The Chih-kuan Dharma Door Is Not Shallow

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?



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.