Tathagata Chan


Translated by Andrew Yang

What is Chan or meditative concentration? From an ontological point of view, it is not anything, and yet it is everything.

If one thinks of Chan as a kind of thinking, it is not what it’s meant to be. The aim of Chan is to free the practitioner from the shackles of thought. Considering this, how is it possible then to set up an ideology system through Chan? We should know that everything that exists, whether material or spiritual, is not the ontological body of Chan itself, and in that sense, Chan is nothing.

At the same time, however, it is not accurate either simply to say that Chan is nothing, for although it is not thought per se, Chan has led to an infinite wealth of human thinking. In addition, since beginningless time, it has never departed from the seeing, hearing, knowing and understanding of sentient beings, and it is everywhere and omnipresent. Thus, apparently, Chan is something that exists.

The truth is, saying either that Chan is something that exists or something that does not exist is a play on words, because it transcends form, speech, language, and concepts. But then, of course, how could the meaning of Chan be explained without the help of the spoken or written word?

Chan is the short form for Channa, a transliteration in Chinese of the Sanskrit word Dhyana, meaning meditative concentration, that is, contemplation in serenity aiming to stop illusion and inspire true wisdom. As a general term for stabilization and supreme wisdom, Chan arises from the true nature of sentient beings, known otherwise as Buddha-nature, the reality of the dharmas, the permanent true mind, and suchness. Enlightenment is supreme wisdom, practice is stabilization, and cultivating both is called Chan, that is Dhyana.

Broadly speaking, cultivating meditative concentration is cultivating the mind, and no matter which sect one follows, Pure Land, Tantra, Tiantai, Consciousness-only, Huayan or else, they are all closely related to Chan. Just think, is there one approach in Buddhism that does not cultivate the mind? A true Buddhist practitioner is inseparable from Chan, whether he walks, pauses, sits, lies down, speaks, is quiet and otherwise moves or stays put. Master Yongjia Xuanjue (665-712) says in the “Song of Awakening”, “Walking is meditation, and sitting is also meditation. Whether one speaks and moves or not, his body is serene.”

In a narrower sense, though, the Chan school falls into Tathagata Chan and Patriarch Chan. Tathagata Chan is based on Buddha’s teachings and scriptures and invariably interpreted through words, and for this reason it is the “Chan in scriptures”. On the other hand, Patriarch Chan, not directly built on the basis of scriptures or by means of words, is a tradition passed on without the help from the written dogma, straight from mentor to disciple and from mind to mind, so that the aspirant attains Buddhahood upon seeing his true nature. Consequently, it is the “Chan out of scriptures”.

Throughout the centuries, Chan has been called a lot of different names: Tathagata Chan is also called “Chan through Buddha’s teachings for cultivating the mind”, includes Anapana Chan, Five-gate Chan, and Buddha-name Recitation Chan. In contrast, Patriarch Chan, or “Chan to Buddhahood through enlightening the mind”, includes offshoots developed under Bodhidharma (382-536) the First Patriarch, i.e., Linji, Caodong, Yunmen, Fayan, Weiyang.

For want of a basic understanding, people sometimes assume that all meditation approaches are Chan, and tend to equate qigong, yoga, non-Buddhist Chan with Buddhist Chan. As a result, they confuse the non-authentic with the authentic. Some Chan scholars like to search for thoughts of Chan in writings such as Records of Passing on the Lamp in the Jingde Era, Records of Pointing at the Moon, and Quotations from the Blue Rock Hut, thinking that to understand the nature of Chan, they only need to use logical thinking in analyzing the koans and query topics. This is a wayward misunderstanding resulting from a lack of actual Chan cultivation. There are also those who, without assessing their own potential, take on Patriarch Chan as a rookie without studying the canon nor following Buddhist rituals. They erroneously assume that as long as they peruse the koans and query topics they are to attain Buddhahood upon clearing the mind and seeing their own nature.

As a matter of fact, the practice of Chan must suit one’s own potential and background. It is important to note that Patriarch Chan better fits people with a caliber beyond that of an ordinary people. The approach follows no particular order in cultivation and aim to reach the point “before all dharmas were born”, and so it is called sudden awakening. Contrarily, basing itself on Buddhist dogma, Tathagata Chan follows a prescribed routine with a well-defined order of progression, and hence it is known as gradual awakening. People nowadays are less and less endowed in wisdom, and are living an ever-increasingly busy life. Most of them do not possess sufficient potential for the cultivation of Patriarch Chan with sudden awakening. Naturally, as beginners they are typically more suited to practicing Tathagata Chan.

A big feature of Tathagata Chan is the stratification of Chan, or meditative concentration. The entire journey from the very beginning to the extinguished state of nirvana as attained by an arhat, roughly speaking, is divided into ten stages of cultivation. It starts with concentration in the desire realm, goes onto the first meditative concentration, second meditative concentration, third meditative concentration and fourth meditative concentration of the form realm. Next, it crosses to the formless realm through absorption in the sphere of infinite space, absorption in the sphere of infinite consciousness, absorption in the sphere of nothingness, and absorption in the sphere of neither discrimination nor non-discrimination, until the highest level beyond the three realms of existence, entering the ultimate state of extinction as an arhat. The following is a gist of these stages based on Abihidharma Mahavibhasa Sastra, The Great Text on Samatha and Vipassana, Dhyana Nisthita Samadhi Dharma Paryana Sutra and An Outline of the Chan Approach for readers’ reference:

(1) Concentration in the desire realm

What is concentration in the desire realm? The world we currently inhabit is part of the desire realm among the three realms of existence, the other two being the form and the formless realms. In the desire realm there is desire of lust, desire to eat and desire to sleep. Through continuous cultivation practitioners of Chan in the desire realm can abandon these types of desire to achieve concentration in the desire realm.

Upon obtaining this concentration, the practitioner feels an emptiness and stillness of body and mind, and peace and joy, with both body and mind in tranquility and for a while time and space seem to entirely vanish. By this time, too, according Volume 8 of The Great Text on Samatha and Vipassana of Tiantai sect, the aspirant may undergo eight types of sensation, known as “touch”.

Moving: In sitting meditation, the body suddenly starts to move and shake.

Itching: In sitting meditation, one suddenly feels itchy as if the body did not exist. This itchiness is not the ordinary type which desires scratch, but a special one which is non-disturbing.

Light: In sitting meditation, the body feels light like a cloud and dust, feels like flying.

Heavy: In sitting meditation, one suddenly feels that the body is heavy like a boulder and cannot move at all.

Cold: In sitting meditation, one suddenly feels that the body is like cold water.

Warm: In sitting meditation, one suddenly feels the body is like a hot fire.

Uneven: In sitting meditation, one suddenly feels that the body is uneven like tree bark.

Smooth: In sitting meditation, one suddenly feels the body skin is smooth like milk.

In preparation for the first meditative concentration, “concentration in the desire realm” is also known as “concentration yet to come”, as it has not yet reached the first meditative concentration. Why, then, are there eight “touches”? Because by this time one has reached the state of “concentration yet to come” while departing “concentration in the desire realm”, and is ready to enter the form realm with the first meditative concentration. As well, one should note that concentration in the form realm is much purer than concentration in the desire realm. And when a Chan practitioner leaves concentration in the desire realm and reaches the first meditative concentration in the form realm, finite change takes over the body’s microcells, moving those from the desire realm into the form realm while purifying them, thus producing the aforementioned eight touches.

What is more, “concentration in the desire realm” does not qualify for dhyana samadhi proper, and is therefore not categorized as part of the so-called four meditative concentrations and eight samapattis.

(2) First meditative concentration

When followers practice for the first meditative concentration, it leads to two things in their contemplation, applied detection and sustained attention. The former is using one’s own thinking to seek the nature of the reality of the dharmas. Presently, efforts of their meditation are still limited to thought via words and concepts, such as in contemplating that all dharmas are emptiness, and practising the five types of meditative contemplation. From this relatively broad effort of detective examination, the practitioner now moves into a more delicate, sustained effort of attention, exerting subtle discernment, which is more refined an effort than mere intentional detection.

With those reaching the first meditative concentration, because they have already overcome the five mental hinderances of greed, anger, delusion, arrogance and doubt, and eliminated the entanglement from the desires for things: material, sound, smell, taste, and touch, they have gained a tranquil mind with indescribable pleasure. Therefore, the state they are in at this stage is also called “pleasure in leaving the realm of desire”.

By now, worldly vicissitudes such as benefit, loss, reputation, slander, ridicule, praise, pain, and pleasure are no longer able to affect the state of the practitioner’s mind. However, with efforts of applied detection and sustained attention still in his contemplation, illusion and ego-central discrimination may nonetheless accompany his consciousness while in concentration heretofore.

(3) Second meditative concentration

Next, on reaching the second meditative concentration, the practitioner is now able to extinguish efforts of both detection and attention in his thought activities, with a mind purer than in the first meditative concentration, and thus it is called purity of the mental state. By now, the sense organs of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and the rest of the body are all cleansed, so there is no more impediment from speech. At the same time though, as activities of thought in his consciousness are carried on through concepts, there yet linger illusion and ego-based discrimination, but the aspirant is able to focus his awareness on the state of concentration. The resultant happiness felt now is more extraordinary than the pleasure gained in the first meditative concentration, hence it is called happiness from concentration.

Nevertheless, at this stage there is still disquietude in one’s consciousness that defiles the composure of his meditative concentration.

(4) Third meditative concentration

Now, on acquiring the third meditative concentration, the practitioner next gives up the happiness felt during the second meditative concentration, leaving the mind settled in an even more amazing abiding calmness, feeling neither suffering nor pleasure. One should note that neither suffering nor pleasure is better than the pleasure with the first meditative concentration and happiness in the second meditative concentration. By this time, the practitioner attains mindfulness and insight to come into a state of joy that arises from leaving pleasure in the first meditative concentration and happiness in the second meditative concentration.

Compare this to bathing. The pleasure and happiness felt in the first and second meditative concentrations are like washing one’s face and hands in cool water when it is extremely hot, yet the joy felt in the third meditative concentration is more like immersing the entire body in a tub of cold water. In the first meditative concentration there are still attempts of broad detection and refined attention, and so the pleasure felt does not permeate the body. And in the second meditative concentration it is the purity of the mental state that keeps the happiness from permeating the body. The third meditative concentration, however, removes both the foregoing obstacles, and consequently the joy is able to permeate the body after all.

(5) The fourth meditative concentration

Further, upon reaching the third meditative concentration, the practitioner, while feeling some remnants of impurity, becomes even more unremitting and goes forward into the fourth meditative concentration. It should be noted that with the third meditative concentration one still has a feeling of abiding calmness of the mind, i.e., feeling for neither suffering nor pleasure. Yet here, with the fourth meditative concentration, he is able to cut off the feeling of abiding calmness, or feeling for neither suffering nor pleasure. As a result, it is known as giving up a pure mind.

By now, in fact, one’s consciousness is able to reject any illusion from the form realm, and with an enhanced mindfulness, his mental state is pure as a shining, spotless mirror and tranquil like unrippled placid water, reaching the highest level of meditative concentration within the form realm.

The first, second and third meditative concentrations all belong to “Chan of convenience”, so to speak, and only the fourth meditative concentration is a state of real Chan, and therefore it is called true meditative concentration. Among the three realms, residents of the hell, animal, hungry ghost, human, deva and heaven paths all exist in the desire realm because these dwellers all have lust. The devas of the form realm, however, have eliminated lust, yet their physical body is still a burden. Further, the celestial beings of the formless realm are relieved of even the burden of their physical body, possessing hence mere subtle mental consciousness.

Do you know that your body, called the physical or material body in Buddhism, is the root of all suffering? Ordinary people cling to their physical body as self, leading to suffering from ego-inspired perception, love, arrogance and delusion. In fact, all sins involving killing, theft, licentiousness, lying, boasting, swearing and double-speak arise for reasons of this physical body. Even if a practitioner has reached the fourth meditative concentration, upon leaving the concentration he may still suffer slight torment coming from his mental skandhas of feeling, perception, intention and consciousness as well as the ordeal of ageing and death.

Nevertheless, when the practitioner moves into the formless realm, because he no longer maintains ties with the form realm, i.e., the material world, and has eliminated all feeling towards it, he no longer needs personal cultivation by contemplating objects. Thus, he attains a mental state of purity, void and tranquility.

Once within this formless realm, the practitioner’s meditative concentration further evolves into four types of deeper absorption: absorption in the sphere of infinite space, absorption in the sphere of infinite consciousness, absorption in the sphere of nothingness, and absorption in the sphere of neither discrimination nor non-discrimination.

(6) Absorption in the sphere of infinite space

Given further practice with continued diligence and perseverance, those who have achieved the four types of meditative concentration in the form realm may next reach absorption in the sphere of infinite space, i.e., the first absorption beyond the form realm leading into a spiritual world where one contemplates the infinity of space.

By now, the practitioner has extinguished all physical thoughts corresponding to consciousness resulting respectively from the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and the rest of the body, including all unwholesome thoughts, and thoughts that remove hinderance to meditative concentration. One’s mind now echoes emptiness, being pure, free and unobstructed like an edgeless void, and this state is called absorption in the sphere of infinite space.

(7) Absorption in the sphere of infinite consciousness

Upon entering absorption in the sphere of infinite space, as the vast void without boundary makes it easy for the practitioner’s consciousness to be waywardly scattered, he now starts to abandon an outward contemplation of emptiness and turns it inward back onto his own contemplative mind. Thereby, he works to correspond his awareness with every ideation produced and consequently, the absorption he obtains overtakes the spatial contemplation with absorption in the sphere of infinite space, to enter a spiritual world where one contemplates the infinity of time.

By this time, the practitioner transcends wide-ranging contemplation by way of space, leaving nothing but consciousness in his mind which is pure, tranquil and sharp. This state is called absorption in the sphere of infinite consciousness.

(8) Absorption in the sphere of nothingness

By and by, the practitioner realizes that everything that can be contemplated through consciousness is not ultimate, and so he leaves the conduit of his inward consciousness and outward space, to contemplate the emptiness of all dharmas.

By now, there is no object nor thought in one’s mind, and a sudden sense of calm and tranquility takes over, which is called absorption in the sphere of nothingness.

(9) Absorption in the sphere of neither discrimination nor non-discrimination

As the practitioner gradually increases his meditative absorption, he attempts to abandon all that serves as a possible mental conduit. Now, his absorption is so extremely quiet that it is wonderful and without thinking in the broadest sense, and so the state he is in is called non-discrimination. Yet, at the same time, the practitioner still has traces of subtle mental ideation, not entirely without any mental activity or discernment, and for this reason this state is also named no non-discrimination.

Indeed, this is the highest level of Chan in the human world, only the practitioner here has not yet been able to escape life and death. And it can be seen that this is still not the ultimate cessation. He needs, therefore, to keep on working at his cultivation, to attain “emptiness of the human” and “emptiness of the dharmas”, until completely removing the mental grime to achieve absolute liberation and freedom.

(10) Attainment of the state of extinction

If one continues cultivating in absorption in the sphere of neither discrimination nor non-discrimination, he may achieve attainment of the state of extinction, where he leaves the cycle of life and death in the three realms of existence to become an arhat.

This meditative concentration may be compared to the tranquility of nirvana without residue. In Volume 55, Records on Following the Mirror says, “Extinction is the transcendent samadhi attained by a Buddha or arhat. Its merit transcends the world, and its karma is anasrava, i.e., without leakage or defilement, and not impacted by the force of karma from transmigration within the three realms. It has already extinguished the sixth consciousness and defilement in the seventh consciousness.”

From the perspective of Hinayana Buddhism, the attainment of the state of extinction as an arhat is Buddhahood.

In Buddhism there is an innuendo concerning the finger pointing at the moon. It goes that a fool did not know what the moon was, and so he asked a wise man. Seeing that a bright moon happened to be up in the sky, the wise man raised his finger and pointed at it, saying, “The moon is here”! The fool looked at the wise man’s finger and said, “I see! So, the finger is the moon!” From then on, he mistook the pointing finger to be the moon and it became quite a joke in the village.

Readers, sutras are like the pointing finger while self-nature is like the bright moon, with thousands of scriptures all pointing to it. If one does not practise Chan but merely follows scriptures, clearly that means he has never seen the moon. Although he may have perused every Buddhist classic, all he has been dealing with is nothing but the finger.


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