CHAPTER 28: MEDITATION, THE ESSENTIAL PATH
The technique taught here by Asvaghosha is bafflingly simple -- so simple that many uninitiated people would wonder whether it is really possible to attain Cosmic Reality with it.
4.9 Essential Path to Nirvana Original Text in Chinese
How to cultivate the door of zhi-guan? By zhi (stillness) is meant to still every characteristic, following the significance of samatha. By guan (perception) is meant to perceive clearly the characteristics of cause and effect, life and death, following the significance of vipasyana. What is meant by following? This is gradually cultivating these two significances, without separating, both appearing.
Interpretation How to cultivate the perfection of zhi-guan, or stillness and perception? By zhi (stillness) is meant to still every characteristic or thoughts that arise in the mind, following the significance of samatha. By guan (perception) is meant to perceive clearly the characteristics of karma (cause and effect) and samsara (cycle of life and death) following the significance of vipasyana. What is meant by following samatha and vipasyana? This is gradually cultivating these two types of meditation, without separating one type of meditation from another during practice, so that both stillness meditation and perception meditation are cultivated as one process.
Commentary Meditation is the essential path to nirvana; hence, it is probably more widely and deeply practised and studied in Buddhism than in anywhere else. Buddhist meditation can be divided into two main categories, namely samatha meditation, or tranquility meditation, and vipasyana meditation, or insight meditation. In Chinese, tranquility and insight meditation are collectively referred to as "zhi-guan". The classification into samatha and vipasyana meditation is for convenience of study and practice. It is important to know that both these two types of meditation are necessary for attaining the highest spiritual fulfilment. Asvaghosha explicitly advises that the two types are not meant to be practised one after the other, but to be practised together in the same meditation.
4.10 Tranquility Meditation Original Text in Chinese
For cultivating zhi, stay at quiet place, sit upright with righteous will, not dependent on breathing, not dependent on form and substance, not dependent on emptiness, not dependent on earth, water, fire, wind, and even not dependent on seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing. All thoughts eliminated, including the thought eliminated. All phenomena originally without thought, no thoughts arising, no thoughts ceasing.
Not follow the heart to think of phenomenal world, then use heart to eliminate heart. If heart is distracted, immediately bring back, abide to right thought. If right thought, should know only the heart, no external world. Then this heart has no own characteristics, no thoughts arising. If sitting up, go come, enter stop, with activities, at all times, always think of expedient means, observe and examine, long practice become familiar, the heart is abided.
As heart abided, gradually great benefit, subsequently enter samadhi of Zhen Ru, deeply overcome defilement, faith increased, fast progress without retread. But with doubts, disbelief, slandering, bad karma due to grave sins, self conceit, laziness, and the like cannot enter.
Interpretation For cultivating the perfection of zhi, or tranquility meditation, stay at a quiet place, and sit upright with righteous intention. In this meditation method, it is not necessary to depend on breathing, nor on any form and substance as a meditation object. It is not necessary to depend on emptiness, nor on the four elements of earth, water, fire and air, nor on any phenomena derived from seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing. All thoughts as soon as they arise should be eliminated, and even this thought of eliminating thoughts should not arise. As all phenomena are originally without thought in its transcendental aspect, thoughts neither arise nor cease in the Supreme Reality. In tranquility meditation, it is not letting the mind first meditate on some aspects of the external world, then letting the mind to eliminate whatever thoughts are in the mind. In the meditation of perfect stillness, if the mind is distracted, immediately bring it back and let it abide to the right mental state. If the right mental state is attained, one would know the Mind only, without any awareness of the external world. Then this Mind, being undifferentiated, has no characteristics whatsoever, with no thoughts arising. When the aspirant has completed his meditation and rise up from his sitting position, whether going or coming, advancing or remaining still, or involved in any other activities, he should at all times be mindful of these expedient means of tranquility meditation, and observe and examine his progress. After long practice, he will become familiar with tranquility meditation, and his mind will be still. As his mind is still, gradually as he progresses, he will obtain great benefit, and subsequently enter the samadhi of Zhen Ru, or the Enlightenment of Cosmic Reality. He will thoroughly eradicate his defilement, strengthen his faith, and attain fast progress without any retrogression. But people with doubts, disbelief, ill feelings and ill words for others, bad karma due to grave sins, self-conceit, laziness, and the like cannot attain the Enlightenment of Cosmic Reality.
Commentary From my many years in the practice and study of meditation, I find the above passage one of the best explanations on meditation. It speaks well for Asvaghosha's writing skill that few people can actually believe that in this short passage is contained all the necessary and invaluable information concerning tranquility meditation. There are indeed as many meditation techniques as there are meditators. Nevertheless, meditation teachers have devised numerous useful techniques to help students attain a one-pointed mind or an "empty" mind. Some of these techniques involve focusing the mind on an external object like a Buddha statue or a stone, or an internal point like the navel or the third eye. Some focus on various forms of breathing, others on a mystical combination of sounds like mantras. Some may use kasinas or tools representing the four elements or appropriate colours, like a disk of clay representing earth. Others may meditate on patterns of thoughts, like diffusing loving-kindness to four directions to all creatures, or on a seemingly illogical question of a koan. Asvaghosha does not recommend any of these techniques, because they first let the mind meditate on some thoughts, then let the mind eliminate the same thoughts. Asvaghosha's method is direct, aiming at the void or stillness at the very first instant, and preventing thoughts from arising. This kind of mental state, Asvaghosha expounds, is the essential nature of Cosmic Reality, where thoughts neither arise nor cease. As soon as the mind wanders, as it usually does, the meditator gently but resolutely brings it back to the natural state of Cosmic Reality. How does he know whether it is the natural state of Cosmic Reality? When he has attained this state, he will be blissfully unaware of the phenomenal world; he has attained samadhi, or stillness, where he and Cosmic Reality is one. I believe that this passage may be mainly instrumental for creating an interesting situation regarding Buddhist mediation practice. Most Theravadins, like the Sinhalese, and many Vajrayanists, like the Tibetans, use the one-pointed mind approach in their meditation, whereas most Mahayanists, like the Chinese and the Japanese, use the empty-mind approach. The technique taught here by Asvaghosha is bafflingly simple -- so simple that many uninitiated people would wonder whether it is really possible to attain Cosmic Reality with it. But the practice demands much time, effort and discipline. Persevering at it is probably the most formidable hurdle, the hurdle that most aspirants tumble. Yet. it is not enough just to slog at it; the aspirant must constantly observe and examine himself, not just to make sure he practises the meditation correctly, but more importantly that he is free from doubts, disbelief, ill feelings and ill words for others, bad karma due to grave sins, self-conceit, laziness, and similar negative attitudes. Asvaghosha's warning is not merely meant as moralization to influence people from doing bad; his is actually a statement of cosmic truth. These negative factors are incongruous with Cosmic Reality; anyone with these factors just cannot attain cosmic realization.
4.11 Samadhi Original Text in Chinese
Next, attaining samadhi, should know Spiritual Realm has only one characteristic. The Spiritual Body of all Buddhas is the same as the body of sentient beings, and not two. Thus it is named one movement of samadhi. Should know that Zhen Ru is the source of samadhi. If cultivate, gradually create unlimited samadhi.
Interpretation Next, with the attainment of samadhi, we should know that the one and only Spiritual Realm (Dharmadhatu), or Universal Mind, is undifferentiated. The whole of the Spiritual Body (Dharmakaya) of all Buddhas is the same as the total body of sentient beings: they are not two different entities. In other words, transcendental reality is the same as the phenomenal world: they are non-dualistic and non-polaristic. Thus, this is called the unity of samadhi. We should also know that Zhen Ru, or the Supreme Reality, is the source of samadhi, or Enlightenment. Thus, if the aspirant continues in his spiritual cultivation, he will gradually attains unlimited forms of samadhi.
Commentary In Buddhist literature, there are many terms to refer to the Supreme Reality or Ultimate Truth. Some examples are Spiritual Realm, Spiritual Body, Universal Mind, No Mind, Original Face, Thus-Come, Thusness, Suchness, the Eternal Buddha, and the Tathagata. In Theravada literature, samadhi is often mentioned as one-pointed mind, mental concentration, or the elimination of sensory impressions from the mind. In Mahayana, samadhi is mentioned as stillness of the mind, awareness, or mindfulness. In Vajrayana, it is mentioned as one-pointed mind, mental stabilization, and relaxed concentration. Actually the various interpretations are the same; the apparent difference is due to linguistic rather than ontological reasons. There are many kinds of samadhi. Some examples are as follows. When mental concentration is just becoming intense, it is known as upacara samadhi; when mental concentration is advanced to an ecstatic state, it is appana samadhi. When the one-pointed mind is associated with the mundane phenomenal realms, it is lokiya samadhi; when it is transcendental, it is lokuttara samadhi. Samadhi can also be classified according to the main method employed to attain it. When samadhi is attained mainly through the will, it is chanda samadhi; through energy, viriya samadhi; through consciousness, citta samadhi; through investigative knowledge, vimamsa samadhi. Samadhi is also classified according to the realms it is specially associated with: with the realm of desires, kamavacara samadhi; the realm of form, rupavacara samadhi; the realm of non-form, arupavacara samadhi; not associated with any of these realms, apariyapama samadhi.
4.12 Pit-Falls in Meditation Original Text in Chinese
May be there are sentient beings with no power of good roots, thus troubled and deluded by Mara and demons of other practices. During sitting may reveal manifestations which are terrifying, or manifested as righteous men and women. Should realize it is mind only, thus phenomenal realms disappear.
Or reveal heavenly scenes, scenes of Bodhisattvas, even appear as the Tathagata, complete with good characteristics, or say mantras, or say charity, discipline, tolerance, perseverance, meditation, wisdom.
Or say undifferentiated emptiness without characteristics, no vows, no blames, no affection, no cause, no effect, perfectly empty and quiet, is the real nirvana.
Or allow people to see into the past, know the future, know other's thoughts, unquestionable abilities, able to cause sentient beings crave for fame and reward of the world.
Or cause people to be frequently angry, frequently happy, with no exactness of nature. Or often compassionate and loving, often sleepy, often sick, their heart indolent or suddenly energetic, then negligent and futile, losing faith, much skeptical and much anxious.
Or abandon this excellent practice, and cultivate miscellaneous effects. Or be fettered by various worldly affairs. Also can cause people to attain some semblance of samadhi, this is the attainment of other faiths, not real samadhi.
Or enable people, perhaps one day, or two days, or three days, up to seven days, remain in stillness. Enjoy natural, fragrant and beautiful food and drinks, body and mind comfortable, not hungry and not thirsty, cause people to desire them, or to eat without balance, sometimes much sometimes little, the countenance changes. For this significance, the aspirant should always observe and examine with insight and wisdom, must not let the heart fall into the evil net. Must employ the right intention, not grasp and not attach, thus can distant from these karmic hindrances. Should know that samadhi of other faiths, not free from perverse views, craving and conceited heart, covetously attached to the fame, reward ad honour of the world.
The samadhi of Zhen Ru is not abided to the characteristic of seeing, not abided to the characteristic of getting, even coming out of stillness, neither indolent nor conceited. All defilements gradually become less and thin. If ordinary people do not practise this samadhi technique, able to enter the Tathagata, no such cases. If cultivate samadhi of various chan (dhyana) of the world, much arise stillness, attached to self, bound to the three realms, same as other faiths. If away from the protection of kind knowledge, thus arise views of other faiths.
Interpretation There may be sentient beings who are not developed spiritually, and thus are troubled and deluded by Mara, the Evil Tempter, and demons found in other spiritual practices. During meditation, these evil forces of Mara and demons may reveal themselves as manifestations which are terrifying, or they may be manifested as righteous men and women. If the aspirants realize that everything is mind only, these manifestations of the phenomenal realms will disappear. These forces may reveal themselves as heavenly scenes, scenes of Bodhisattvas, or they may even appear as the Tathagata, complete with all the good characteristics of Buddhahood. Or they may recite mantras, or preach charity, discipline, tolerance, perseverance, meditation and wisdom. Or they may talk about the undifferentiated emptiness being without characteristics, without vows, blames, affection, cause or effect, and which being perfectly empty and quiet, is the real nirvana. Or they allow people who have achieved samadhi to see into the past, know the future, be able to read other's thoughts, and have unquestionable abilities. Hence, these evil forces are able to cause sentient beings crave for fame and reward of the world. Or they may cause people to be frequently angry and frequently happy, thus losing the essential harmony of their own nature. At times these people are often compassionate and loving; at other times they are often sleepy and sick, and their mind become indolent or suddenly they become energetic, only to lapse into states of negligence and futility, losing their faith, and becoming much skeptical and anxious. The aspirants may even abandon this excellent practice of samadhi, and follow other miscellaneous faiths. Or they may be fettered by various worldly affairs. These evil forces can cause people to attain some semblance of samadhi, which is the attainment of other faiths, and which is not the real form of samadhi in Buddhism. Or they enable people to remain in meditation for perhaps one day, or two days, or three days, or up to seven days. The unsuspecting aspirants may enjoy natural, fragrant and beautiful food and drinks, and their body and mind become comfortable. The evil forces may cause people to be free from hunger and thirst, and cause people to desire delicious food and drinks, or make them eat out of balance, sometimes much and sometimes little, with the result that they cannot maintain a calm countenance. For these reasons, the aspirants should always observe and examine themselves with insight and wisdom, must not let their mind fall into the evil net. They must employ the right intention, without grasping at nor attaching to phenomena. In this way they can free themselves from these karmic hindrances. They should know that the samadhi practised by other faiths are not free from perverse views, craving and being conceit, covetously attached to the fame, reward and honour of the world. The samadhi of Zhen Ru, or the Supreme Reality, is not abided to the characteristic of seeing any phenomenal objects, nor abided to the characteristic of getting any phenomenal rewards. Even when the aspirants come out of samadhi, they are neither indolent nor conceited. All their defilements will gradually become less and then be eradicated. There have been no cases of ordinary people who have not practised this samadhi technique, who are able to enter the Tathagata. The cultivation of samadhi in various worldly meditation practices, as practised in other faiths, will bring about samadhi too, but it is usually attached to self, bound to the three realms of desires, form and non-form. If the aspirants are kept away from the protection of higher wisdom, it is easy for them to fall victims to the perverse views of other faiths.
Commentary Here Asvaghosha gives a helpful description of the pit-falls to be avoided in samadhi. Broadly speaking these pit-falls can be divided into four main groups. One, the meditator may experience frightful visions. Two, the visions may appear to be holy or righteous. Three, the meditator may acquire psychic or supernatural powers. Four, the meditator may become disorientated. To overcome these pit-falls, the meditator should realize that all these phenomena are illusory, and he should persist on his training without carving or attachment. These pit-falls are brought about by Mara and his demons, who may be interpreted at four levels depending on one's attitude and development. Firstly, these evil forces are symbolic, representing whatever that hinders spiritual development, such as an inability to keep the mind still during meditation or corrupted monetary temptation. Secondly, the evil forces, whether manifested in the forms of demons or heavenly beings, are imaginary. Thirdly, these beings are actually in the astral plane, which become visible to us during deep meditation. Fourthly they have no substantial existence, but are psychic manifestations of some karmic effect. One should note that these evil forces may impersonate divine beings like Bodhisattva or Buddhas to mislead the aspirant. How does the naive aspirant differentiate these impersonations from the genuine Bodhisattvas and Buddhas who may sometimes appear before pious devotees? If the aspirant becomes conceited or arrogant, thinking that they are privileged ones endowed with special powers by divine beings, it is a tell-tale sign that they have been tempted by Mara and his demons. Genuine powers derived from meditation practice belong to a different category from tricks provided by Mara and his demons. These powers are often employed by Bodhisattvas to save sentient beings. Nevertheless, if the aspirant becomes attached to these powers, they become a hindrance to his spiritual progress.
4.13 Ten Benefits of Samadhi Original Text in Chinese
Those who diligently and whole-heartedly cultivate this samadhi, this life obtains ten benefits. What ten? One, always protected and thought of by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the ten directions. Two, cannot be terrified by Mara and demons. Three, cannot be deluded by the spirits and gods of ninety five outside doc¬trines. Four, distance from deep slandering of the faith, heavy sins and bad karma gradually become less and thin. Five, eradicate all doubts and perverse views.
Six, strengthen the faith in the Tathagata realm. Seven, distance from anxiety, courageously progress in life and death. Eight, their hearts are warm and harmonious, abandon arrogance and conceit, not troubled by other people. Nine, thought not yet attained stillness, with all time and all space, able to eliminate defilement, not take pleasure in worldly affairs. Ten, if attained samadhi, cannot be startled by any external sounds.
Interpretation Those who diligently and whole-heartedly cultivate the perfection of meditation to attain this samadhi, can obtain ten benefits in this life. What are the ten benefits? One, they are always protected by all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Two, they cannot be terrified by Mara and demons. Three, they cannot be deluded by the spirits and gods of the ninety five non-Buddhist doctrines (that were in India during the time of Siddharta Guatama.) Four, they are free from the intense slandering attacks on Buddhism by other people, and their grave sins and bad karma of the past will be gradually eliminated. Five, they can eradicate all doubts and perverse views. Six, they can strengthen their faith in the Buddhist teaching concerning the Supreme Reality. Seven, they are free from sorrow and remorse, and while still in the cycle of birth and rebirth they can courageously progress towards nirvana. Eight, they are warm and harmonious, free from arrogance and conceit, and not troubled by other people. Nine, even if they have not attained samadhi, their right practice of meditation is able to eliminate defilement at all time and in all space, and they do not take pleasure in worldly affairs. Ten, if they have attained samadhi, their mental concentration cannot be disturbed by any external stimuli.
Commentary These are the ten benefits one will get if he practises tranquility meditation correctly. If a person practises for some time, say a few years, but still do not get such benefits, it suggests that either he is too heavily burdened with past bad karma, in which case he should first purify himself by praying to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and practise moral precepts, as explained earlier; or he may be morally ready but practises the meditation incorrectly, in which case he should seek the help of a competent meditation teacher. If he experiences negative results, like feeling of anxiety or seeing frightful visions, he has tumbled into some pit-falls; he must consult a master. Tranquility or samatha meditation is only one aspect of Buddhist meditation essential for Enlightenment. The other aspect, insight or vipasyana meditation is explained in the next chapter.