Mindfulness of Breathing as Applied to Advanced Chan Methods- Part II

Part II Six Subtle Dharma Gates

Next we will discuss the relationship between mindfulness of breathing and the Chinese Chan meditation methods of silent illumination and huatou. Mindfulness of breathing can be summarized by the six meditation steps mentioned in the Six Subtle Dharma Gates of the Tiantai (天臺) School:
(1) counting the breath
(2) following the breath
(3) stabilizing the mind
(4) contemplating on the nature of phenomena
(5) returning to the root of reality and
(6) purification of insights.

In comparison, silent illumination and huatou are two advanced methods of Chinese Chan meditation. In these methods, from the beginning, calming and contemplating are practiced simultaneously. Both of these Chan methods begin directly at the fourth step of contemplating whereas, in the six steps of the Tiantai school, meditation progresses sequentially starting from step one of counting the breath.

In Six Subtle Gates, the first three steps are to cultivate calming of the mind:
1. Counting the breath to reach an initial state of concentrated mind.
2. Following the breath to reach an advanced level of concentrated mind.
3. Stabilizing the mind to reach unified mind.

Let us discuss silent illumination first. When we begin, we relax both body and mind. Then we contemplate our body, then the environment. Then the boundary between internal and external disappears. When we practice silent illumination, we practice calming and contemplating simultaneously. Relaxing the body and mind, is accomplished through mindfulness of breathing. In fact, when we relax both body and mind, we are using the method of silent illumination. Therefore even though silent illumination involves practicing calming and contemplating simultaneously, we still have to go through the process of calming.

In the traditional Indian Buddhist system, the practice progresses from concentration to contemplation. By comparison, with the six subtle gates, the practice of concentration progresses from counting breath, following breath, to calming the mind. This is so-called five methods of stilling the mind (五停心). When practicing the five methods of stilling the mind, there is also a contemplation component that is part of concentration. However, the object of practice has form (Sanskrit nimitta). It is the same with counting breath or reciting Buddha’s name. The object of practice for all five methods has its form (nimitta). What happens when we succeed in the practice of the five methods and achieve unified mind? We need to change the method of practice. We have to switch from the contemplation of concentration to contemplation of wisdom. This is, in fact, practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Sanskrit smṛtyupasthāna, Pali satipaṭṭhāna).

Continuing below are the steps following the previous three from the six subtle gates:

4. Contemplating the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which includes the body, feeling/ sensation, mind/consciousness, and phenomena/ existence? There are two levels of contemplation:

A. Mindfulness of a Singular Foundation: In the beginner stage, one can practice mindfulness on one of the four foundations individually and connect it to the insight of the three universal truths – impermanence, no self, and emptiness.
B. Mindfulness of Totality: Since one can relate the three universal truths to each of the four foundations, in the end, from contemplating on the four foundations in totality, we can observe impermanence, no self, and emptiness. At this level, one has to utilize the four noble truths in contemplating.
The four noble truths are: suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path that leads to the end of suffering.

5. Returning to the full wholesome state and retrieving the four righteous roots.

6. Going beyond the concept of subject and object and achieving the first blooming, or stream entry (Sanskrit srotāpanna, Pali sotāpanna) to the fourth blooming (Sanskrit arhat, Pali arahant) which is equivalent to the first to eighth grounds (Sanskrit bhūmi) in Mahayana.

Extended Reading

Mindfulness of breathing as applied to advanced chan methods- Part I
Mindfulness of breathing as applied to advanced chan methods- Part III

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