The Bhumis in the Pali Canon 

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The Ox Herding Pictures,  Japanese: jugyu, Chinese: shíniú, are well known to Zen. It exemplifies the stages of the path according to Zen. The pictures first appeared in their present form, as drawn by the Chinese Chan (Zen) master Kuòan Shīyuǎn (廓庵師遠), in the 12th century, and may represent a Zen Buddhist interpretation of the ten stages experienced by a Bodhisattva as outlined in various Mahayana texts, most particularly the Avatamsaka Sutra.

 Each picture is accompanied by commentary in prose and verse. The pictures and texts are believed to be based on the work of an earlier Taoist scholar. They first became widely known in the West after their inclusion in the 1957 book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

The Ox Herding pictures are beloved in China, Japan and Korea and a staple to the Zen practice. Each picture and commentary are largely supported by the Pali Canon. The same cannot be said about the Ten Bodhisattva Bhumi which are more or less a poetic description of the stages of the path based rather loosely on Nagarjuna’s “Middle Way” (Madhyamaka) School. The descriptions of these ten bhumi seem to originate in Sanskrit Vedic literature but not in Buddhism as originally described by the Buddha.

In the Pali Canon the term bhumi is used to describe four levels of mental states. Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains them as…

  1. Kamavacara-bhumi: the level of sensuality.
  2. Rupavacara-bhumi: the level of form.
  3. Arupavacara-bhumi: the level of formlessness.
  4. Lokuttara-bhumi: the transcendent level.

The level of sensuality: A mental state arises and connects with a skillful object – any sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation, or idea that can form the basis for skillful mental states. When it meets with its object, it becomes happy, joyful, and glad. (Here we are referring only to those sensory objects that are good for the mind.) If you were to refer to the Heavens of Sensual Bliss as they appear within each of us, the list would run as follows: Sights that can form the basis for skillful mental states are one level, sounds are another, and same with smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. Together they form the six levels of heaven on the sensual level.

The level of form: A mental state arises from thinking about (vitakka) a physical object that serves as the theme of one’s meditation; and then analyzing (vicara) the object into its various aspects, at the same time making sure that the mind doesn’t slip away from the object (ekaggatarammaṇa). When the mind and its object are one in this way, the object becomes light. The mind is unburdened and can let go of its worries. Rapture (pīti) and pleasure (sukha) arise as a result. When these five factors appear in the mind, it has entered the first jhana – the beginning stage in the level of form.

The level of formlessness: The mind lets go of its physical object on the level of form, but is still attached to a very subtle mental notion – the jhana of infinite space, for instance, in which you are focused on a sense of emptiness and awareness with no physical object or image passing into your field of attention, so that you are unable to know its full range. What has actually happened is that you have curled up and are hiding inside. This isn’t the kind of ‘going in to know’ that comes from finishing your work. It’s the ‘going in to know’ that comes from wanting to run away. You’ve seen the faults of what arises outside you, but haven’t seen that they really lie buried within you – so you’ve hidden inside by limiting the field of your attention.

The transcendent level: This begins with the path and fruition of entry into the stream to nibbana. Those who reach this level have begun by following the threefold training of virtue, concentration, and discernment on the mundane level, but then have gone on to gain their first true insight into the four Noble Truths, enabling them to free themselves from the first three Fetters (samojana). Their minds are thus released into the stream to nibbana. The three Fetters are –

  1. Self-identification (sakkaya-ditthi): the view that leads us to believe that the conscious body is our own.

  2. Doubt (vicikiccha): the uncertainty that leads us to be unsure of the good we believe in – i.e., of how much truth there is to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha.

  3. Attachment to precepts and practices (sīlabbata-paramasa): fondling the good that we practice; being attached to those forms of goodness that are merely external activities – for instance, observing precepts or practices by clinging simply to the level of bodily action or speech. Examples of this attitude include such things as developing virtue by adhering simply to the precepts; practicing concentration by simply sitting like a post; not being able to free yourself from these activities, always holding onto the goodness that comes from them, happy when you have the chance to perform them in a particular way, upset when you don’t; thinking, for instance, that virtue is something you get from monks when they give you the precepts; that the eight precepts are to be observed only on certain days and nights, months and years; that you gain or lose merit simply as a result of external activities associated with your accustomed beliefs. None of these attitudes reaches the essence of virtue. They go no further than simply clinging to beliefs, customs, and conventions; clutching onto these forms of goodness, always fondling them, unable to let them go. Thus this is called ‘attachment to precepts and practices.’

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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