The Bodhisattva Bhumi Model

A Revised Four Path Model   |  The Mahayana Five Path Model

One of the models of Indian Buddhism propagated by the Tibetan tradition is called “the bodhisattva bhumis”. The word “bhumi” means stage or ground, in the sense of level of attainment. It is a model of progressive stages of awakening that gets very different emphases depending on the author. I actually like a few aspects of the bhumi model, such as the idea of directly realizing shunyata or emptiness and deeply integrating that into our perception, paradigm, practice, ethical conduct, and personality. It is a model that addresses many axes of development simultaneously.

The details of the bhumi model can be found in various Mahayana texts, such as The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, and many others. Chögyam Trungpa gives a nice description of it in The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation. I tend to think of the standard number of bhumis as being ten. However, some texts and traditions also list other numbers of bhumis, but I will stick to the way of counting that involves ten bhumis for the sake of simplification.

I do not consider myself an expert in this model. It is a very complex one that ascribes a wide range of exceedingly high and complex criteria involving emotions, paradigms, concentration abilities, perceptions, psychic powers (specifically the ability at each level to create multiple emanations that increases exponentially with each bhumi), and a whole host of other aspects to practitioners at each stage. It is also heavy on metaphors that some unfortunately take literally. We could take the general point that there are many, many, subtle levels of development and a vast range of abilities, experiences, talents, qualities, personality traits, and skills that can be developed to profound degrees by dedicated practitioners. Or, we could just go off into Crazyland by reading those models literally. If you check them out, hopefully you will immediately see the problems and the beautiful message to have high standards and be developed broadly.

The most common form of Crazyland that otherwise mature adults tend to jump into with the bhumis reminds me of the old comic book debates I had when I was about eight years old, such as who would win in a fight between Wonder Woman and Batman. The Buddhist version of this is when grown humans basically debate who would win in spiritual combat, such as between an arahant like Sariputta and a bodhisattva of whatever bhumi. Obviously, if the bhumi descriptions are accurate, best to bet your money on the bodhisattva, as even a first degree bhumi belt fighter can shake one hundred world systems, not to mention manifest one hundred bodies with one hundred attendants to each body, and the numbers go up exponentially from there with higher bhumis! Yay, mythical dharma combat! Seriously, I have heard serious conversations between Buddhist practitioners with doctoral degrees that were that weird and weirder.

Not only are the metaphors of the abilities of practitioners at each bhumi of the grandest variety, the bhumi models are fraught with other problems, as they assume simultaneous, synchronized development on numerous, largely unrelated developmental axes. I consider such notions a bit naive, and the bhumi models are among the most complex and intricate of the package models. However, like most of the teachings, they contain some very interesting points made in what I consider language that can be alienating and confusing to an untrained reader of this material. Thus, I recommend you check out the bhumi models cum grano salis, particularly if you want to understand Tibetan texts or do practices in that tradition and, unlike me, you should probably study it with an expert, rather than assume that your practices in one tradition qualify you to do a critique of someone else’s tradition, a lesson I clearly have failed to learn even through long years of repeated error.

One of the more common pastimes of us mappers is to try to correlate attainments across traditions and maps. This is seriously problematic, if often fascinating. It is not that useful insights, conversations, and thoughts can’t arise from this sort of work, as they can. However, resolving the tensions between models and across Buddhist vehicles that rely on such totally different underlying paradigms and practices can lead to lots of bizarre and sometimes unhelpful conclusions.

Ignoring the complexities, and speaking just in terms of fundamental levels of realization, which is already a very narrow filter, I am very comfortable associating the first bhumi with stream entry. Second path is very hard to line up with any bhumi, but it is tempting to put it in the early bhumis just on general principles. At points I have lined up anagamihood with anywhere from the fourth to the seventh bhumi and arahantship with anywhere from the sixth to tenth bhumi. My favorite correlation for arahantship is the eighth bhumi, at least in terms of underlying perceptual realization and ignoring the remaining elaborate criteria.

My perennially patient and wise anonymous editor informs me that to get these correlations right we would also have to have cultivated the unique causes provided through training in the practices of the bodhisattvayana (the ten perfections; often the first six are more widely known), the criteria with which I am moderately unfamiliar. My editor also reminds me that my correlations lack nuance and are perhaps misguided, and this is probably correct. However, I clearly don’t have the sense to entirely heed my editor’s sage advice. Associations of paths and bhumis are not perfect correlations, and if you spend some time reading about the model, you will see why. I recommend that you check out the sources listed above if you are interested in further information about the bhumis and hopefully through good practice you can come to your own conclusions.

The biggest problem with this model is that it delineates the exact number of emanations that we should be able to manifest as bodhisattvas at each bhumi, and as the bhumis progress the numbers quickly get so large as to be absurd. Why some realized, uh, “poet” included in the model this ideal of very specific numbers of manifested poly-locations I have no idea, except perhaps to challenge our limited idea of what might be possible for a mind guided by realization of shunyata (what has been problematically translated as “emptiness”). Why so many Tibetan practitioners since then have read this poetry literally I also have no idea.

Somehow, no Tibetan teacher that I am aware of has since called into question the practical applicability of literal interpretations of that presentation. Perhaps this model works well in Tibetan culture to inspire unique levels of effort, but I am not convinced, and I do know that it doesn’t always translate well to the West, which can be a bit concrete and literal-minded. Because of it you will hear Tibetan teachers occasionally say things like, “I don’t know any living person who has reached beyond the first bhumi as traditionally described,” which is acknowledging this odd problem of manifold manifestation, as well as the other truly fantastic criteria.

Aside from these problems, the texts that describe the bhumis make for very interesting reading if you can ignore the strangeness and appreciate the poetry, particularly in the middle stages of enlightenment. Our postmodern assumptions and paradigms, as well as some discomfort with myth, magick, metaphor, and how these might overlap with reality, likely impairs our ability to obtain nourishment from the nectar-filled petals of the bhumi models. That said, is the Tibetan tradition so weak and fragile that it can’t go back and explain how its ancient, myth-heavy, poetic models have relevance to modern practitioners in straightforward terms? I truly look forward to that work being done, and I hope, as you likely do, that I am not the person to do it. In other words, game on!

A Revised Four Path Model   |  The Mahayana Five Path Model