illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Having aroused, out of compassion, the desire to Awaken for the sake of all beings, i.e. bodhicitta (gplus.wallez.name/b78HsaBqyxw), one starts applying the teachings of the Buddha a lot more earnestly, and as the conclusion of the "path of application", one enters the first bhūmi as well as enters the "path of vision".
The first bhūmi is also referred to as the "Supremely Joyful" ground, for those who enter such 'ground' (which is a mind state, not a realm) realise that they might have a way to benefit all sentient beings to a much greater extent that they previously envisioned.
The first bhūmi can be associated to Stream-entry (in the Theravāda nomenclature of 4 noble beings) and is associated to five freedoms from fear (fear of destitution, of public speaking, of death, of lower rebirth, of speaking to very learned persons).
Bodhisattva-specific freedoms might be seen as freedoms from fear of public speaking and of speaking to very learned persons: in order to teach or spread the Dharma, one surely shouldn't be afraid to engage with others. Such freedoms are mostly for the benefit of others (even if, of course, freedom from any particular fear is sweet to experience at the individual level).
The first six bhūmis are associated to the six pāramitās (gplus.wallez.name/FPEVMSG6uia and associated links).
To realise the first bhūmi completely, one thus needs to attain the perfection of generosity.
This might sound like a daunting task, but this is only due to ignorance: while the perfection of generosity might seem 'extreme' (up to giving one's body), it is so only when considered at the dualistic, individual level.
Like all pāramitās, the perfection of generosity may only be a perfection when associated with the perfection of wisdom (to avoid falling in extremes, to maintain a generosity which is 'appropriate'). The perfection of wisdom will only be fully mastered when completing the sixth bhūmi, but this is a path of cultivation: wisdom is cultivated long before it is perfected… Wisdom (whether it is expressed in terms of selflessness, emptiness, or non-duality) indicates that the perfection of generosity may only be attained when the emptiness of giver, recipient and gift is realised (at the very least at the conceptual level). When this is realised, then an infinite number of beings making a contribution can easily lead to an infinite generosity: the infinite generosity seems impossible only for as long as one is locked into 'individual' thinking (possibly a case of self-conceit, of trying to be the "saviour of the world" or a 'saint', i.e. trying to shine as an individual instead of leading all beings towards Liberation).
The second bhūmi is "Stainless", and associated to the perfection of morality. Generosity might be relatively 'easy' (except for the ignorant mind, of course) to practice, for whoever 'has' anything. Hence earning some merit this way is seen as relatively easy. The perfection of morality and the second bhūmi is about refraining from wasting such merit earned.
It becomes the foundation of all practices really, not only by allowing the 'accumulation' of merit to take place (by opposition to "merit in, merit out" stagnation), but also by providing supportive circumstances and conditions (e.g. it is easier to meditate when not burdened by guilt or fear of retaliations in relation to an immoral life).
To avoid any arrogance associated to a virtuous and meritorious life, it is again important to remember that the perfection of morality is associated with Wisdom: seeing the emptiness of practitioner, code of conduct, and deed, is a key antidote to arrogance.
The third bhūmi is "Luminous", and is associated to the perfection of patience. The perfection of patience comes with proficiency in concentration but also with clairvoyance (or mind-reading) which is clearly a major step in the bodhisattva's ability to teach appropriately to the faculties of each audience.
The name "Luminous" relates to the idea of the fire of emptiness burning the afflictions, and this bhūmi is associated with the cessation of contaminated attachments and aversions (some uncontaminated attachments may remain, as they're useful for the bodhisattva in terms of maintaining the motivation to help all beings).
These three bhūmis are related to the phenomenal dimension of buddhahood, and the accumulation of merit (more than the accumulation of knowledge, even if we've seen that wisdom isn't excluded and it's thus a matter of degree rather than a black&white separation).
The fourth bhūmi, "Radiant" (as the fire of emptiness burns even more strongly), is associated to the perfection of 'energy', to be interpreted as 'enthusiasm'. Enthusiasm is the perfection that supports both accumulations (merit, knowledge) and, in a way, precedes all practices. While the gross ignorance vis-à-vis the self was eliminated at the 1st bhūmi, the residual views related to the (ex-)notion of self are eliminated by this 4th bhūmi.
The fifth bhūmi, "unconquerable" (when a bodhisattva becomes unconquerable by negative forces, or four Māras), is associated to the perfection of meditation (notably on the four noble truths).
The sixth bhūmi, "directly approaching", corresponds to the arahants (please, do not conceive this as signalling a 'superiority' of the path of bodhisattvas over the path of auditors: gplus.wallez.name/3xt1B5VEuYb). The whole reality is seen as it is: empty of essence. This can be declined in 4 emptinesses, or 16 (making them 20 together). It is associated to the perfection of Wisdom.
The next four bhūmis are extrapolations from the 6th, derivations focused on helping all beings.
The seventh bhūmi, "going far", relates to mastery of "expedient means". The bodhisattva can now not only enter non-conceptual meditation on emptiness in a moment, but it can also exit it in a moment, thus avoiding the trap of abiding in nirvāṇa and ignoring others: the bodhisattva now relates to non-abiding nirvāṇa (a clear distinction with the naïve / simplistic presentation of the ideal of arahants, "gone" rather than "going far" —a 'presentation' that advanced Theravādins do not identify with!).
The eighth bhūmi is "immovable", the first track of buddhahood: the bodhisattva's momentum towards buddhahood becomes unstoppable. The prayers become effortless and bring fruits quickly.
The ninth bhūmi is "good intellect", associated to finally dropping not only all obscurations of emotions but also all obscurations (even the subtlest) of "knowable objets", i.e. residual obscurations born from other obscurations now long gone… This bhūmi is associated with four forms of correct cognition.
The tenth bhūmi is the conclusion of the accumulation of knowledge, the consecration and coronation of the bodhisattva as buddha. This is a transitional bhūmi into buddhahood.
Photo: early 15th century gilt-bronze figure of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha with "bestowed in the Yongle era of the great Ming" inscription (sold for the amount of US$ 30.3 million last October… despite such a price showing attachment rather than generosity. I'm pretty confident a more wholesome use of such a sum could have been found, even if it is a beautiful statue). © Sotheby's.