The 9th chapter, “Transcendent Wisdom,” in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life that I referenced in my Sept. 8th post, begins with these words:

Wisdom is the only true final antidote to all suffering (the whole path aims at this).”

The Sanskrit word for wisdom is prajna, which is syllabified as praj, meaning “higher,” and na or “consciousness.” But higher consciousness should not be taken to mean that wisdom some sort of mystical state. It is more like the difference between viewing a landscape from the ground or atop a mountain. The higher one’s vantage point then the more one is able to see.

Dharmic wisdom has many shades and hues. Wisdom obtained by study is what the sutras call “literary prajna.” Prajna-paramita, or Transcendent Wisdom, is the coupling of compassion with emptiness-knowledge. Prajna-Dhyana is the non-duality of wisdom and meditation. But none of these constitute the highest form of wisdom.

“The Way is your everyday mind,” is a saying attributed to Huang Po, a Ch’an master during the Tang Dynasty. He means there is no wisdom that is detached from daily life.

You can go off in search of higher states of consciousness, but the state of mind that is most important is the one rooted in the everyday world. Through understanding daily life, we can understand the whole of life.

I don’t know how many of readers consider yourself Buddhists. It’s not important. Being a Buddhist is nothing special in the long run. It’s just being an ordinary person. Doing ordinary things. However, because most Buddhist engage in some sort of meditative practice, ordinary things are done with a bit more awareness, and one hopes, tranquility.

The ancient Ch’an/Zen tradition seemed to understand this very well. There’s old story from the school that illustrates the point, with the usual dash of paradox, of course:

Someone asked the Zen master three questions, What is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha? And the master answered each question with the same words, “Go and drink tea.”

In other words, you practice, and you do your daily life. That’s wisdom. That’s true Buddhism.


Reversing the Light to Shine Within

In my readings of Buddhist and Taoist literature over the years, I have often run across variations of a certain phrase, “turning the light around,” translated differently with slight changes of meaning changes depending on the context. The phrase comes from the Chinese huiguang, “turn around light”.

MP8776In the Taoist classic The Secret of the Golden Flower (as translated by Thomas Cleary, 1991), “turning the light around is a means of refining the higher soul, which is a means of preserving the spirit, which is a means of controlling the lower soul, which is a means of interrupting consciousness.” In Ch’an, originally known as the Inner Light School, it’s a term for the process of meditation: “Now when you turn the light around to shine inward, the mind is not aroused by things.” (Lu Yan 829–874).

Huiguang is also linked in Ch’an to hua-t’ou, literally “source” and essentially refers to the mind in its natural state undisturbed by thought, but often associated with kung-an (Jpn. koan) practice. In the Korean Zen of Chinul, the phrase is “tracing back the radiance,”* a specific practice of seeing the radiant nature of the mind within the present moment and then tracing the radiance back to its source. Chinul connects the practice to a method associated with Avalokitesvara (“Hearer of the Cries of the World”) of tracing hearing back to its source within the mind.

Hsuan Hua (1918-1995), the great Chinese teacher who played a leading role in bringing Ch’an to America during the 20th Century, presents a different take on this phrase, one that shines a bit more directly on our state of mind in daily life, in his commentary, “The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra.”  In this treatment of the Heart Sutra, Hsuan Hua comments on a line or few words from the text with a verse he composed and then a short explanation. Here he analyzes the first three words of the “shorter” Heart Sutra:

When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva


Reversing the light to shine within,
Avalokiteshvara enlightens all the sentient beings; thus he is a Bodhisattva.
His mind is thus, thus, unmoving, a superior one at peace;
With total understanding of the ever-shining, he is host and master.
Six types of psychic powers are an ordinary matter,
And even less can the winds and rains of the eight directions cause alarm.
He rolls it up and secretly hides it away;
And lets it go to fill the entire world.


The name Avalokiteshvara is Sanskrit; in Chinese it is rendered guan zi zai, “Contemplating Ease”. To be at ease is to be happy about everything and to be without worries or obstacles. To be unimpeded is to contemplate ease. If you are impeded, then you are not contemplating ease. Reversing the light to shine within is contemplating ease. If you don’t reverse the light to shine within, you’re not contemplating ease.

What is meant by “reversing the light to shine within”? Regardless of what the situation is, examine yourself. If someone has wronged you, you should think to yourself, “Basically, I was wrong.”

If you say, “When people don’t act properly toward me, I don’t look to see whether I’m right myself; I just smash them right away, smash their heads in so that blood flows” – then you haven’t won a victory, but have only shown your complete lack of principles and wisdom. To reverse the light to shine within is to have principles and wisdom. Reverse the light and contemplate whether or not you are at ease.

I will explain the two characters zi zai, which together mean “ease”. The zi is oneself, and the zai is where one is. I’ll say it word for word. Are you right here (zai), or aren’t you? In other words, do you have false thoughts, or not? If one has false thoughts, then one (zi) is not right here. It’s very simple. To reverse the light to shine within is simply to see whether you have false thoughts. If you have false thoughts, then you aren’t at ease. If you don’t have false thoughts, then you are at ease. That’s how wonderful it is.

“The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra” with “Verses Without A Stand” and Prose Commentary of the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua, English translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society

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* Robert E. Buswell, Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen, University of Hawaii Press, 1991


When the wind blows through the scattered bamboo,

they do not hold its sound after it is gone . . . So the mind of the superior man begins to work only when an event occurs; and it becomes a void again when the matter ends.

Today I’m going to take a walk through a lovely Chinese garden. You’re invited to come along.

It has been a while since I’ve visited this place. It is an unusual garden, a garden of words, where the leaves are paper and the walkways are thoughts.

I’m referring to A Chinese Garden of Serenity, Reflections of a Zen Buddhist, a rather small book of 60 pages, by Tzu-Ch’eng (1572-1620), a Chinese philosopher about whom virtually nothing is known. It’s based on Epigrams from the Ming Dynasty ‘Discourses on Vegetable Roots’, translated by Chao Tze-chiang, and published in 1959.

The book is a collection of short observations that are sometimes humorous, sometimes provocative, but always shot with wisdom.

When I wander in this printed garden, I take a random stroll. I open the book to any page, and it’s like taking a turn along a narrow path and not being sure exactly what you will encounter around the bend.

Others have translated the book besides Chao Tze-chiang. Robert Aitken and Daniel W.Y. Kwok produced a translation in 2007, Vegetable Roots Discourse. In the forward, Aitken described how he discovered the text:

I first encountered quotations from the “Caigentan” (pronounced tsaiguntan) in R. H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics while interned in Kobe back in the spring of 1943. Later in a Tokyo bookshop I found Yaichiro Isobe’s translation titled Musings of a Chinese Vegetarian, published in 1926. It became one of my favorite ‘little books.'”

It’s one of my favorite little books, too. I found my copy in the used book section of my friendly neighborhood thrift shop.

Alan Watts was also a fan of the book. In one of his talks, he said,

I have got here a curious old text called Ts’ai-ken T’an  . . . I thought I’d like to read some of this to you. And to get into the right mood, I suggest that you try to become a little stupid. That is to say, childlike, as if you hardly knew how to talk and didn’t really know very much about anything that is going on. Just listen . . . as you would listen to the wind.”

Well? Shall we walk over in this direction where the sun is shining softly through the leaves, and we can become a little stupid and just listen . . . to the wind . . .

In sweeping winds and driving rains, birds feel melancholy; under the radiant sun and in the light breezes, grasses and trees flourish cheerfully. Hence we know that, even for one day, there should not be absence of harmony between the heavens and the earth or banishment of joy from the human heart.

chinese-garden-pond-dmrileyOver there is a pond, the water looks so tranquil . . .

A drop of water has the tastes of the water of the seven seas: there is no need to experience all the ways of worldly life. The reflections on the moon on one thousand rivers are from the same moon: the mind must be full of light.

If we go this way, by the pavilions, I think we will find something interesting . . .

Whether time is long or short, and whether space is broad or narrow, depend upon the mind. Those whose minds are at leisure can feel one day as long as a millennium, and those whose thought is expansive can perceive a small house to be as spacious as the universe.

It is easy to dodge the arrow of an enemy, but difficult to avoid the spear of a friend. It is also easy to escape from the pitfall of suffering, but difficult to get out of the snare of pleasure.

Unfortunately, the pleasure of this garden must be gotten out of for now. Before we leave, though, a few words about the author, whom as I said, we know very little. It is said that when he was young, Tzu-Ch’eng led a self-indulgent life, but when he reached middle-age he became a Ch’an (Zen) monk. In his introduction to A Chinese Garden of Serenity, the translator had this to say about him:

The tenor of this book is thus indicated by its title: simple, homely, symbols of spiritual truths, as they have to come to an unpretentious man.”

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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.


The Ch’an Poetry of Po Chu-i

It’s still National Poetry Month, which is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, so that means more poetry. Today, the quintessential Chinese poet,  Po Chu-i

Po Chu-i (772-846) was a government official who was a popular poet during the Chinese Tang dynasty. And a rather prolific one – he supposedly wrote over 2800 poems. He was also a member of the Hanlin Academy (“brush wood court”), an elite scholarly institution founded in the 8th century that lasted until 1911.

However, Po Chu-i himself was not elitist. He wrote deceptively simple poetry that was often sympathetic to the troubles and concerns of common people. He wanted to make his work accessible and it is said that if any of his servants could not understand one of his poems, he would immediately rewrite it.

A serious student of Ch’an, Po, like most Chinese Buddhists, also studied Taoism. The Taoist influence is evident in his poetry’s realistic quality and how it reflects the theme of harmony with nature and between people. However, the Ch’an influence was the greater of the two.

In his introduction to The Selected Poems of Po Chu-I, David Hinton writes, “Po’s poems often include the explicit use of Ch’an ideas, indeed he is the poet who really opened mainstream poetry to Buddhist experience, his work becoming a major source of information on Buddhist practice in his time.” (Which should tell you how little we know about Buddhism then.)

Burton Watson, translator of Chinese and Japanese literature, in his book Po Chu-i: Selected Poems, says that Po was most famous for his “simplicity of language” and for “an abiding desire to portray himself, whatever he may have been in real life, as a connoisseur of everyday delights, a man confronting the world, particular in the years of old age, with an air of humor and philosophical acceptance.”

Here is a poem that Hinton chose to translate almost verbatim, without any additional words, capturing Po’s simple poetic style:

Flower No Flower

Flower no flower
mist no mist

arrives at midnight
and leaves at dawn

arrives like a spring dream – how many times
leaves like a morning cloud – nowhere to find

Po also wrote poems of social protest. Early in his career, his politically flavored poetry caused him to be exiled to Hsun-yang where he served as Chief Magistrate. This poem from the Hsun-yang years was translated by Arthur Waley:

Visiting the Hsi-Lin Temple

I dismount from my horse at the Hsi-Lin Temple;
I hurry forward, speeding with light cane.
In the morning I work at a Govermnment office-desk;
In the evening I become a dweller in the Sacred Hills.
In the second month to the north of K’uang-lu
The ice breaks and the snow begins to melt.
On the southern plantation the tea-plant trusts its sprouts;
Through the northern crevice the view of the spring ooze.

This year there is war in An-hui,
In every place soldiers are rushing to arms.
Men of learning have been summoned to the Council Board;
Men of action are marching to the battle-line.
Only I, who have no talents at all,
Am left in the mountains to play with the pebbles of the stream.

Here are two poems that I translated myself:

Rain on Autumn Night

Cold, cold this third night of autumn
Rain makes me sleepy
Alone, this old man is contented and idle
It’s late when I extinguish the lamp and lie down
To sleep, listening to the beautiful sound of rain
Incense ashes still glowing in the burner
My only heat in this lodging
At daybreak, I will stay under the quilt to stay warm
And the steps will be covered by frosty red leaves

Lao Tzu

“Those who speak don’t know,
Those who know don’t speak.”
It is said that these words
Were written by Lao Tzu.
Now, if we are to accept
That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
Then why did he compose a book
Of five thousand words?

This poem, inspired by Po, was written by the great American poet William Carlos Williams, circa 1920:

To the shade of Po Chu-I

The work is heavy. I see
bare branches laden with snow.
I try to comfort myself
with thought of your old age.
A girl passes, in a red tam,
the coat above her quick ankles
snow smeared from running and falling –
Of what shall I think now
save of death the bright dancer?

W. S. Merwin, also a serious student of Buddhism, whom I wrote about in this post, composed this poem just last March:

A Message to Po Chu-I

In that tenth winter of your exile
the cold never letting go of you
and your hunger aching inside you
day and night while you heard the voices
out of the starving mouths around you
old ones and infants and animals
those curtains of bones swaying on stilts
and you heard the faint cries of the birds
searching in the frozen mud for something
to swallow and you watched the migrants
trapped in the cold the great geese growing
weaker by the day until their wings
could barely lift them above the ground
so that a gang of boys could catch one
in a net and drag him to market
to be cooked and it was then that you
saw him in his own exile and you
paid for him and kept him until he
could fly again and you let him go
but then where could he go in the world
of your time with its wars everywhere
and the soldiers hungry the fires lit
the knives out twelve hundred years ago

I have been wanting to let you know
the goose is well he is here with me
you would recognize the old migrant
he has been with me for a long time
and is in no hurry to leave here
the wars are bigger now than ever
greed has reached numbers that you would not
believe and I will not tell you what
is done to geese before they kill them
now we are melting the very poles
of the earth but I have never known
where he would go after he leaves me