Although the ten levels of master Kukai, founder of Shingon in Japan, have been described and interpreted in different ways, basically they represent stages through which the esoteric practitioner passes as delusions are penetrated, and increasingly deeper strata of mind are reclaimed. In another view, these ten stages may be seen as descriptions of Buddhist teachings in Kukai’s time, and simultaneously as his own spiritual biography in philosophical terms. What follows is a simple introduction.

1. Unstable goatish mind: stage of the worldling, at which the unawakened mind understands neither good nor evil, neither cause nor effect. One is driven by instincts and needs for security, sex, and food. This stage may be seen as prehumanistic.

2. Foolish abstinent mind: something has stirred in the buddha-nature so that one begins to restrain, so that this mind strives to be ethical and moral. This stage may be seen as humanistic.

3. Childlike fearless mind: seeking the peace of dwelling in heaven, due to weariness with human condition. First awakening to spirituality. Like a child seeking comfort of mother’s embrace, the person at this level seeks to believe in an eternally unchanging god or salvation doctrine.

4. Mind of selfless aggregates: self seen as impermanent, but five aggregates (skt. panca-skandha) seen as real. This corresponds to the “vehicle of hearers” (skt. shravakayana). One seeks personal liberation through insight into three characteristics, namely suffering (duhkha), impermanence (anityata), and no-self (nairatmya).

The treatise Abhidharmakosha explains existence in terms of karmic cycle, conditioned by misleading views and misleading thoughts. Existence essentially means karma, and liberation means severance from karma. Insight into the four truths is the initial step. A shravaka therefore negates the reality of self and affirms the reality of basic phenomena. Complete liberation means extinction of both mind and body, because both are accumulator and repository of unwholesome qualities.

5. Mind free of karmic seeds: understanding the process of conditioning, one destroys the ignorance that is at root of all bad karma. This mind, however, like the previous stage, still lacks compassion for other beings, corresponding to the “vehicle of solitary realizers” (skt. pratyekabuddhayana).

Masters of Abhidharma conceived two types of ‘nirvana:’ one reserved for the historical Buddha, and the other for the professional monk as the state of arhat. The laity was expected to be guided by the monks, to lead wholesome secular life, to dedicate themselves to supporting the monks, and to aspite for better rebirth in the future. Nirvana suggests a “blowing out” of human passions. Hence, in referring to awakening, Mahayana generally employs the term ‘bodhi,’ from which the term ‘buddha’ is derived. Even when Mahayana does employ the term ‘nirvana,’ in the context of its own doctrine, the term does not mean “extinction” of body and mind. It generally refers to a state of tranquility and quiescence. But more often than not, it is spoken of with reference to the identity of nirvana and samsara, based upon the doctrine of emptiness and dependent co-arising, which led to the development of the theory of universal buddhahood. Kukai thought that the Abhidharma tradition of analyzing existence in terms of dharmas is speculative, contributes to de-centralizing the human personality, does not in fact offer awakening for all beings, and thus on its own cannot serve as basis of human creativity and the ultimate dignity of all mankind.

6. Compassionate mahayana mind: great compassion wells forth. Objects are seen as void, but the nature of storehouse consciousness is real. This corresponds to teachings of Yogacara school, founded by Indian masters Asanga and Vasubandhu. According to esoteric perspective, they were inspired by bodhisattva Maitreya.

Mahakaruna is compassion without discrimination. While in previous stages compassion is present as sensitivity to others’ suffering, in Mahayana it becomes a positive, proactive concern for the awakening of all beings. Turning our heart-mind at the basis (skt. ashrayapravrtti), we shift from discrimination based on arbitrary values to non-discrimination, that is, to unconditioned concern for every being. Cittamatra school also enumerates basic phenomenal constituents, but puts emphasis on their transformation. For example, every type of consciousness (skt. vijnana) becomes a type of deep awareness (skt. jnana) or wisdom.

7. Mind awakened to the Unborn: realization of the void nature of both objects and mind itself. This corresponds to teachings of Madhyamaka school, founded by Indian masters Nagarjuna and Aryadeva. According to esoteric perspective, they were inspired by bodhisattva Manjushri.

 This teaching reveals the middle path principle by positing two levels of thought – the realm of emptiness, which is called the ‘supreme’ (skt. paramartha), and the realm of co-arising, which is called the ‘conventional’ (skt. samvrtti). Co-arising is possible because of emptiness; that what co-arises, due to emptiness, is the sign of emptiness; the insight into the organic relationship between the supreme and the conventional is the middle. The middle path articulates the principle of nonduality, thus providing the basis for the theory of the identity of nirvana and samsara.

Kukai’s work “Precious Key” says, ‘The great space, boundless and silent, encompasses ten thousand images in its life-force; the great sea, deep and still, embraces thousand elements in its single drop. The all embracing one is the mother of all things. Emptiness is the source of conventional reality. Conventional reality is not real existence but it exists conventionally. Emptiness is not nothingness for it exists non-abidingly. Because form is not different from emptiness, it produces phenomena and eternally abides as emptiness; because emptiness is not different from form, it brings phenomena into extinction and eternally abides as form. Form is emptiness and that very emptiness is form. All dharmas as so likewise. What is there that is not? The water and the waves are inseparable, the gold and its marks are indistinguishable. Nothing is identical nor is anything different. This is the essence of the two truths, the middle. Realize the nature of emptiness without grasping it; and through the eight negations, transcend meaningless arguments.’

8. Mind of the single way: worlds of delusion and awakening, worlds of matter and mind, all possible worlds are contained in a single thought within mind. Consciousness and its objects form one body. This corresponds to teachings of T’ien T’ai, established on the basis of Lotus Sutra and the works of Nagarjuna (this is one reason why Kukai breaks the historical development and places Madhyamaka a step higher than Yogacara, so as to establish an inseparable continuity between Indian Madhyamaka and Chinese T’ien T’ai). According to esoteric perspective, these were inspired by bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

9. Mind of ultimate no-self-nature: all things interpenetrate, and all things contain the ultimate. Still, limited by void and nothingness, this mind does not progress beyond negation. This corresponds to teachings of Hua Yen, rooted in the Flower Ornament Sutra, inspired by bodhisattva Samantabhadra.

Four worlds according to Hua Yen: (1) world of co-arising, the phenomenal reality; (2) world of emptiness, principle underlying phenomena; (3) harmony between phenomena and principle, their synthesis; and (4) harmony between phenomena, the synthesis among the co-arising, also called dharmadhatu, a dynamic harmony beyond being and non-being.

Dharmadhatu as conceived in this school refers to the world of harmony between phenomena, an empirical world in which all forms of diversity are unified and harmonized. Ten principles of causation follow. (1) Co-arising of all elements at the same time to complete the whole; the whole is suchness (skt. tathata). (2) Complete blending of one and many, like many lights directed at one spot. (3) One and many are implicit in each other. (4) Co-identity of one and many. (5) Actualized and potential, revealed and unrevealed, are implicit in each other, like seed and sprout. (6) Blending of all parts. (7) Indra’s net, a metaphorical description of universal interpenetration, i.e. every thing reflects everything. (8) Co-identity and interpenetration seen through phenomenal reality. (9) All time periods implicit within the one. Â (10) Harmony between causes and conditions produces results.

10. Secret sublime mind: breaking through attachment to void, fully realizing true nature. In this realm of affirmation, one finds the creative mind at the source of all things.

Master Kukai states in “Ten Stages” – ‘The glorious mind, the most secret and sacred is, ultimately, to realize one’s own mind in its fountainhead and to have insight into the nature of one’s own existence.’ He conceives man as ‘body-mind’ and holds that this body-mind is grounded in the Body-Mind, the secret and sacred living Body-Mind of all, the Dharmakaya Mahavairocana.

Some levels are only slight steps, others are separated by a vast chasm of purpose and meaning. All levels are necessary and valid in their own framework. The last levels does not reject but fulfills all preceding levels, and lower levels embody the potential fulfillment of higher ones. The tenth level is not realized by penetrating in the same direction as the previous nine, though. It does not exist separate from the previous nine, but is seen as bringing them to new life.

Notes from Taiko Yamasaki’s “Shingon – Japanese Esoteric Buddhism,” Minoru Kiyota’s “Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice”, and Yoshito Hakeda’s “Kukai: Major Works”