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.


Tendai Buddhist Liturgy, redux

Recently, I have been taking an interest in the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism (which in turn is based on the venerable Chinese Tiantai sect) after re-reading a biography about the Tendai founder Saicho (最澄, 767 – 822). Tendai/Tiantai as a Buddhist sect definitely has some things going for it, in my opinion:

  • It includes multiple Buddhist practices such as Zen meditation and reciting the Buddha’s name (e.g. the nembutsu) without limiting itself to one practice for the sake of doctrinal purity.
  • It centers itself around the Lotus Sutra, which is one of the most fundamental and most important sutras in Mahayana Buddhism. You basically can’t have Mahayana Buddhism without the Lotus Sutra.

Resources and information around Tendai are quite limited in English, and there is only two overseas community in the US (California and New York) that I am aware of, so I decided to get back to the source and study what information I could in Japanese from the official website in Japan.

Soon, I found their home-liturgy page and realized that it differed significantly from some old posts I had made here and here. Further, now that I can read Japanese more easily than before, plus have more experience with Japanese-Buddhist liturgy, I decided why not translate the official home liturgy page into English?

The home-liturgy page is great because it has links to Youtube videos so you can chant along, and see how it sounds, plus the chants in Tendai seem to be relatively short so they’re not hard to learn.


The Tendai page offers some suggestions when doing a home service:

  • Offering water, candle, etc is encouraged before the home altar.
  • Before you face the altar1 for the service, take a moment to wash out your mouth with water, wash hands and purify the body.
  • The number of incense sticks to offer is not fixed, you can offer as many or few as you like.
  • Have the service book or sutra you’ll recite open in front of you.
  • When reciting or chanting, your voice will be a bit higher than your normal conversational voice, and the chanting will be in a smooth, even manner.
  • At the beginning fo the service, if you have a small bell, ring it twice. Then, after each chant, ring it once to conclude. At the very end of the service, ring three times.
  • Once finished, make sure to close the sutra book and put it away.

Warning: these are amateur translations. It is not the official translation, and if you need further information, please contact your nearest Tendai temple. 🙂

Warning 2: For convenience, I only listed the shorter version of the Tendai liturgy for home services. On the website, these are the parts listed as essential while the other chants are nice to do if time permits.

Tendai Buddhist Home Liturgy:

The Three Gratitudes (三礼, sanrai): (Youtube)

ish-shin cho rai jip-po ho kai jo ju san bo

(repeat 3 times)

“I praise with all my heart the Three Treasures [Buddha, Dharma and Sangha] that endlessly pervade the Ten Directions.”

Renunciation of Past Transgressions (懺悔文, sangemon): (Youtube)

ware mukashi yori tsukureru tokoro no moromoro no akugo wa mina mushi no tonjinchi ni yoru shingoi yori shozuru tokoro nari issai ware ima mina sange shitate matsuru

From the beginning-less past, driven by the Three Poisons (greed, anger, ignorance) I have committed all kinds of transgressions; these I hereby humbly repent in full.

The Four Bodhisattva Vows (四弘誓願, shiguseigan): (Youtube)

shujo wa muhen naredomo, chikatte dosen koto wo negau
bonno wa muhen naredomo, chikatte danzen koto wo negau
homon wa mujin naredomo, chikatte shiran koto wo negau
bodai wa mujo naredomo, chikatte shosen koto wo negau

Sentient beings are innumerable; I aspire to enlighten them all.
Delusions are innumerable; I aspire to extinguish them all.
The gates of the Dharma are inexhaustible; I aspire to know them all.
The awakened mind is incomparable; I aspire to attain it.

The Heart Sutra (般若心経, hannya shingyō): (Youtube)

I have posted a link to the Heart Sutra for chanting.

Note: According the book うちのお寺は天台宗, you are welcome to chant a different sutra if you prefer. It doesn’t have to be the Heart Sutra if you are not inclined to chant that one.

Also, I believe that it does not need to be in Japanese either.

Homage to the Founder, Saicho (大師宝号, daishi hogo): (Youtube)

namu shuso konpon dengyo daishi fukuju kongo

(repeat 3 times)

“Praise to the original founder, Dengyo Daishi [Saicho] the Vajra of Accumulated Blessings”2

Dedication of Merit to All Sentient Beings (回向発願文, ekō hatsuganmon): (Youtube)

negawaku wa gedatsu no ajihitori nomazu, anraku no kahitori shosezu. hokai no shujo to tomo ni myokaku ni nobori, hokai no shujo to tomo ni myomi no fukusen

(Rough translation…) I pray that I receive not a single taste of liberation for myself, nor a single moments peace for myself. [But rather] May I together with all beings ascend the Buddhist path to Awakening, and abide in the Sublime together.

1 According the book うちのお寺は天台宗, the central figure (御本尊, gohonzon) in a Tendai Buddhist altar can be any number of Buddhist deities. More on that in a later post.

2 The term fukuju kongō (福聚金剛) is was hard to find a meaning for, because it’s apparently related to esoteric Buddhism. Based on the DDB entry (login: guest) it seems that it’s related to a phrase in the Lotus Sutra, which would explain why it’s given to Saicho. Still, that’s about all an amateur like me can figure out.

Weird Buddhist Dream V

Recently, I had a Buddhist-themes dream, the first in many years. For the record, I don’t believe these dreams are divinely inspired, I do think my subconscious is probably trying to tell me something.

Anyhow, in this dream I was a monk or some kind of novice at a small Buddhist monastery here in the US (presumably). In the dream, I was looking around for something when my teacher finds me and scolds me saying “why aren’t practicing with the other students?” It turns out the teacher was one of my old Kendo sensei from college.1

I forget what I said in reply, but I was making some excuse about having lost something and I kept looking in one room or another to find it.

That’s all I can remember, but I wonder if the dream is trying to tell me something….

1 In real life, I decided to quit kendo after a couple years to focus more on school work. I remember him scolding me for being a quitter, and it made me feel pretty bitter. I actually really liked my sensei, and we had a shared love of Star Wars and Yoda, so I think that’s why my feelings got so hurt. Looking back though, maybe he was just trying to use “tough love” to keep me practicing Kendo. I guess I will never really know. :-/

Life Is Suffering, Or Is It?

If you ever read a basic introduction you’ll almost certainly encounter the Four Noble Truths, and if you read an older translation it will say the First Noble Truth is “Life is Suffering”. This single sentence has caused a lot of misunderstanding about what Buddhism is about, and what it teaches.

One of the podcasts I listen to is a Japanese-language podcast on Soto Zen Buddhism called 仏教で人生がもっと面白い? (Is Life more interesting with Buddhism?). The main teacher on the show is a famous Japanese Zen master who has also taught in the US named Fujita Issho. In episode 57, the show tackles the issue of what suffering means in Buddhism, and the word that really stands out in the episode is 生きにくさ (ikinikusa).

The verb ikiru (生きる) means to be alive and this can be modified to ikinikui (生きにくい) which means “it is hard to be alive”. The noun form of this is 生きにくさ (ikinikusa).

In English, can we can probably translate this as “the difficulties of living”. I think this is a much more accurate explanation of what the Buddha taught.

The whole problem described in the First Noble Truth boils down to two Sanskrit-language concepts: sūkham vs. duḥkham.1The Sanskrit word sūkham (सूखम्) basically means happiness, joy, etc. By contrast, duḥkham (दुःखम्) is the opposite: unhappiness, misery, etc. There’s no mention of suffering in the definition of duḥkham. People suffer because they’re unhappy, but that’s not the same as saying life itself is suffering.

But this brings up an important question: Why is Life unhappy? Why is Life hard?

The Second Noble Truth states that we are unhappy because we want what we can’t have. Imagine a bowl of chocolate ice cream. When you get your hands on it, it looks so delicious so you start eating it, and eventually either the bowl is empty or you so full you get sick. Either way, the end result is that you’re unhappy.

But is that really life’s fault? Or your own expectations? Life is hard because it’s not about you.

This is fundamental ignorance we all have: we see life through our own sense and experiences, so we naturally tend to have a self-centered view of things. We expect things to go our own way and get upset when they don’t.

We like to be the center of attention, we like it when the world revolves around us, etc.

But the hard lesson of Life is that it owes us nothing. We are here and we have to make the best of it, but the world owes us nothing.

Even if we know this in our minds, deep down we still resist. You can’t think your way out of the problem, it requires a much deeper insight so powerful that you can’t help but let go.

Until then, life is hard and will always be hard. But the lesson is that the problem begins and ends with you.

1 The equivalents in Pāli language are sukkha and dukkha.

A Moment’s Bliss

Lately, my son (a.k.a. Little Guy) and I have been watching classics episodes of the Super Mario Brothers cartoons that I used to watch as a kid,1 including this classic gem:

This episode has some surprisingly Buddhist lessons in it. If you fast-forward to 06:13 you can hear King Koopa say:

Look at those dumb clucks hand over their life savings for a few brief moments of mouth-watering bliss.

This says a lot about human behavior, I think. Of course, we’re not just talking about fast-food but a lot of cheap thrills we sacrifice our labor and dignity for. Look at your own life and I bet you can kind examples big and small.

For me, I tend to buy Starbucks when I don’t need to. My wife buys excellent cold brew concentrate so I can make all the coffee I want at home, but I still find myself wanting to buy Starbucks sometimes. It’s not based on thirst so much as the thrill of buying a Starbucks coffee. I have the same problem with eating out, too.

Or, when I buy certain expensive Magic the Gathering cards so I can defeat my friends or play in some local competition. The cards give me an advantage (usually) and that leads to a few more victories. But the moment’s thrill don’t last very long, and sooner or later, I get trounced again by my opponent. There’s always a bigger fish out there.

All that sweat, labor and saving only buys a few moments of bliss and you’re back to the grind again.

In the Dhammapada are these verses:

260-261) A head of gray hairs doesn’t mean one’s an elder. Advanced in years, one’s called an old fool. But one in whom there is truth, restraint, rectitude, gentleness, self-control — he’s called an elder, his impurities disgorged, enlightened. (trans. Ven Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Self-restraint rubs against the grain of what we want to do, but it does lead to more dignity and fewer hassles in life, so it’s worth cultivating even just a little bit.

Also, don’t eat anything made by King Koopa. Seriously. ;p

1 I remember watching the original Super Mario Brothers Super Show as a kid (including the Friday Zelda episodes). It was a really fun time to be a kid due to “Nintendo fever“.

Karma Matters

This was a pretty tragic, though somewhat creepy article read from the BBC. Take a moment to read the article if you can.

The first thing I thought of when I read this article was a Buddhist text called the Earth Store Bodhisattva Sutra. This is the only sutra that mentions Jizo Bodhisattva, but its primary message is the importance of karma. For example, this famous quotation:

“Karma is tremendously powerful. It is capable of covering Mount Sumeru, is capable of plumbing the vast ocean depths and is even capable of obstructing the holy doctrines. Therefore, sentient beings should not neglect lesser evils as being not sinful; for retribution will be meted out to them after their deaths for every bad intention or violation, even though it be as small or insignificant as an iota. Even beings as closely related as fathers and sons will part their respective ways, and one will not take the punishment of the other even if they chance to cross paths…”

However, it’s misleading to think of karma as a kind of divine punishment. For example, the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Ou-I once explained it like so:

When you plant melon seeds you get melons, and when you plant beans you get beans. [Effect follows causes] like a shadow follows a physical shape, like an echo responds to a sound. Nothing is sown in vain. This is called “believe in the result”. (pg. 53, Mind-Seal of the Buddhas)

Finally, don’t discount the impact that one’s actions have on what the Yogacara school of Buddhism called “perfuming the mind“.

Life Goals

Recently, I had a good chat with an elderly co-worker who’s getting close to retirement, and he talked about how his biggest fear was having nothing to do after retirement. This coworker, who had lived a very full life as a pilot and many other things, felt he had accomplished most of his life-goals anyway, so he didn’t really have anything left to do once he retired. He joked about how after retirement, he’ll last a year before he drops dead from boredom.

But it is a bit of a scary truth for all of us: what are our life goals? Are we even working toward those goals, or do we really have any?

I sat down later that night and wrote out some goals in my life. Among them are:

  • Recite the nembutsu 108,000 times. This is using the special Buddhist rosary I have for counting.
  • Memorize the Amitabha Sutra so I can chant it in Japanese. I know the Heart Sutra by memory, but the Amitabha Sutra is somewhat longer, yet and has always interested me.
  • Finish a book I’ve been trying to write on Mahayana Buddhism for a while. Also, ideally, get it published too. 😉
  • Finish learning introductory Sanskrit.
  • Get JLPT level N1 certification. Currently level N2 as of writing. I failed the N1 test pretty miserably.

I don’t know if I will ever complete these goals before I get too old, but I feel these ones were important enough to me that I would at least make a serious effort.

If you don’t have any goals, now might be a good time to jot some down, before it’s too late. 😉