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.


4 thoughts on “Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 3

  1. Hi David,

    I always learn something new when I read your posts. I didn’t know that shikan could be the same characters as chih-guan. I have seen shikantaza before as ????. I just looked up the characters in my dictionary, and learned that the character ? used for “stopping” can also mean “only.” so ???? could be translated into English as either “stopping and contemplation sitting” or “only contemplate sitting.”

    It’s also interesting that the same sound “shikan” can be either ?? or ??, meaning “stopping and contemplating” “only contemplate,” or alternatively “just attend to this.”


    1. Hey James,

      What a nice complement. Thank you very much. I’m glad you get something out of my ramblings.

      Japanese/Chinese characters won’t display here, so I don’t know which ones you’re using, nor which dictionary you’re referring to. However, chih-kuan and shikan are essentially the same. There is some variation in which characters are used and it becomes a little confusing, so some people maintain that chih-kuan and shikan are different. Certainly, skikan does not mean exactly the same thing in Zen as it does in Tendai or Chih-kuan in T’ien-t’ai. In the dictionary I often use (Jeffrey’s Japanese English Dictionary Server) the characters used for shikan are different from the one’s used for shikantaza.

      I don’t think I have ever seen chih/shi as “only.” It seems to me that would be the taza part.

      1. Hi David,

        Well, I think you understood the gist of comment, which was that I didn’t know there was such a direct connection between the chih-kuan of Master Chih-I and the shikantaza of Dogen. It makes sense to me that there would be a connection, but I guess I have only heard before from people who say that they are different.

        I usually use the dictionary at mdbg.net. This link will probably clear up what I was trying to say:


        1. James, thanks for the link. I wasn’t nit-picking, just expanding on what you wrote. You’re right it does make sense there would be a connection, considering that Dogen came out of the Tendai tradition.

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