Five paths describe the entire spiritual journey in the Mahayana tradition. In this vehicle, one begins with the bodhisattva vow, generating relative bodhichitta, the bodhichitta of aspiration. One then follows the five paths until its final fruition of complete awakening or enlightenment.
On the first four of the five paths, a person practices the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment. There is also a correspondence between the five paths and the ten bodhisattva bhūmis, or “grounds”. The first two paths lead the practitioner to the first bhūmi. The third path, the path of seeing, is equivalent to the first bhūmi. The path of meditation or cultivation comprises the other nine bhūmis. The fifth path, called “no more learning” brings the bodhisattva to the eleventh bhūmi, that of ‘Universal Radiance’.
The five paths are:
- Path of accumulation (Sanskrit sambhāramārga)
- Path of joining (or engagement) (Sanskrit prayogamārga)
- Path of seeing (Sanskrit darśanamārga)
- Path of meditation (or cultivation) (Sanskrit bhāvanāmārga)
- Path of no more learning (Sanskrit aśaikṣamārga)
Each of these paths is divided into different levels where the practitioner engages in various practices. On the path of accumulation, the aspiring bodhisattva begins the lengthy practice of the accumulation of merit. Thus the practices on this path are considered to be aspirational and conceptual in nature. One begins by engaging with the four applications of mindfulness.
On the path of seeing, one has direct experience of the insight of non-conceptual wisdom. This means that the individual has become a noble being. Patrul Rinpoche explains how the bodhisattva-in-training is now on the first bodhisattva bhūmi:
At this stage, there is also an experience of abundant bliss, unlike any known before: this bhūmi is therefore known as the stage of ‘Perfect Joy’.
At this stage, purifying the obscuration of avarice and its associated habitual tendencies, and perfecting the pāramitā of generosity, bodhisattvas gain twelve sets of one hundred qualities.
They are able to:
—enter into and arise from one hundred samādhi meditations in a single instant,
—see one hundred buddhas face to face, and receive their blessings,
—travel to one hundred buddha realms,
—cause one hundred world systems to shake,
—illuminate one hundred world systems,
—bring one hundred beings to complete maturity,
—manifest in one hundred aeons in a single instant,
—know one hundred aeons in the past and
—one hundred aeons in the future,
—open one hundred doors to the Dharma,
—manifest one hundred emanations, and
—for each of these bodies, manifest one hundred attendants.
At this stage, a bodhisattva can take birth as a ruler over Jambudvīpa.Excerpt from A Brief Guide to the Stages and Paths of the Bodhisattvas by Patrul Rinpoche.
On the subsequent path of meditation, the bodhisattva purifies everything that remains to be purified and perfects all qualities. Once the bodhisattva has arrived at the greatest level of the path of meditation, the tenth bhūmi, they are free from all cognitive obscurations.