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:
- Turning [back]
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.