The Six Gates of Buddhist Meditation

Recently, I picked up a copy of The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime, which was written by the famous Chinese Buddhist master Zhi-yi (智顗, 538–597) and translated by Bhikshu Dharmamitra.  Zhi-yi is something of a super star in Chinese Buddhism, and Buddhism across East Asia,¹ but his writings and teachings aren’t well understood in the West, so I wanted to learn more about him.  Much of what we see in East Asian Buddhism, how it’s organized, and certain fundamental teachings, are due to his research and writings.

According to Bhikshu Dharmamitra, the Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime (六妙法門) is the third of four in a series of Buddhism meditation manuals written by Zhi-yi.  Zhi-yi was a proponent of the classic Buddhist meditation called “calming and insight meditation”, or śamatha-vipaśyanā dhyāna in Sanskrit (शमथविपश्यना झान).  Note that this is actually two forms of Buddhism meditation, shamatha (calming) and vipashyana (insight), combined like two halves of the same coin. In Japanese Tendai Buddhism this is called shikan (止観) meditation.

Anyhow, Zhi-yi describes six progressive states of meditation:

  1. Counting
  2. Following
  3. Stabilization
  4. Contemplation
  5. Turning [back]
  6. Purification

Inevitably, if one practices Calming and Insight meditation, you start with counting the breaths first.  Then, as Zhi-yi explains:

When one becomes aware that the breath has become insubstantial and faint, the mind becomes gradually more subtle along with it.  One subsequently becomes concerned that counting has become a coarse activity.  One’s state of mind is such that one does not with to engage in counting.  At just such a time, the practitioner should let loose of the counting and then proceed to cultivate “following”. (pg 37)

In other words, you transition in order from the first gate to the last.  The reality is is that without prior experience and practice, you may have trouble getting your mind to calm down at the first gate, and this is OK.  It simply takes patience and repetition.

In any case, the book is mostly an exploration of these six “gates” from different angles, including how to use them to counteract negative states of mind that may arise during meditation.  It’s a very deep, technical look at how the mind progresses through these states, and the various ways they may manifest.  While the book may be a bit dry at times, it is also probably one of the best, most scientific approaches I’ve read so far to meditative experience in Buddhism.

¹ If you’re curious, his name is pronounced Chigi in Japanese, Chi-eui (지의) in Korean and Trí Nghĩ in Vietnamese.

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Tired of Sitting? Try Walking Meditation

Hello everyone,

My efforts at meditation have begun as far back as my teenage years, when the only thing I knew about Buddhism was Shunryu Suzuki’s book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. I’ve never been a particularly good meditator, nor a particularly dedicated one, but I have been able to keep up the practice off and on over the years.

These days, I am lucky to work at a place that has a “quiet room” of sorts, where I can often sit and meditate for 10-15 minutes a day, and usually 2-3 times a week.

But I was also recently inspired to take up walking meditation too after watching this helpful video by Bhikkhu Yuttadhammo:1

Walking meditation something is something I’ve only seen in Zen, where it’s called kinhin (経行), but this practice is actually more universal in Buddhism, and just like sitting meditation, has various ways of doing it. The particular form isn’t so important, so long as you find something you can stick to.

I’ve always had a little trouble with seated meditation, because of occasional problems with my legs, or just general restlessness, so I tried walking meditation as shown in the video above and it was very nice. My home happens to have a central hallway downstairs that runs all the way from one end of the house to the other, so it works very well for walking meditation, especially at night when the kids are asleep.2

Anyhow, try out the video above, and if you’re already meditating, try branching out into walking meditation too. You’re not forced to choose one or the other. In fact, it’s perfectly normal to blend the two in your practice.

Enjoy and peace!

1 I can’t remember when or how, but I remember conversing a little online with Bhikkhu Yuttadhammo a long, long time ago. Anyhow, good to see he’s well and making videos. 🙂

2 so long as I don’t step on kid’s toys. Legos really hurt!

What’s Mindfulness Meditation For?

I saw this advertisement on my Facebook feed recently and did a double-facepalm.

People often assume that Buddhist meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, is a practice to calm the mind, attain peace and by extension happiness. Peace of mind and happiness are central to Buddhism, but it’s also important to understand how Buddhism approaches the issue, and where mindfulness meditation actually fits into that.

Buddhism approaches the issue of life from the perspective of dukkha, which is a Buddhist term for things like stress, unease, dissatisfaction, pain, strife, etc. It’s a pretty big term, but as mentioned in a recent post, describes a lot of things in life. Further, while some aspects of dukkha are just a part of life (you can’t control the weather for example), a lot of it is self-inflicted because we are infatuated with ourselves, and always expect things to go our way. When someone else gets promoted and we don’t, we get mad, jealous and resentful. Maybe they were the better candidate (objectively speaking), but we don’t see it that way because we naturally tend to see things from our self-centered world-view.

Or, we inflict dukkha on ourselves because we tend to indulge in things we shouldn’t, or we indulge in something without moderation. Chocolate is good. Too much chocolate will give you indigestion. This is not because we are necessarily stupid or anything. A lot of smart people still inflict a lot of dukkha on themselves. Instead, it’s because people want their happiness “fix” without realizing that there’s often a hidden cost. At the very least, you’ll get dissatisfied again and chasing happiness once more, but oftentimes there’s the upfront cost too that you had to do to get that “fix” in the first place.

This is why meditation alone won’t bring peace. Meditation will calm your mind, and give you some clarity, but if you still live a lifestyle geared toward chasing happiness (either physical gratification, or more cerebral/emotional gratification) you’ll be unhappy again soon. Ironically, using meditation to make you happy will just repeat the cycle of chasing after happiness, and when that fades, chasing after it again. It’s just another fix, but a more cerebral one.

The Buddhist approach to getting out of this endless cycle of chasing happiness, temporary gratification, sense of loss, and chasing again is to not get yourself in that cycle in the first place. This requires a kind of dedicated, lifetime training of the mind not to knee-jerk react whenever we encounter something we want (e.g. craving), or something we don’t like and want to avoid (e.g. aversion).

This training requires a kind of three-pronged approach:

  • Conduct – Buddhism spends a lot of time talking about personal conduct. This means curtailing the more egregious behavior we do, using guidelines like the Ten Wholesome Acts.1
  • Practice – Buddhism has a wide array of practices to help cultivate wholesome states of mind, and to help facilitate conditions to help continue following or advance along the Buddhist path.
  • Wisdom – This helps create the right frame of mind for the other two. Or, the other two help give rise to wisdom. They go hand in hand.

The nice thing is that these three things are kind of mutually reinforcing, so it’s best to start building all three of them.

Mindfulness meditation falls under “practice”, because the intention is to train your mind to be able to step back and think rather than react blindly to things you encounter. This can lead to happiness over time because you avoid self-destructive behavior (i.e. maintain conduct) and maintaining wholesome conduct does further and further create peace of mind, because you are not wracked with guilt, regret and such.

But mindfulness meditation is only a small part of the Buddhist path. It is a holistic path that covers many aspects, and if you don’t follow the path in entirety, you’ll only gain temporary benefits.

1 The Ten Wholesome Acts are:

  1. Abstain from destroying life
  2. Abstain from taking what is not given
  3. Abstain from sexual misconduct (adultery, abuse, etc)
  4. Abstain from false speech
  5. Abstain from slander
  6. Abstain from harsh speech
  7. Abstain from idle chatter (gossip, inappropriate conversations, etc)
  8. Abstain from greed
  9. Abstain from ill-will
  10. Abstrain from wrong views (e.g. view that don’t align with the Dharma)

The key with the Ten Wholesome Acts are to treat them like a gold-standard to work towards. You may not get them right the first time (or first hundred or so), but you keep at it. Like rehearsing for a play.

Crossing the Stream

Moraine Park RMNP

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi does a nice job explaining what the Buddhist path entails in this article:

Like any other stream, the stream of mundane existence inevitably flows in the direction of least resistance: downward. The task the Buddha sets before us is not the impossible one of reversing the direction of the flow, but the feasible one of crossing the stream, of arriving safely at the far shore where we will be free from the dangers that beset us as we are swept along by the stream. To cross the stream requires a struggle, not against the current itself, but against the forces that carry us down the current, a struggle against the defilements lodged in the depths of our own minds.

The Buddhist path isn’t meant to be a heroic struggle against the forces in the Universe, but rather a kind of slow, determined effort with a clear goal, and support when you need it when you find yourself slipping on the rocks, or feeling the pull of the currents.

P.S. Don’t cross the streams, though. 👻

What is the Point of Buddhist Practice?

Recently, I stumbled upon a great essay by the venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi here:

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_16.html

This is about the importance of self-transcendence, but one particular statement really hit home:

It is important to stress this transcendent aspect of the Dhamma because, in our own time when “immanent” secular values are ascendent, the temptation is great to let this aspect drop out of sight. If we assume that the worth of a practice consists solely in its ability to yield concrete this-worldly results, we may incline to view the Dhamma simply as a means of refining and healing the divided personality, leading in the end to a renewed affirmation of our mundane selves and our situation in the world. Such an approach, however, would ignore the Buddha’s insistence that all the elements of our personal existence are impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self, and his counsel that we should learn to distance ourselves from such things and ultimately to discard them.

It’s really easy to forget this point and lull ourselves into self-satisfaction when Buddhist practice brings a measure of peace and stability in our lives.  But that’s not exactly the point of Buddhism either.  People who use mindfulness meditation to get ahead in life, for example, will find that life is still ultimately unfulfilling in the long-run.

It’s like poker, where you find a technique to win money more consistently, but at the end of the day, you’re basically still gambling your life away.  Better to just stop playing poker.

Buddhism: Financial Advice from the Pali Canon

Hey all,

Hope you’re enjoying the spring weather (and the 3-day weekend if you live in the States).  I wanted to share an article online about managing finances the Buddhist way here:

https://www.urbandharma.org/udharma5/buddhisteco.html

This essay is a bit long, but does a great job outlining practical advice (summary: live within your means) while referencing important Buddhist sutras from the Pali Canon of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

As I get older, and am now raising two kids, not one, I’ve had to make some adjustment in my life, including how I spend my money day to day. But while this is painful in the short-term, I’ve also come to realize that the alternative is a whole lot worse, so I am glad I am able to improve my financial situation now before it’s too late.

Enjoy!

Personal Financing: the Buddhist Way

Just a nice random little sutra I found in the Pali Canon I wanted to share: the Dighajanu Sutta (AN 8.54).  Here the Buddha is talking to a lay follower, who sought his advice about how to live a life of financial security and happiness.

The Buddha’s advice falls into four, simple no-nonsense categories:

  • Work hard and master an important skill.
  • Store the hard-earned wealth securely to avoid theft or loss.
  • Cultivate good friendships, avoid harmful friendships (that lead to debauchery, drunkenness, gambling, etc).
  • Live a balanced lifestyle; don’t spend beyond your means.

Further, the Buddha discusses how to ensure happiness and security in future lives:

  • Confidence in the Buddha and the Buddha’s teachings (i.e. the Dharma)
  • Living a life of wholesome conduct, including the Five Precepts.
  • Being generous toward others
  • Cultivating wisdom through the Buddha’s teachings.

The sutra finally ends in a nice verse (translation by Ven. Narada Thera):

Energetic and heedful in his tasks,
Wisely administering his wealth,
He lives a balanced life,
Protecting what he has amassed.

Endowed with faith and virtue too,
Generous he is and free from avarice;
He ever works to clear the path
That leads to weal in future life.

Thus to the layman full of faith,
By him, so truly named ‘Enlightened,’
These eight conditions have been told
Which now and after lead to bliss.

Pretty cool sutra.  Enjoy!