Shingon is an esoteric school of Mahayana, and Mahayana is a bodhisattva doctrine. Bodhisattva is interested in awakening others and himself equally. The general classification of the bodhisattva stages, according to the exoteric teachings, is as follows: a) ten stages of faith, b) ten stages of understanding, c) ten stages of practice, d) ten stages of transferring merit, e) ten stages of bodhisattvahood (skt. dashabhumi), and f) the two Buddha stages, namely supreme awakening and the most supreme awakening. These make a total of fifty-two stages, covering the advancement through five paths (marga) of accumulation (sambhara), joining (prayoga), seeing (darshana), cultivation (bhavana), and beyond training (ashaiksha or nishtha). Within the context of bodhisattva practices, dashabhumi, meaning “ten grounds,” is the most important set. What follows is a brief overview.
1 – Pramudita, joyful stage, where initial awakening is perfected by severing misleading views and gaining insight into emptiness. Misleading views (skt. kudrshti) are naive self (satkaya), extreme biases (antaragraha) like nihilism (uccheda) and eternalism (shashvata), perverted views (mithya) such as rejecting cause and effect, affirmation of the above three (drshti-paramarsha), ethical and moral offenses (shila-vrata-paramarsha), greed (raga), hatred (vyapada), delusion (moha), conceit (mana), and doubt (vichikitsa). Insight into emptiness is the understanding of the void nature of self and phenomena. The following stages constitute a breakdown of items inherent in the first stage.
2 – Vimala, immaculate stage, where purification is perfected.
3 – Prabhakari, luminous stage, where patience (kshanti) is perfected.
4 – Archishmati, brilliant stage, where vigor (virya) is perfected.
5 – Sudurjaya, hard-to-conquer stage, where meditation (dhyana) is perfected.
6 – Abhimukhi, facing stage, where understanding (prajna) is perfected.
7 – Durangama, fa-going stage, where skillful means (upaya) is perfected.
8 – Achala, immovable stage, where vow (pranidhana) is perfected.
9 – Sadhumati, good-minded stage, where power (bala) is perfected.
10 – Dharmamegha, dharma-cloud stage, where knowledge (jnana) of reality (dharmadhatu) is perfected.
Whereas the exoteric approach views the ten grounds as causal steps leading to Buddhahood, Shingon interpretation is twofold: a) practice, and b) innate.
a) Practice has two aspects: klesha-eliminating, and bodhicitta-revealing. Both of these perspectives make sense if the ten grounds are seen as stages, in general accordance with the exoteric view, although in the esoteric view every obstacle and negativity is seen as useful material from which awakening is born.
b) Innate perspective comes from the notion that everything is implicit in each thing, an idea we find in every Ekayana scripture. The influential Shrimaladevi-simhanada Sutra claims that all facets of morality are implicit in the bodhisattva activity of awakening [with] others, Tendai claims that three thousand worlds are implicit in one instant thought, and Kegon speaks of the ‘all-in-one.’ In later Japanese Buddhism, we find Zen teaching the three disciplines (shila, samadhi, prajna) are implicit in Zen, Jodo Shin claims that all practices are implicit in faith, and even Nichiren claims that all knowledges are implicit in their Lotus Dharma, the entirety of which is implicit in the chanting of the title of the Saddharmapundrika Sutra. The Shingon innate perspective presupposes that bodhicitta is inherent in the practitioner, so it does not conceive dashabumi as literal stages of practice. The numeral ten, following the Avatamsaka/Kegon tradition, is interpreted as inexhaustible. The ten grounds are therefore interpreted as the manifestation of the inexhaustible merits of bodhicittta. This perspective does not make practice useless. On the contrary, practice itself is a natural expression of the inexhaustible innate potential.
Now, dashabhumi is modeled upon the classical Mahayana six paramita (tr. ‘far-reaching’ practices). The six were elaborated into ten, so that dashabhumi corresponds to ten paramita. The six far-reaching practices are generosity (dana), morality (shila), patience (kshanti), vigour (virya), meditation (dhyana) and understanding (prajna). In the Ekayana context, prajna embraces and gives birth to all other paramitas. That is, understanding is meditation as the source of morality that, through ongoing patience and vigour, is expressed in generosity. Such integrated far-reaching practice is expanded by additional four paramitas, themselves descriptive attributes of prajna: skillful means (upaya), vow of commitment (pranidhana), power to awaken (bala), and pristine awareness (jnana). Shingon identifies the first five as items of self-cultivation, and the last four as instruments to benefit others. All paramitas are implied in prajna.
Insofar as the itemized description of dashabhumi is concerned, there is no difference between exoteric and esoteric. What distinguishes the two is the interpretation: exoteric conceives dashabhumi as graded stages of practice; Shingon esoteric views them as embodiment of a variety of virtues, not stages to eliminate something or to gain something. Hence, path is the embodiment of awakening – Dharmakaya. Awakening is described iconographically as four buddhas (Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitayus, and Amoghasiddhi), each with four attending bodhisattva, represent the four attributes of pristine awareness (jnana) of Dharmakaya Mahavairochana. The whole mandala of awakening, each stage and path, each aspect and attribute, presented simultaneously. This concomitance is no coincidence. And yet, it’s a mystery in plain sight.
Summary. Mahayana literature reveals the nature of buddhahood, while Mahayana practices are disciplines to achieve buddhahood, the purpose of Mahayana being realization of buddhahood. Questions as to whether buddhahood consists of a theoretical or a factual possibility, a mental realization or an actual physical attainment, a state limited to Shakyamuni or a universal one shared by all humans, a past possibility, a present possibility, or a future possibility – these have been discussed for centuries among Buddhists in Asia. The history of the development of Buddhist thought has been in large part a history of the evolution of the concept of buddhahood.
In India, after the death of Shakyamuni, buddhahood was conceived as a special realization, a possibility limited only to Shakyamuni. Reverence to Shakyamuni eventually gave rise to deification, and later to the development of the theory of universal body of awakening, Dharmakaya. The theory of universal buddhahood paved the way for the development of the theory of innate buddha-nature. Universal buddhahood was discussed in India for centuries, as attested by Saddharmapundarika, Nirvana, Vimalakirti, and Shrimaladevisimhanada Sutras. Chinese and Japanese Buddhists accepted this teaching, but they were not satisfied to interpret it merely as the possibility of one becoming a Buddha, an idea which presupposes a duration of time and a process of becoming. Instead they emphasized that universal wakefulness means the recognition of the innate wakefulness in all sentient being. This means that all beings are in themselves, as they are, the embodiment of wakefulness.
Master Kukai wrote in the Nenji Shingon Rikan Keihaku-mon (Treatise on Visualization of Truth by Mindful Recitation of Mantra):
If the Buddhas are the Dharma Realm, they exist within my body. If I myself am also the Dharma Realm, then I exist within the Buddhas.
For Shingon, this is evident in the teaching sokushin jobutsu, meaning ‘realizing buddhahood in this body.’ This phrase has three levels of meaning. (1) Rigu jobutsu is the innate principle presupposing that man, whether awake or not, consists of six elements, four mandalas, and three mysteries; that his body is the Garbhakosha mandala, and his mind the Vajradhatu mandala. (2) Kaji jobutsu is the ‘buddhahood by blessing’ i.e. awakening experienced through practice. (3) Kendoku jobutsu is buddhahood acquired by revealing our own inherent nature. These are not three distinct approaches to buddhahood, for the first two are dependent upon one another to realize the third. Rigu provides the doctrinal premise for practice; kaji provides evidence for validity of that premise; kendoku is the purpose. Shingon is thus a combination of gradual and immediate methods to enlightenment. Gradual for the practitioner, immediate for the awakened one.
Excerpts from Minoru Kiyota’s “Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice”