Systematic and Practical
WHAT IS THE REAL AND ULTIMATE PURPOSE OF PRACTICING BUDDHIST
A Talk by the Buddhist Yogi
C. M. CHEN
Written Down by
REVEREND B. KANTIPALO
First Published in 1967
TO THE FIVE
WHAT IS THE REAL AND
ULTIMATE PURPOSE OF PRACTICING BUDDHIST MEDITATIONS?
the vihara to Mr. Chen's hermitage is about two and a
half miles and nearly all downhill. We left in pleasant sunshine, but halfway
there it began to rain, so with protecting umbrellas and quick steps we made
our way down the slippery streets. At our sides gutters roared and gushed with
dirt-brown water. Kalimpong at any rate would be
washed thoroughly after this shower. Seeing all this put the transcriber in
mind of a simile. Just as men and women huddle for shelter in doorways to
escape the rain's force, so many people go to unstable refuges, transient
pleasures, useless austerities, petty godlings,
saviors, and presumed creators of this world. With perverted minds they fear
and scuttle away from the beneficent rain of the Dharma. Few are those who go
forward unafraid in this joyous teaching. May all beings be rid of false fears
and enjoy this gentle rain so that the Dharma may wash away their impurities,
leaving them as fragrant in mind as this town after its cleansing!
with these thoughts, we soon arrived at the "Five Leguminous Trees
Hermitage." Mr. Chen stood there to welcome us in a loose, blue Chinese
jacket and trousers, a skull-cap on his rounded head, and a whirling silver
prayer-wheel in his hand. He commiserated with us about the rain, which we said
was nothing. Despite this, he was truly concerned about our wet robes and tried
wringing out the water from Bhante's. The yogi seemed
particularly happy, not at all the somber saint that is often the Western idea
of a hermit. A broad and gentle smile comes easily to him, and his laugh, like
his tears, is genuine, unforced, and from the heart. He began his third
As a hermit, I have not
had direct contact with Western Buddhism but some European and American
Buddhists have visited me, so I know some of their ideas. Also, I have
corresponded with Buddhists in many parts of the world, so that by letter or by
visit, I have met quite a few Western followers of the Buddha. First, let us
classify the persons holding certain ideas regarding this subject, and then we
should examine their mistakes. In my opinion there are three types:
First, there are those
who wear robes, members of the Sangha, the Sangha, the sramaneras.
However, some of them still keep some professions, so they have not completely
renounced. You are both maha-bhikshus from the West,
and you practice the precepts (Vinaya), both of which
facts are rare enough by themselves, but rarer still in combination. There are
still very few bhikshus in Western lands, and most of them are content with the Hinayana. It is hard to find those who are not satisfied
with only the Hinayana teachings but take up in
addition the study of the Mahayana, and it is rarest of all to see some like
yourselves for whom the Mahayana is not sufficient and who therefore study and
Yet the Tripitakas of China contain many Mahayana teachings and the Vajrayana texts of
are not yet translated
completely; therefore our talks on meditation in the three yanas may still be of some benefit. I shall try to cover the whole system of
meditation in these three vehicles, and it will be just as though you had read
the Tripitakas in their entirety for yourselves.
There have been many
books published on meditation, but they have not systematized the information
on this subject, so it is difficult for ordinary people to grasp it properly.
There are even many bhikshus wandering among the
three yanas, doubtful of what should or should not be
practiced, lost and not knowing the right way to go.
Bhadanta Sangharakshita may be praised as one of the few who know
thoroughly the system of the three yanas. Because of
this he named his vihara "Triyana Vardhana" (the Monastery for the Growth of the
Bhante here remarked that it
was not actually named by him, but its existence and name were foretold by the
Ven. Chetrul Sengye Dorje, a celebrated Nyingmapa Lama. This teacher confirmed the ideas he had already
that all the yanas are complementary and together
form a whole. While many Tibetan teachers think in this way, few bhikshus outside these regions yet realize that this is so,
thus confirming Mr. Chen's statement.
Chen, after this short digression, went on to speak of the second type, the
Buddhist scholar of the West:
As we mentioned briefly
in the last chapter, Western scholars have written much and translated many
Buddhist texts, but most of them so far have not been Buddhists, and their
interest has been in the theory, not in the practice of the Dharma. Even those
who are Buddhists often lay little stress upon the practice of meditation.
Buddhist meditation is not only theory—it requires practice. Therefore, these
talks will be particularly useful to scholars.
The third type is the
ordinary layman, who may be Buddhist or non-Buddhist. Some may have tried to
put the Buddha's teachings into practice, although even Buddhists can often
blunder if they have wrong ideas and poor instruction. These laymen make up the
majority of the population, so it is natural that they fall into the greatest
number of errors.
MISTAKES IN MEDITATION
Now we must turn to
examine the mistakes committed by the three groups of persons described. These
are presented in order:
1. The first mistake is
not having a foundation of renunciation as a firm base for their practice of
meditation (see Appendix II, A). Quite often I receive correspondence from
, and my
friends of the third type there say that to renounce is easy for people in the
East but very hard for Westerners. They complain that in the West there are so
many things to give up so that it is made more difficult. To them I reply that
the right thing to do is to lay even more stress on renunciation. If a boy
finds mathematics difficult to study, the only way in which he can learn and
progress in this subject, is to make even greater efforts. So it is with
renunciation. If we find it difficult, we should struggle and put forth great
effort in order to overcome our attachments and enable us to give them up
The second type
mentioned above is not generally concerned with meditation, but renunciation is
important for them, too. They have scholarly eminence, a profession, name, and renown, all of which they should be able to renounce with
In the first type there
are also some bhikshus who have not given up worldly
occupations; Mr. Chen here mentioned one name of an American.
Bhante said that quite a number of Western Buddhists have very vague ideas about the
meaning of bhikshu life, some calling themselves "bhikshu" who are not celibate members of the Sangha at all. Further, he said there are also many "bhikshus" in
in the teaching and medical professions, which are not directly concerned with
the Dharma; nor is it necessary to become a bhikshu to practice them. Regarding all such persons, of both East and West, the
listener commented: If they cannot give up their jobs, they will certainly give
up the precepts.
Chen then said that he did not wish to talk again upon renunciation, as that
very important topic had already been mentioned at some length previously. For
the benefit of all three types of people mentioned, he said: If they do not
renounce, their meditation will not be good.
2. The second mistake is
thinking that by meditation one can increase one's energy and strength, using
them to commit evils, whereas the purpose of meditation is to wash away all
evil. People like this become tense through living a wrong life in which they
commit immoral acts, and then think of meditation. They practice this a little
and so relax, again become strong, commit unwholesome deeds, experience strain,
and so on. Meditation is not meant for this.
3. The third is a
mistake which seems to occur most among lay people. They often have no wise guru
to guide them and so do not receive instructions, without which there is no
proper experience. Instead of practicing with the help of a good teacher, these
people just read books and try to get all the information from them. In this
way meditation is not regarded as religious, but instead is often taken up with
concern for bodily well-being. Without a guru, without instructions, and with
wrong aims, such meditation is without foundation (see Appendix III, A).
4. Other people think
that meditation is only a psychological matter. With this idea they do not care
for the development of correct sitting, such as the cross-legged lotus
position, and they know nothing of the seven conditions for posture in meditation.
These are important, so I give them briefly in order from the bottom of the
body to the top (see also Ch. VII, F):
a. Legs crossed and
folded in the lotus posture (padmasana);
b. Hands placed in the
lap, their position (mudra) varying according to the
c. Spinal column
d. Chin drawn inward
toward the neck and touching the glottis;
e. Shoulders set well
back, and open (then the lungs expand well);
f. Tongue in its natural
g. Eyes half-open and
fixed 16 widths of the meditator's fingers in front (see
Appendix I, C, 4).
The mistake here is to
neglect these seven, thinking that meditation is only for training the mind in
quietness. It is also necessary to consider the effect of bodily posture and training
upon the mind. Meditations in the Hinayana and
Mahayana stress the psychological side, the calming of mental activities and
the development of insight. But in the Vajrayana,
meditation takes into account mind and body, as mind and energy are both required
for Tantric practice (here energy represents the body). It is necessary in the
meditations of Mahayana and Vajrayana that the posture
of the body be well composed.
5. Fifth, there are
those who have read many books on meditation in the different religions of the
world. Taking something from one teaching and something else from another, they
try to make a system from this mixture; or, they are distracted by the many
methods they have read about and so try to practice first this and then that
doctrine, frequently changing from one to another. People like this cannot go
deeply into meditation, and their practice will not lead to attainment either
in Buddhism, or of any goal outside it. (See Appendix I, Part One, A. 3.)
6. The livelihood of
many Westerners makes them tense and they feel the need to maintain their
health and develop power, or to gain more money and become popular with
friends, especially those of the opposite sex. The real purpose of
meditation—the super-mundane benefit of Enlightenment—is either not known to
them or else forgotten. Under this type of mistake falls also the attraction of
gaining supernormal powers. Even young bhikshus desire to gain this control.
he mentioned the case of a sramanera who had come as
a layman to Bhante with the ambition to be able to
read the minds of others and hear them speak from a distance.
Bhante remarked, "I still have the crystal ball he brought from
him gain these powers."
All aims of this sort in
the practice of meditation are very mistaken.
7. A seventh mistake is
found in the minds of all who think that Buddhism is utter atheism. People with
this idea do not believe in any deities who can protect them while they
practice meditation or help rid them of obstacles. Such persons cannot help
meeting demons, and then must stop meditating. Their mistake is in thinking
that the Buddha denied the existence of all gods. He did reject the theory of a
creator-god or an omnipotent, absolute godhead—these are false and ignorant
ideas. Certainly the Buddha knew that millions of beings superior to us in
lifespan and happiness (the devas)
exist in birth-and-death (samsara) and to them he
frequently preached. Many deities then became protectors of the Dharma; for
instance, it is recorded that the great gods of Hinduism (Brahma, Vishnu, and
Siva), all worshipped at the feet of the Supremely Enlightened One. Powerful
forces such as these are available to protect the meditator and it is a great mistake to totally reject belief in them, and in the help
they can give us.
8. Some say, "Buddhists
teach the extreme doctrine of no-soul," and so they reject the existence
of a conditioned "soul" (the mind and its everyday functions) along
with the absolute "soul" (atman) taught in other religions. But the
Buddha, while denying the existence of the latter, did not preach that the
former was untrue. It is a wrong view, he taught, to speculate about uniting
the absolute "soul" with an absolute god, but a conditioned "soul"
(understood as the continuity of oneself as a person) was not rejected by him
who always taught the
and avoided extremes.
If we cannot meet this
conditioned "soul," the eighth consciousness ego, how can we ever
understand it, let alone reject it? In deep meditation we may meet this ego,
which we must then uproot through the doctrine of sunyata (realization of its voidness); it would be difficult
either to meet or destroy something which one believes does not exist at least
in a conditioned way.
Ordinary persons cannot
go deeply into meditation because their minds become disturbed by impressions
arising through the six types of sense consciousness. Only by going deeper into
meditation is one able to experience the eighth consciousness (Alayavijnana), the impure store-consciousness taken by most
people to be their self or soul. Before we can transmute it by the sunyata teaching into the wisdom of Buddhahood,
it has to be seen and recognized. (Note: according to the
(Vijnanavada) there is a pure alaya,
but this is not the doctrine of the highest school, the Madhyamika.)
It is necessary at least
to have the idea of a conditioned "soul" before we can practice and
so destroy it. Common people with unconcentrated minds cannot even find this self, so they should not make the mistake of
denying its existence.
9. This is a mistake in
the understanding of Chan doctrine. Some Westerners have denied that the law of
cause and effect (in Sanskrit, hetu-phala) has any
place in Chan teachings, and, if they follow that doctrine, may even say that
the law itself is untrue. In this they attempt to imitate some Chinese Chan
masters who have disliked this law and denied its validity, but there is a
difference between what a Chan master says and the proper attitude of a worldly
student. One monk who thought he was a master denied the truth of this law and,
for giving his questioner a misleading answer, suffered birth as a fox five
hundred times. For ordinary persons, the law is true, and to deny its truth is
simply to confuse them. The highest truth known and preached by the truly
attained masters is that neither is there dependent origination nor is there
not dependent origination. We have to be careful not to misunderstand their
words by not knowing whether they are speaking on the level of conditioned
truths or from the standpoint of final truth.
Furthermore, care is
necessary in interpreting words of some sutras and sastras.
We should not take quotations from them out of context and distort the intended
meaning. It is also not correct to take the words of sutras too literally.
10. This is the
fundamental mistake: ignorance of the highest purpose of Buddhist meditation.
This topic will now be discussed at length.
THE REAL PURPOSE OF MEDITATION PRACTICE
All the above mistakes,
in gradation of gross to subtle, are descriptions of negative purposes. Now we
must examine briefly the positive ones.
1. A man who desires to
practice Buddhist meditation must first obtain a good foundation in Buddhist
philosophy. Then, having a well established knowledge of the sutras and so
forth, and by the practice of meditation, he receives the central thought of
Buddhism; that is, his mind never strays from Buddhist philosophy in whatever
situation he finds himself. Every action of body, speech, and thought is then
guided by a Dharma-centered thought. This at least is necessary.
Even if one renounces
the world and takes up monastic life, many sorts of worldly thoughts may invade
the mind: of money, reputation, lust—such worldly ideas mean that one has not
yet developed the mind to center upon the Buddha's teachings (see Appendix III,
A and Appendix II, A).
Until this is done,
perfect understanding of the Dharma (samyag drsti) cannot develop very much, nor can it find expression
in perfect livelihood (samyak ajiva).
When this latter is really perfect then we do nothing unrelated to Dharma, and
of course, nothing at all opposed to it. With a mind constantly dwelling only
upon the Dharma (a difficult thing for lay people, who have so many worldly
activities), this central thought-core is developed and the true meaning of the
Buddha's words becomes clear.
As to the Buddha's
teachings regarding life and the universe, these are vast subjects and no
attempt can be made to explain them here. Readers are advised to read Mr. Chen's
booklet No. 26 and to consult the many good books on this subject now available
2. Anyone who wants to
gain attainment in Buddhism should achieve the power of asamskrta,
that is, attain the transcendental knowledge of the sixth abhijna (the extinction of the four asrava (outflows): lust,
sense-desire, ignorance, and wrong views,) and not worry about the other five superknowledges which are only worldly (magic power, heavenly
ear, knowledge of others' thoughts, memory of past lives, and the heavenly
Tibetan there is a very long story, said Mr. Chen smiling, and this I shall
relate to refresh you. The transcriber, glad to listen, heard this:
A lama once came from
to study with Buddhist gurus
there. He had already developed the five supernormal powers but lacked the
final one. He heard of a guru named Trikalajnana who,
it was said, was already fully enlightened. The lama, who was conceited, wished
to compare his attainments with those of the guru. When he arrived at the
teacher's vihara, food was just being prepared, and
he was surprised to see it would be a poor meal, as only water and tsampa (roasted barley flour) dumplings were cooking on the
fire. He thought to himself, "This guru is supposed to be very great in
power but he only takes this poor food." The Venerable Trikalajnana read his mind but said nothing, merely asking for a spoon to stir the pot.
Three times he stirred, and then gave a bowl of the food to the lama. When the lama
tasted it, he found eating it more delightful than any sensation he had known,
even in his highest meditations. Thus his pride was diminished by half, but
half remained. He asked the guru, "May I request that you compare your
supernormal powers with mine?"
The guru replied, "I
am an old man, but I have many disciples here. Choose any of them you please
for your contest."
After looking around at Trikalajnana's pupils, the lama chose a very thin one whom
he thought might not have much by way of extraordinary attainment. The disciple
asked, "What method will you use for proving these powers?"
The lama decided that as
there was deep snow on the mountains, one of them should sit high upon a
mountain and dissolve the snow into steam. The disciple agreed to this and
politely asked the lama to choose the upper or lower position. The lama
considered to himself: It would be better to sit lower on the mountain—then I
can see whether he really has any power or not. When he told the disciple that,
the latter respectfully said, "It is only by your command that I sit above
you, for I should take my place below." Bowing to the lama, he climbed
high upon the mountain.
When both had taken up
their seats, water immediately began to descend in a great torrent, rushing
down the mountainside towards the conceited lama. However, it did not quite
reach him, forming a great suspended mass hanging over his head. The water was
caused by the power of the venerable thin one, but he was prevented from
drowning the lama by the grace of the guru.
It is the rule that when
one with the five powers meets anyone who has developed the sixth, then the
five cannot operate in the presence of the perfected sixth power. Therefore, in
this case, the lama could do nothing, and although his powers were really in
abeyance, he still wondered, "Perhaps it is by my power that the waters
are being held back."
Then the Venerable Trikalajnana guru appeared in the sky riding a lion (the
symbol of Majusri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and advised
the lama: "Do not have pride. I have come to save you, for what could you
do against this disciple? Come into my vihara and I
shall give you good instructions. You will be my good disciple."
Westerners who become
interested in Buddhism are often curious about these supernormal powers but
they should strive to attain the last one (asrava-ksaya)
through all the methods given in this book and not worry about the first five.
3. Whoever desires to
achieve the purpose of meditation should realize the Dharmakaya to liberate himself and others. He must forever pursue
the final truth until this, the Dharmakaya, is found.
4. He must also desire
the perfect and pure pleasure of the Sambhogakaya (the Buddha's body of enjoyment seen only by Bodhisattvas of high attainment in
perfectly concentrated meditation).
5. The attainment of Mahakaruna, the great compassion to save all sentient
beings, must also be pursued; in this way an earnest practitioner gains the Nirmanakaya (the outward, fleshly, or appearance body of
the Buddhas seen by animals, men, and devas during the Buddhas' lives
6. It is essential to
recognize the yoga of the six great elements (air, earth, water, fire, space,
and consciousness), which may shorten one's time of attaining Full
Enlightenment to sixteen lives only (see Chapter XII, E, and Chapter XII, H).
By the meditation of this yoga one attains svabhavikakaya,
the Buddha-entity body (not considered as a separate "body" but
rather as a collective term for all the three preceding ones in oneness).
7. To shorten the
attainment-period still further, he must pursue the meditative doctrines of the
fourth yoga of the Vajrayana, particularly the
practices concerned with the secret third initiation, and thereby attain in
this very life to the Mahasukhakaya—the body of great
happiness (Chapter XIII, Part Two). This is the final and ultimate purpose of
the practice of Buddhist meditation.