In addition to this formal bodhisattva vow, Mahāyāna texts enumerate dozens of other vows (see // for a full list), and there are variations from country to country (most noticeably between Tibet and others). The ten most common and important vows are as follows:

1 Not to harm any being

2 Not to take that which is not given

3 Not to engage in any form of sexual misconduct

4 Not to misuse speach

5 Not to take intoxicants

6 Not to gossip about the faults and misdeeds of others

7 Not to praise oneself or disparage others

8 Not to be stingy or abusive towards those in need

9 Not to harbor anger or resentment or encourage others to be angry

10 Not to criticise or slander the Three Jewels

In the Tibetan tradition, laypeople are often encouraged to take on the first five vows as a way of producing good karma and avoiding actions that produce negative results:

"At any given time, one may swear to one, two, up to all five precepts. In one typical tradition, one takes vows only for one day. If someone wants to carry the practice to the next day, he or she will take the vow again the next morning… The daily taking of precepts is important… one's commitment to them needs to be renewed frequently to keep one's intention and investment fresh."3

The Six Perfections

The six perfections (paramita) are another aspect of the practice path of the bodhisattva. The word paramita literally means "other shore," and implies that these six (or ten in some sources) qualities lead to enlightenment. The six paramitas are found in the Pali canon.4:

1. Dāna : generosity, giving of oneself. This perfection places its emphasis on having an attitude of generosity. It does not necessarily mean that bodhisattvas give away everything they own, but rather that they develop an attitude that undermines clinging to one's wealth, whether it be material or nonmaterial. The most important possession that a bodhisattva needs to give away generously is the teachings of the dharma.

2. Sīla : virtue, morality, proper conduct. This perfection is important for the bodhisattva to develop because it leads to better rebirths in which they can further their development, and because not engaging in misdeeds results in a calm mind undisturbed by guilt, or eventually even the mental dispositions that lead to negative actions.5

3. Ksānti : patience. Shantideva (6-7th c.e.) explains the importance of patience to the Mahāyāna path in the opening stanzas of the chapter on patience in his Way of the Bodhisattva:

1. Good works gathered in a thousand ages,
Such as deeds of generosity,
Or offerings to the blissful ones (buddhas) -
A single flash of anger shatters them all.2. No evil is there similar to anger,
No austerity to be compared with patience.
Steep yourself, therefore, in patience -
In all ways, urgently, with zeal.6

Thus patience is the key to the accumulation of good merit, as it prevents negative emotions from destroying the results of positive actions.

4. Virya: vigor, energy, diligence effort. Like all of the perfections, vigor is to be combined with the others in order to mutually reinforce each-other. Again, Shantideva explains in his chapter entitled "Heroic Perseverance":

1. Thus with patience I will bravely persevere.
Through zeal (virya) it is that I shall reach enlightenment.
If no wind blows, then nothing stirs,
And neither is there merit without perseverance.7

Buddhists believe that the journey to Buddhahood is long and arduous, so the bodhisattva must practice their path with diligence in order to quickly attain complete awakening so that they can best help to liberate all beings.

5. Dhyāna: meditation, concentration (samādhi). All of the other perfections are strengthened by the practice of meditation. Through these practices, one is said to be better able to practice non-attachment due to a recognition of the emptiness (sunyata) of all things, which in turn leads to a stronger ability to practice generosity, moral conduct (due to a reduced attachment to negative mental states), and patience. As well, through meditation, the practitioner develops a one-pointed mind that concentrates all of its energy into the task at hand, allowing them to accomplish tasks with vigor and focus.8 Conversely, the mental equanimity and momentum that the bodhisattva develops through the other paramita aids them in their meditation practice by ridding them of a mind distracted by conflicted emotions and lethargy.

6. Prajña: wisdom. The sixth paramita refers to the realization of the greatest truth (paramartha-satya), which is the realization of the unity, or non-duality, of all things. Wisdom is both the culmination and ground of the other perfections. For example, Mahāyāna practitioners believe that if one were to practice generosity with the conceptual notions of themselves as giver and another as the receiver, then only the Hinayāna (lesser vehicle) amount of merit will be created. However, "the bodhisattva is asked to recognize no giver, no receiver, and no action of giving. He or she is asked to engage in giving in a completely nonconceptual space… Thus one gives - literally without giving it a thought."9 It is only once the bodhisattva is able to engage in their interactions in this way that they can be said to be practicing the paramitas which are the activities of "the other shore" of enlightenment.

In addition to the original six perfections found in early Mahāyāna literature, later writers added an additional four:

7. Upāya Kausalya: skillful means. In this perfection, the bodhisattva develops their ability to work skillfully with other beings in order to bring about their advancement toward enlightenment. Upaya can take what may seem to some as startling forms, such as the exchanges between Zen masters and their students made famous in koans, or in the "crazy wisdom" displayed by tantric masters. However strange their actions may seem, Buddhists believe that their motivation is compassion and their goal is to lead their students to awakening.

8. Pranidhāna : determination, aspiration. This perfection refers to the bodhisattva's resolve to realize full buddhahood. Until this is perfected (see the eighth bhumi below), there is always the danger of going backwards on the path, or off of it altogether. They must work constantly, with the help and encouragement of their teacher and sangha (Buddhist community), to keep their determination to realize their goal.10

9. Bala: spiritual power. Powers explains that

"because of their mastery of the four analytical knowledges (doctrines, meanings, grammar and exposition) and their meditation they are able to develop the six perfections energetically and to practice them continually without becoming fatigued."11

As well, as the bodhisattva advances in their practices, they are said to attain various supernatural abilities which aid them in realizing their goal of liberating all being from samsara.

10. Jñana : knowledge, exalted wisdom. This is the realization of a fully awakened being, a buddha. When the bodhisattva reaches this level of attainment, it is said that this limitless wisdom permeates all of the other perfections, and completes them.

Through the perfection of these qualities, the bodhisattva is able to realize their vow to attain full buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. These paramita are directly related to the bhumi, or stages, that they progress through on their journey to awakening.

The Ten Stages

The ten bhumi (literally "ground") correspond directly to the paramita, and provide a map for the development of a bodhisattva on their journey to buddhahood. They practice all of the paramitas during each stage, but one is emphasized in each bhumi. The primary source for these stages is the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Garland Sutra), and it is also outlined in texts such as Candrakirti's Madhyamakavatara (Entry into the Middleway).

Relief image of the bodhisattva Guan Yin from Mt. Jiuhua in China's Anhui province.

1. Pramudita: Great Joy: After the accumulation of enough merit, bodhicitta arises for the first time in the bodhisattva. This causes enormous generosity to arise, which in turn results in enormous joy, as Chandrakirti explains:

"Even the happiness that comes from entering the peace of nirvana is unlike that happiness experienced by the son of the conquerers (buddhas) when he thinks about the word give. What can be said about the joy that arises from abandoning all inner and outer posessions?"12

2. Vilmala: Stainless: In accomplishing the second bhumi, the bodhisattva is free from the stains of immorality. The emphasized virtue is moral discipline (śila), which, at this stage, eliminates all harmful actions, even in the dreams of the bodhisattva.13

3. Prabhakari: Luminous: The third bhumi is named 'Radiant', because, for a bodhisattva who accomplishes this bhumi, the light of Dharma is said to radiate from the bodhisattva for others. This luminosity is said to shine forth from the fire of non-dualistic realization that consumes the last traces of discursive thought. Without the chatter of the wandering mind, the bodhisattva is able to develop perfect patience.

4. Arcismati: Radiant: Through the bodhisattva's vigor (virya), "a brilliance is produced which is superior to the shining of brass, and any reified concepts associated with the philosophical view of a subjective self are completely eradicated."14

5. Sudurjaya: Difficult to conquer: At this stage, the bodhisattva has developed extraordinary strength of meditation (dhyāna), so that they are very difficult to disturb, even for "all the forces of Māra" (Ibid), who symbolizes both inner and outer distractions. They also study in numerous fields (the arts, medicine, and the sciences) in order to benefit sentient beings.15

6. Abhimukhi: the Directly Facing: At this stage, they are brought face-to-face with the what Mahāyāna Buddhists teach to be the true nature of reality: emptiness. This is the perfection of wisdom (prajña), and with this realization, they could choose to pass into nirvana upon their death but because of their non-attachment to nirvana, as well as their deep compassion, they continue along the path to buddhahood.

7. Durangama: the Far Advanced: Through the powerful skillful means (upaya) developed by the bodhisattva at this stage, they are able to see into the hearts and minds of beings, and therefore know precisely how best to act in order to bring them closer to enlightenment. It is also said that at this point, in order to advance further, they will have to stop taking birth as human being, and instead manifest as celestial bodhisattvas, a choice they freely make at this stage in which they overcome birth and death.16

8. Acala: the Immovable: In this bhumi, the bodhisattva's aspiration becomes invincible, and there is no possibility of them faltering on their path. Buddhahood becomes inevitable, and progression through the last stages becomes much more rapidly than previous ones.

9. Sadhumati: the Unerring Intellect: In this stage, the celestial bodhisattva attains a number of supernatural powers (bala) to aid them in their quest to liberate all beings. Examples include the ability to understand all languages.

10. Cloud of dharma: At this stage, the bodhisattva is almost indistinguishable from a buddha. Their primordial wisdom (jñana) is said to pour down effortlessly, like rain.


The bodhisattva is the central figure of the Mahāyāna path. They present followers with an outlet for devotional practice, as well as offer a model for practitioners to guide them on the path to enlightenment. They remain an important part of Mahayana Buddhism today, and an inspiration for monastics and laypeople alike. Finally, the bodhisattva doctrine provides a model for Mahāyāna Buddhists of an engaged form of Buddhism that does not run away from the suffering of the world, but actively seeks to end it for all beings.


  1. ↑ Powers 93.
  2. ↑ Powers, 242.
  3. ↑ Ray, 288.
  4. ↑ Mitchell, 112
  5. ↑ Powers, 100.
  6. ↑ Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, 78.
  7. ↑ Ibid, 98.
  8. ↑ Mitchell, 114.
  9. ↑ Ray, 346.
  10. ↑ Powers 109.
  11. ↑ Ibid, 110.
  12. ↑ Huntington Jr. 1994, 150.
  13. ↑ Ibid., 151.
  14. ↑ Ibid, 155.
  15. ↑ Mitchell 2002, 118.
  16. ↑ Mitchell 2002, 119.


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  • Huntington, C. W. Jr. The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Mādhymika. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994. ISBN 0824817125
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  • Ray, Reginald A. Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2002. ISBN 1570629102
  • Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group (2003). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1590300572
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