The Tathagata’s Ten Wisdom Powers

The “Avatamsaka,” or “Flower Garland Sutra,” details the path and practices of the bodhisattva, including ten powers that arise from the awakened human mind. Rev. Heng Sure on how teacher and student alike might realize them.

Rev. Heng Sure
12 June 2023

I began formal Buddhist practice in 1969, studying at Antaiji, a tiny Soto Zen temple in what was, at the time, the northern edge of Kyoto, Japan. Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912–1998) taught shikantaza, “only mind your sitting,” yet in his public lectures he praised Kanzeon Bosatsu, Guan Yin Bodhisattva, the Awakened Being of Great Compassion; Jizo Bosatsu, Earth Treasury Bodhisattva, the Awakened Being of Great Vows; Munjo (Manjushri) Bosatsu and Fugen (Samantabhadra) Bosatsu, identified with Great Wisdom and Great Practices, respectively. His presentation of Zen was embedded in the larger framework of the Mahayana teachings, replete with admiration for the four great “celestial bodhisattvas” of the Mahayana.

Uchiyama Roshi said that if Buddhism had a contribution to make to the twentieth-century world, it was going to come from the limitless hearts of the bodhisattvas, who cultivated the Way and dedicated their merit on behalf of all beings—humans, animals, ghosts, and gods alike.

Three years later, when I made my way across the Bay from Berkeley to Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco’s Mission District, I immersed myself in the full banquet of traditional Chinese Mahayana practices: Chan meditation, Pure Land recitation, mantra practices, monastic Vinaya observances, and the study of the Buddha’s words in the Mahayana sutras.

Seemingly quixotic, an impossible task, bodhisattvas, with their expansive, inclusive hearts, amass practices that mark progress toward reaching the impossible dream.

Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua (1918–1995) gave line-by-line exegesis of the big three sutras—the Avatamsaka or Flower Garland, the Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma, and the Shurangama Sutras—for ninety minutes every night. He was a reformer of the Tiantai School’s lecturing style; he explained directly from the sutra text, instead of the standard Asian style, which relies primarily on a written commentary on the original sutra itself. Master Hua wanted to “let the Buddha’s voice be heard in the West,” and he encouraged us to translate into English every word of his explanation, which he delivered in Mandarin Chinese.

“We want to see if the Buddha can speak English; further, since I don’t speak English, I want you young Americans to translate these sutras into all the major languages of the world,” he said. “Once people understand the magnanimous compassionate heart of the bodhisattvas, they won’t want to go to war any longer.”

Even with a schedule of eight weekly lectures, Master Hua required nine years to complete his explanation of the Avatamsaka Sutra. The Avatamsaka describes the path of the bodhisattva in great detail, including the many practices that bodhisattvas use to teach sentient beings. Among those is one set of remarkable practices shared with buddhas: the Ten Wisdom Powers.

The Ten Wisdom Powers appear in multiple sutras, and vary in slight detail. In the Indian works that discuss them, including the Commentary on the Great Prajna Paramita Sutra, the Mahaprajnaparamitopadesa, the Dazhi Dulun, and the Yogacarabhumi-sastra, among others, these powers come with a variety of names, including the Tathagata’s Ten Powers, the Buddha’s Ten Powers, the Buddha’s Ten Wisdom Powers, and the Bodhisattva’s Ten Powers. To reduce confusion with such long lists, and among the various millennia-old discussions of their sources, I’m going to employ the lens of the Avatamsaka Sutra and treat various names and the powers they describe as a single set. Master Cheng Guan (738–839), a Tang Dynasty translator and commentator on the Avatamsaka Sutra, cited two Indian Buddhist shastras in his Avatamsaka exegesis as his sources of knowledge on the Ten Powers.

The Buddha’s Ten Wisdom Powers from the Avatamsaka Sutra include:

  1.    The wisdom power that knows what is the case and what is not the case.
  2.    The wisdom power that knows karmic retribution in the three periods of time.
  3.    The wisdom power that knows the dhyanas, the samadhis, and the liberations.
  4.    The wisdom power that knows the quality of an individual’s sense faculties.
  5.    The wisdom power that knows the variety of sentient beings’ understandings.
  6.    The wisdom power that knows the variety of living beings’ realms.
  7.    The wisdom power that knows where all paths lead.
  8.    The wisdom power that knows the unobstructed function of the deva’s eye / celestial vision.
  9.    The wisdom power that knows past lives without errors.
  10.    The wisdom power that knows how to end bad habits forever.

Although they appear by description to be superhuman, these abilities all arise from the awakened human mind. They are tools buddhas and bodhisattvas use to teach beings, developed through precepts and samadhi and motivated by vows and compassion.

The Avatamsaka Sutra presents the ten powers as advanced diagnostic tools. They allow the buddha or bodhisattva to target a sentient being’s strengths and weaknesses so the teacher knows exactly where to employ expedient means to lead that being toward awakening.

The Centrality of the Bodhi Resolve

The Bodhi Resolve, bodhicitta, the Thought for Awakening, is the foundation of these accomplishments. The traditional definition of this pivot point of the bodhisattva path comes in two four-character phrases: 上成佛道  (above/accomplish/Buddha/Path) and 下化眾生 (below/teach/sentient/beings).

For years, I’d felt uneasy with the word-by-word translation because it proposed a duality and directionality—that the Buddha was above us, maybe in the heavens, and living beings were separate, below both the Buddha and the practitioner. This translation seemed vaguely theistic, giving us a godlike celestial Buddha and an inferior lot of sentients, whereas the Chan School’s assertion envisions the Buddha, the mind, and living beings as one entity, not three. We can translate the first character of each phrase as temporal, rather than directional, though, interpreting “above” in Chinese as “ultimate,” “foremost,” “highest,” and “below”  as “right now” or “immediately.” This reading gives us the Bodhi Resolve as a motivator and a method: “Ultimately I can become a Buddha, and immediately I will get to work ‘taking beings across.’”

This version makes sense, dividing the Bodhi Resolve into two parts. First is a question that every fledgling bodhisattva asks: “What is my highest potential? Can I uncover my capacity for great wisdom?” With the awareness that everybody has the buddhanature, and the potential, to awaken great wisdom, comes the second part of the resolve: the awareness that “taking beings across” is the path to realizing that potential. Taking beings across is Buddhist jargon for resolving the troubles that afflict body and mind.

What Does It Mean to “Take Beings Across”?

The second half of the Bodhi Resolve, “immediately I will teach sentient beings,” leans on the Chinese verb hua, which means to change, to transform, or to teach. In the descriptions of the Ten Powers, the Mahayana texts say that bodhisattvas take across (du) or save or rescue (jiu) or instruct (jiao) sentient beings. All of these words appear in the sutra to describe the process of realizing a bodhisattva’s vows. The idea is that a bodhisattva’s own liberation depends on first fulfilling their vows. Those vows, most significantly the Bodhi Resolve, require them to “teach living beings,” “take beings across,” or “rescue” them.

“Taking across” is a Buddhist metaphor that imagines a river. Sentient beings stand on the closer shore, immersed in rebirth, death, and rebirth, the continuous cycles of samsara. On the distant shore is nirvana, where the miseries of samsara come to an end. Flowing between the two shores is the violent flood of afflictions, troubles, worries, and pain. The bodhisattva in this metaphor is the captain of a ferryboat, whose job is to navigate across from samsara to nirvana. The captain knows how to do so safely, and most remarkably, after docking in the safe harbor of nirvana, the bodhisattva stays on board the boat, turns around, and heads back into the chaotic turbidity of samsara. Content to navigate back and forth, to be last in line for liberation, the captain knows that with each boatload of passengers delivered to nirvana, their vows come closer to fulfillment and the suffering of the world is reduced.

They can do this because bodhisattvas, through perfecting their samadhi and wisdom, have emptied out both the illusion of the self and the perception of phenomena. Both self and dharmas have been seen through and put down. For them, suffering has nowhere to land.

Here is a description of the Avatamsaka bodhisattva’s rewards for this selfless service to the world:

Within a single particle of dust, they made appear everywhere all the states of the world and never missed the right moment to teach and transform all beings.

Within a single skin pore they emitted the sounds of all Thus Come Ones speaking the Dharma.They knew that beings are like an illusion.
They knew that Buddhas are like a reflection.
They knew that the destinies and paths of rebirth are like a dream. They knew that karmic retributions are like the reflection in a mirror. They knew that all of creation is like a summer mirage.
They knew that worlds are like changes and transformations.

They accomplished the Thus Come One’s Ten Powers, his fearlessnesses, his courage, and his self-mastery, and with a lion’s roar, they profoundly entered the great ocean of limitless eloquence.

Avatamsaka Sutra, Chapter 39, Entering the Dharma Realm, Section 1.

Rooted in that resolve to accomplish one’s highest potential, and savvy about the means to get there, a bodhisattva makes great vows. The most familiar four begin with this one: “Even though sentient beings are infinite in number, still I vow to take them all across.” It is followed by, “Even though afflictions are limitless, yet I vow to transform them all. Even though methods of practice are beyond numbering, still I vow to master them all. Even though Buddhahood is the supreme accomplishment, I vow to realize that awakening.” Seemingly quixotic, an impossible task, bodhisattvas, with their expansive, inclusive hearts, amass practices that mark progress toward reaching the impossible dream.

How, though, do bodhisattvas take limitless living beings across? They need skill in means, tailored to the person, the time, and the place. The Ten Powers help identify an individual’s capacities so the bodhisattva knows how to teach them, thereby moving them closer to realizing their vows. The bodhisattva vows to go last to enlightenment. It doesn’t mean they reject salvation; rather, they understand the identity in the one vast body that all beings share. Having already realized the emptiness of both the constructed self and the emptiness at the heart of all phenomena (small “d” dharmas), they postpone their awakening until all beings come forward to leave suffering together.

It’s important to emphasize that, as presented by the sutra, knowing past lives, seeing into the heavens and hells, and the other eight powers are not a goal of cultivation. They are a means to an end. They appear to a buddha or bodhisattva only as a response to their compassionate vows to help others wake up. They are one aspect of a bodhisattva’s progress toward the real goal, which is wisdom and compassion.

Let’s take a closer look at the ten.

Using their knowledge of the Ten Powers saves the bodhi­sattva time and energy. The Ten begin in Chinese with the word zhi, “knowledge”—as in “they employ the wisdom power that knows each of these powers.”

The Buddha’s Ten Wisdom Powers from the Avatamsaka Sutra:

  1. The wisdom power that knows what is the case and what is not the case. In the context of fulfilling his vows to wake others up, with this power the bodhisattva cuts through to the heart of each different situation, so that no matter what happens to any particular sentient being, the bodhisattva immediately knows factually what is up, without delusion, personal prejudice, or alternative facts. With this power the bodhisattva knows immediately whether or not this person can be saved now or perhaps later, and by whom.
  2. The wisdom power that knows karmic retribution in the three periods of time. The things that happen in our lives, both happy and miserable, result from prior causes. The bodhisattva, face to face with each individual’s sliding scale of karmic rewards, knows clearly, without mistake, the karmic web that caused the situation and the results of those causes, present and future. With this knowledge, they can respond skillfully to the individual’s needs and can know to what degree they can get involved in a person’s ledger of karmic deeds and misdeeds.
  3. The wisdom power that knows the dhyanas, the samadhis, and the liberations. This power suggests how states of meditation latent in the human mind contribute to a bodhisattva’s ability to teach.
  4. The wisdom power that knows the quality of an individual’s sense faculties. The bodhisattva is better able to teach living beings when they know clearly how an individual perceives principles; further, they understand the five faculties inherent in each living being: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. How keen are their faculties? How will they respond to certain teachings, be they devotional, physical, intellectual, or emotional?
  5. The wisdom power that knows the variety of sentient beings’ understandings. A bodhisattva will teach more effectively if they know clearly what their student understands. It helps to know their likes and dislikes, their language and logical skills, etc.
  6. The wisdom power that knows the variety of living beings’ realms. Knowing how somebody has incarnated over their lifetimes, the dharma realms they have passed through, a bodhisattva has a better chance of teaching them. Devas who have fallen back to the human realm have an attitude toward blessings that is different from that of a being from the animal realm that has only recently gained a human body.
  7. The wisdom power that knows where all paths lead. The bodhisattva knows exactly where a sentient being’s every action, word, and thought in cultivation will take them. This knowledge is beneficial when mentoring someone. Which dharma-gateway will take them most efficiently from their current state to where they need to go next? This power is forward-looking.
  8. The wisdom power that knows the unobstructed function of the deva’s/celestial eye. This wisdom power is shared with the Six Psychic Powers and the Five Spiritual Eyes; it allows the Bodhisattva to see in real time what happens in the heavens and the hells and what the current dynamic conditions are in the present, on the fly.
  9. The wisdom power that knows past lives without errors. This power faces backwards, allowing the bodhisattva to pinpoint where living beings have been amid the six destinies and where their tendencies lie. It reveals the situations before this life and where a being might fit in the future.
  10. The wisdom power that knows how to end bad habits forever. Energy that gets grooved in by repetitive habits is as resistant to change as water running along a riverbed. The bodhisattva, with this wisdom power, knows how to effect genuine personal transformations toward wholesome habits, and how to keep this particular sentient being securely on the path to nirvana.

Challenges from Buddhists

At a conference in Perth, a follower of Pali-based Buddhism challenged my presentation on the bodhisattva path: “Do you really believe that in this world there is someone so altruistic that, having tasted the fruits of nirvana, they would then willingly launch back into the darkness of birth and death and forsake liberation, all for the purpose of saving some airy-fairy, theoretical living beings? Who could be that gullible?”

I replied, “Yes, not only do I believe such unselfish humans have always existed on the planet, I have met a few and I aspire to learn their ways. The Avatamsaka Sutra is a blueprint to the deeper mind and its potentials. The sutra functions like a map to a higher destination than simply escaping out of suffering. The Mahayana sutras are a mirror of reality beyond self and dharmas. They are not a fantasy, not a dream.”

The Avatamsaka Sutra contains a description of humanity at its best, and a blueprint for liberation for all beings who share the Buddha’s awakened nature. Its teachings appear through the grace of spiritual mentors such as Bodhisattvas Manjushri, Samantabhadra, Maitreya, and Avalokitesvara. The first thirty-eight chapters lay out a path to awakening with step-by-step instructions to its realization. Chapter 39, “Entering the Dharma Realm,” narrates a hero’s quest where each of those steps, the practices of a bodhisattva, are lived into by a pilgrim, a relatable young man named Sudhana, who encounters fifty-three teachers along the Path. Sudhana succeeds in his quest for enlightenment, his emotions, doubts, and delights filling the pages of this epic tale.

Kindness Fuels the Ten Powers

By bringing to light every shadow of his own ignorance, the Buddha sits atop the spiritual food chain. He inhabits the human realm but upon attaining buddhahood stepped into the spiritual realm as the number one, able to subdue and to compel the respect of demons and lords of the spirit world. In combat with Mara, the demon-king, he couldn’t be frightened or seduced. He receives the support of a pantheon of indestructible warriors—Vajra Power Knights, dragons, devas, dharma-protectors, and spirit-realm disciples—who all want to become buddhas themselves. They want what the Buddha promises: instructions for gaining liberation from suffering.

The Buddha defeated Mara with the same tools he used as he began his cultivation: purity, stillness, and insight. And he added to these kindness and compassion. Mara tried seduction, terror, flattery, and insults, but each time, the Buddha’s power prevailed. It is ultimately the Buddha’s vows to save everybody, especially the bad ones, that creates his greatest power.

In the Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra, Buddha talks about his incarnation as the “Patient Immortal.” He and the King of Kalinga meet in the forest. The Immortal’s patient kung fu angers the king, who slices the Immortal to bits with his royal sword. The Immortal’s spiritual protectors attack the king, who, uncharacteristically for a proud ruler, cowers on the ground in terror. The Buddha shows the power of compassion and promises to take him across in the future.

True to his word, when the two meet again, Prince Siddhartha, newly awakened as the Buddha Shakyamuni, takes Ajnata-Kaun­dinya as his first disciple, and Kaundinya is the first to awaken. This is the ultimate power of compassion that motivates all the spiritual baddies and bosses to humble themselves, holster their weapons, and line up to be saved in the Buddha’s retinue. We might infer that the Buddha is making use of the Ten Wisdom Powers’ knowledge of past lives when he predicts the happy future outcome of their relationship.

The Result of the Ten Powers? Quiet and
Effective Teachings

I was a young monk, training at Gold Mountain Monastery. One Sunday, a donor made an offering of dessert. Arriving too late to be served, there it sat on the counter: a pink baker’s box of a dozen jelly doughnuts. The Gold Mountain community practiced eating only one meal per day, so that pink box, too late for lunch, was going to wait until tomorrow. A layman in the community named Guo Fa had a prodigious sweet tooth. He began every work day by parking his electrician’s truck outside a Mission District bake shop, buying and consuming three pastries and two Diet Pepsis. Jelly doughnuts were a favorite.

Guo Fa also volunteered in the kitchen at the monastery; food offerings to the temple first passed his inspection. He opened the box, inspected the various jam fillings and glazes, sighed, and put the box into the fridge. According to the rules, tomorrow the doughnuts would be offered first to the buddhas, then served to the monastics, then to the laymen. Guo Fa might get one—or if there were a crowd, a portion of one—jelly doughnut.

The post-meal blessings were concluded and the monks headed out to the International Translation Institute. Master Hua said,
“We need somebody to watch the door while we’re gone. Guo Fa, you stay. You can meditate here in the office by the front door and get the phone and answer the door. Do a good job and don’t leave your post while we’re gone.”

It’s important to emphasize that, as presented by the sutra, knowing past lives, seeing into the heavens and hells, and the other eight powers are not a goal of cultivation. They are a means to an end.

“Okay, Shifu,” said Guo Fa, pleased to be entrusted with the responsibility. “I’ll watch the door.”

We reached the ITI, went inside, lit incense, bowed, and were thirty minutes into Master Hua’s discourse when something unusual happened: he paused, uncrossed his legs out of full lotus, and got down from the dharma-seat. He walked into the office and we heard the rotary dial turning on the phone. Moments later, Master Hua returned with a smile on his face.

The lecture continued and then, another thirty minutes along, he did the same thing, climbing down from the platform and making another phone call. We had never seen behavior such as this from our teacher. Smiling again, Master Hua returned, finished the talk, and then led us in bowing to the Buddha and transferring merit at the close. We said our goodbyes and drove back to 15th Street and Gold Mountain Monastery.

When we went in, there was Guo Fa, his eyes as big as saucers, his complexion pale, bowing to Master Hua from his knees, over and over. The teacher smiled and said, “Okay, Guo Fa, looks like nobody stole the front door, you did a good job.”

Guo Fa stammered, “Shifu, Shifu, you can read my mind!”

Master Hua smiled broadly and in a gentle tone said, “Of course I can read your mind. If I didn’t know what my disciples were thinking, how could I teach any of you?” After Master Hua exited, we monks demanded that Guo Fa tell us what had happened.

His face drenched in sweat, he told us: “After you all left I set my will to meditate without moving, no matter what. At first everything was fine, but then after about twenty minutes, right through my meditation I heard the jelly doughnuts talking. They called my name! I swear they said, ‘Come eat me!’ It was weird!

“They were reminding me that there were three lemon creams, my favorite. I said ‘No, no way, I can’t break the rules, Shifu asked me to watch the door.’ But I was really tempted. The voices kept up. I was about to waver and go just take a look at the box. I put my legs down and reached for my shoes when the phone rang! It was Shifu! He asked me in English how I was doing and whether there had been any calls or visitors. I said no, and  then he told me to do a good job of watching the door and he hung up. I thought, ‘That was funny timing,’ and went back to watching the door.

“I settled back down, crossed my legs, and before long, the voices started in again. The next thing you know, I could smell the doughnuts. I could taste them. I kind of lost it and slipped my shoes on. I was walking into the kitchen when the phone rang. It was Shifu again, and he asked me how my meditation was going. My hands were sweating and I nearly dropped the phone. I couldn’t breathe or say anything. I nearly fainted. After we hung up I went over in front of the buddhas and started bowing. I’ve been bowing since we hung up. I’m going to cut back on jelly doughnuts. I think Shifu can read my mind.” The next day Guo Fa brought in a pink box with a dozen jelly doughnuts and set them on the counter.

Was that a case of Master Hua using psychic powers to teach us? I don’t know, but I do know that the result of that encounter was that one young American disciple’s faith in the dharma and his resolve to change his ways got a boost that day. Guo Fa knew for certain that he had a true kalyana-mitra, a wise advisor on his side, counting on him to follow the path of transforming desires and subduing the self for the sake of the dharma.

Back in Pacific Heights, we’d seen the cause of the transformation; we watched as Master Hua made his two unexplained phone calls. Only after seeing the effect of that teaching on its recipient did we put the pieces of the puzzle together. Master Hua was not showing off special abilities, nor was he making any claims. He was using compassion to teach with expedient skill in a timely fashion.

Perhaps this is how the Ten Powers work: quietly, subtly, as expedient teachings with uncanny timing that give your faith a boost or provide support for your vows and practices—all the way to buddha­hood.

Rev. Heng Sure

Rev. Heng Sure

Rev. Heng Sure serves as director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery and president of the board of directors of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association. A composer and performer of Buddhist music, he has released three albums (Paramita, Buddhist Stories for Awakening, and Dharma Radio) and has authored numerous publications including Highway Dharma Letters: Two Buddhist Pilgrims Write to Their Teacher (with Heng Chau).