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.


Dogen Says Think Before You Speak

Hey guys, I mentioned in a recent video a quote from Dogen, the 13th-century Zen master who founded Soto Zen.  I wanted to post the quote here:

Students, when you want to say something, think about it three times before you say it. Speak only if your words will benefit yourselves and others. Do not speak if it brings no benefit.

This quote actually comes from section 6 of a Soto Zen text called the Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki which is a collection of informal Dharma talks by Dogen, as ascribed by his student Koun Ejō.

I got curious about what the original quote was in Japanese,1 and spent a lot of time poking around the Intertubes to find it. There really wasn’t anything in English, and it was surprisingly hard to find in Japanese, not without a lot of trial and error anyway. But eventually I found a couplelinks among others. As far as I can tell, the actual quote is:


A very rough translation might be:2The teacher [Dogen] said that the mind that “thinks three minds before speaking”, as a rule will consider something three times, and if it’s not something that ought not be said, and not something that ought not be done, then one should say it.


Anyhow, the real take-away (assuming this translation is even remotely close), is:3三覆して後に云へ
mitabikaesou shite ato ni ie

In other words: consider three times before speaking.

Have fun, and watch your tongue! 😉

P.S.  Older post using the same quotation.

P.P.S. The main English-language Soto Zen homepage in Japan has a nice translation of the Shobogenzo Zuimonki.

1 I don’t trust Buddhist translations in English, especially ones that don’t properly cite their source. Zen quotes are particularly notorious about this. In fact there’s a whole blog about bad translations and questionable citations. 🙂

2 Seriously, this is a pretty rough translation. If anyone can read medieval Japanese, please feel free to critique the above.

3 The word mitabikaesou (三覆) seems to be particularly tricky. The first chinese character is “three” (三) which is pretty obvious. But the second one, 覆, is less obvious. In other modern Japanese, it is used in words like kutsugaeru (覆る) meaning to be overruled or reversed, or more commonly as ōu (覆う) meaning to hide or conceal. You can probably guess how the usage in Dogen’s time (13th century) probably evolved into what it is now.

What Mindfulness Is Not

Popular books on meditation, though, offer a lot of other definitions for mindfulness, a lot of other duties it’s supposed to fulfill—so many that the poor word gets totally stretched out of shape. In some cases, it even gets defined as Awakening, as in the phrase, “A moment of mindfulness is a moment of Awakening”—something the Buddha would never say, because mindfulness is conditioned and nirvana is not.

These are not just minor matters for nitpicking scholars to argue over. If you don’t see the differences among the qualities you’re bringing to your meditation, they glom together, making it hard for real insight to arise. If you decide that one of the factors on the path to Awakening is Awakening itself, it’s like reaching the middle of a road and then falling asleep right there. You never get to the end of the road, and in the meantime you’re bound to get run over by aging, illness, and death. So you need to get your directions straight, and that requires, among other things, knowing precisely what mindfulness is and what it’s not.

I’ve heard mindfulness defined as “affectionate attention” or “compassionate attention,” but affection and compassion aren’t the same as mindfulness. They’re separate things. If you bring them to your meditation, be clear about the fact that they’re acting in addition to mindfulness, because skill in meditation requires seeing when qualities like compassion are helpful and when they’re not. As the Buddha says, there are times when affection is a cause for suffering, so you have to watch out.

Sometimes mindfulness is defined as appreciating the moment for all the little pleasures it can offer: the taste of a raisin, the feel of a cup of tea in your hands. In the Buddha’s vocabulary, this appreciation is called contentment. Contentment is useful when you’re experiencing physical hardship, but it’s not always useful in the area of the mind. In fact the Buddha once said that the secret to his Awakening was that he didn’t allow himself to rest content with whatever attainment he had reached. He kept reaching for something higher until there was nowhere higher to reach. So contentment has to know its time and place. Mindfulness, if it’s not glommed together with contentment, can help keep that fact in mind.

Some teachers define mindfulness as “non-reactivity” or “radical acceptance.” If you look for these words in the Buddha’s vocabulary, the closest you’ll find are equanimity and patience. Equanimity means learning to put aside your preferences so that you can watch what’s actually there. Patience is the ability not to get worked up over the things you don’t like, to stick with difficult situations even when they don’t resolve as quickly as you want them to. But in establishing mindfulness you stay with unpleasant things not just to accept them but to watch and understand them. Once you’ve clearly seen that a particular quality like aversion or lust is harmful for the mind, you can’t stay patient or equanimous about it. You have to make whatever effort is needed to get rid of it and to nourish skillful qualities in its place by bringing in other factors of the path: right resolve and right effort.

Dogen and No-Self

Many Zen Buddhists, or just Buddhists in general, know Dogen’s famous quote about “studying the self”. It’s a popular reminder of what Buddhism is all about. I’ve seen various translations in various books, but I have yet to see an example of a bilingual translation until now:

I always like to see translations like this, because I’ve learned to distrust English translations of Buddhist texts that don’t include any references to the original language.  There are a lot of bad Buddhist quotes and translations floating around, and even something simple as the Buddhist “nembutsu” or reciting the Buddha’s name, gets mistranslated a lot. More on that in an old post.

Anyhow, I digress.  Looking at Dogen’s original writing, a few things I noticed as a language nerd:

  • Since this was written in 13th century, not the 21st century, it uses more archaic Japanese.
  • Similarly, the spellings are different: instead of saying toiu, it is spelled toifu, though it was probably pronounced the same.
  • Not surprisingly, Dogen uses some obscure Zen-Buddhist terms that even the Japanese language site above has to provide footnotes for, such as Goseki (悟迹) which means the period after Enlightenment.

Anyhow, regardless of the language, this quotation is still one of the best in Buddhism in my opinion.  Even Buddhists have to pause and remember to take stock about why they’re practicing Buddhism.  Contemporary history is rife with examples of Buddhist teachers who went off the rails, and of course this can happen to anyone, so it’s good to remember why we practice Buddhism.  Dogen’s words are a good reminder for us all.

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.

Think For Yourself

Another great podcast by Karma Yeshe Rabgye:

Certain Buddhist schools seem particularly vulnerable to a kind of abuse by gurus or teachers who exert unnecessary control over their disciples, but this kind of unhealthy relationship can happen in any Buddhist temple or community.

There are examples of teachers who have abused their students, and it’s interesting to see how some students will still defend their teacher, even make excuses for the abuse, simply because the teachings they offer are so great.  I believe though this is what Karma Yeshe Rabgye means by leaning on a teacher, rather than learning from them.  You want the teaching so badly you’re willing to put up with all kinds of abuse, but as Karma Yeshe Rabgye says, this is just another form of attachment.

Anyhow, something to really think about.

Buddhist teachers in the West are so few and far between, and there’s not always enough oversight on them, leaving room for people to get taken in by charismastic teachers.  However, with the right mindset one can avoid some pitfalls, and thereby avoid a lot unnecessary grief.