The Essentials of Buddhist Meditation by Zhiyi

Recently I obtained an English translation of a 6th century book by the famous Chinese Buddhist Zhiyi (智顗, 538–597), called the Essentials of Buddhist Meditation. This book focuses on meditation exercises called “calming and insight” meditation or śamatha-vipaśyanā dhyāna in Sanskrit. I mentioned another of Zhiyi’s works in a recent post, however compared to the Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime which focuses on the mental states during meditation, this book is more focused on the practice in general.

Note that Zhiyi’s “Calming and Insight” meditation seems somewhat more formalized than “Zen” meditation, but in the introduction the translator notes that they are basically the same. However, the translator also notes that Zhiyi was likely drawing on knowledge of early Indian-Buddhist meditation at the time, and this manual is an attempt to compile this information into a single, accessible handbook.

Early in the manual, Zhiyi warns not to take these words lightly:

If one’s mind gauges the import of these words, then, in the blink of an eye, one’s qualities of wisdom and severance will become so great as to defy measurement and one’s spiritual understanding will become unfathomably deep.

If, however, one disingenuously seizes on passages out of context or, due to personal sentiments, distorts the instructions of the text, the the months and years will be needlessly drawn out while actual realization will have no basis for development. One’s circumstance then would be like that of the pauper who spends his time calculating the wealth of other men. (pg. 35)

The manual is pretty detailed about various aspects of meditation as a practice and how to make the most of them. For example in the first chapter on “Prerequisites” for practicing Calming and Insight meditation, Zhiyi lists five:

  1. Observing the Precepts purely (or if one has faltered, having sincerely repented and made amends)
  2. Proper sustenance – modest food and clothing, not being greedy.
  3. Suitable dwelling – quiet, remote and peaceful.
  4. Putting Responsibilities to Rest – excusing oneself from duties, hobbies, social activities, study, etc.
  5. Having good spiritual friends

In the next chapter, Zhiyi stresses the importance of renouncing sensual desire (form, taste, sound, etc) when engaging in calming-and-insight meditation. Zhiyi quotes from a number of sutras including something called the Dhyāna sutras.

In chapter three, Zhiyi talks about the well-known Five Hindrances in Buddhism, and how to overcome them. Karma Yeshe Ragye has a nice write-up on the Five Hindrances which I recommend, but there are plenty of other sources too.

Chapter Four onward is when Zhiyi delves into the meditation practice itself. He begins by detailing proper posture, how to make adjustments to that posture during meditation, what kinds of things to be mindful of or visualize, different kinds of breathing exercises one can do and so on. The text even covers what to do when meditation doesn’t seem to be working, or one becomes afflicted with strange “ailments” during meditation. A lot of this delves into medical knowledge at the time that would seem frankly primitive now, but it does delve into the kinds of vague physical issues one might have during meditation.

The final chapter then covers the fruits of meditation and what one can expect through dedicated practice.

The book is a comprehensive guide for calming-and-insight meditation, and covers just about every aspect one could think of. It definitely assumes that one is serious about the practice and not just doing it to “relax” or anything like that. It is a pretty amazing piece of work, and a pretty invaluable reference for anyone who wants to take meditation practice to the next level.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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