For people in the modern world facing the issue of how to practice the Dhamma in daily life, the ten perfections provide a useful framework for how to do it. When you view life as an opportunity to develop these ten qualities—generosity, virtue, renunciation, discernment, persistence, endurance, truth, determination, good will, and equanimity—you develop a fruitful attitude toward your daily activities so that any skillful activity or relationship, undertaken wisely and in a balanced way, becomes part of the practice.

The perfections also provide one of the few reliable ways of measuring the accomplishments of one’s life. “Accomplishments” in the realm of work and relationships have a way of turning into dust, but perfections of the character, once developed, are dependable and lasting, carrying one over and beyond the vicissitudes of daily living. Thus they deserve to take high priority in the way we plan our lives. These two facts are reflected in the two etymologies offered for the word perfection (pāramī): They carry one across to the further shore (paraṁ); and they are of foremost (parama) importance in formulating the purpose of one’s life.

The relevance of the ten perfections to lay life may be related to the fact that the list was drawn from the Jātaka tales, stories of the Buddha’s previous lives in which—often as a lay person—he developed the character traits that led to his becoming a Buddha. Interest in these tales developed in the early centuries after the Buddha passed away. As Buddhism became a popular religion, the idea was formalized that there were three paths to awakening to choose from: the path to awakening as a disciple of a Buddha (sāvaka); the path to awakening as a private Buddha (pacceka-buddha), i.e., one who attained awakening on his own but was not able to teach the path of practice to others; and the path to awakening as a Rightly Self-awakened Buddha (sammā sambuddha). Each path was defined as consisting of perfections (pāramī) of character, but there was a question as to what those perfections were and how the paths differed from one another. The Theravādins, for instance, specified ten perfections, and organized their Jātaka collection so that it culminated in ten tales, each illustrating one of the perfections. The Sarvāstivādins, on the other hand, specified six perfections, and organized their Jātaka collection accordingly.

All Buddhists agreed that the third path took by far the longest to follow, but disagreements arose as to whether the perfections developed along the different paths were quantitatively or qualitatively different. In other words, did a Buddha develop more of the same sort of perfections that an arahant developed, or did he develop perfections of a radically different sort? Those who believed that the perfections differed only quantitatively were able to take the early Buddhist canons as their guide to the path to Buddhahood, for they could simply extrapolate from the path of the arahant as described in those canons. Those seeking Buddhahood who believed that the perfections differed qualitatively, however, had to look outside the canons. People in this latter group often practiced a form of meditation aimed at inducing visions of bodhisattvas treading the path to full Buddhahood, along with Buddhas in other world-systems. These Buddhas and bodhisattvas—it was hoped—would provide an insider’s knowledge of the full Buddha’s path. The teachings that resulted from these visions were very diverse; not until the 3rd century C.E., with the development of the Yogācāra school, was a concerted effort made to collate these various teachings into a single body—what we now know as the Mahāyāna movement—but the differences among these teachings were so great that the Mahāyāna never achieved true unity.

Thus, historically, there have been two major approaches to following the path to full Buddhahood: following guidelines gleaned from the early canons, and following the traditions set in motion by the experiences of visionaries from the beginning of the common era. The materials in this study guide take the first approaches.

There’s a common misunderstanding that the Theravāda school teaches only the sāvaka path, but a glance at Theravāda history will show that many Theravādins have vowed to become bodhisattvas and have undertaken the practice of the ten perfections as set forth in the Theravādin Jātakas. Because these perfections differ only quantitatively for arahants, Theravādins who aspire to arahantship cite the perfections as qualities that they are developing as part of their practice outside of formal meditation. For example, they make donations to develop the perfection of generosity, undertake building projects to develop the perfection of endurance, and so forth.

The material in this study guide is organized under the heading of the eighth perfection—determination—for several reasons. The first reason is that determination is needed for undertaking the path of perfections to begin with, in that it gives focus, motivation, and direction to the practice. The second reason is that the four aspects of skilled determination—discernment, truth, relinquishment, and calm—when studied carefully, cover all ten of the perfections. In this way, the material gathered here illustrates the general principle that each of the perfections, when properly practiced, includes all ten. The third reason is that the four aspects of skilled determination highlight the importance of establishing wise priorities and sticking to them regardless of the temptation to sacrifice them for lesser aims. In this way, they help guard against a common problem in approaching practice in daily life: a tendency to indulge in the self-delusion that can justify any activity, as long as it’s done mindfully, as part of the path.

The fourth, and perhaps most important, reason for organizing the material in this way is that skilled determination begins with discernment, the ability to make wise distinctions that help keep each of the perfections on path to the goal of ending suffering. If they are not informed by these distinctions, the perfections are simply generic virtues, common to all cultures, leading to pleasant results but not necessarily to the transcendent. Thus the material here has been chosen to highlight the need to use discernment in making important distinctions in developing the perfections in a wise and effective way.

For instance, under the theme of good will, passage §18 shows that good will is not necessarily loving-kindness: Wishing happiness for others is not necessarily a desire to become involved with them. Passages §§20-21 show that, although one should extend good will to all, one should be selective in one’s friendships. Passage §22 makes the point that good will should not be practiced to the point of entanglement.

Similarly, under the theme of persistence, passage §36 points out that persistence is not simply a matter of brute force. One has to discern which type of effort is appropriate for the issue at hand. Passages §§37-38 show that the amount of effort appropriate in a particular situation has to be gauged both by the nature of the problem and by one’s own level of energy. Under the theme of renunciation, passages §§56-57 teach standards for determining how much physical pleasure is compatible with progress on the path. Under the theme of endurance, passage §70 points out the need to distinguish what should and should not be tolerated, at the same time counseling common sense in avoiding unnecessary dangers. Passages §§62-66 recommend skillful strategies for making difficult situations more tolerable: developing good will and sympathy for all, reflecting on the inspiring example of those who have endured difficulties in the past, nourishing the mind with the rapture of concentration, and depersonalizing the situation so as not to add painful narratives on top of physical and mental pain. Under the theme of equanimity, passages §§72-73 distinguish levels of equanimity on the path, making the point that—contrary to a common misunderstanding—equanimity is not the goal, but simply a means to a higher end.

Passages in this guide are drawn from the Pali Canon and from the teachings of Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo.