Bhikkhuni Triệt Như – Sharing From The Heart – No 91
Translated into English by Như Lưu
THE BODHI PRAYER BEADS OF THE BODHISATTVA
We have examined the spiritual path followed by the Buddha. After he had completed the path to enlightenment, the Buddha decided to teach the dharma to students who possessed various levels of inherent spiritual capacity, from high to middle levels. Students with a low level of spiritual capacity and those with an inferior disposition are not capable of receiving the dharma. The Buddha is a teacher of the Heavenly Realm and the Human Realm. For this reason, the practice steps of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis in those days have several differences to the path that the Buddha himself followed. Today, let us reflect further on the practice path of Bodhisattvas, in accordance with the views of Developmental Buddhism.
I would like to review with you the history of Developmental Buddhism.
It is considered that the Buddha entered Nirvana in 483 BC. About 3 months later, Bhikkhu Mahā Kassapa convened the first Council to consolidate the content of the sutras. For the subsequent 100 years, the Buddhist sangha can be considered as being unified and the spiritual practice followed exactly the teachings of the Buddha. These teachings were heard, memorized and orally transmitted among teachers and disciples.
In 383 BC (100 years after the Buddha entered Nirvana), Bhikkhu Yasas convened the Second Sutra-consolidation Council, which led to a split of the sangha into two main schools. This was due to differences of opinion concerning the points of doctrine and precepts:
1. The Way of the Elders or Theravāda
2. The Way of the Great Congregation or Mahā Sanghikas
The Mahā Sanghikas further sub-divided into 8 schools in the period between 100 years and 200 years after the Buddha entered Nirvana.
As for the Theravāda, it sub-divided into 10 schools in the period between 200 years and 300 years after the Buddha entered Nirvana.
The Third Sutra-consolidation Council, convened in about 250 BC under the sponsorship of King Ashoka (who reigned in 268-232 BC) and the chairmanship of Bhikkhu Moggaliputta Tissa (from the Theravāda school). This resulted in the compilation of the Three Baskets of Buddhist teaching: The Sutra Basket or Nikāya, the Precepts Basket, and the Commentaries Basket.
The Fourth Sutra-consolidation Council (held in approximately the 2nd century AD) was chaired by Bhikkhu Vasumitra (from the Sarvāstivādin school, an early offshoot of the Theravāda school) under the sponsorship of King Kanishka (who reigned in circa 120-144 AC). Bhikkhu Aśvaghosha was the vice-chair and edited the Three Baskets in the Sanskrit language as follows: the Sutra Basket which was also called Āgama, the Precepts Basket, and the Commentaries Basket.
Bhikkhu Aśvaghosha composed a Commentary that was included in the Commentaries Basket under the title “The Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna”. This event could be seen as marking the formation of the Mahāyana (Great Vehicle) movement, named in contrast to the Theravāda system which was called Hīnayāna (Small Vehicle) or Dual Vehicle (Dviyāna) (Sound Hearer Sravaka Vehicle and Enlightened-through-contemplating-conditions Pratyeka-Buddha Vehicle). The Mahāyāna school called itself Buddha Vehicle or Oneness Vehicle (Ekayāna).
(These appellations endured until 1954-1956 when the International Buddhist Council held in Burma unanimously adopted that from that point on, the name Hīnayāna will revert to Theravāda, and the name Mahāyāna be replaced by Developmental Buddhism.)
The spiritual path followed by the Hīnayāna school is the Arahat Way which holds that after completely purifying the mind and eliminating all mental defilements or eliminating the 10 fetters, the practitioner is liberated. Subsequently, Nirvana is realized while the practitioner is still alive and then, upon leaving the body, he/she dwells in nirvana, attains complete liberation and ends the cycle of rebirths.
By contrast, the spiritual path followed by the Mahāyāna school is the Bodhisattva Way which depicts that, upon attaining arahat-hood and leaving this world, the practitioner forgoes dwelling in nirvana. Instead he/she vows to be reborn life after life to instruct and transform all beings. This is called the vow of the Bodhisattva until the full attainment of Buddha-hood.
The Mahāyāna school holds the broad-minded view that capable Masters can write sutras. For this reason, many Mahāyāna sutras appeared in records without their actual authors being known. These sutras have been valuable in expanding the significant themes and radical truths of the dharma. Most prominent are the sutras developed by the Prajñā-Pāramitā school which includes the Diamond Sūtra, as well as other important sutras such as the Flower Garland Sutra, the Vimalakīrti Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Lankāvatāra Sutra, the Śūraṅgama Sutra, etc. Radical truths expounded include: Suchness nature, Illusionary nature, Dependent Origination nature. (We may consider Dependent Origination nature as the fundamental, important truth as it explains the formation, evolution and destruction of worldly phenomena which lead us to realize the true nature of worldly phenomena as Empty, Illusionary and As-Such.)
The Flower Garland Sutra describes the spiritual path of the Bodhisattva as a series of elaborate steps. Specifically, it explains the concept of the Ten Stages of development of a Bodhisattva in a convolute and hard-to-understand manner. Many subsequent Masters offered differing explanations. As a result, I will merely include here the article written by our Master on this topic without offering any further comments or explanations, since they may be subjective or even erroneous. I invite you to reflect and explore them using your own capability. The most pleasing aspect of the spiritual path is our own discovery of new interpretations each day. I have simply highlighted some important terms in bold to draw your attention. My aim here is to introduce you in general terms to the Ten Stages of spiritual development of the Bodhisattva that our Master has taught us. This purposefully demonstrates that our practice method is in accordance with the practice method of the Therāvada school, as well as generally according to the Developmental Buddhism school which aims at embodying the Suchness concept.
Below is the article developed by our Master in support for the Wisdom Level III course that he taught.
Examples of Ten Stages in Developmental Buddhism
There were several descriptions of the 10 Stages of Development of the Bodhisattva that were developed corresponding to the differing views of Masters of Developmental Buddhism on the topic. The following is an example of the 10 Stages of Development of the Bodhisattva as expounded in the Flower Garland Sutra, which I have summarized below.
1. Land/stage of Great Joy: Knowing that people have no self and phenomena have no self. Realizing or clearly understanding the meaning of suchness that is widespread everywhere in the phenomenal world. This represents a great joy as the practitioner now clearly understands the meaning of suchness.
2. Land/stage of Perfect Purity: At the start of his/her spiritual journey, the Bodhisattva strictly follows the conduct precepts. Using his/her wisdom and intellect to uphold purity precepts, the Bodhisattva becomes unattached to the formality of precepts and focuses on maintaining the spirit of purity precepts in his/her own mind. His/her actions, speech and thoughts become pure. His/her consciousness transforms by itself. His/her morality is pure. His/her sorrow becomes distant.
3. Land/stage of Luminosity: Once suchness becomes present in the samādhi-wisdom process, the obstacle created by ignorance is suppressed and the delusion of desire-covetousness is also suppressed. The darkness in the mind disappears. The countenance becomes bright. However, the mind has not really attained stillness.
4. Land/stage of Glowing Wisdom: This is the stage where the concepts of “I” and “Mine” are suppressed. Self-belief, self-conceit, self-love, and self-desire which are the most subtle elements of the mind are also suppressed. However, at this stage, the Bodhisattva still has not eliminated the delusion that remains hidden in his/her mind.
5. Land/stage of the Mastery of Utmost Difficulties: This is the most difficult stage of attaining complete elimination of thoughts. The Bodhisattva has to combine two types of knowledge, worldly knowledge and fundamental knowledge, in order to achieve the cessation of delusion and potential thoughts in his/her mind. Worldly knowledge operates by reasoning, differentiating, and comparing. Fundamental knowledge arises from clear, non-reasoning awareness. At this stage, the suchness mind practically knows the following: 1) Not differentiating between the reincarnation cycle and nirvana. 2) Not having the tendency to run away from the phenomenal world. At this stage, suchness not only is self-aware of the common essence of phenomenal existence, but it also simultaneously recognizes images that arise in the mind and the contours of these images as its own self-appearances. For these very reasons, this stage is deemed “utmost difficult”.
6. Land/stage of the Face Directed Towards: this is the stage where the Bodhisattva comes face to face with different meditation and contemplation topics, which are practiced with the assistance of images, ideations, and concepts with the aim of gradually eliminating the duality perspective. The difficulty in this stage resides in the energy of instincts in the mind which keeps interpreting any objects present before it. It cannot free itself from the potential delusion within it even though it is told that such interpretation is wrong. This is because it cannot escape duality. In turn, suchness in this instance is often distorted and retained by the mind. The mind is like an object which separates itself or transcends itself. Eventually, the Bodhisattva overcomes this stage of duality or object/subject in meditation and moves to the next stage.
7. Land/stage of Going Far Away: Upon overcoming many areas of duality or differentiating by the intellect such as pure/impure, birth/death, wholesome/unwholesome during meditation, at this stage the Bodhisattva completely eliminates the duality perspective and becomes purely signless (meaning that there are no images that automatically arises in his/her mind). The Bodhisattva has indeed progressed beyond the stage of meditation practiced by Dual Vehicle practitioners (Sound Hearer and Enlightened-through-contemplating-conditions practitioner).
8. Land/stage of Non-Agitation, Immovability: Complete signlessness is attained. Through Emptiness, the Bodhisattva comprehends that phenomena are not created and they are no different to unconditioned phenomena and reality. With this intuitive knowledge, the Bodhisattva dwells in the Unborn Dharma as he/she reaches the 8th stage or Immovability realm. This is the stage where suchness is self-realized. The mind is unmoved by the 5 types of objects that come into contact with the 5 senses, through which the 3 poisons of greed, anger, and delusion no longer arise. Sorrow terminates by itself. The Bodhisattva does not fall prey to the 4 major transgressions of precepts which are: lust, killing, stealing and major false speech. His/her mind no longer regresses. But rather, he/she attains the unimpeded knowledge and the non-differentiating knowledge. This knowledge is the foundation of Buddha-nature. (In the Commentary on the Great Virtue of Wisdom Mahā Prajñāpāramitā Sastra, Master Nāgarjunā corroborated this doctrine and clarified that, once the Bodhisattva attained the realization that all phenomena are unborn, he/she abandons his/her physical body and eventually attains their dharma body. In the 8th stage, suchness is self-realized.
9. Land/stage of the Good Wisdom: meaning the finest discriminating wisdom. Through innumerable forms of meditation and illusion formulas, the Bodhisattva realized the immeasurability of Buddha-nature or transcendental wisdom. This is the stage where suchness generates the energy that transforms the mind. The Bodhisattva attains the four unhindered or unlimited powers of interpretation and reasoning. This consists of Unhindered Use of Word, Unhindered Dharma, Unhindered Meaning, and Unhindered Eloquence (usually referred to as the Four Unhindered Powers of Interpretation). 1) With regards to Words, as the Bodhisattva attains the unhindered use of words, he/she knows of many ways of using appropriate words for each topic of dharma or practice when discharging their teaching mission. The Bodhisattva always uses the right words in each circumstance to make the teaching clear and easy to understand. 2) With regards to the dharma, the Bodhisattva applies in all circumstances the dharma and practice that is appropriate to the spiritual capacity of the audience. This allows students at all levels of spiritual capacity to grasp completely and clearly all names, sentences, words and terms used. 3) With regards to Meaning, the Bodhisattva thoroughly explains all expressions used in the teaching, without interruptions and with a clear voice. As a result, the listener can easily understand the teaching. This is suchness (Tathatā) manifesting through the explanation and understanding of all expressions. 4) With regards to Eloquence, the Bodhisattva is fluent in his elocution and phraseology. The content is always presented skillfully and in accordance with the dharma. His/her speech flows uninterrupted when presenting the dharma to listeners.
10. Land/stage of Dharma Clouds: This is the stage where Buddha-nature is completely apparent. The practitioner is immersed in suchness or self-realizes suchness in a state beyond expression (acintya). Many supernatural powers and many meritorious actions progressively develop. The most mystical, mysterious, subtle and profound matters appear illuminated within his/her Buddha-nature. At this stage the Bodhisattva attains the Samādhi of diamond-like wisdom.
The question that I would like to ask you is: what is the common thread of all the 10 stages of spiritual practice of the Bodhisattva? Or in other words: what is the red-colored thread that runs through the beads of bodhi of the Bodhisattva?
Master’s Hall, 25 February 2021
With warmest regards,
Bhikkhuni Triệt Như