The Chih-kuan meditation of Chinese Tiantai Buddhism is one of the author’s favorites. Simple in execution, it is profound in effect. Faithfully practiced, it is capable of bringing one to sudden insights that can change lives, and even to the Satori (sudden enlightenment) experience.
Tiantai has evolved a complicated metaphysics of healing, but this would require lengthy study on the meaning of Void, or Emptiness (Shunyata) in Buddhism, and it is not our purpose to spend too much time on the theoretical; we want to encourage the meditator to practice, not philosophize. However, some background in the philosophy as it relates to the healing of illness might be helpful.
There is nothing that does not change, so there is no permanence. What is not permanent is, ultimately, not real. Buddhism says that the transitory is simply a transformation, as the seed becomes the tree, the tree becomes timber and the timber becomes ashes. Even names and forms of impermanent things are not real. So what we see, what we feel and what we think is really empty – empty of any enduring self-nature. Thus we contemplate the Void, or Emptiness of Things.
Then we shift our contemplation to the world of phenomena, which Tiantai knows as the “seeming.” Although the nature of mind is empty (Void) as we now know, still conditioned by circumstances and karma, it can produce all the things of the world, including ourselves. So, knowing full well that these perceived things are, at bottom, empty, still we see the mountains and rivers and have thoughts. Knowing the true nature (which is no-nature) of things is empty, we, for the first time, really perceive the green of the grass and the brightness of the stars. There is no attachment to cloud our vision.
However, we do not stop there. We have realized all things as empty, yet we do see and feel the phenomena of the world. The two together – the Empty and the Phenomenal – are but symbols, arrows pointing to the Mean. Then we can truly live in this empty, phenomenal universe, playing our role in what is essentially a show of phantoms. We do not take “no” as answer, and we do not take “yes.” Knowing the Mean, we perceive Truth and can live our lives meaningfully as both common men and sages.
This much has been explained in rudimentary fashion, but it can be seen that such contemplation demands a deep and dedicated mind. So we overlook the philosophy, which is admittedly healing to the body and spirit, and we proceed to instruction in the actual meditation.
INSTRUCTION (Part One)
Seating ourselves in either cross-legged position or in a chair, we concentrate intently on one spot in the body. We choose either the tan t’ien below the navel (usually the most difficult), the tip of the nose or the third-eye spot slightly above and between the eyes. This is our thought, this intense concentration, and such fixation is called Chih.
Although, theoretically, we can have only one thought at a time, and our intense thought is concentration on the spot in the body, in actual practice the mind tends to wander. There is nothing wrong with this, it is natural in the beginning, but it is important to realize we are wandering and bring the mind back to the point of concentration. However, if the thoughts become heavy and frequent, as they probably will, we drop the intense concentration and just watch the thoughts as though we are watching a parade; we do not identify with them. This is kuan. Where did the thoughts come from? Where are they going? We just watch them without in any way attempting to analyze or alter them. When we watch our thoughts in this manner, without getting caught up in them, they will disappear. Then we return immediately to the Chih, the basic concentration on a chosen spot in the body.
Although it sounds exceedingly simple to do Chih-kuan, it is hard to make the mind conform to such a pattern for long unless we are really diligent. In ordinary Chih-kuan practice, the teachers tell us first to breathe deeply, visualizing all our infirmities as being expelled through all the pores in our body as we breathe out. We can even inhale through the sex organ, expand the breath to fill the entire body, and then breathe out through every pore as we throw out all illness. However, it would be preferable to do the Reverse Meditative Breathings first, as they are really helpful and will still the wandering mind before we even start our meditation. Under these circumstances, results should really be good if we practice regularly for 30 or 45 minutes at a time.
Before instructing the reader in a variation of this Chih-kuan meditation, we want to say a word about the Amitabha sect of Buddhism (called Amida in Japan) so the reader will understand what we are dealing with.
Aeons ago a great spiritual aspirant (Bodhisattva, an enlightened being on his way to becoming a Buddha) named Dharmakara took 48 great vows, the most important of which was a vow to “save all sentient beings.” If Dharmakara became a Buddha, he promised that anyone, no matter how weak or how sinful, who remembered his name at least ten times would be taken, at death, to the Western Paradise, the Pure Land, where conditions would be ideal for practice, and the weakest one would, in time, become a Buddha and realize Nirvana. This Bodhisattva became the Buddha of Infinite Light (Amitabha in India and China, and Amida in Japan), and his vow is still in force today. Consequently, if the one who chants his name in remembrance only believes in the Buddha of Infinite Light, his eventual salvation is assured. Note that the Buddha does not judge; he has compassion for all sufferers – the sinner and saint alike.
The reasoning behind this religious practice, now so popular in Japan, is simple. Most of us in this decadent age are weak and do not have the determination or staying power to reach Nirvana by our own efforts; therefore, we depend on the Other Power for salvation. After all, we are sentient beings, too, and the Buddha’s saving vow, still in force, includes us with the others. Unlike the exhortation of the historic Gautama Buddha, who said to “work out your own salvation diligently,” we are going to depend on the strength of Amitabha’s vow, knowing he will save us.
This practice, of course, is an excellent way to nullify the ego-sense and to merge in something stronger than ourselves, whether we call it Jesus or Amitabha.
INSTRUCTION (Part Two)
We close our eyes and concentrate intently on one of the three centers in the body – the forehead, the nose or below the navel.
Then we mentally call out: Amitabha! Amitabha! Something echoes in the mind, and we listen. Where did the sound come from? Who uttered it? Who is hearing it?
In this variation of the basic meditation, we are creating our own thought deliberately, the thought of Amitabha, Buddha of Infinite Light. When we introspect the thought, or silent sound, in the manner above, the name will disappear and the mind will, for the moment, be totally silent. Then we return to our basic meditation, the intense concentration on one of the body spots.
If we were able to continue concentration on the body spot for the whole period of meditation (Chih), we would not need the kuan part of the practice. In one of his classes, when the students had performed the Chih-kuan meditation for just 15 minutes, the author was surprised when one student insisted that he had had no intervening thoughts for the whole period of time, and so just continued his fixation (Chih). The author assured him that, if this were really so and he was able to practice this efficiently often, an eventual insight experience of great depth (Satori) would probably come his way!
Many realizations as to the meaning of Impermanence and Ultimate Emptiness should come to one who practices Chih-kuan faithfully. The mind will then feel fresh and vigorous, and the body light and healthy. This stillness of meditation and intense concentration, leading to one-pointedness, are, of course, very helpful to those suffering from stress and strain; such concentration leads to great relief from tension.
Zhuang Zhou, the great Chinese Taoist philosopher, often wrote of the “fasting mind,” the mind that gradually pares away the unnecessary rather than piling up continued mental debris. This is difficult for most of us, for we form great attachments. Yet it is the only way we can remain with the natural as opposed to the artificial – and function spontaneously instead of out of blind habit.
In Buddhism, true fasting means doing without greed, anger and delusion; these are the three that bring suffering and are at the base of all illness. Practice of Chih-kuan will help us to attain this fasting mind, and it can remake us mentally and physically. Do not underestimate the effects of this “simple” meditation.
This article is published in Meditation for Healing.