The Way Followed by the Mind

Chih-i, founder of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school, was one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers. Some have put him on a par with Nagarjuna and I would agree but add that at least in the beginning Chih-i was merely attempting to clarify Nagarjuna’s philosophy for a Chinese audience. During the time I spent practicing Nichiren Buddhism I developed an abiding interest in Chih-i’s work, since Nichiren viewed Chih-i as his spiritual ancestor and incorporated the T’ien-ta’i teachings into his own system.

Lately, I’ve been studying a section of Neal Donner’s 1976 translation of Mo-ho Chih Kuan, Chih-i’s monumental work on Buddhist practice. Donner renders the title of Chih-i’s work as “Great Calming and Contemplation”, while the Thomas Cleary translation has it as “Great Stopping and Seeing”, which I prefer.* In the Nichiren traditions (most of which reject the mode of practice Chih-i explains in the text) it is known as “Great Concentration and Insight” (Jpn. Maka Shikan).

In any case, the Mo-ho Chih Kuan was one of the most important non-Indian works of Mahayana Buddhism, influencing the development of the Ch’an (Zen) meditation, as well as practices in other traditions. It was actually the first comprehensive meditation manual written by a Chinese Buddhist, although to say that Chih-I “wrote” this work is a bit of a misnomer, for it was compiled from his lectures after his death.

The section I have been studying deals with bodhicitta, a subject I have blogged about on several occasions in recent months. Bodhicitta, the “thought of awakening”, is the aspirational wish to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings. It’s the first step in the bodhisattva path.

According to Donner, the Mo-ho Chih Kuan essentially charts “the progress of the religious practitioner from the first arising of the thought of enlightenment (bodhicitta) – when he realizes the possibility of Buddhahood within himself – to the final absorption into the indescribable Ultimate Reality, beyond all teaching, beyond all thought.”

At the beginning of the section on bodhicitta, Chih-i defines the term: “bodhi [awakening] is here (in China) called the Way” while citta “is here called ‘mind’, that is, the cognitive mind.” Donner says “Chih-i understands the bodhicitta as ‘the Way followed by the mind’” and translates the complete term bodhicitta-utpada (utpada = ‘production’) as “arousing the great thought,” while Thomas Clearly in his translation uses “awakening the great mind.”

Buddhist practice is aimed at the transformation of sufferings into nirvana. Traditionally, a crucial first step in practice is the taking of vows (vrata) which are said to form tendencies opposite of those that bind us to hard-to-eliminate negative thought patterns and habits that produce suffering.

If action is dependent upon intention, then we can counter negative patterns with purer intentions, the purest of all being the wish to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings, the essence of bodhicitta or the “thought of awakening.”

The first instant of thought in which a person conceives of the desirability of attaining awakening for the sake of others is identical with awakening itself. Chih-i says, “Even a beginning practitioner becomes a refuge for the world” if he or she understands the profound meaning of bodhicitta.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Once generated, the subsequent determination to actualize the thought that nurtures the aspiration sets in motion the conditions that make it possible for positive tendencies to be strengthened and negative ones to be lessened. The seeds of negative potentialities reside deep within the consciousness, and it is from there, the depths of the mind, that a new concentrated thought pattern, bodhicitta, is aroused, starting the process through which we transform sufferings into nirvana for both self and others.

Chih-i says,

We call bodhicitta the “cause and condition for awakening because it is through this as a cause that sentient beings come to experience the Buddha, and it is through this as a condition that a response is aroused toward them in the Buddha.”

Chih-i may or may not have had an external, eternal Buddha in mind; however, we can understand this as referring to Buddha-nature. Bodhicitta is the cause that awakens the Buddha-nature within, and constantly arousing this wish to realize awakening for one’s self and others is the condition that enables Buddha-nature to reach full maturity.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that in this modern age only the Tibetan traditions focus seriously on bodhicitta. This seems a shame, since it was an all-important concept for such great Buddhist thinkers including not only Chih-i, but also Nagarjuna and Shantideva, all of whom offered teachings that resonate with us today. The “thought of awakening” should be easily embraceable in this present time of reason because it is a non-metaphysical concept, as the Dalai Lama, who frequently teaches on bodhicitta, explains,

Bodhicitta or the altruistic aspiration to attain Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings is a state of mind which cannot be cultivated or generated within one’s mental continuum simply by praying for it to come into being in one’s mind. Nor will it come into existence by simply developing the understanding of what that mind is. One must generate that mind within one’s mind’s continuum.”

In other words, it’s not magic. Bodhicitta is the mind that follows the Way by working at it.

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* Neal Arvid Donner, The Great Calming and Contemplation of Chih-i, Chapter One: The Synopsis, The University of British Columbia, 1976; Thomas Cleary, Stopping and Seeing, A Comprehensive Course in Buddhist Meditation by Chih-i, Shambala Publications Inc., 1997

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