Today marks the 31st anniversary of the day I accepted the Precepts and officially became a Buddhist. Then, I was full of answers. Now, full of questions. I question, for instance, if it is necessary to become a “Buddhist.” I question the doctrines of karma and rebirth. And yet, I cannot help leaning toward a sort of Buddhist exceptionalism, and I am waiting, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for a rebirth of wonder.

During these 31 years I have been dedicated to a meditative practice, be it mantra or meditation, or both. I have been dedicated but not consistent. I am sure there are many meditation teachers who have nearly perfect practices. I am not one of them. I am too busy trying to be human to be perfect.

I don’t know how many of you practice meditation. I wouldn’t say that meditation is for everyone, unless they are Buddhist. Buddhism is a philosophy but more than that it is about the process of awakening, which is nearly impossible to describe, and according to Buddhism, impossible to undertake without meditation.

Buddhist Meditation, on the other hand, can be described, and although there are many variations, a good general description would be that it is a system for mind development. In turn, mind development can be described plainly as observing. The breath and the mind are the two most common objects for observation.

Another word for observation is seeing. T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i translated the Indian term for basic Buddhism meditation, samatha- vipassana (tranquility and insight) as “stopping and seeing” (chih-kuan), and said, “seeing (kuan) is observing, examining, introspecting . . . when the mind is seeing clearly it is seeing. The chief aim [of meditation] is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight and to be rid of illusion.”

This is stating things very simply. Yet, I believe that the historical Buddha’s approach to meditation was very simple, in the beginning. I feel he wanted to offer an alternative to the complex meditation techniques offered by the teachers of his day.

The Buddha said if you want to overcome suffering, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still and calm your mind. Just focus on your breath and be one with the timeless reality of now.

It is true that meditation is not enough. We must apply the awareness and wisdom we cultivate through meditation into our daily life. It’s also true that meditation won’t change the world. But it may change you, and me. And we have to be the change we want to see in the world. Gandhi didn’t really say that. What he said was,

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

In my experience, there are very few people who truly want to change their life. Oh, they will accept change if it comes easy to them and includes material benefits. Deep-seated change is too hard for most. Some people will never meditate because they are afraid of seeing too clearly the loneliness and pain of their life. When they try meditation, though, and stick with it, then they understand that observing also means seeing through our suffering, transcending it.

That is enough for today. It is after midnight and I need to post this and then go to bed. I have changed a lot in 31 years. One thing that’s changed is I am beginning to agree with the Dalai Lama that “Sleep is the best meditation.”


The Six Subtle Dharma Doors

doors-1d3The Six Subtle Dharma Doors (Lu Miao Fa Meng) is a manual attributed to T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i that explains a meditation method consisting of six steps, each one of which is said to directly bring about purification of mind and the transcendence of suffering.

Still well known in Asian, both the text and the technique are relatively unfamiliar here in the West. One can find references to the Lu Miao Fa Meng here and there, for instance, Thich Nhat Hanh in several of his book mentions “The Six Wonderful Dharma Doors.” He describes them as “counting the breath, following the breath, concentrating the mind, observing to throw light on all that exists, returning to the source of mind, and going beyond the concepts of subject and object.”

Lu Miao Fa Meng
Lu Miao Fa Meng

There is an English translation of Chih-i’s text, titled “The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime,” and it appears to be a good literal, and authoritative, translation, yet I wonder how familiar the translator is with the teachings of the T’ien-t’ai school. For one thing, in the title of the work, we find the Chinese character miao (pronounced “meow”), that this translator renders as “sublime”, which is certainly acceptable, but he associates it with the term pranita, rather than the Sanskrit sad (or sat), which has a more direct relationship with T’ien-t’ai doctrine and practice.*

Miao is an key term in Chih-i’s philosophy. In “Profound Meaning of the Dharma Flower [Lotus Sutra]”, he devotes a lengthy section discussing the meaning of miao and miao-fa (saddharma). For Chih-I, miao meant “subtle”: “beyond conceptual thought.”**

As The Six Subtle Dharma Doors focuses on the breath, there is another, more literal aspect of “subtle” to consider. The breath is the perfect object for meditation because it is so subtle. One of the chief aims of meditation is to let go of discursive thinking, and we often breathe without thinking about it at all. It follows, then, that it should be relatively simple to focus on the breath without attaching a great deal of conceptual thought to the process.

In Lu Miao Fa Meng, Chih-i tells that the name “six subtle dharma doors” (or gates) means they are linked together and mutually inclusive. As progressive steps, though, the sequence moves from learning to concentrate the mind, to effortless mindfulness of breath, calming the mind, severing delusions, returning to original mind (which includes returning to the original teachings and meditation of the Buddha), and finally, realization of the emptiness (non-substantiality) of all dharmas, or things.

The Six Subtle Dharma Doors falls under “Subtlety of Practice”, the third of Chih-i’s three categories of Subtlety (Subtlety of Objects, Subtlety of Knowledge, and Subtlety of Practice), and is actually a rather simple meditation technique, although the last three steps  are not as straightforward as the first three.

Yin Shih Tzu
Yin Shih Tzu

The textural source for this meditation that has been most helpful to me is from Yin Shih Tzu. His explanation and instructions from Chapter 6 of his book Experimental Meditation for the Promotion of Health appears in Secrets of Chinese Meditation by Charles Luk. The same material was translated into English some years ago in Tranquil Sitting.

Evidently, Yin Shih Tzu, was a lay person who first studied Taoist meditation as a member of the Dragon Door Sect (Lung Men Tsung) and later went on to master practices taught in the T’ien-t’ai, Ch’an and Tibetan schools. In the early 1950’s, when he was in his 80’s, he wrote several books that are considered classic works on the subject of meditation. In Luk’s book, the Lu Miao Fa Meng is translated as “The Six Profound Dharma Doors,” while in “Tranquil Sitting” it is rendered as “The Six Mystical Steps.”

Here are the opening paragraphs to Yin Shih Tzu’s instructions in Tranquil Sitting, as translated by Shi Fu Hwang and Cheney Crow, Ph.D.:

Breath is the origin of life. Anyone who cannot breathe will soon die. The nervous system cannot sustain its reflexes and the mind dies. His life is finished. Breath alone makes it possible for us to connect the body and the mind, and maintain life. The entry and exit of air through our nostrils depends on this breath. Although it is usually invisible to our eyes, breath has both form and weight, since it has both weight and form, during its passage it is also a material part of our body. We realize that entry and exit of the breath depend entirely on our mind, and that is part of the spirit. Since breath can connect the body and mind, we know that breath itself is part of the body and mind.

The six mystical steps will teach the practitioner to manage the technique of breathing. It is a method of continuous meditation. After learning the principles of Chih Kuan, the practitioner can go further to study the six mystical steps. Even without practicing the principles of Chih Kuan, he may begin the study of the six mystical steps.

The six mystical steps are: counting, following, resting, visualization, returning, and clarifying.”

And now, the practice:

The Six Subtle Dharma Doors, taught by T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i, based on instructions by Yin Shih Tzu.

The Six Subtle Dharma Doors center on breath and are a thorough method of meditation.

The method consists of: (1) Counting the breath (shu), (2) Following the breath (sui), (3) Stopping (chih), (4) Contemplating/seeing (kuan), (5) Returning (huan), and (6) Refining (ching).

1. Counting (shu)

Regulate the breath so that it is even and rhythmic. Count slowly, from one to ten, placing the count on either the inhalation or the exhalation, not letting the mind wander. If notice that your mind has strayed, go back to count one and begin again.

As you become comfortable and proficient with the counting method, your breathing will become so regular and subtle, that you will no longer need to count.

2. Following (sui)

When counting is no longer necessary, practice the method of following. Just follow the breath going in and out. As in counting, if the mind wanders simply bring your attention back to the breath. As practice progresses in this method, breath and mind become one. It will feel as if the breath is passing through all the pores of the body, and the mind is peaceful and still.

3. Stopping (chih)

Once the method of following has been mastered, the breath still may not be subtle enough. Stopping, then, is the next step. Here, the entire practice consists of simply focusing the mind on the tip of the nose. As this method proceeds, the practitioner should lose his or her constant awareness of a physical body and mind, indicating entry into level of deep quiescence.

4. Seeing (kuan)

The seeing method is visualization. It is also called “turning back the light of the mind upon itself.” Visualize the breath coming in and going out of the body. Eventually you can mentally observe the breath entering and exiting through every pore in your body. When the light of the mind is turned back in this way, the practitioner should see that all things are empty and without a substantial reality of their own.

5. Returning (huan)

After practicing seeing for some time, follow up with returning. The practice of returning consists of two steps. First involves visualization. Having already visualized the breath, the mind is now attuned to the art of intelligent visualization, which differs from intelligent activity. The aim here is to dissolve the duality between the mind that contemplates the breath and the breath that is contemplated. This opens the way for tracing the origin of one’s thought back to the fundamental, true mind.

The second step is to understand that like the breath, the mind also rises and falls. This is likened to water that rises in waves. Waves, however, are not the water. Thus, the mind that rises and falls is not the true mind. We look into true mind and see that it is uncreated, beyond ‘is’ and therefore, empty. As it is empty, there is no subjective mind that contemplates, and since there is no contemplating mind, there is nothing contemplated.

Going back to the true mind in this way is what is meant by “returning.”***

6. Refining (ching)

In returning, there may linger some idea of returning. The first step of refining is to clear the mind of any vestiges of this thought. The second step of refining is to keep your mind like still water, with all random thinking and discrimination stopped. In this way, you can observe your true mind.

In observing the true mind, one realizes that it does not exist apart from the random thinking mind that discriminates. It is like the waves disappearing on the surface of the water. This is called pure realization.

In The Six Subtle Dharma Doors, counting (1) and following (2) are the preliminary practice. Stopping (3) and seeing (4) is the main practice, and returning (5) and refining (6) are the concluding practice, or the “fruit of the meditation.” Stopping is the chief training, and seeing is its support.

Here ends the instructions on The Six Subtle Dharma Doors.


* Pranita, is “pure, immaculate, beautiful.” Chih-i understood and used miao in relation to sad (or sat), as in the saddharma of the Lotus Sutra (a very important sutra for the T’ien-t’ai school), meaning “wonderful, beautiful, mystic, profound, subtle, mysterious.” [See A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, 1994 compiled by William Edward Soothill, Delhi., pg. 234] Without going into a lengthy explanation, it is suffice to say that the distinction between sad and pranita in relation to miao is important.

** See Hurvitz, Leon Nahu,  Chih-i (538-597): An Introduction to the Life and Ideas of a Chinese Buddhist Monk, 1959, UMI Dissertation Services, and Swanson, Paul, Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, Asian Humanities Press, 1989

*** “Returning” is also to return to the original meditation of the Buddha, as Chih-i maintained that The Six Subtle Dharma Doors was the method Shakyamuni used the night of his awakening beneath the Bodhi Tree. Even though he cites several ancient text in support of this claim, it must be noted that Chih-i’s sense of the Buddha was not historical, but more the Mahayana Shakyamuni, or quite possibly Shakyamuni as the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra.

Other Works Mentioned:

Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe, You Are Alive!: The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, Parallax Press, 1992

The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime, Bhikshu Dharmamitra, translator, Kalavinka Press, 2009

Luk, Charles (Lu K’uan Yu), The Secrets of Chinese Meditation, Samuel Weiser, 1965

Shi Fu Hwang and Cheney Crow, Ph.D., Tranquil Sitting, Dragon Door Publications, 1994


View from the Celestial Terrace

While scholars still debate the historicity of Bodhidharma, considered by many the “father of Zen,” one real father of that school is Chih-i, the Third Patriarch and actual founder of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai (“Celestial Terrace”) tradition, whose historicity is not in doubt and whose teachings on both doctrine and meditation paved the way for the development of Ch’an/Zen.

c-ichikuan9g2bChih-i was one of the giants of Mahayana Buddhism. In the West, it seems that there is little knowledge or appreciation of his tremendous influence. Many of the Eastern Mahayana schools, and their Western extensions, still study the meditation manuals attributed to this great master, so at least for them, his philosophy lives on.

I often see remarks by non-Asian Buddhists to the effect that Chih-i’s meditation teachings are too complex and the practices he laid-out too time-consuming to be of much use in this modern age. But if that were entirely true, then why are his manuals still studied and his influence so highly-regarded in the East? I think a lot of it has to do with bad PR. Chih-i’s school in no longer in existence, so he hasn’t had any modern day champions, as Bodhidharma has, and while the Japanese offshoot of T’ien-t’ai, Tendai, from which Japanese Zen emerged, is still in operation, it is so insular it’s become irrelevant. The Nichiren traditions do acknowledge Chih-i’s influence and rely on his teachings, but merely as a backdrop to Nichiren’s philosophy, and they largely misinterpret the doctrinal aspects while they ignore the meditation teachings entirely.

It was that latter group of teachings that had such a great influence on Chinese Ch’an, Pure Land, and especially, Japanese Zen, but during Chih-i’s time (the Sixth Century CE), there were no Ch’an/Zen schools to speak of; however, the term ch’an, being the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word dhyana, was in use as a general term for Buddhist practice. Paul Swanson, a professor at Nanzan University in Japan, and a specialist in the area of T’ien-tai/Tendai Buddhism, says in his essay, “Ch’an and Chih-kuan,” that Chih-i moved away from the use of ch’an in his teachings because it focused narrowly on the chih (cessation or samatha) aspect of meditation, at the expense of the kuan (contemplation or vipassana) aspect:

Chih-i (based, to a great degree, on his understanding of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra) is critical of an unbalanced emphasis on “meditation alone,” portraying it as a possible “extreme” view and practice, and offering instead the binome chih-kuan (calming/cessation and insight/contemplation, samatha-vipasyana) as a more comprehensive term for Buddhist practice.”

It might be a mistake for us to view chih-kuan simply in terms of it being the Chinese translation of samatha-vipassana. Kuan-ting (Chih-i’s student), in his introduction to the monumental work on Buddhist practice attributed to Chih-i, the Mo-ho Chih-kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), wrote, “The luminous quiescence of stopping and seeing [chih-kuan] was unknown in former ages until The Wise Teacher [Chih-i] expounded it,” suggesting that Chih-i’s concept of meditation differed from the established teachings at the time, and that his intention was to take Buddhist meditation into a new dimension, one of balance and inclusiveness.

Chih-i disapproved of “masters” who advocated one-sided practice, “claiming that their teaching and practice is unbalanced and perhaps even dangerous.” Swanson quotes from the Mo-ho Chih-kuan:

If people rely exclusively [on either cessation or contemplation, or on only one teaching or practice] to attain understanding, then what was the reason for the Buddha to offer such a variety of teachings? The heavens are not always clear; a doctor does not rely exclusively on powdered medicine; one does not always eat rice.”

Peter N. Gregory, suggests that Chih-i’s form of samatha-vipassana was to some extent “samatha-prajna or meditation and wisdom, as vipasyana may be understood as the teaching aspect of the practice brought into meditation) . . .” (Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought).

Naturally, from this, we should not form the impression that teaching and study was the limit of Chih-i’s kaun/vipassana, or what we call “insight” meditation. As I’ve noted in previous posts, and it bears repeating considering the increasing numbers of Buddhists and “un-Buddhists” who are quite dismissive of meditation practice nowadays, that Chih-i stressed the importance of striking a balance between practice and study, or meditation and wisdom.

And as I’ve quoted before, in “Chih-kuan for Beginners”, he states:

[The Lotus Sutra] says ‘The practice of dhyana [meditation] alone, while prajna [wisdom] is disregarded causes delusion, and the practice of wisdom alone, while meditation is disregarded, causes infatuation’ . . . Although delusion and infatuation differ from each other in a minor way, their contribution to misunderstanding is the same. Thus, if meditation and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient.”

Those guys look more like Curly, Moe and Shemp to me.
Those guys look more like Curly, Moe and Shemp to me.

Study is subsumed under the rubric of wisdom, and Chih-i compared practice and study to two wings of a bird and two wheels of a cart. Without two wings, a bird cannot fly. Without two wheels, a cart cannot move. In the same way, both practice and study are required if we are to progress in our faring of the Buddha way. For a cart, or nowadays, a car, two wheels also provide balance. When the wheels on our car are balanced, it allows for a smoother ride and extends the life of the tires. In the same way, balance between practice and study makes wayfaring more even and extends the life of the journey.


The Chih-kuan Dharma Door Is Not Shallow

Monday’s post featured a selection from Chih-kuan for Beginners by T’ien-t’ai master, Chih-i. A reader emailed this question: “What does “shallow” mean in this context: ‘Consequently the chih-kuan dharma door to enlightenment is not shallow.’?”

First, some background: Because it began as essentially a Madhyamaka school, Nagarjuna (150–250 CE) is traditionally held to be the 1st Patriarch of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai (Celestial Terrace) School, while Chih-i (538–597 CE), the 4th Patriarch, is considered its actual founder. Chih-i was one of the great philosophers of Buddha-dharma, and as I wrote the other day, is placed in the same class as the Buddha and Nagarjuna, which is why there is a tradition of regarding him as the “3rd Buddha.”

Chih-kuan for Beginners (also known as Hsiu-hsi chih-kuan tso-ch’an fa-yao; T’ung meng chih-kuan; Hsiao chih-kuan) is considered one of his minor works, but in actuality, it may be his most influential. It was the first popular introduction to meditation in Chinese Buddhism. In the 8th century, it became the model for meditation instruction in the Ch’an school. Japanese scholar Sekiguchi Shindai says that many later meditation manuals were also patterned on this short treatise, including Fukan zazen gi by Dogen (1200-1253 CE).

This introductory manual was supposedly written for Chih-i’s brother, Ch’en Chen, an army general. It’s said that Ch’en Chen was terminally ill but after performing the repentance mentioned in the text, he completely recovered. Most scholars, however, don’t believe that Chih-i personally wrote anything, rather his “works” are compilations of his lectures, fashioned into a number of individual texts, primarily by Kuang-Ting, his immediate disciple. Paul Swanson says, “It [Chih-kuan for Beginners] was probably compiled while Chih-i was sequestered on Mt. T’ien-t’ai (from the age of 38 [575] to 48)—a time when he had a ‘great awakening’ . . .”

Although Chih-kuan for Beginners is a rather short work, it nonetheless contains all the necessary instruction that one needs to begin and maintain a meditation practice. That is not to say that the text was intended to be used as a substitute for personal training with a qualified instructor. “Beginners” is a bit of a misnomer because, in spite of its short length, it goes into nearly microscopic detail on the “essentials” for practice, and thus, it is extremely valuable to more advanced practitioners.

“Consequently the chih-kuan dharma door to enlightenment is not shallow.” “Shallow” is meant literally. Even the simplest teachings of Buddha-dharma are extremely deep. Another translation reads, “If one understands accordingly, then it will be quite apparent that this Dharma entryway of stopping and contemplation is truly not a shallow one.” A few sentences on in the Luk translation it says: “Instead of slighting the seeming shallowness of the text, Truth-seekers should blush to find that these steps are difficult to practice.”

On one hand, Chih-i (or the compiler) is simply expressing some humility. It may be false humility as far as the “seeming shallowness of the text” is concerned, for anyone who reads Chih-i’s works, shallow is the last word that comes to mind. Nonetheless, humility is a good quality for both teachers and practitioners to cultivate.

Earlier in the selection from Monday’s post, Chih-i mentions that if meditation and wisdom are not in equal proportion the practice is unbalanced. To stay balanced I feel it’s important to always go back to the prime points, return to the basics. All these ancient masters say the same thing, that everything you need to fare on the Way you get at the very beginning. Chih-i tells us that the path does not go beyond the practice of chih and kuan, concentration and insight, or as Chih-i understood the terms, stopping and seeing.

That’s why I think it is important to have a “lifetime beginners” spirit, and why I am skeptical of those who claim to have attained arhatship or enlightenment. Even to suggest it says to me that there’s an attachment formed to the idea. So if you become enlightened at 27 or 33, what is there left for you? I can’t help but feel that the attachment only grows until it destroys the seeking mind, the beginner’s spirit. I don’t know if it is what Chih-i calls “stupidity” or “infatuation” but either way, I don’t buy it.

Buddha-dharma is both profound and simple. It is simple because what is so complex about a calm mind? It is profound because it is pointing directly at the true nature of reality, which ultimately is beyond our comprehension. Same thing with meditation. Counting your breath. What could be simpler than that? Staying in the present moment. At times, nothing can be more difficult.

Consequently the chih-kuan dharma door to enlightenment is not shallow. When receiving beginners to initiate them to the Path, it is easy to preach the Dharma which is, however, very difficult to practice. How, then, is it possible to expound in full what is deep and subtle?

For the benefit of beginners, I now briefly present the following ten essentials for treading the right Path so that they can achieve the progressive stages leading to (their realization) of nirvana. Instead of slighting the seeming shallowness of the text, Truth-seekers should blush to find that these steps are difficult to practice. However, if their minds are ripe for the teaching, in the twinkling of an eye their sharp wisdom will have no limit and their spiritual understanding will become unfathomable. If they aimlessly drag about words and terms and allow their feelings (and passions) to distort the teaching, they will fritter away their time and will fail to achieve realization; they are like a man who counts the treasures belonging to others. What advantages can they expect therefrom?



Chih-kuan: Balance Between Meditation and Wisdom

It is an acknowledged but underappreciated fact that the modern Buddhist traditions of Japan owe a lot to the Tendai school and its Chinese parent, T’ien-t’ai. As I mentioned in a recent post, it was because of the efforts of Tendai founder, Saicho, that the Buddhist schools in Japan adopted the “bodhisattva precepts” as the basis of ordination. Furthermore, the Zen, Jodo (Pure Land) and Nichiren schools all originated from Tendai, as their founders were originally priests in that tradition.

Meditation as practiced by the Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen schools also developed out of the teachings of the de facto founder of T’ien-t’ai, Chih-i. Today, T’ien-t’ai is often described as a “philosophical school” however this is inaccurate, as it was also very much a meditation school. Buddhist scholar Neal Donner has noted that of thirty-five works by Chih-i which remain extant, about half deal with practice. Indeed,  Chih-i was the first Chinese Buddhist to produce a meditation manual. The fact that Chih-i’s contributions to Buddhist doctrine are such that he deserves to be placed in the same class as the Buddha and Nagarjuna is probably the chief reason that many scholars have tended to emphasize the philosophical aspects of his teachings at the expense of his meditation instruction.

Donner also notes (in The Great Calming and Concentration of Chih-i) that in his early works, Chih-i used the term ch’an (Chinese translation of dhyana or “meditation”) for spiritual practice and later replaced it with chih-kuan:

It is of great interest, however, that while Chih-i used the word ch’an in the earlier work, this was replaced by the word chih-kuan in the MHCK [Moho Chih-kuan] and others of the master’s later opera, so that since that time, it has been the term chih-kuan which has signified religious practice in the T’ien-t’ai (and Tendai) school, while the Ch’an school appropriated for itself the term which Chih-i had already discarded as not being comprehensive enough.

Zazen (Ch. zuo-ch’an), the heart of Ch’an/Zen practice means “seated meditation”, a somewhat generic term. Japanese Zen also uses the terms shikan and shikantaza. Shikan has two referents: it refers to chih-kuan, which is the Chinese translation of samatha-vipasyana (concentration and insight), a term for the traditional method of Buddhist meditation; and it refers to the system of meditation associated with Chih-i and the T’ien-t’ai school: chih-kuan or “stopping and seeing.”

The best explanation of Chih-i’s chih-kuan that I have found is in a footnote to the translation of T’ung Meng Chih-kuan (“Chih-kuan for Beginners”) by Charles Luk (Lu K’uan Yu):

Chih Kuan: samatha-vipasyana. Chih is silencing the active mind and getting rid of discrimination, and kuan is observing, examining, introspecting. When the physical organism is at rest, it is called chih and when the mind is seeing clearly it is kuan. The chief object is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight and to be rid of illusion.

Donner makes some even more interesting points in the postscript to his thesis. He remarks on the differences between the Mahayana approach to meditation and that of the other branch, which the Mahayanists gave the derogatory name of Hinayana. The Mahayana understanding of emptiness led their meditation practitioners to recognize the non-duality of concentration and distraction. Hinayana practitioners, on the other hand, quoting the Chinese text Ta-chih-tu-lun, “[try to] exclude distraction and seek concentration, developing thoughts of anger amid dharmas of distraction, and developing thoughts of attachment amid dharmas of concentration.”

Donner further notes a tension in early Mahayana between the dhyana (meditation) approach and the prajna (wisdom) approach. He mentions the threefold division of the Eightfold Path, also known as the “three knowledges”, which is dhyana, prajna and sila (morality or ethics), saying “that dhyana (samadhi) and sila produce prajna – in this case, prajna is understood as an effect or result, though it may also be considered a cause, and then is better understood as ‘intellection,’ ‘gnosis’ or ‘discernment.’

And yet, sila was not truly “Mahayanized” until Saicho founded the Tendai school in Japan.

Chih-i’s meditation teachings some centuries earlier then focused essentially on dhyana and prajna. He was not the first Buddhist to stress the need for balance between the two, however, it is a message he repeats often. The key to understanding Chih-i is through appreciation of his non-dualistic, holistic inclination and his love for harmony and inclusion.

It is a message that has relevance to us today, as we see that some persons feel that Buddhism can be learned primarily from study and acquiring knowledge, while others believe that it is only through meditation that any benefit is realized.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Chih-i’s Chih-kuan for Beginners, as translated by Luk:

The attainment of Nirvana is realizable by many methods whose essentials do not go beyond the practice of chih (samatha) and kuan (vipasyana). Chih is the first step to untie all bonds and kuan is essential to root out delusion. Chih provides nourishment for the preservation of a knowing mind and kuan is the skilful art of promoting spiritual understanding. Chih is the unsurpassed cause of dhyana and kuan begets wisdom, he who achieves both chih and kuan is fully competent to work for the welfare of self and others. Hence, the Lotus Sutra says: ‘The Buddha while dwelling in Mahayana used the transcendental power of the dhyana and wisdom (prajna) which he had realized to liberate living beings from birth and death.’ Therefore, we know that this twin realization is like the two wheels of a cart and the two wings of a bird. Partial practice of them is wrong.

Hence, the sutra says: ‘The practice of dhyana alone, while wisdom is disregarded, causes stupidity and the practice of wisdom alone, while dhyana is disregarded, causes infatuation.’ Although stupidity and infatuation are relatively minor faults which differ from each other, their contribution to recurrent wrong views is identical.

If dhyana and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient; how can it lead to speedy realization of the Supreme Fruit? Thus is why the sutra says: ‘Sravakas [voice-hearers, disciples] cannot perceive the Buddha nature because of their excessive dhyana; Bodhisattvas of the tenth stage do not perceive it clearly because of their excessive wisdom; (and) all Tathagata Buddha perceive it clearly because their dhyana and wisdom are in equal proportion.’

Therefore, chih-kuan is the main gate to the great nirvana, the unsurpassed path of self-cultivation, the index to perfection of all excellent virtues and the true substance of the Supreme Fruit. Consequently the chih-kuan dharma door to enlightenment is not shallow.

When receiving beginners to initiate them to the Path, it is easy to preach the Dharma which is, however, very difficult to practice.