By Rev. Enkei Joseph Mendyka
Zhiyi, the 6th century Chinese founder of Tiantai, wrote at length about the spiritual significance of the scripture we often refer to simply as the Lotus Sūtra. The full title of the sūtra that Zhiyi revered and shared with world is the Miao fa hua lian jing (妙法蓮華經), or the Sūtra of the Lotus Blossom of the Sublime Dharma. In one of his most significant doctrinal works, Esoteric Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra (Fa hua xuan yi), he provides a careful examination of the significance of “miao” (妙) translated here as “sublime.” Other possible translations include mysterious, subtle, excellent, wonderful and exquisite. Each of these terms points to the superlative nature of the Lotus Sūtra’s teachings and the state achieved through critical understanding, meditation and conduct in accord with its teachings.
Captured in the Tiantai sage’s extensive discussion of the term is the non-dual realization and compassionate action of the bodhisattva. Zhiyi dedicates a great deal of space to describing how this term conveys the magnificence of the Mahāyāna preached in the Lotus Sūtra. This emphasis is very much in line with his entire opus. In fact, it is reasonable to characterize the whole of his writings as explaining how a Buddhist practitioner can come to embody the Lotus Sūtra’s message of skillful means and the universal accessibility of buddhahood. He wrote several works specifically on how to approach this truth through meditation. Among these several pieces was the Liu miao fa men (六妙法门), the Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime.
Like all of Zhiyi’s work on meditation, this piece addresses the main components of Buddhist meditation, śamatha-vipaśyanā (止観; Chinese, zhi-guan; Japanese, shi-kan). If you spend anytime in Tendai practice, you’ll certainly hear shi-kan discussed. It’s the common term used to refer to meditation in Tendai and is based on terms used going back to the time of Buddha Śākyamuni. Although Zhiyi would occasionally refer to meditation as dhyāna, translated into Chinese as “ch’an” and Japanese as “zen” (yes, THAT zen), he preferred śamatha-vipaśyanā. So what do these two words mean? Śamatha is a term that can be understood as tranquility. It is the mental stability necessary to investigate phenomena clearly. Vipaśyanā is the quality of non-conceptual, experiential insight that arises by directly encountering phenomena. In union, these states form samadhi, meditative equipoise necessary for the enlightened activity of a bodhisattva that liberates beings from suffering.
In his Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime, Zhiyi works off of a six-fold construction of the meditative path offered by the Buddha Śākyamuni in the foundational sūtras. In the classical presentation, this arrangement is provided as a way of promoting samadhi through six modes of meditation. The first three address śamatha. These are:
Counting one’s breath
Following the coming and going of the breath
Stabilizing the mind
The second three are somewhat more complicated and address the development of vipaśyanā:
Examining the nature of phenomena
Turning to the root of reality
Purification of insight
In Zhiyi’s treatise, he demonstrates that each one of these modes of meditation serves as an entryway into the profound truth of the Mahāyāna. Through careful practice these dharma gates provide the meditator access to the sublime teachings of the Lotus Sūtra.
That sounds mystical, mysterious–holy, even. The reality is that this path is very, very difficult. The esoteric truth that Zhiyi shares with his students and that Buddhist practitioners continue to seek today is not simply insight into how to abide in a solo ride on the Nirvana train. The sublime teachings of the Lotus Sūtra are concerned with how we grow into beings capable of relieving suffering. That involves much more than ordering a special salvation wand to wave at people’s problems.
How to perform that work is the actual mystery. It’s practically unfathomable that we could help beings understand the nature of cause-and-effect and relinquish activities that create suffering. If you’re paying close attention to the behavior of suffering beings–maybe a being such as yourself–you might notice that we’re not great at avoiding creating pain for ourselves and others. We cherish our habits and neuroses. We are rather taken by our storylines about why our fears and resentments are important, even necessary.
To be able to serve such an incorrigible lot, the Lotus Sūtra teaches that we must understand the basic interdependence of all existence that gives rise to the appearance of these twisted minds. It also teaches that we must be able to see with diamond clarity that these beings are buddhas and this realm is their pure land. This is sublime reality to which the dharma gateways offer us access. This access is simple but not easy. It requires incredible devotion and the willingness to leave behind the person we once were on the other side of the threshold. This can feel scary and even deadly. In the end, though, the world that we come to know is incredibly rich.
So, can you truly see yourself as a buddha? Your friends and enemies? Your dog? Do you experience this turbulent world as a pure land served by these buddhas? If you do, please write your own blog! If not, I invite you to follow along as we walk through the various dharma gates and explore the entryway into the sublime. I’ll be offering separate selections on each of the six dharma gates and provide a concluding piece discussing where this work fits in the Zhiyi’s overall canon. I hope you’ll find that this series helps you on your own dharma path.
“Edit: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Zhiyi was alive in the 5th century. Enkei isn’t a numbers guy. Sorry about that!”