Meditation and other Rituals – Chapter 40: On the Relation of Study and Meditation

Each of the traditions of Buddhism in Asia has thousands of texts, some originating in India and translated into the local language, others produced locally but presented in the guise of Indian texts, yet others written in the vernacular to comment in some way on the Indian corpus. What, if anything, do these texts have to do with the practice of Buddhism and the path to enlightenment? Almost all of these texts would claim, in one sense or another, to set forth that path, but their articulations of it are often at odds with one other. There has long been a tension in Buddhism between study and practice, especially the practice of meditation. This is perhaps not surprising in a tradition whose defining image is of the Buddha in silent meditation, the same Buddha who would teach the dharma for the remaining forty-five years of his life. There were tensions in the early tradition between those who saw enlightenment in deep states of concentration and those who saw enlightenment in the understanding of a specific, and philosophically sophisticated, reality. And as the tradition grew, it became increasingly difficult for any single monk to master the vast and growing body of doctrine. Specialities had to be developed in the monastic community simply to preserve what the Buddha had taught; there is reference, for example, to the *reciters of the long discourses’ and to the *reciters of the medium-length discourses’. Meditation also became a monastic speciality. In the Theravada nations of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, there has been a long tradition of dividing the monastic practice of monks into two categories: the vocation of texts and the vocation of meditation. In commentaries dating from as early as the fifth century, a preference was expressed for the former. Strong and able monks were expected to devote themselves to study, with meditation regarded as the vocation of those who were somehow less able, especially those who became monks late in life.

No one would claim that enlightenment could come about through study alone. But in the history of Buddhism there have been many who condemned study as mere book learning in favour of the pure experience of meditation. The classic solution, typically offered by those of a more scholastic bent, was to argue for the compatibility of study and meditation; alone neither is capable of leading all the way to buddhahood, only together can the path be traversed to its ultimate goal. One of the more eloquent expressions of this view was made by the Chinese monk Zhiyi (see chapters 30 and 32), of the Tiantai sect, in his magnum opus, called The Great Calming and Contemplation (Mohe zhiguan). ‘Calming’ refers to the practice of developing mental serenity, called samatha in Sanskrit. *Contemplation’ refers to developing insight, vipasyana, into the nature of reality. In the first six chapters of his book, Zhiyi surveys a wide range of Buddhist texts, both sutras and scholastic treatises, in an effort to determine the meaning of *calming’ and the meaning of *contemplation’. In the seventh chapter, he moves on to consider how to actually practise *calming’ and *contemplationThe seventh chapter, in a sense, marks a turning point in the text: the *study’ section has been completed and the 4practice’ part is about to begin (although this section of the work is also highly scholastic). The introduction to the seventh chapter thus affords Zhiyi an opportunity to reflect briefly on the mutual importance of study and practice. That introduction is translated here.

At the end of the passage, he criticizes those teachers who have not studied sufficiently and are able to teach only one practice to their students. He compares them to the incompetent physician in a parable in the Nirvana Sutra. The physician prescribes the exceedingly virulent *medicine of milkto all his patients, regardless of their malady, because he believes it is the most potent drug. Many of his patients are poisoned; some are cured, but such cures are mere coincidences. Later, a skilled doctor arrives and explains how a medicine’s effectiveness derives from matching the medicine to the disease. The parable extols the skilful methods of the Buddha, who teaches his disciples what is most appropriate for them. The knowledge of such methods for those who teach the dharma can only be gained through study.

Introduction to Chapter Seven: Doctrinal Learning and Meditative Practice as the Jewel of the Nation

In the previous six chapters we relied upon the [teachings of the] sutras in order to elucidate the wondrous [principle of calming and contemplation]. Now, on the basis of this wondrous understanding, we will establish the correct practice [of calming and contemplation]. The tallow [that serves as the lamp’s fuel] and the brightness [that comes from its burning] are mutually dependent. Eyes and feet assist one another.

When practice and theoretical understanding become truly earnest, the three obstacles [(1) the root afflictions of desire, hatred and ignorance, (2) negative deeds, and (3) negative effects of deeds] and the four Maras [(1) the root afflictions, (2) the five aggregates (skandhas), (3) death, (4) the demon-king Mara] arise in chaotic profusion. The thick darkness [of ignorance] enshrouds the radiant light [of wisdom], and [mental] turmoil riles the stability [of meditative quiescence]. One must neither give in to them, nor fear them. Giving in to them will lead you into evil paths [of rebirth]; fearing them will impede your [progress in] cultivation of the true dharma. Instead, you should discern this darkness by means of contemplation. Thereupon, the darkness itself will be [seen as] bright. Still the turmoil with calming, and the turmoil will itself be [experienced as] quiescent. [In this manner, the afflictions themselves can further the practice of calming and contemplation] just as the pigs that rub against a gold mountain [cause the gold mountain itself to become more lustrous]; or the myriad rivers pour into the ocean [but the ocean itself does not change]; [adding] sticks makes a fire blaze more fiercely; and the [tiny] karakura bug, [when touched by] the wind, grows bigger and bigger. This contemplation, [which is as firm as] diamond itself, will mow down the legions of the afflictions. Its strong and nimble feet will carry you beyond the field of birth and death.

Insight [acquired from theoretical learning] purifies practice, and practice promotes insight. Illuminating and enriching, guiding and penetrating, they reciprocally beautify and embellish one another. They are like the two hands of a single body, which, working together, [keep it clean]. [This synthesis of learning and practice] is not just a matter of clearing away obstacles in order to advance inwardly towards your own personal enlightenment. You must also achieve a thorough comprehension of the sutras and treatises so that you can outwardly reveal to others what they have not heard before. When you combine your own training with the training of others, benefit is then complete. If one such as this is not the teacher of humankind and the jewel of the nation, then who is?

Moreover, upon learning that the Buddha’s loving-kindness and compassion allows no room for stinginess, one preaches this [calming and] contemplation of the mind to others, thereby opening wide the door [of the treasury], pouring forth its cache, and bringing out the wish-fulfilling gem [for others to use]. This gem emits [glorious] radiance and also rains down [all manner of] precious jewels. It illumines the darkness, enriches the needy, lights up the night and saves the destitute. Galloping forth on [a chariot with] two wheels, one can travel far. Soaring on two wings, one [is able to] fly high. Rich and lustrous, like rare jade – how it surpasses words! [Even if you should] grind your bones to powder in the fragrant city [like the bodhisattva Sadaprarudita], or throw yourself from the snowy peaks [like the lad of the Himalayas], how could either be sufficient to repay its blessings?

The swift horse takes to the right road with but a glimpse of the whip’s shadow. But stupid persons, deeply infected with noxious influences and bereft of their native faculties, [are obtuse beyond description]. Being themselves unbelieving, they cannot be tamed. Since they have never been exposed to the [trainer’s] hook of religious instruction, they listen [to the dharma] but cannot understand. Lacking the eye of wisdom, they are incapable of distinguishing true from false. Their entire body paralysed [with indecision], they struggle to move but do not advance a step. Unenlightened and completely incognizant [of their plight], they are people who pile up great sins. Why should one labour to preach [to such persons as this]?

If [they are people] who despise the world and delight in the inferior vehicle [of the Hinayana], they will [end up] chasing after branches and leaves, becoming like the dog that befriends a poor man as his master, the [buffoon] who worships a monkey believing it to be the god Indra, and [the idiots who squabble over] shards of tile thinking them to be jewels. How can one possibly discuss the way with such a benighted person as this?

Furthermore, there is a kind of meditation master who, without scrutinizing the capacities of others, instructs them all with the ‘milk medicine’ [of ultimate truth]. Directly identifying with the essence of mind, suppressing the mind [in formless purity], harmoniously melding [mind and object], maintaining wakeful awareness [of the formless nature of mind], or seeking [directly for the essence of mind] – all of these techniques [of meditation] promote but a single approach, regardless of whether they strive to efface [the mind in quiescence] or comprehend [the mind as suchness]. [The masters who teach these methods] confuse and fail to recognize the vast range of obstacles [that attend the path]. No sooner do they experience an unusual sign [in their practice], than they conclude that this is the true way. Themselves unfit to be vessels of the dharma, they also lack [the ability] to teach others. Blind [to the exigencies of the path] and crippled [in their own spiritual practice], master and disciple together fall to their doom. Stumbling and groping their way through the darkness, they are pitiable to the extreme. One should not expound this calming and contemplation to persons of this sort.

Translated by Daniel Stevenson from Zhiyi, Mohe zhiguan, in T 1911, vol. 46, pp. 48c28-49a26.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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