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.


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