Those who have the motivation to attain complete and perfect enlightenment in order to benefit infinite beings (bodhichitta) are called bodhisattvas. They begin their training by taking the vow of a bodhisattva, making that commitment to tirelessly work for the benefit of beings. According to Mahayana sources, they then proceed along the five paths which correspond to the bodhisattva bhūmis, the “grounds” or levels.
The major source for the ten bhūmis is the Ten Bhūmis chapter, (chapter 31) of the 45-chapter Tibetan version, first translated in the first half of the ninth century CE, of A Multitude of Buddhas (Buddhāvataṃsaka).1Buddhāvataṃsakanāmamahāvaipulyasūtrāt daśabhūmikaḥ paṭalaḥ. The original translators were Yeshé Dé, Jinamitra, and Surendrabodhi. According to scholars the chapter first existed as an independent sūtra. The translator Dharmarakṣa from Dunhuang translated this and other sūtras from chapters of the Buddhāvataṃsaka into Chinese in the third-century CE. The first Chinese commentary was composed by 394 CE. The best-known Indian commentary was written on the sūtra by Vasubandhu (4th to 5th century CE).2Commentary on the Sūtra of the Ten Bhūmis, sa bcu’i rnam par bshad pa (Daśabhūmivyākhyāna). Sanskrit manuscripts still preserve the sūtra as a stand-alone text.
Other Mahayana texts that specifically list these ten bhūmis include the Samādhirājasūtra, the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, the Ratnamegha, and the Ghanavyūha. It seems that the commentary appeared in the Ratnāvalī of Nāgārjuna. Other Mahayana sutras, such as the Laṅkāvatārasūtra3Buddhāvataṃsakanāmamahāvaipulyasūtrāt daśabhūmikaḥ paṭalaḥ and the Yogācārabhūmi mention only seven bhūmis.
Vajragarbha Explains the Ten Bhūmis
In the Ten Bhūmis chapter, the explanation of the bodhisattva path is given by the bodhisattva Vajragarbha (Dorjé Nyingpo). He is empowered by Bhagavat Śākyamuni from whose ūrṇā hairs light rays called the light of bodhisattva power, gave him the authorization to teach.
The first few verses of text where Vajragarbha explains the qualities of just the first bhūmi, Perfect Joy, inform the assembly of bodhisattvas of the tremendous benefits achieved on that first stage on the path.
They have accumulated good qualities, are endowed with goodness,
Have served the sugatas, are loving, kind, and helpful,
Have a vast motivation, have the pure nature of good intentions,
And develop an unequaled aspiration for the wisdom of the jinas.
They are diligent in purifying the strengths of the buddhas and omniscience
In order to fulfill the Dharma of the jinas and protect beings.
With great kindness they develop the sublime aspiration
To purify buddha realms and turn the wheel of the Dharma.
In one instant they have nonconceptual knowledge of the three times
So that there is the timely purification of various beings.
In brief, they desire all the qualities of the guides
And develop a vast aspiration equal to space.
They have the power of wisdom, all-preceding compassion, and the employment of method.
They have pure motivation and intention, and immeasurable strengths;
They have unimpeded manifestations to others who are to be guided.
They have become the same as the sugatas and have developed the supreme motivation.
Simultaneous with the precious motivation of the sons of the tathāgatas,
They transcend the conduct of childlike beings and gain the conduct of the buddhas.
They are born into the family of the ten strengths and do not commit infractions;Buddhāvataṃsakanāmamahāvaipulyasūtrāt daśabhūmikaḥ paṭalaḥ, 1.132-1.136.
They have become the same as the jinas and will definitely have the highest enlightenment.
First Bhūmi: Becoming a Noble Being
Patrul Rinpoche’s commentary notes that this first bhūmi is the dividing line between an ordinary and a noble being. He writes:
Recognizing and then perfecting this authentic view, which is the wisdom of the path of seeing, the bodhisattva becomes more exalted, or more noble (ārya), than an ordinary being.A Brief Guide to the Stages and Paths of the Bodhisattvas by Patrul Rinpoche, trans. by Adam Pearcey.
The Ten Bhūmis
In the Āryasaṃdhinirmocananāmamahāyānasūtra, The Sutra Unraveling the Intent, bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara lists the ten bhūmis:
Then the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara addressed the Blessed One, “Blessed One, the ten stages of the bodhisattva are called (1) Utmost (or Perfect) Joy, (2) Stainless, (3) Illuminating, (4) Radiant, (5) Hard to Conquer, (6) Manifest, (7) Far-Reaching, (8) Immovable, (9) Excellent Intelligence, and (10) Cloud of Dharma.
In the same chapter, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara asks the Buddha why the grounds have these particular names.
“Blessed One, why is the first stage called Utmost Joy? Why are the other stages up to the Buddha Stage called what they are?”
1. “The first stage is called Utmost Joy because there is a supreme and immense joy in attaining the immaculate and sublime purpose, the supramundane mind.
2. The second stage is called Stainless because it is free from all stains consisting in [even] subtle transgressions or faulty discipline.
3. The third stage is called Illuminating because it is the very state of concentration and recollection imbued with the immeasurable light of gnosis.
4. The fourth stage is called Radiant because the fire of gnosis produced by the practice of the awakening factors is set ablaze in order to burn the fuel of afflictions.
5. The fifth stage is called Hard to Conquer because it is difficult indeed to master the practice of these very awakening factors in conjunction with skillful means.
6. The sixth stage is called Manifest because the activity of conditioning mental factors becomes manifest, as does the bodhisattvas’ attention that is repeatedly directed toward what lacks phenomenal appearance.
7. The seventh stage is called Far Reaching because once the bodhisattvas engage for a long time without hindrance and interruption while directing their attention toward what lacks phenomenal appearance, this stage is connected with the subsequent stages of purification.
8. The eighth stage is called Immovable because what lacks phenomenal appearance is spontaneously accomplished and the bodhisattvas are unshaken by the manifestation of defilements resulting from phenomenal appearance.
9. The ninth stage is called Excellent Intelligence because the bodhisattvas obtain a vast intelligence that flawlessly masters all aspects related to teaching the Dharma.
10. The tenth stage is called Cloud of Dharma because the body afflicted by corruption, which is as empty as the sky, is pervaded and covered by the accumulation of Dharma that is like a [great] cloud.
11. The eleventh stage is called Buddha Stage because once one has abandoned the most subtle defiling and cognitive obstructions, one completely and perfectly awakens and knows all aspects to be known, without attachment and hindrance.”Āryasaṃdhinirmocananāmamahāyānasūtra
According to the Āryasaṃdhinirmocananāmamahāyānasūtra, on the tenth stage, the bodhisattva is consecrated or anointed by the tathāgata samyaksambuddhas. And then on the eleventh stage, “(…) he becomes the location where the jewels of the deeds of a buddha accumulate for all beings. At that time he is called omniscient.”4Āryasaṃdhinirmocananāmamahāyānasūtra, 9.4. The bodhisattva stages have been successfully traversed.