“When there is darkness, light is needed.”

“When there is darkness, light is needed. Today, with so much agony caused by violent conflict, war and bloodshed, the world badly needs peace and harmony. This is a great challenge for religious and spiritual leaders. Let us accept this challenge.”

– S. N. Goenka, August 29 2000, United Nations

goenkaSatya Narayan Goenka, one of the most important teachers of Buddhism meditation in our time, passed away on September 29th. He was 89 years old.

He was born in Burma as a Hindu, and as an adult become a very successful businessman. He was not happy, however. He suffered from debilitating migraine headaches brought on by stress, which he tried to treat medically with drugs. Around this time, he met Sayagyi U Ba Khin, the first Accountant-General of independent Myanmar. U Ba Khin also taught meditation, and it was from him that Goenka learned the Vipsassana method. In 1969, Goenka went to India and since then his Vipsassana teachings have spread all over the globe.

He was not an ordained teacher, but just a man who had discovered a way to calm the mind and endeavored to share it with as many people he could. He didn’t like calling what he taught Buddhism. At the same time, he didn’t try to distance himself from it, or give what he taught another name, create a new “ism.” He simply called it dhamma (dharma), or by calling it Vipassana, he was saying, it’s just meditation.

I heard Goenka speak once at UCLA. I was impressed with his secular, non-sectarian approach, and although his Buddhist orientation was the Theravada tradition, his teachings seemed firmly rooted in compassion, a real appreciation for the spirit of “practice for oneself and others.”

Vipassana means “insight,” a form of meditation said to have been taught by the historical Buddha. In most cases, there is very little difference between vipassana and anapanasati or “mindfulness of breathing.” In the West, it’s often called Insight Meditation. As far as I know, Goenka Vipassana courses are always offered free of charge. And they are usually fairly intense, 10-day affairs, in which a “Code of Disipline” is taught in tandem with the practice. I’ve never taken one of these courses, but I have a lot of respect for this approach, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anything negative about it.

It should be noted that Goenka was one of those responsible for reintroducing Buddhist meditation to the country of its origin, India, and other Theravada countries, where it had become a lost art. One of the more significant accomplishments of Goenka’s Vipsassana movement was bring meditation to prisons. In the early 70s, Vipassana courses were taught for both police officers and inmates beginning with the Central Jail in Jaipur. Since 1997, The North American Vipassana Prison Trust (VPT) had brought Goenka Vipassana courses to dozens of prisons in the United States.

Here are some “sayings” from this important teacher:

What is Dhamma?
Dhamma is not a religion.
Dhamma is a code of conduct.
Dhamma is an ethical, moral way of life.
Dhamma is an art of living.
Dhamma is to live a happy, healthy, wholesome life.
Dhamma is to live peacefully and harmoniously within oneself and generate a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere around oneself.

“Anyone belonging to any country, creed, caste, color, gender, status, profession in society can practice Vipassana and get the same wholesome results. The tree gives sweet or bitter fruit depending on the seed that is planted, and not whether a Muslim planted it, a Hindu planted it, or whether a Christian planted it . . . as the seed is, so the fruit will be. This is the law of nature, universal and applicable to all, anywhere, at all times. So too is Vipassana, a universal technique, a practical tool enabling one to live according to the law of nature or Dhamma, and enjoy the sweet fruits of Dhamma.”

“When we practice Buddha-Dhamma, we are not getting involved in a particular sect. Rather, we are actually working to develop in ourselves the nature of a Buddha – to attain freedom from craving, aversion, delusion. And the means by which we develop this nature is the practice of sila [ethics], samadhi [meditation], panna [wisdom], which is universally acceptable to all.”


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


How To Become A Smarty Through Meditation

While conservatives and the religious right in this country continue with what Time Magazine’s Joe Klein recently called a “celebration of ignorance” by “denying evolution, denying the science behind climate change, the birtherism”, etc., some of us may be getting smarter without even knowing it.

I’m not sure what folks who follow a certain faith-based political agenda think of spiritual practices like meditation, but I have a feeling most of them don’t like it too much. Probably offends them somehow.

But, this week Time’s online Heathland section has an article titled “Can Meditation Make You Smarter?

Numerous studies suggest that regular meditation (about six hours a week) may actually change brain structure. Scientists have found meditation is associated with a thicker cerebral cortex and more gray matter — i.e., the parts of the brain linked to memory, attention span, decisionmaking and learning. But a year of silent meditation isn’t always necessary. One study found people who meditated at least once a week for four years showed increased cortical gyrification, the folding of the cerebral cortex that helps people process information.”

The author of this piece, Laura Schwecherl, acknowledges that no one is sure exactly how meditation changes the brain, but apparently focusing one-pointedly on a single object or thought “alters our neural networks.” Nothing is guaranteed, of course. But studies have shown that positive changes in the brain are associated with meditation. The other caveat, though, is that no one knows how long these changes last.

I have to admit that I’m a bit skeptical about any claim that meditation will make you smarter. But I recently read that Bill Clinton, who’s already pretty smart, just hired a Buddhist monk to teach him meditation. It’s true. So I plan to keep an open mind. Hey, look at what’s happened to Clinton and these other folks after just a few weeks of mindfulness meditation:

Bill Clinton decided to change the focus of his Global Initiative!

Carrot Top was awarded a Nobel Prize!

Flo, the girl in Progressive Insurance commercials, was invited to give the Harvard commencement address!

Mitt Romney found a conviction!

Prince Charles decided to apply for Muammar Gaddafi’s old job!

Unfortunately, even a three year meditation retreat didn’t seem to help this poor creature named Snooki . . .

And, as they used to say at the Warner Bros. Cartoon studios


One-pointedly Spontaneously Without Effort

Mifune as Musashi carving a statue of Kannon in Samurai III

Over the weekend I watched the “Samurai trilogy,” starring Toshiro Mifune as Japan’s legendary swordsman, artist, and philosopher, Miyamoto Musashi. The films were made in the mid-1950’s and based on the epic novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, which has often been compared with Gone With The Wind. Filmed in beautiful, vibrant color, the trilogy is about dueling, of course, but it’s also the story of the two women who love Musashi, and, about the samurai’s journey to awakening. Possessing unbelievable skill as a swordsman, Musashi transforms himself from a cold-hearted killing machine to a man who comes to realize spiritual truth and what it takes to tread the path of the warrior.

In Gorin no sho (“The Book of Five Rings”) Musashi wrote that he engaged in sixty duels without suffering defeat once, and this is probably true, as he was not known to be a man who bragged or exaggerated. I’ve written about Musashi a few times before on the blog, here and here. His book is a manual that explains his philosophy of heiho or martial strategy, and this is a philosophy that has applications in many areas of life beyond swordsmanship, not the least of which is meditation.

In the chapter called the “Water Scroll,” he writes,

In the world of martial strategy you must maintain a normal, everyday mental attitude at all times. Whether it is just an ordinary day or whether you are in a combat situation, your mental attitude should in essence be the same . . . When you are physically calm you must be mentally alert; conversely, when you are physically active, maintain a serene state of mind . . . Be attentive at all times to all things without being overly anxious.”

Interestingly, I ran across something by Alan Watts yesterday that spoke of this same thing in slightly different terms. It’s from a talk he gave titled “Don’t be alert,”:

When they teach you in Japanese Zen how to use a sword. The first thing the teacher says to the student is, ‘Now, if you’re going to be a good soldier, you’ve got to be alert constantly because you never know where the attack’s going to come from. Now, you know what happens when you try to be on the alert. You think about being alert and then you’re a hopeless prey to the enemy because you’re not alert. You’re thinking about being alert. You must be simply awake and relaxed. And then all your nerve ends are working. And wherever the attack comes from, you’re ready . . .

So, in the same way, all this applies to yoga. You can be watchful. You can be watchful. You can be concentrated. You can be alert. But all that will ever teach you is what not to do. How not to use the mind. Because it will get you into deeper and deeper and deeper binds . . .  And, when you find out, you see, there isn’t any way of forcing it”

This is close to what I meant when I recently wrote that in mindfulness you should be mindful of the breath but sort of un-mindful of everything else, and I think that is true regardless of how one approaches it. The essence of mindfulness meditation is in letting go and that’s why the breath is the perfect object for meditation. The breath is completely natural and when we let go, we can fall into the rhythm of breath and flow with it.

To borrow a couple of terms from Geshe Sopa*, we can classify meditation into two broad categories, “fixative” and “analytic.” Mindfulness falls under fixative, and in this way is closely connected with samatha (calming), because the purpose is mental stabilization using an object, the breath, and as Geshe Sopa adds, remaining “upon [the] object one-pointedly spontaneously without effort (nabhisamskara).”

That’s how I was taught to meditate, to focus on the breath without effort, without forcing it. If the purpose of mindfulness meditation is metal stabilization or tranquility of mind, it seems counter-productive to chase after trance states or try to qualify and examine various objects, thoughts or feelings. Why use this meditation method as a stake to keep the monkey that is our mind from roaming, if all we are going to do is give him a long tether?

I feel that the purpose of this meditation is to keep thoughts to the barest minimum possible. Not qualifying or judging whether the breaths are long or short, or whether feelings are good or bad, but just being aware that we are breathing and we are feeling.

However, this is just one way to consider mindfulness meditation. It’s the way I was taught by Buddhist monks and priests, and it differs somewhat from what is taught in the Anapanasati and Satipatthana Suttas, and in books.

By simply following or counting the breath, we are using it to bring our body and mind together, and really, inviting the entire universe into our consciousness without forcing anything, by one-pointed awareness of this microcosm of life, the breath. Or as Watts quotes Krishnamurti, “All you can do is to be aware of yourself as you are without judgment. See what is.”

In my Niten-Ichi-ryu [Two-Heavens-As-One school], there are no basic or advanced techniques in sword usage, there is no special teaching or secret related to the positions of holding the sword. The only important thing is that one sincerely pursues the Way of martial strategy in order to attain its principle.”

Miyamoto Musashi – May 12, 1645

*”Samathavipasyanayuganaddha: The Two Leading Principles of Buddhist Meditation”, Mahayana Buddhist Meditation, edited by Minoru Kiyota, University press of Hawaii, 1978

Quotations from “The Book of Five Rings”: A Way to Victory, translation and commentary by Hidy Ochiai, The Overlook Press, 2001


Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 3

It’s said that Chih-i (538–597 CE), the de facto founder of the T’ien-t’ai school, was the first Chinese Buddhist to produce a meditation manual. This was probably the T’ung Meng Chih Kuan or “Samatha-Vipassana (Stopping and Seeing) for Beginners,” also known as “Dharma Essentials for Cultivating Stopping and Contemplation,” supposedly written for Chih-i’s brother (or brother-in-law) who was a General in the Chinese army.

Chih-kuan for Beginners is a short text that explains the fundamentals of samatha-vipassana as a dual practice, beginning, of course, with mindfulness or counting the breath, and this manual has been the model for meditation instruction for almost 1500 years.

Chih-kuan (S. samatha-vipassana) is the practice of “tranquility and insight,” “stopping and seeing,” or “calming and cessation.” Prior to Chih-i, the common Chinese term for meditation was ch’an (S. dhyana), which Kenneth Chan (“Buddhism in China”) explains is “aimed at tranquilizing the mind and getting the practitioner to devote himself to a quiet introspection of his own inner consciousness.” Chih-i moved away from using the term ch’an, which he felt was too immersed in the “calming” aspect, favoring instead chih-kuan.

Charles Luk in his translation of this manual, found in “Secrets of Chinese Meditation”, describes chih-kuan this way: “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 into the truth and to be rid of illusion.”

Chih-I viewed chih-kuan as a holistic practice. His manual goes through a series of ten steps, in which he explains the importance of such things as regulating food, sleep, body and mind, how to count the breath, and when it is best to employ chih or revert to kuan.

The impact the T’ien-t’ai sect had on succeeding schools, both philosophically and in terms of practice was enormous. Taitetsu Unno, in Philosophical Schools: San-lun, T’ien-t’ai, and Hua-yen (“Buddhist Spirituality”, 1994) writes: “Historically, T’ien-t’ai came to have a major influence on Hua-yen [Flower Garland] practice, it became the basis for the evolution of Ch’an [Zen], and in Japan it was to spawn the practice-oriented Kamakura schools.”

Bodhidharma, considered the founder of Ch’an, would have been a contemporary of Chih-i’s. Frankly, I think the jury is still out on Bodhidharma’s historicity. The lineages and dharma transmissions that purport to trace an unbroken line back to him are unreliable due to huge gaps in the timeline and the inclusion of names of individuals whose historicity also cannot be verified. There were no “Ch’an” schools during Chih-i’s time. Some scholars point to the teachings of Hui-neng (638–713), the so-called Sixth (and Last) Patriarch, as marking the point when Ch’an began to emerge as an independent school.

Ch’an, as the name implies (Chinese for dhyana or meditation) was essentially a meditation school. The notion that Ch’an dismissed the written word, and therefore the sutras, is a misnomer for the sutras have always been important for that tradition, and many important texts have come out of Ch’an/Zen.

Early Ch’an focused on chih (samatha or calming). As Ch’an developed, the Lin-chi branch began to emphasize kung-an (Jp. koan) practice where students were presented with riddles, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” for which there is no logical answer. These were used as subjects of contemplation. In the Southern branch of Hui-neng, the emphasis was on “complete, instantaneous enlightenment.” And the debate over sudden enlightenment vs. gradual enlightenment continues today.

When T’ien-t’ai was exported to Japan and became Tendai, it incorporated esoteric practices called mikkyo (“secret teachings’) and became somewhat of a Vajrayana (“Diamond Vehicle”) school. Devotion to Amita Buddha was also a major element of Tendai practice. Like its Chinese predecessor, Tendai’s influence was great, and it could be reasonably said that Enryaku-ji, the Tendai head temple, was the birthplace of Japanese Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen.

Ch’an in Japanese is called Zen. The first Zen school in Japan was established by Eisai (1141-1215), a Tendai priest who traveled to China several times, was certified as a Zen teacher there, and brought Ch’an teachings back with him. He was in the Lin-chi (Jp. Rinzai) tradition.

Today the two predominate schools of Japanese Zen in the west are Rinzai and Soto. Rinzai practice consists of seated meditation, koan training, and samu (work practice) or the art of doing activities mindfully. Soto is the school introduced to Japan by Dogen (a former Tendai priest) in the 13th century, and emphasizes shikantaza (see below).

Some common Zen terms:

Kensho: “seeing one’s true nature,” the chief concept in Rinzai.

Satori: along with kensho, this word is often translated as “enlightenment,” although it actually refers to the experience of kensho.

Zazen: seated meditation. Zazen can be a general term that can refer to any form of Zen meditation. Overall, Zen meditation is not particularly unique, at least in the beginning stages. Focusing on the breath at a hara point, a center of ki (Ch. qi) energy (a Taoist influence), counting the breath (susokukan), and from there into more intense concentration. Dharma Rain, a Soto Zen group, says “Dhyana [meditation] is the form and method of zazen; the practice of letting go and returning to the present . . .  Zazen happens in and with the world, not apart from it. The result of meditation is ever deeper experience of samadhi. Samadhi is deeply entering into the openness that letting go cultivates, always broadening the scope of releasing self-attachment.”

Shikan: Simply the Japanese translation of chih-kuan (samatha-vipassana).

Shikantaza: This is a term first used by Dogen (Soto Zen) which literally means “nothing but sitting in samatha-vipassana,” or “just sitting.” Dogen was one the Kamakura teachers who advocated a single practice. This is the main practice in Soto Zen, and there are many different takes on it, some feel shikantaza is nothing in particular, whiles others hold it is very specific. I think Dogen used it in the sense of “single-minded practice,” which Kazuaki Tanahashi, in “moon in a dewdrop”, says is “a single-minded sitting meditation wherein one does not try to solves questions or attain realization.” In shikantaza, there is no object of meditation. In my experience, some Zen teachers will start students off with mindfulness, counting the breath, and ease them into this objectless meditation. Other teachers don’t give any instruction at all, they just expect you to jump in, and you either get it or you don’t.

Tibetan Buddhism has a myriad number of meditative practices, too many to go into here. In general they revolve around mindfulness, samantha (“calm abiding”) and vipassana (“special insight”), and there is strong tantric or Vajrayana element. I’ve found the Tibetan approach to samatha-vipassana to be very close in spirit to Chih-i’s chih-kuan, in that both are practiced together. The Dalai Lama explains in “The Buddhism of Tibet”: “The nature of calm abiding is the one-pointed abiding of any object without distraction of a mind conjoined with a bliss of physical and mental pliancy . . . the main purpose and advantage of calm abiding are that through it one can achieve special insight (vipassana), which realizes emptiness, and can thereby be liberated [from suffering].”

Now this concludes my overview of Buddhist Meditation. I had hoped to talk a bit about the Korean practice of “tracing back the radiance of the mind” taught by Chinul, but since few people in the West will run into this, it’s probably just as well to save it for a later post. Many things have been left out, such as the Taoist influence, Shingon mediation practice, and a few other subjects. But, I must leave here for now.

My aim was to present an outline to help those trying to sort out the various forms of Buddhist meditation, in order that they might be able to put them in perspective – hopefully no one is left more confused. I feel that despite the claims made by individual schools and groups, on the whole, Buddhist meditation across the board has more similarities than distinctions. Most of them begin with mindfulness of breath, and the reason I’ve mentioned it frequently is so that anyone thinking about starting a meditation practice will know that regardless of where they go, or what style they try, it starts from basically the same point. That being the case, it doesn’t matter so much what style you try out. If at some future time you decide it is not for you and you want to try something else, you have not wasted any time, because you have learned the foundation of them all.

I don’t believe that meditation alone leads to enlightenment. Meditation is just a tool. What brings us close to the gates of awakening is a combination of meditation and study, and right action. Someone once said that the importance of the Buddha’s advent lay in his behavior as a human being. The most importance practice is the one of daily living, how we behave after we close the book or get off the cushion, everything else is preparation for that.