View from the Celestial Terrace

While scholars still debate the historicity of Bodhidharma, considered by many the “father of Zen,” one real father of that school is Chih-i, the Third Patriarch and actual founder of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai (“Celestial Terrace”) tradition, whose historicity is not in doubt and whose teachings on both doctrine and meditation paved the way for the development of Ch’an/Zen.

c-ichikuan9g2bChih-i was one of the giants of Mahayana Buddhism. In the West, it seems that there is little knowledge or appreciation of his tremendous influence. Many of the Eastern Mahayana schools, and their Western extensions, still study the meditation manuals attributed to this great master, so at least for them, his philosophy lives on.

I often see remarks by non-Asian Buddhists to the effect that Chih-i’s meditation teachings are too complex and the practices he laid-out too time-consuming to be of much use in this modern age. But if that were entirely true, then why are his manuals still studied and his influence so highly-regarded in the East? I think a lot of it has to do with bad PR. Chih-i’s school in no longer in existence, so he hasn’t had any modern day champions, as Bodhidharma has, and while the Japanese offshoot of T’ien-t’ai, Tendai, from which Japanese Zen emerged, is still in operation, it is so insular it’s become irrelevant. The Nichiren traditions do acknowledge Chih-i’s influence and rely on his teachings, but merely as a backdrop to Nichiren’s philosophy, and they largely misinterpret the doctrinal aspects while they ignore the meditation teachings entirely.

It was that latter group of teachings that had such a great influence on Chinese Ch’an, Pure Land, and especially, Japanese Zen, but during Chih-i’s time (the Sixth Century CE), there were no Ch’an/Zen schools to speak of; however, the term ch’an, being the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word dhyana, was in use as a general term for Buddhist practice. Paul Swanson, a professor at Nanzan University in Japan, and a specialist in the area of T’ien-tai/Tendai Buddhism, says in his essay, “Ch’an and Chih-kuan,” that Chih-i moved away from the use of ch’an in his teachings because it focused narrowly on the chih (cessation or samatha) aspect of meditation, at the expense of the kuan (contemplation or vipassana) aspect:

Chih-i (based, to a great degree, on his understanding of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra) is critical of an unbalanced emphasis on “meditation alone,” portraying it as a possible “extreme” view and practice, and offering instead the binome chih-kuan (calming/cessation and insight/contemplation, samatha-vipasyana) as a more comprehensive term for Buddhist practice.”

It might be a mistake for us to view chih-kuan simply in terms of it being the Chinese translation of samatha-vipassana. Kuan-ting (Chih-i’s student), in his introduction to the monumental work on Buddhist practice attributed to Chih-i, the Mo-ho Chih-kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), wrote, “The luminous quiescence of stopping and seeing [chih-kuan] was unknown in former ages until The Wise Teacher [Chih-i] expounded it,” suggesting that Chih-i’s concept of meditation differed from the established teachings at the time, and that his intention was to take Buddhist meditation into a new dimension, one of balance and inclusiveness.

Chih-i disapproved of “masters” who advocated one-sided practice, “claiming that their teaching and practice is unbalanced and perhaps even dangerous.” Swanson quotes from the Mo-ho Chih-kuan:

If people rely exclusively [on either cessation or contemplation, or on only one teaching or practice] to attain understanding, then what was the reason for the Buddha to offer such a variety of teachings? The heavens are not always clear; a doctor does not rely exclusively on powdered medicine; one does not always eat rice.”

Peter N. Gregory, suggests that Chih-i’s form of samatha-vipassana was to some extent “samatha-prajna or meditation and wisdom, as vipasyana may be understood as the teaching aspect of the practice brought into meditation) . . .” (Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought).

Naturally, from this, we should not form the impression that teaching and study was the limit of Chih-i’s kaun/vipassana, or what we call “insight” meditation. As I’ve noted in previous posts, and it bears repeating considering the increasing numbers of Buddhists and “un-Buddhists” who are quite dismissive of meditation practice nowadays, that Chih-i stressed the importance of striking a balance between practice and study, or meditation and wisdom.

And as I’ve quoted before, in “Chih-kuan for Beginners”, he states:

[The Lotus Sutra] says ‘The practice of dhyana [meditation] alone, while prajna [wisdom] is disregarded causes delusion, and the practice of wisdom alone, while meditation is disregarded, causes infatuation’ . . . Although delusion and infatuation differ from each other in a minor way, their contribution to misunderstanding is the same. Thus, if meditation and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient.”

Those guys look more like Curly, Moe and Shemp to me.
Those guys look more like Curly, Moe and Shemp to me.

Study is subsumed under the rubric of wisdom, and Chih-i compared practice and study to two wings of a bird and two wheels of a cart. Without two wings, a bird cannot fly. Without two wheels, a cart cannot move. In the same way, both practice and study are required if we are to progress in our faring of the Buddha way. For a cart, or nowadays, a car, two wheels also provide balance. When the wheels on our car are balanced, it allows for a smoother ride and extends the life of the tires. In the same way, balance between practice and study makes wayfaring more even and extends the life of the journey.


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