pt. 1: the Bodhisattva Bhumis from Trungpa Rinpoche

There are so many ways to look at the Path of Awakening. Every spiritual tradition through human history has provided context, practices, rituals, community and support.

The idea of getting from here to there seems to be embedded in human thinking. We are creatures who seek, desire happiness and betterment, who strive. Due to this deeply shared idea in human consciousness, the Great Ones have used it to lead or guide human beings away from creating harm and solidifying selfishness and point them toward innate wisdom and heart. The Buddhist teaching of the Bodhisattva Bhumis is, in many respects, no different. In other words, it is a relative teaching, a teaching that holds before one the tremendous possibilities of being human: that, in fact, to be fully human is to be fully awakened.

The teachings regarding the maturing of realization encapsulated in the conceptual frame of reference of Bhumis (Sanskrit, and translated as grounds/stages/levels) is, like the teachings on karma and merit, a teaching for us while we still believe in and act from a sense of self. As that is eroded, the measuring, the striving, the ideas of here to there fall away having been born of the self-cherishing and self-importance of the sense of self always edifying itself through weights and measures, self and other, have/have not. Yet, though relative rather than ultimate, relative reality is what we live, how we think, what we view and how we perceive and project reality. Thus, the teachings on the Bodhisattva Bhumis are worthwhile to explore and, if possible, to emulate and integrate.

The book quoted is The Bodhisattva Path by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The comments are mine and were offered to friends who comprise a Dharma study group using this book.


On pg. 161: “There is not very much you can say about ultimate or absolute truth. It is freedom from fixation, and freedom from fixation means being free of names and concepts.”

One is left with an interesting conundrum: how to learn to practice a Path of Wisdom and Compassion. It seems that in order to do so one must learn the names, concepts, and instructions provided by the Wise Ones, the Compassionate Ones. Yet, …

“Questioning whether we really know what things are, whether we really know what blue is or green is, is a way of trying to cut through the conceptual mind. We discover that we cannot actually find any permanent, fundamental, satisfying ground on which to stick our concepts or to nail them down.” pg. 160

The source of this questioning, of this ongoing nag in our mind like a background white noise, is prajna, itself sourced from buddha nature/primordial Awareness. Prajna is the wisdom that perceives correctly, the luminous wisdom of emptiness, the wisdom of wisdom and compassion all of which are the natural capacities of primordial Awareness/buddha nature.

On pg. 181, Rinpoche says, “Prajna is of absolute, utmost importance in Buddhism. … Prajna discriminates between entities very clearly.” {Entity, here, means any phenomenon, not persons. The term discriminates is also being used with a fullness – indicating the wisdom of emptiness as the foundation of this clear discrimination.} He continues: “It (prajna) distinguishes between what is and what is not, but does not promote or reject anything.” {We hear The Aspiration of Samantabhadra.} “(Prajna) distinguishes what is appropriate in order to see the vision of shunyata.”

The wisdom of emptiness, which he coins as “the vision of shunyata” in this last quote, underlies the entire Mahayana Path including all its subsets such as every aspect of Vajrayana, Mahamudra, and Dzogpa Chenpo. From pg. 148: “The confirmation of the spiritual journey at the hinayana level is the experience of awakening from samsara into nirvana. And what runs through the hinayana and gives you hope of continuing on the Buddhist path of non-ego is the continual development of prajna. Prajna is constantly cutting through and providing further inspiration to practice. … Prajna brings about further prajna, so you experience a continual awakening of prajna. …”

“In the Mahayana, prajna is regarded as a tool and egolessness or shunyata is regarded as the product uncovered by that particular tool. Egolessness, shunyata, and compassion are what prajna exposes.” Ibid.{Rinpoche is using egolessness in more than one way in this sentence: ego-less-ness as in no self plus egolessness as in no true identifiable existence or realness to any phenomenon.The easiest way to examine egolessness of self and phenomena is through first reviewing that the common mind identifies things and people as wholes, as complete units which is patently not true. For example, there is no such “thing” as a hand. “Hand” is a collection of component parts, each part being also a collection of further smaller components, ad infinitum. Then one would explore the dependent origination of any one of those component parts. This makes clear that each component of any phenomenon, including the sense of self and identity, is dependent upon countless “originations.”}

This leads us to the Bhumis which require a) that the three features of egolessness, shunyata, and compassion be established ground of being for the individual through the constancy of prajna. Thereby, bodhichitta -as the expression of buddha nature- is lived as “uncomposed”, spontaneous and flowing. b) That conceptual frames of reference no longer are the scaffolding of consciousness. Ground Awareness, ever unfolding as luminous emptiness/clarity, is taking its place. This is evident in how Rinpoche describes each bhumi.

Rinpoche reports qualities of the bodhisattva bhumis through the character and characteristics of the paramitas. This is classical teaching on the subject and assists a more correct understanding of both the paramitas and the bhumis; both of which transcend all literality.

pg. 384: “The paramitas are the contents of the bhumis.” {This is a very evocative statement.}

pg. 199: “Paramitas do not refer to ordinary ethics, …, nor are we practicing the paramitas in order to achieve spiritual tranquility or equilibrium. Not at all. Paramita practice is based on the realization that there is no individual here seeking little goals. There is no ”you’. In fact, at this point (of Path), your existence and the existence of others is questionable.” {all due to prajna bringing about further prajna.}

pg. 203: “If you are not shown how to apply shunyata, you will not be able to practice good generosity, good discipline, good patience, and all the other paramitas.” {The application of shunyata to any moment or situation is the process of vipashyana/drop in which fosters the ongoing use of prajna and its growth.}

How does one engage the selflessness, prajna, and altruism of the paramitas? How do the paramitas become the “contents” of the bodhisattva bhumis? Rinpoche says through the “three supreme disciplines” of shila, samadhi, and prajna. pg. 203 He continues on pg. 205: “By using shila, samadhi, and prajna to practice the teachings of shunyata, you can avoid the problem of theorizing the Dharma. … When Dharma is theorized, you have no hope of doing anything with it. It merely becomes a decoration, a cosmetic of your ego.”

Also, one reminds one’s self that “you do not have to solidify phenomena. … you sense that everything you perceive is a creation of your own preconceptions.” pg. 300 Through the three supreme disciplines, not theorizing the Dharma but applying the teachings, and reminding one’s self of self-made reality, one slowly establishes egolessness as the basis, prajna as the view, and altruism the conduct. The Path, then, will properly unfold according to “the vision of shunyata” and the bhumis traversed.

The Bhumis
In addition to the paramitas as the “contents”, the bhumis are dependent upon the five paths of accumulation, unification, seeing, meditation, and no more learning. Having accumulated shila (discipline) and some insights (orienting toward prajna) through mindfulness, one recognizes selflessness. Trungpa Rinpoche describes the path of unification as primarily that of nampar mitokpa, complete nonconceptualization. “Based on your shamatha-vipashyana experience, you begin to enter into shunyata practice and realization.” pg. 386 This is important to remember when reading about the bhumis because the bhumis are the ongoing expansion of “shunyata practice and realization.”

He continues that the path of unification also entails “the development of five perceptions and five powers.” Ibid. “The five perceptions are based on selflessness (there is no self or intrinsic identity to any phenomenon) and the recognition that you are advancing on the path.” pg. 387

“… each of the bhumis is a mixture of the path of seeing and the path of meditation.” pg. 388

First Bhumi: Very Joyful
“Your intellectual approaches to life and your personal experiences of life become one huge awareness.” pg. 389 This is due to “Shunyata is like the breath -if you don’t have breath, you are dead.” pg. 390 In other words, due to all that has been previously highlighted and integrated as a living practice of prajna/shunyata, “intellectual approaches” are the Dharma ever dancing in one’s mind undoing the stodgy-ness of common mind. Thereby, every instant of life is freed from habituated automation and revealed as “one huge awareness.” “The discoveries made in the first bhumi are fantastic.” Ibid Yes, they are one huge awareness. Rinpoche adds, “Until you reach the first bhumi and a sense of complete conviction develops, you will be unable to hear the dharma properly and thoroughly.” pg. 392 (his explanation continues on pg. 393.)

The first bhumi makes all the rest possible just like the first initiation (in the Bailey model) makes the rest of the Path possible. Both are monumental. With the bhumis, Trungpa Rinpoche’s previous statement is worth repeating: “Based on your shamatha-vipashyana experience, you begin to enter into shunyata practice and realization.” pg. 386 In other words, the bhumis are ongoing “shunyata practice and realization.” This is so important. We might have the thought of stages (the ten bhumis) more or less like a ladder of ascent. That is not correct for many reasons which all come back to emptiness of self, emptiness of phenomena, and emptiness of emptiness. The bhumis are more akin to river water entering the sea. The river water expands into the sea water as it returns to its ultimate source, the river water having been born as precipitation. The river water loses its identity as river water while the salt water absorbs it. The sea is analogous to buddha nature, constant and fathomless. The meandering river is analogous to a person dedicated to the awakening of all beings through intrinsic prajna and karuna.

The bhumis are not locations or states any more than a mood or thought is. However, each bhumi is an opening/undoing related to the practice/embodiment of shunyata which engenders stabilization of that shunyata awareness. The description of the rest of the bhumis makes this very plain.

Second Bhumi: Spotless
“On this path, passive sitting and active awareness in everyday life become one.” pg. 397
The simplicity of this sentence might lead to misunderstanding. First, there is actually nothing passive in a sitting practice, which we all know. A sitting practice requires truth with one’s self, dedication, discipline, diligence, self-kindness, self-reflection, and self-generosity. A sitting practice is designed to change one’s life, one’s outlook, one’s way of being with self and others, with how one looks at phenomena, events/circumstances, and so forth. So, there is nothing “passive” about a sitting practice; and Rinpoche knows that. His words are completely tongue in cheek. One imagines an impish grin when he first spoke it as a teaching.

Sitting practice has made awareness active!
Sitting practice has brought awareness forefront to the extent that off the cushion (“everyday life”) has been increasingly infused with active awareness.
That they “become one” indicates prajna. In other words, sleep walking via habits of consciousness is no longer possible. On and off the cushion, prajna (active awareness) and self-recollectedness (a primary result of a sitting practice) are in place and are the fount from which one lives and serves. One can hear the paramita of diligence in this, as in always applying bodhi to chitta, the vision of shunyata to phenomena.

Third Bhumi: Illuminating
“On the third bhumi, you begin to demonstrate your understanding and discipline without tiring and without aggression.” pg. 400

It is imperative that we keep in mind “the vision of shunyata.” Therefore, “understanding” here is not a common use of the term, nor is the subject of the understanding common. The “understanding” is the emptiness of self and phenomena increasingly understood factually, deeply. Pure perception is ever widening, perception ever purifying. Bodhi is evermore the mode; chitta evermore the playful theatre of illusory engagement in benefit of beings. Hence Rinpoche’s following statement: “You are tremendously eager to comprehend the meaning of dharmadhatu, the nature of reality, and shunyata.” pg. 401

The term dharmadhatu literally means the nature of reality.
Reality for us deluded beings is what we think it is: what we project, impute, desire, avoid, and so forth. However, none of these kama-manasic modes indicate the nature of reality.

With the term dharmadhatu, dharma is being used in two ways simultaneously: reality/what is real and dharma/phenomena. Dhatu has the connotation of type or element such as the water dhatu, the fire dhatu. Within this connotation is the shared wisdom that water has a particular nature, fire has a particular nature. The nature of water is distinct; there can be no confusion about it. The nature of phenomena is emptiness. While we are thinking and emoting a nature onto phenomena, none of our projections have any truth or validity, thereby the nature of reality cannot be known. As a result, the nature of reality -dharmadhatu- remains a mysterious, concept-supported, and a confusion. All the while, the nature of reality (what is TRUE/Dharma, what is free of dualistic cognition) is perfect wisdom, buddha nature, primordial Awareness “without the defects of superimposition and denial of outer and inner;” and the nature of reality has never been anything but.

Rinpoche continues re: the Third Bhumi/Illuminating: “At this bodhisattva level, discursive thought regarding such concepts as nonduality or egolessness are considered to be valid, and even encouraged. Your whole being is beginning to become Dharma. … You are so much into it that everything becomes teaching.” pg. 401

Going back to the idea that “You are tremendously eager to comprehend the meaning of dharmadhatu, the nature of reality, and (of) shunyata.” pg. 401 This is not only how “Your whole being is beginning to become Dharma” but how “You are so much into it that everything becomes teaching.” You are alert to the dharmadhatu, alert to the nature of reality. Reality is perceived increasingly as the play, the lila, of subject/object, of apprehender/apprehended, hence, it is illuminating. But, let’s be clear: the illumination is the ever expanding and establishing “vision of emptiness,” the view.

Fourth Bhumi: Radiating Light
“It is like rays of fire, like a flame or beam of light that destroys any desire for further achievement and further indulgence in spiritual development.” pg. 402

When I read this, I sense maturation and sublimation of renunciation mind. Due to emptiness of self and emptiness of phenomena being more truly, factually understood and lived, the idea of spiritual maturing, of practice, of beings and benefitting all come under intense radiant scrutiny. I wonder about clarity-emptiness being the established ground Awareness a this stage of unfolding.

Fifth Bhumi: Difficult to Accomplish or Conquer
When we read/hear words, our dualistic minds impute common interpretations, then add personal coloration, then add emotional veneer. We hear words such as “difficult” and/or “accomplish” and we impute narrow and prescribed meanings to both. Yet, because the subject matter is bodhisattva bhumis and because the only way to be “at” these stages of maturation is prajna (the wisdom and view of emptiness, the Truth), then common definitions of these terms cannot apply. What can contemplation and Rinpoche’s topographical map provide?

“This bhumi provides a lot of challenges.” pg. 403 Fundamentally, the challenge is the perception of challenge itself. The fifth bhumi is like a test for graduation to the more mature aspects of Awareness-Compassion as pure energy rather than something one is still learning and acclimatizing to. The fifth bhumi is the constant “shift in your mind” that must dissolve that which it still is habituated to. Therefore, “It is completely bewildering.”
Rinpoche focuses on, or uses the examples of working with people and the “need to develop the quality of never being tired of working with fellow sentient beings” for us human beings who do have difficulties with others. We project, judge, want certain behavior, wish them to change, and so forth. His example is to help us, in our current state of being, to recognize the immaturity of such preferences and projections and to open to the heart of Awareness which is completely equanimous.

The fifth bhumi has left such personalizations far behind. Yet, deep seeded habits of consciousness regarding self and phenomena lie in the Scorpionic recesses of our mind. These must be uprooted through the same situations that seeded them: relationships with other beings. In a word, karma. Hence, the second interpretation of jong: to conquer. One is now able to conquer the Mara that symbolizes the deep roots of karma. Therefore, “… at the fifth bhumi, you can work with sentient beings without bias.” pg. 404





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