The Five Approaches to Meditation


Translated by Andrew Yang

Sentient beings create karma due to illusion, and karma leads to suffering. What then is illusion after all? We worldlings are blinded by innumerous Illusions which can be summed up as greed, anger, delusion, attachment to the self, and a distracted mind, and thus inflict suffering. The five approaches to meditation in Buddhism can remediate these five illusions.

The first approach is contemplation of impurity. This approach is used to heal sentient beings with a strong craving. Here, craving means lust or lewdness. Surangama Sutra says, “All sentient beings’ life are caused by lewdness.” Similarly, there is a well-known saying in Chinese, “Of all vices lewdness is the worst.” With contemplation of impurity, the practitioner visualizes the bodies of himself and the subject he violates as extremely impure. One’s physical body being nothing more than a smelly skin bag, the practitioner thinks calmly and intently at length about how it ends up, to curb lust for sexual gratification. He contemplates messy, odourous dead bodies that are bruised and swollen, to counteract lust arising from the “appeal of colour”. He contemplates scavenging vultures feeding on decaying carcasses, to halt lust arising from the “appeal of form”.  He contemplates the appearance of carrion rotting away with maggot, to resist lust arising from the “appeal of touch”. He contemplates corpses lying deadly still, to repel lust arising from the “appeal of service”. And he contemplates the appearance of cadavers scattered about with nothing left but ashy skeletal bones, to remediate lewdness overall.

The second prong is contemplation of loving kindness. Earthlings often have aversion and hate. In meditation, one who is filled with resentment and anger visualizes the dreadful, pitiable aspects of all sentient beings. This produces thoughts of compassion that help remove suffering and cure the troubles resentment and anger bring on. This is why Buddhist scriptures say, “To heal those with much resentment and anger, cultivate compassion.”

The third is contemplation of dependent arising, that is, in a state of meditation, visualizing the causal chain of twelve elements, and recognizing the continuity of karmic cause and effect in the past, present and future lives, in order to cure the ignorance of those who have no understanding of Buddhist principles. The flow of the twelve elements are: by reason of ignorance, mental formation; by reason of mental formation, consciousness, by reason of consciousness, name and form; by reason of name and form, six sensual realms; by reason of six sensual realms, perception; by reason of perception, feeling; by reason of feeling, craving; by reason of craving, grasping; by reason of grasping, becoming; by reason of becoming, rebirth; by reason of rebirth, ageing and death.

The fourth approach is contemplation on worldly discrimination. Or else known as analytical contemplation or contemplation of non-self. In meditation, the practitioner visualizes that all dharmas in the eighteen realms of consciousness are born from aggregation of earth, water, fire, wind, emptiness and consciousness. As such, everything formed will disperse. Nothing is permanent. And there is no self. This is to cure the concept of self.  Non-self applies to human as well as all dharmas, and curb sentient beings’ strong attachment to the self. This is what scriptures said, “To heal those with much attachment to the self, cultivate contemplation on world discrimination.”

And lastly, the fifth meditation is mindful breathing, also known as anapanasati or breath counting. When sitting in meditation, one concentrates on counting the number of his inhales and exhales, so that his distracted and impetuous mind may well focus on one single object and enter meditative concentration.

This five approaches on meditation is easier to learn comparing with than Patriarch Chan. They are  summed up in the saying that contemplation of impurity remediates those with greed, contemplation of loving kindness remediates those with resentment, contemplation of dependent arising remediates those with ignorance, contemplation of non-self remediates those with strong attachment, and contemplation by breath counting remediates those with a distracted mind. In Essence of the Manual on the Fivefold Meditation, contemplation of non-self is replaced by mindfulness of the Buddha’s name. This approach converts the defiled thoughts in one’s mind into Buddha’s name through devout chanting. At the meantime, with the blessings from the compassionate Buddha, purify the karmic obstacles created by the practitioner’s deeds, speech and mind. It is, indeed, to cure mental drowsiness and distraction through mindfulness of the name of Buddha.


One response to “The Five Approaches to Meditation

  1. Thankyou Venerable Guan Chen,My name is Beverly Ciciliano and am so glad that I found you on you tube I listen to you all the time. I want to learn more and travel to BC .Am 73 years old.This all so wonderful.Thankyou

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