilizes to benefit sentient beings. Praṇidhāna refers to

the vow or resolution that bodhisattvas make to save all living beings from saṃsāra. Bala refers

to the strengths or powers of bodhisattvas to guide sentient beings in their practices. Jñana-

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pāramitā is the perfection of awareness or transcendental knowledge, and is the highest wisdom

of a bodhisattva correlated with the tenth stage of practice [47].

The perfections were incorporated into the rituals and iconography of Tantric or

Vajrayāna forms of Buddhism in the forms of feminine powers and forces [48, pp. 323-324].

The pāramitās in Vajrayāna Buddhist literature were worshipped as deities (pāramitādevī) in

human form with attributes of color and ornaments and their number was increased to twelve, by

adding ratnapāramitā (‘jeweled perfection’) and vajrakarmapāramitā to the list of ten found in

Mahāyāna works [49].

Throughout the history of Buddhist forms of culture, the perfections have shaped the

ideals and practices of those devoted to, or those seeking to emulate, Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

The manner in which the perfections were understood in different Buddhist cultures, such as in

Tibet or Southeast Asia, was dependent on the Buddhist literature that was accessible or

acceptable to the particular culture and the interpretative attention given to that literature.

Cross-references:
Aṣṭasahāsrikāprajñāpāramitā, bodhisattva, Buddhist scriptures, Mahāyāna, Prajñāpāramitā,
upāya,

References

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