The Bhumis in Mahayana


The Ten Ox Herding pictures are said to represent the ten stages, also called The Ten Bodhisattva Bhumi. They are said to be the ten stages on the Mahayana bodhisattva’s path of awakening.

The Sanskrit term bhumi means “ground” or “foundation.” In theory, each stage represents a level of attainment, and serves as a basis for the next one. Each level marks a definite advancement in one’s training, that is accompanied by progressively greater power and wisdom.

The first bhumi, the Very Joyous is attained with the first direct perception of emptiness and is simultaneous with entry into the third of the five paths to awakening, the path of seeing. It is called “very joyous” because the bodhisattva works at the perfections of generosity and develops the ability to give away everything without regret and with no thought of praise or reward (for themselves). All phenomena are viewed as empty and as subject to decay, suffering, and death, and so bodhisattvas lose all attachment to them.

According to Tsong Khapa, first level bodhisattvas directly understand that persons do not exist by way of their own nature. and therefore are able to overcome the delusion that the five aggregates constitute a truly existent person. They also eliminate predispositions toward corrupted ethics so completely that they will not arise again.

Despite having directly Perceived emptiness, bodhisattvas on the first level are primarily motivated by faith. They train in ethics to cleanse their minds of negativity. In doing so are able to prepare themselves for the cultivation of ordinary meditative absorption that comes on the second level.

The second bhumi, the Stainless because one’s ethics are perfect and overcome all tendencies towards engagement in negative actions. Their control becomes so complete that even when asleep and dreaming there are no immoral thoughts. According to Tsong Khapa wrote that for such a bodhisattva,

“on all occasions of waking and dreaming his movements or activities of body, speech and mind are pure of even subtle infractions…he fulfills the three paths of virtuous actions-abandoning killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct-with his body; the middle four-abandons lying, divisive talk, harsh speech, and senseless chatter-with his speech; and the last three-abandoning covetousness, harmful intent, and wrong views-with his mind. Not only does he refrain from what is prohibited but he also fulfills all the positive achievements related to proper ethics.”

According to Nagarjuna,

The second is called the Stainless

Because all ten [virtuous] actions

Of body, speech, and mind are stainless

And they naturally abide in those [deeds of ethics].

Through the maturation of those [good qualities]

The perfection of ethics becomes supreme.

They become Universal Monarchs helping beings,

Masters of the glorious four continents and of the seven precious objects.

Because of this, the bodhisattva’s mind becomes purified and equinanimous, which is a prerequisite for training in the four jhanas/dhyanas (meditative absorptions) and the four arupajhanas (formless absorptions).

According to Tsong Khapa the third bhumi is called the “Luminous” because when attained “the fire of wisdom burning all the fuel of objects of knowledge arises along with a light which by nature is able to extinguish all elaborations of duality during meditative equipoise.”

Bodhisattvas on this level cultivate the perfection of patience. Their equanimity becomes so profound that

even if someone…cuts from the body of this bodhisattva not just flesh but also bone, not in large sections but bit by bit, not continually but pausing in between, and not finishing in a short time but cutting over a long period, the bodhisattva would not get angry at the mutilator.” (Tsong Khapa)

On the fourth bhumi, called the “Radiant”, bodhisattvas are said to cultivate the perfection of effort and eliminate afflictions.

According to Wonch’uk, this level is so named because fourth bhumi bodhisattvas “constantly emit the radiance of exalted wisdom.” He also cites Maitreya’s Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras, which explains that bodhisattvas on this level burn up the afflictive obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience with the radiance of their wisdom.

They destroy deeply rooted afflictions and cultivate the thirty-seven requisites of enlightenment. See Wings to Awakening.  

The fifth bhumi is called Difficult to Cultivate because it involves practices that are so arduous and require a great deal of effort to perfect. It is also called the “Difficult to Overcome” because when one has completed the training of this level one has profound wisdom and insight that are difficult to surpass or undermine.

According to Nagarjuna, the fifth is called the Extremely Difficult to Overcome.

Since all evil ones find it extremely hard to conquer him;
He becomes skilled in knowing the subtle
Meanings of the noble truths and so forth.

Bodhisattvas on this level cultivate the perfection of samadhi.

The sixth bhumi is called the “Manifest” because the bodhisattva clearly perceives the workings of dependent arising and directly understands “signlessness” (Animitta, Pali & Sanskrit). Signlessness, is to be free from marks or attributes, not contaminated by outward signs or appearance, undefiled, unaffected, unconditioned and refers to the fact that phenomena seem to possess their apparent qualities by way of their own nature, but when one examines this appearance one realizes that all qualities are merely mentally imputed and not a part of the nature of the objects they appear to characterize. This “signlessness” is an important aspect of jhana/dhyana meditation practice.

The seventh bhumi is called  “the Gone Afar” Bodhisattvas on the seventh level develop the ability to contemplate signlessness uninterruptedly and enter into advanced jhana for long period,. passing beyond both the worldly and otherworldly paths of “Hearers” (sravakas) and “Lone Buddhas” (Paccakabuddhas).

According to Nagarjuna,

The seventh is the Gone Afar because

The number of his qualities has increased,

Moment by moment he can enter

The equipoise of cessation (of dukkha).

The eighth bhumi is called the “Immovable” because the bodhisattva has overcome all afflictions regarding signs and their minds are always completely absorbed in the Dhamma/Dharma. At this stage, an Arya Bodhisattva has attained realization equivalent to a full Arhat. In this bhumi bodhisattva has achieved nibbana/nirvana.

According to Nargarjuna, the eighth is the Immovable, the youthful stage,

Through nonconceptuality he is immovable;

And the spheres of his body, speech and mind’s

Activities are inconceivable

The ninth bhumi, called “the Good Intelligence” It is said that from this point on, bodhisattvas move quickly toward enlightenment itself. Progress was slow up to this point, but now things move quickly. On the ninth level, they fully understand the three vehicles – “hearers,” “lone buddhas,” and bodhisattvas – and perfect the ability to teach the doctrine.

According to the Sutra Explaining the Thought,

Because of attaining faultlessness and very extensive intelligence in terms of mastery of teaching the doctrine in all aspects, the ninth level is called the “Good Intelligence.”

Ninth bhumi bodhisattvas also acquire the “four analytical knowledges”-of fundamental concepts, meaning, grammar, and exposition.

On the tenth bhumi, “Cloud of Dharma,” the bodhisattva overcomes the subtlest traces of the afflictions. Like a cloud that pours rain on the earth, these bodhisattvas spread the dharma in all directions, and each sentient being absorbs what it needs to grow spiritually.

Nargarjuna states that

The tenth is the Cloud of Dharma because

The rain of excellent doctrine falls,

The Bodhisattva is consecrated

With light by the Buddhas

As if ten bhumis were not enough, Vajrayana adds another 3-10 to the list. This raises the interesting question: “How enlightened can one get?”

It is pretty obvious that the first 8 bhumis are established upon the Theravada Tradition and the Pali Canon. The last two bhumis come out of nowhere in Buddhism but are linked to the Vedic texts. The interpretation of what it means to be enlightened also took a turn in this theory. Is it workable? Well, yes,up to a point.

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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