The paramitas, or perfections, in Buddhism are a set of virtues that aspirants cultivate as part of their path. Cultivating these virtues purifies karma, and clears away hindrances to enlightenment. Versions of the paramitas appear in sutras of both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions.
Buddhist historians hold varying opinions on exactly when the paramitas surfaced, and their importance within different schools, and there are a few different versions of them. They reflect many of the same themes found in the two foundation Buddhist teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
In Theravada Buddhism, the most common version of the 'Ten Perfections' (as they are sometimes called) is:
1. Generosity, giving of oneself (dana)
2. Morality, proper conduct (sila)
3. Renunciation, self-discipline (nekkhamma)
4. Wisdom, insight (panna)
5. Diligence, effort, vigor (viriya)
6. Patience, tolerance, endurance (khanti)
7. Honesty (sacca)
8. Determination, resolution (adhitthana)
9. Loving-kindness (metta)
10. Equanimity, serenity (upekkha)
In Mahayana Buddhism, there were originally six, rather than ten, perfections, with most overlapping with the Theravada tradition. In the Lotus sutra, six perfections are listed including numbers 1 (generosity), 2 (morality), 4 (wisdom), 5 (diligence), and 6 (patience) from the Theravada list above. The sixth perfection is dhyana or one-pointed concentration.
In another influential Mahayana sutra often referred to as the Ten Stages sutra, four more paramitas are listed:
7. Skillful means (upaya)
8. Aspiration, determination (pranidhana)
9. Spiritual power (bala)
10. Knowledge (jnana)
Many commentaries have been written within all the branches of Buddhism focused on one or more of the paramitas, and how to put them into practice. To take the first paramita, generosity or giving, as an example, the Anguttara Nikaya discusses three types of giving - the giving of material things, the giving of dharma or spiritual teachings, and the giving of courage or fearlessness in the defense or protection of others.
Metta, or lovingkindness, is a paramita with much written about it, and has become particularly central to many Western Buddhist teachers. The Metta sutta, within Sutta Nipata, offers this as a description of a metta mind-state:
"May all beings be happy and secure, may their hearts be wholesome! Whatever living beings there be; feeble or strong, stout or medium, short or tall, without exception; seen or unseen, those dwelling far or near, those who are born and those who are yet to be born, may all beings be happy! Let none deceive another, not despise any person whatsoever in any place. Let him not wish any harm on another out of anger or ill will. Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings."
All of the paramitas have corresponding practices. For books by contemporary Western teachers that explore cultivating the paramitas in a modern context, try Pocket Peace by Allan Lokos, or Happiness is an Inside Job by Sylvia Boorstein.
Or, if you prefer e-books, note that this article is included in my e-book Introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist Meditation.