Owen Flanagan is a professor of philosophy at Duke University who just published a book entitled, “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized” (MIT, 2011). According to the publisher:

Atheistic when it comes to a creator god, Buddhism is otherwise opulently polytheistic, with spirits, protector deities, ghosts, and evil spirits. Its beliefs include karma, rebirth, nirvana, and nonphysical states of mind. What is a nonreligious, materially grounded spiritual seeker to do?”

I doubt that such a person will be helped much by Flanagan, who seems like a pretty confused guy to me. I have to wonder about someone who feels that the Mahayana concept of nirvana is “hocus pocus.” To me, concerns of this nature are literary in nature, a matter of understanding how the writers of the sutras used imagery and allegory. Just because they wrote about bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves doesn’t mean they intended it to be taken literally.

Now I haven’t read Flanagan’s book, but I’ve read about it and read the first pages on Amazon. That’s enough for me to get his general thesis and I find it a bit flawed. Buddhism is already naturalized. If you choose to view it that way.

I also read a piece Flanagan wrote for the Huffington Post. In “Bourgeois Buddhists: Do Americans Miss the Point of Buddhism?” he inflicts these astounding words upon the unsuspecting reading public:

Buddhism has about as little to do with meditation as Jesus’s message of love has to do with prayer, which is some, not entirely nothing; but almost nothing. Thinking that meditation is the essence of Buddhism would be akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking that real Catholics say Mass everyday because priests do.”

Acutally, thinking that meditation is not the essence of Buddhism, just because Asian Buddhists, at least in modern times, do not practice meditation as much as many Americans suppose, is akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking . . .

Granted, we in the West may be have our own misapprehension about Asian Buddhists, but by putting the focus back on meditation as the prime point, I think we are “naturalizing” Buddha-dharma. I see the problem as entirely the other way around: most Westerners tend to approach Buddhism from the philosophical angle first, and when it doesn’t make sense at first blush or match up to their preconceived notions, if there are a few T’s uncrossed and I’s undotted, they are quick to dismiss or start poking holes in it. I have described many times on this blog how such concepts as rebirth and karma can be viewed reasonably and non-supernaturally. It’s there, if you want it. It’s really up to you.

Flanagan says,

One wonders whether American Buddhists, especially those who think that Buddhism is largely about meditation, and the personal psychological goods, the self-satisfaction on offer from sitting in, what has become, a laughably bourgeois pose, aren’t missing something essential about Buddhism, about what Buddhist philosophy is mainly and mostly about, namely, wisdom and goodness.”

No, what’s laughable is a professor of philosophy and a non-Buddhist who thinks that spending a few hours with the Dalai Lama and reading some books and research papers (and who thinks that “mindfulness” meditation is “almost entirely self-centered”) qualifies him to point out how the rest of us have somehow missed the point.

I’ve done some looking around online and I’ve seen where Flanagan talks a lot about recent research on the brains of Buddhists, but I haven’t seen him talk about his own experience with Buddhism and meditation. Perhaps he does so in his book. But I have a whole slew of other books to read first. I did see where “Flanagan argues Buddhism matters not just for practical reasons, but for philosophical ones.” Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that he’s suggesting that the philosophical aspects are the main thing, and I can’t believe that anyone with a real grasp on dharma would think that.

I can’t help but feel that perhaps he’s missed the point. The philosophy is just there to support the practice. It’s the practice, that “bourgeois” practice of meditation, that is the prime point. That’s how we open our minds to wisdom and goodness on a deep, intuitive level.

Crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s is not as important as capturing the spirit of Buddha-dharma. That’s another point that many people seem to miss. If you want to read a good book about Buddhism, I recommend “Stopping and Seeing: A Comprehensive Course in Meditation“, Thomas Cleary’s partial translation of the Mo Ho Chih Kuan by T’ien-t’ai meditation master Chih-i.  It’s not the easiest book in the world to understand, but even if you get only a fraction of it, you will come far closer to capturing the spirit of Buddhism than you probably could reading a hundred books like Flanagan’s.

Here’s a quote from “Stopping and Seeing” that I’ve shared before. I’ll probably share it again many more times:

The second issue is explaining this stopping and seeing (Skt.: samatha-vipassana; Ch.: chih-kuan) so as to promote four kinds of concentration by which to enter the ranks of enlightening beings. One cannot ascend to the sublime states without practice; if you know how to churn, only then can you obtain ghee.

The Lotus Scripture says, “Aspirants to Buddhahood cultivate various practices, seeking enlightenment” There are many methods of practice . . . The general term concentration means tuning, aligning, and stabilizing.

The Great Treatise [Nagarjuna’s “Great Transcendent Wisdom Treatise"] says, “Ability to keep the mind on one point without wavering is called concentration.” The realm of reality is one point; correct seeing [kuan] can stay on it without wavering . . .

This realm of reality is also called enlightenment, and it is also called the “inconceivable realm.” It is also called wisdom, and it is also called not being born and not passing away. Thus all phenomena are not other than the realm of reality; hearing of this nonduality and nondifference, do not give rise to doubt.

If you can see in this way, this is seeing the ten epithets of Buddhas. When seeing Buddha, one does not consider Buddha as Buddha; there is no Buddha to be Buddha, and there is no Buddha-knowledge to know Buddha. Buddha and Buddha-knowledge are nondualistic, unmoving, unfabricated, not in any location yet not unlocated, not in time yet not timeless, not dual yet not nondual, not defiled, not pure. This seeing Buddha is very rarefied; like space, it has no flaw, and it develops right mindfulness.

Seeing the embellishments of Buddha is like looking into a mirror and seeing one’s own features. First you see one Buddha, then the Buddhas of the ten directions. You do not use magical powers to go see Buddhas; you stay right here and see the Buddhas, hear the Buddhas’ teaching, and get the true meaning . . . You guide all beings toward nirvana, yet do not grasp the characteristics of nirvana . . .

Mindfulness is the English word most often used for the Pali term sati. Originally, it was used by Brahmans, meaning “memory”, in the sense of memorizing Vedic scriptures. In order to retain large amounts of material, one needed to have clarity of mind, a keen ability to focus, an enhanced quality of attentiveness. The Buddha adopted this Brahmanical term, using sati to refer to both “remembering” and presence of mind in meditation.

In this passage from Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s translation of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification”, composed in the 5th century and the first comprehensive manual on Theravada meditation, sati is used in the first context in this passage:

Now as to mindful and fully aware: here, he remembers (sarati), thus he is mindful (sata); He has full-awareness (samapajanati), thus he is fully aware (sampajana). This is mindfulness and full-awareness stated as personal attributes. Herein, mindfulness has the characteristic of remembering. Its function is not to forget. It is manifested as guarding.”

Elsewhere in this same work, sati is used in the context of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (of the body, of feelings, of consciousness, of mental objects):

And in some instances by the Foundations of Mindfulness, etc., accordingly as it is said: ‘Bhikkhus, this path is the only ‘way for the purification of beings, . . . for the realization of ‘nibanna, that is to say, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ . . .

And further on, Buddhaghosa also refers to sati in the sense of a specific meditation practice:

Mindfulness of breathing should be developed for the purpose of eliminating the conceit ‘I am.’

So here we have a several different meanings or connotations of the same word in the same work, and when reading the first passage we notice that there are a number of other words or terms that seem to be interchangeable, having essentially the same meaning. We might wonder how does mindfulness differ from full-awareness? How is sata related to sati? This I think points to the difficulty of trying to parse the English words we use for Buddhist terms. Bhikkhu Nanamoli, in his introduction to “The Path of Purification,” describes at length the linguistic, epistemological, and even psychological problems of translation, noting for instance, that the single English word “desire” has been used “as a translation of sixteen distinct Pali words.”

In my opinion, playing semantics with Asian Buddhist terms and the various English words we use as translations is like stepping into a muddy swamp. If you can avoid it, you’re much better off.

Yet, some folks just can’t seem to help themselves. Believe it or not, “mindfulness” is a rather controversial word in Buddhism these days. It seems some people object to mindfulness. They say it’s been over-used, it’s just a buzz-word, a cliché, that it points to a watered-down form of Buddhist practice, it’s nothing more than a balm, an elixir, a feel-good term. What is never entirely clear to me is whether these critics merely object to the word or if they also object to the practice, or both.

I don’t have a problem with such criticism because they are attacking a sacred cow – I think I’ve said before there are no sacred cows on this blog – but rather, I feel it is just nit-picking which doesn’t really contribute much. Certainly, there are some who overuse and abuse the term, and in the hands of a few of them, “mindfulness” has become a marketing strategy. But I think they are in the minority overall, and as the old adage goes, a few rotten apples does not spoil the whole bunch.

Mindfulness is just a word, a sign. Other words like awareness, attentiveness, or thoughtfulness work, but perhaps not as well. Not to mention that there’s probably someone, somewhere who’d have an objection to any word that became the standard.

The most common use of “mindfulness” is in reference to the meditation practice taught by the Buddha. I believe I am correct in saying that the instructions attributed to the Buddha about this practice are the first meditation instructions recorded in history. We find them in the Anapanasati Sutra or the “Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing.”

I often like to quote Thich Nhat Hanh: “We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .” I think this is true to some extent. While there are many other forms of Buddhist meditation, this is the foundation, the starting point. No matter what else I do, I always return to “mindfulness” at some point. I try to remember the maxim of one on my teachers, “Always go back to the basics.”

But the real heart of mindfulness, in all its different senses, is found in daily life. We want to learn to do things with better attention and focus, teach ourselves how to avoid the bad habit of doing one thing while thinking of something else. By merely practicing anapanasati, we can become more observant, and learn how not to taint what we observe with judgments, preferences, or prejudices. We train ourselves to stay calm in situations that tend to provoke irritation or anger. We learn how to deal more effectively with our problems, worries and anxieties. The list goes on and on.

The benefits derived from “mindfulness” practice are not easily obtained. It requires effort, and it can be hard, even painful at times. They are not “gifts”, unless you consider them as gifts you give to yourself. When we say that mindfulness can be virtually any activity whatsoever, we mean we can learn to apply mental disciple to almost any situation. We’re trying to stop reacting to things so mindlessly. And we certainly don’t mean that mindfulness itself accomplishes anything. We do it. This is jiriki we’re talking about. Self-power. “Mindfulness” only works for us when we make it work.

Another quote I probably use too often is from Robert Thurman, who once said, “Buddhism is just a bunch of tools.” A handyman has various tools and they have various names. It cuts down on confusion. Makes it easier to identify a tool when you need one handed to you. We have to do the same thing in Buddhism. Concern about the names we give the tools is missing the point, I think. Isn’t the function of each tool far more important?

The sati arisen inspired by breathing (anapana) is “mindfulness of breathing.” This is a term for sati that has as its object the sign of in-breaths and out-breaths. The recollection arisen inspired by peace is the ‘recollection of peace.” This is a term for sati that has as its object the stilling of all suffering.”


This article at examiner.com piqued my interest: “Meditation key to understanding UFO’s says local Meetup Director.”

In addition to being a “Meetup Director” (whatever that is), this guy, whose name is Brian Ruhe, is also a former Buddhist monk. Key word: former. I don’t know about Ruhe, but I have a feeling that about 95% of all former Buddhist monks became Buddhist monks just so they could quit and say they are former Buddhist monks, thereby giving themselves some credibility.

Anyway, according to this article, “In his book, Freeing the Buddha, Vancouver UFO Meetup Group founding Director and UFOBC Research Associate Brian Ruhe argues that some UFO’s ‘are devas from the god realm who have the power to manifest themselves as unidentified flying objects, when and where they choose.’”

Rare artist's rendering of a one-eyed, one-horned, flyin' Purple People Eater from Planet ?

Ruhe’s  theory is that UFO’s may not be spaceships or flying saucers at all, but celestial spirits flying around. He says we have to develop ourselves up to the UFO/deva’s level. I guess they get their jollies by fooling us into thinking they’re from another galaxy, but in actuality they’re just regular ‘ol earthbound deities. I don’t know about you but that kind of takes the fun out of UFO’s for me.

Now, living here in Southern California I encounter aliens every day. Unfortunately, none of them are from outer space. I’ve always wanted to have a close encounter with an ET or see a UFO. For a moment when I first saw that article, I thought that perhaps through meditation I could learn to communicate with them. Maybe I could invite them over sometime. But if they’re just spirits, I think I’ll stick with meditating on the emptiness of all things . . .

Speaking of wild, nutty theories, here’s one I’m proud to call my very own: Mitt Romney is not really the son of George W. Romney, American businessman and Republican Party politician, he’s actually the illegitimate son of Lyle Waggoner from the Carol Burnett TV show. The resemblance is uncanny.

Lyle Waggoner - Mitt Romney

I saw this on ABC news; maybe you did too: in Atlanta, GA, 8-year-old students practicing “compassion meditation.” All the kids interviewed agreed that daily meditation made them “nicer.”

The reporter remarked,

“There is now an explosion of cutting edge science suggesting that compassion meditation can physically remodel your brain for kindness. At the University of Madison Wisconsin they studied Buddhist monks and found that when they did compassion meditation they produced levels of certain brain waves that were simply off the charts.”

Back in January, in a post entitled, The Challenge of Mindfulness, I wrote about a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts that showed meditation increases the grey matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) and stimulates positive changes in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

It would seem that science is just catching up to something that the Buddha and some others knew thousands of years ago. In fact, maybe some Buddhists are just catching up with the power of compassion, too.

According to one scholar, Professor Richard Gombrich, Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, the Buddha not only stressed the propitiousness of compassion but also its redemptive power. I just recently ran across this interview of some years ago. When asked about new discoveries in Buddhist scholarship, Gombrich replied,

Probably the most important single one relates to the Theravada doctrine, which said that kindness, compassion, sympathetic-joy and equanimity are very desirable, but if we only achieve those, we will only be reborn in a higher heaven called the ‘Bratna-world.’ This is a complete misunderstanding of what the Buddha actually meant. The Buddha was simply using brahmanical language at the time. What he meant was that they are salvific states and that we reach nirvana through them . . .

I think the implications are pretty massive in a way. If, for instance, you show that the Buddha thought that compassion was salvific, it could be of interest to many Buddhists.

I think from the Mahayana point of view, it is taken for granted that’s exactly what the Buddha was saying. However, the point is not about which Buddhist branch has had a keener view on compassion. It’s simply how central the practice of compassion is to the Buddhist path. A point I don‘t think can be restated too often. One of the reasons that I mention it so frequently is really just to remind myself. Left to my own devices, altruism is not necessarily the direction I would lean. I have to work at it. And I think that’s true for many people. Selflessness is a quality that most of us have to cultivate.

The transformative power of compassion and altruist action is hardly a new discovery. For years now, studies have shown that altruism has many tangible benefits, many of them physical. Some fifteen years ago I gave a dharma talk in which I mentioned that altruism or “helping” had been shown to help alleviate chronic problems such a hypertension, arthritis, depression, allergies, headaches, back pain and multiple sclerosis. I noted how helping also strengthens the immune system and enhances feeling of well-being and confidence, and I talked about a phenomenon called a “helper’s high” that accompanies altruistic acts. This high, possibly the release of endorphins into the bloodstream, appears to have two stages: an initial rush of euphoria, followed by a longer period of calm.

I don’t think any of that has changed since then. Nor is it been any secret that meditation offers many of the same benefits. But now, we have empirical evidence about the changes that actually take place in both the compassionate and the meditative mind.

This is good news. But the best news was delivered by the ABC reporter, who said that meditation is “not just for Buddhists. This is totally secular. Anyone can do it.”

And, it makes you nicer.

I recently read an interview with a guy who says that the aesthetic of meditation is broken. I must be pretty dumb, because I don’t understand that at all. Aesthetic has a number of meanings, but dash if know which applies here. He also says that Buddhism needs to improve itself by looking to the design world, although he doesn’t specify which one if any he is referring to, and he talks about delivery models. The only thing I know about delivery models is Domino’s. They usually get the pizza to my door sooner than they say it will take over the phone. That, to me, is a good delivery model.

What’s broken is our approach to meditation, and for that matter, Buddhism. People make it all too complicated. Overcoming suffering is more important than any of the above stuff, or attaining various stages of realization or becoming stream-enterers or arhats. Being a bodhisattva is more important than becoming a buddha.

That’s why in the Heart Sutra, the Buddha stays in the background and a bodhisattva takes center stage and why one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples seeks guidance from the bodhisattva and not from the Buddha. The Mahayana authors of this sutra were sending a message. They apparently didn’t feel that they could just come out and say it, so they made their point with allegory. I think they were casting the bodhisattva as the higher ideal.

The seed of this thought was sown in my mind some 14 years ago at the Dalai Lama teachings on The Precious Garland. It’s just grown since then. I supposed it might qualify as a realization. The funny thing about realizations, though, is that they’re not much use unless you act on them. That’s the hard part. Putting them into action. That means changing our behavior, the way we think, speak and act. We should be more concerned with changing our lives than with trying to redesign the dharma-wheel.

As I said, I think it’s our approach that’s broken. The problem is with us and not the so-called delivery models. For one thing, I feel that if you are analyzing meditation in terms of how it is presented or what you want to achieve or even what you experience while meditating, then you’re doing something wrong. I’m not suggesting that presentation is unimportant, but it’s not as critical as learning how to practice meditation, and no teacher can practice for you. Nor am I saying that goals are verboten or you shouldn’t observe thoughts that come up during meditation. But you have to let them go. Especially once you get up from the meditation mat.

In fact, what we do after meditation is what Buddhism is all about. The only crucial issue in meditation is to what degree we have calmed our mind and how we are able to utilize that calmness, that clearness of mind, to transform our life. The goal is to overcome suffering. The first step in conquering suffering is to accept it. I’d say that acceptance trumps just about everything else. Our Western minds are geared towards deductive thinking, analyzing everything. You may not like hearing this, but Buddhism does require a certain amount of becoming Asian and by that I mean engaging in more inductive thinking.

People have a tough time with concepts like karma and rebirth because they resist them. They approach Buddhism as if it were a belief system and they don’t want to believe anything and they damn well don’t want to be told to believe in anything. We haven’t been able to completely throw off our Judeo-Christian conditioning. That’s understandable, after all, we’ve been brainwashed. There is probably a better word to use, but it comes down to the same thing. Our previous religious experience was precisely about belief. That’s not so important in Buddhism. So, if you don’t want to believe in karma or rebirth, then don’t. Just quit resisting. Let it go. And definitely, quit griping about it.

If we can leave resistance behind, if we can let go, then it doesn’t really matter if in the end we come to the conclusion that these concepts are not reasonable or if we think that they’re the greatest things since sliced pizza. All that truly matters is that we learn to become more accepting and let go of our attachments. If you stop resisting one thing, then you can stop resisting something else. Like suffering.

I would say that an understanding of karma helps in this regard because the prime point of karma is that we create our own suffering. Knowing this on a deep intuitive level will help us come to terms with it. Another way to put this is that we want to take away suffering’s power. When suffering comes there is really no way to resist it. We have to accept suffering. To do otherwise is to be in denial.

It’s like the errant thought that arises during meditation. We recognize it, accept the fact that it has arisen, and let it go. I am suffering. I must accept the fact of it. Lamenting the fact or wishing that I were not suffering changes nothing. Meeting suffering head on in this way helps us chip away at its power to destroy our lives.

Sometimes I like to say that you just have to surrender to the dharma. People don’t like the word surrender, though. They resist it. As I am using the word, it implies acceptance, not some form of slavery. Quit fighting. Quit analyzing so much. Practice the art of acceptance.

We can examine everything in various ways and yet never escape the truth that ultimately there is not a single thing that can be seized as substantial.

But you don’t have to accept my words. You can resist them if you like. That’s your privilege. After all, I’m not enlightened. I’m not an arhat or even a stream-enterer. But please, if nothing else, heed my advice about delivery models. When you want a good, hot pizza delivered fast, call Domino’s.

Recently I received a comment on my January 28, 2011 post, “The Challenge of Mindfulness,” that I felt expressed concerns perhaps on the minds of others, so I thought I’d answer it here:

Hello! Very recently have I began reading about mindfulness and meditation, and although without seeking professional opinion, I have already identified that should I enroll in a meditation course, I will be unable to focus. As I learn more from books and blogs (like this one) I tend to think that I have been living life mindlessly, doing things merely because it has been my routine for my whole life. I seriously am considering going into a meditation class, changing my perspective in life and being aware of myself and the life I am living. I have always had questioned whether I will be able to attain the state of “inner peace” by being mindful, but I guess I wouldn’t really know until I try. I do hope I will be able to be fully aware, “mindful” of myself. I just need to know the first step.

As we fare along the path of mindfulness, we encounter obstacles. Many of these are self-made. They are inner hindrances. Meditation master Chih-i of the T’ien-t’ai school called them screens because they act as coverings that obscure our vision. One of the screens Chih-i advises us to remove is the screen of doubt. In Chih-kuan for Beginners, he says, “When doubt veils the mind, it is difficult to open any dharma doors.”

Perhaps the hardest doubt to remove is doubt about oneself. We might think that we are not capable of finding inner peace. Chih-i says, “When doubt such as this is at the forefront of one’s mind, the chih-kuan dharma door is closed, and therefore, realization is unobtainable.”

It’s only natural to have some doubts. It’s unwise to be over confident. Then, we may have other kinds of doubts, such as a doubt that we will ever climb Mt. Everest. That’s a perfectly reasonable because not many people do climb Mt. Everest. However, when we doubt our ability to achieve things that are definitely within our grasp, like finding more meaning and joy in our life, this is not reasonable. It’s the kind of doubt that locks the dharma door before we even have a chance to open it.

So we have to let doubt go. Release it.

And there are other screens we need to remove.

We need to let go of expectations. Some people start with a desire to attain enlightenment, to have grand realizations and so on. They set up expectations that become obstacles because they distract from the task at hand. The aim of mindfulness is not that complicated. We merely want to calm our mind and develop more awareness in the present moment. But it takes single-minded focus.

In letting go, we do not give up the intention to realize our expectation, rather we let go of our attachment to expectation. The idea is to transform expectation into aspiration.

We need to let go of fear. Some people feel conflicted about whether or not to take a meditation course because they fear that they might indoctrinated into something. They don’t want to sign up, join up, or anything else. They just want to find some peace of mind. But you don’t have to become a Buddhist to practice mindfulness.

The Buddha did not invent meditation. Yet, his meditation instructions are the first recorded in history. Most forms of meditation, Buddhist and otherwise, begin with the same step-by-step instructions the Buddha gave some 2500 years, and they focus on the same object of meditation he identified as the most effective, the breath. With this in mind, almost any meditation course that teaches you how to meditate while focusing on your breath will do. It doesn’t have to be Buddhist.

I don’t believe you can learn meditation completely on your own, over the Internet, or from a book or video.  Meditation is far too subtle to grasp without some personal instruction. But if you take a secular meditation course and then you want to learn some of the underlying concepts and how Buddhism suggests we utilize this tool, you can always supplement your beginning practice with some reading. Two excellent books are The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.

The list of thing we need to release goes on. Letting go helps us approach meditation with an open mind, with fewer hindrances to get in our way. Overcoming these three screens of doubt, expectation, and fear is the best first step.

Anyone, everyone, can find inner peace. It’s not an insurmountable goal. It’s not Mt. Everest. But whether you are climbing a mountain or ascending to the plateau of awakening, you must take steps to get there. The second step is just to do it, to practice, to meditate.

My own daily practice is very simple. Mindfulness and reciting the Heart Sutra. Often I will chant the Heart Sutra mantra for an extended period. I recently saw some discussion about this online. I don’t recall ever coming across any hard and fast rules about how one should chant the mantra. You can chant it once or twice at the end of the sutra or for an hour if you want. It’s up to you. In addition, you can chant the mantra by itself, at anytime. I also chant different mantras and use some other meditation techniques I am familiar with, but I always return to the basics. For silent meditation, that means mindfulness, counting or following the breath the way the Buddha taught.

We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thanks for your comment and I hope this helps.

Most people think of tai chi as a form of gentle exercise, but technically, it’s a martial art. It’s also a way of meditation, and a way of life.

Tai is “great.” Chi does not mean “energy” or “life force” (ch’i, qi, ki) as one might expect, instead it refers to yin and yang (two polar forces in the universe) fused into the Great Ultimate, represented by the Tai-chi (taiji) symbol to the left. The Great Ultimate is fundamentally the Non-Ultimate, or the Ultimate of Non-being.

The health benefits of tai chi are pretty well documented now. Many studies have determined that tai chi has a positive effect on mental health, cardiovascular fitness, high blood pressure, muscle strength, flexibility and aerobic capacity. A new study by the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine in Daejeon, South Korea and the University of Exeter (UK), published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, concluded that while tai chi offers little help in easing the symptoms of cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, “tai chi, which combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow and gentle movements, may exert exercise-based general benefits for fall prevention and improvement of balance in older people as well as some meditative effects for improving psychological health.”

Here are the so-called Eight Truths of Tai Chi, translated by Waysun Liao* from “early manuscripts by unknown masters.” I don’t know if “truths” is the right word, for they are not facts, but rather principles, ones that apply not only to tai chi but also to meditation itself, and for that matter, daily living.

The Eight Truths of T’ai Chi

1. Do not be concerned with form. Do not be concerned with the ways in which form manifests.

2. Your entire body should be transparent and empty. Let inside and outside fuse.

3. Learn to ignore external objects. Allow your mind to guide you, and act spontaneously, in accordance with the movement.

4. The sun sets on the western mountain. The cliff thrusts forward, suspended in space. See the ocean in its vastness and the sky in its immensity.

5. The tiger’s roar is deep and mighty. The monkey’s cry is high and shrill. So should you refine your spirit, cultivating the positive and the negative.

6. The water of spring is clear, like fine crystal. The water of the pond lies still and placid. Your mind should be as the water and your spirit like the spring.

7. The river roars. The stormy ocean boils. Make your ch’i like these natural wonders.

8. Seek perfection sincerely. Establish life. When you have settled the spirit, you may cultivate the ch’i.

* Waysun Liao, T’ai Chi Classics (Random House, 1977)

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?


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.

Our local station KABC ran an interesting story on the Healthy Living segment of the afternoon news about how meditation and overcoming fears. It had to do with a Burbank father of two diagnosed with lymphoma who was so fearful of the radiation treatment he was almost willing to forgo it. He did refuse to wear the mask that is apparently required.  This irrational fear stemmed from his claustrophobia.

Being a very short segment, the piece did not go into a lot of detail about the meditation angle, but did say this:

Sedatives didn’t help, so his doctor recommended visual guided imagery. Raking in a zen garden is one form of relaxation, but visual guided imagery is a specialized form of meditation that teaches a patient to focus on their breath and different muscle groups.

“It can be really helpful for people in terms of increasing immune functioning, helping to deal with daily stress levels,” said Dr. Harden.

After a few weeks the patient overcame his fears to the point that he could do the treatment and he felt that he had learned to excerize more control over his mind.

I’m not sure I would describe focusing on your breath as visual guided imagery, and even less sure what they mean by that, but the bottom line here is further proof that meditation is a powerful tool we can use in dealing with all manner of suffering. If you want to watch the segment here is the link to ABC7’s site.

As far as visual meditation goes, I think it helps to break away from focusing on your breath occasionally, if that is your primary practice. Doing something different prevents “mindfulness” from getting stagnant. Visual meditation to me means using some image or object other than your breath as the object of meditation. This can be loving-kindness meditation, or visualizing the chakras or a mandala, and so on. I’ve had some good experiences with visual meditation – I like the term creative visualization better – especially in group settings where I have been both a participant and the one guiding the meditation. I don’t know if it is any more effective, but it makes you feel better, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as it doesn’t become a sort of drug or escapism.

Actually, I don’t think the method or technique matters as much as our frame of mind – our intention. I think its all about learning how to concentrate deeply and keep it going. This brings to mind something that Lama Govinda wrote in Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness:

Just as the archer concentrates on his aim and becomes one with it in order to hit the mark with certainty, so the meditator must first indentify himself with the aim and feel one with it. This gives impetus and direction to his striving. Then, whatever his ways and methods – whether creative or discriminating, emotional or intellectual, synthesizing or analyzing, imaginative or discursive – he will always proceed toward his aim. He will neither get lost in the desert of discrimination and dissection, nor cling to the products of his imagination . . .

The demonstration of the mind’s capacity to create a world and dissolve it again, demonstrates better than any intellectual analysis the true nature of all phenomena and the senselessness of all craving and clinging.