Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, , at sacred-texts.com
THREE things are usually considered necessary for the realization of the Buddhist life: 1. Çîla (moral precepts), 2, Dhyâna (contemplation), 3, Prajñâ (wisdom); and these are coöperative and mutually related.
To be a good Buddhist, first of all, a man must be ethical and regulate his life according to the moral precepts, which were laid down by Buddha and are universally applicable. Next, he must be philosophical, that is, he must train his mind so as to be capable of practising introspection. The mechanical observance of the moral laws is not becoming to the dignity of a rational, conscious being. Man must be master of himself, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. To be so, he must be able to examine his own states of consciousness and direct his thoughts and desires to the end where lies the rationale of existence. This habit of self-examination is attainable only through the practice of dhyâna, contemplation. Lastly, he must be religious, by which is meant that he should have an insight going deep into the indwelling reason of things, and this insight, according to Buddhism, is the
outcome of the mental training acquired by self-introspection. Prajñâ, which is the most fundamental of all the psychic faculties possessed by man, lies inactive and altogether unrecognized when the mind is busily engaged in receiving impressions and elaborating on them through the ordinary process of understanding. It has no time to withdraw within itself and watch how impulses are awakened, stimuli felt, thoughts matured, in short, how the inner working goes on. It never knows what a precious stone it harbors within its being, which, when discovered, will illuminate the inmost significance of life and put an end to all vanities and vexations of spirit. The practice of dhyâna, however, brings this latent faculty of consciousness to the surface and makes a new man out of old, worn-out, and apparently unpromising stuff.
Therefore, the three requisites of the Buddhist life are helping one another like a tripod to stand together and to accomplish their common purpose. The moral precepts cannot be intelligently and thoroughly followed unless a man has gained a complete control of himself through contemplation and self-introspection. But this dhyâna-practice will not be of much value, religiously considered, to his daily life unless it leads to the awakening of Prajñâ (wisdom) and to the comprehension of the ultimate facts of life. Whatever difference there may be in the different schools of Buddhism, those three forms
of discipline, as they are often called, are admitted by them all as most essential for the realization of their ideal life. The importance of the moral codes as formulated by Buddha will not be questioned even by followers of non-Buddhist faiths, and as to the signification of spiritual insight, which constitutes the essence of religious life, I have somewhere touched upon the subject. In this short discourse I wish to say a few words concerning the practice of dhyâna.
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Dhyâna is essentially Hindu or, rather broadly speaking, Oriental in its origin as well as in its significance. In this we can trace one of the many characteristics which lend a peculiarly charming color to Oriental culture. The Oriental mind ever strives after the One and is so idealistic in all its tendencies as sometimes altogether to ignore the external world. It shuts out all the impressions the senses may bring in from without, thus endeavoring to realize the aspiration after unity and eternality. It does not care so much for the subjugation of natural forces to its own will as for the deliverance of self from its illusory imprisonment. It does not antagonize the world in which it lives, but calmly contemplates it, reviewing its vagaries or vicissitudes, or whatever they may be termed. It dwelleth not in the manyness of things, but in their oneness, for its ultimate abode is in the region of the absolute and not in the phenomenal realm.
[paragraph continues] A mind like this naturally takes more to contemplation than to the strenuous life; it thinks more and acts less; it appreciates instead of criticizing; it synthesizes instead of analyzing. The practice of dhyâna, therefore, was the most natural thing for the Oriental people.
The Western people were not altogether unfamiliar with dhyâna, as we can judge from the life of a mystic or a medieval Christian monk. But their so-called contemplation or meditation was not as systematic and did not necessarily form a part of their religious discipline. The Hebrews were too fanatically religious to allow themselves the time to reflect. The Greeks were rather scientific and intellectual, while the Romans were pre-eminently practical. The German mystics perhaps were more or less after the Hindu type in their general mental constitution, but they seem not to have made the practice of dhyâna a prominent feature of their doctrine. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that dhyâna, is an Oriental production.
What is dhyâna, then? Dhyâna literally means, in Sanskrit, pacification, equilibration, or tranquillization, but as religious discipline it is rather self-examination or introspection. It is not necessarily to cogitate on the deep subjects of metaphysics, nor is it to contemplate on the virtues of a deity, or on the transitoriness of mundane life. To define its import in Buddhism, roughly and practically, it is the habit of with
drawing occasionally from the turbulence of worldliness and of devoting some time to a quiet inspection of one's own consciousness. When this habit is thoroughly established, a man can keep serenity of mind and cheerfulness of disposition even in the midst of his whirlwind-like course of daily life. Dhyâna is then a discipline in tranquillization. It aims at giving to a mind the time for deliberation and saving it from. running wild; it directs the vain and vulgar to the path of earnestness and reality; it makes us feel interest in higher things which are above the senses; it discovers the presence in us of a spiritual faculty which bridges the chasm between the finite and the infinite; and it finally delivers us from the bondage and torture of ignorance, safely leading us to the other shore of Nirvâna.
Dhyâna is sometimes made a synonym for çamatha and samâdhi and samâpatti. Çamatha is tranquillity and practically the same as dhyâna, though the latter is much more frequently in use than the former. Samâpatti literally is "put together evenly" or "balanced," and means the equilibrium of consciousness in which takes place neither wakefulness nor apathy, but in which the mind is calmly concentrated on the thought under consideration. Samâdhi is a perfect absorption, voluntary or involuntary, of thought into the object of contemplation. A mind is sometimes said to be in a state of
samâdhi when it identifies itself with the ultimate reason of existence and is only conscious of the unification. In this case, dhyâna is the method or process that brings us finally to samâdhi.
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Now, the benefits arising from the exercise of dhyâna are more than one, and are not only practical but moral and spiritual. Nobody will deny the most practical advantage gained through presence of mind, moderation of temper, control of feelings, and mastery of oneself. A passion may be so violent at the time of its agitation that it will fairly consume itself to utter destruction, but a cool-headed man knows well how to give it the necessary psychological time of rest and deliberation and thus to save himself from plunging headlong into the Charybdis of emotion. And this cool-headedness, though in some measure due to heredity, is attainable through the exercise of dhyâna.
Intellectually, dhyâna will keep the head clear and transparent and, whenever necessary, make it concentrate itself on the subject at issue. Logical accuracy depends greatly on the dispassionateness of the arguing mind, and scientific investigation gains much from the steadiness of the observing eye. Whatever be a man's intellectual development, he has surely nothing to lose, but a great deal to gain, by training himself in the habit of tranquillization.
In these days of industrial and commercial
civilization, the multitudes of people have very little time to devote themselves to spiritual culture. They are not altogether ignorant of the existence of things which are of permanent value, but their minds are so engrossed in details of everyday life that they find it extremely difficult to avoid their constant obtrusion. Even when they retire from their routine work at night, they are bent on something exciting which will tax their already over-stretched nervous system to the utmost. If they do not die prematurely, they become nervous wrecks. They seem not to know the blessings of relaxation. They seem to be unable to live within themselves and find there the source of eternal cheerfulness. Life is for them more or less a heavy burden and their task consists in the carrying of the burden. The gospel of dhyâna, therefore, must prove to them a heaven-sent boon when they conscientiously practise it.
Dhyâna is physiologically the accumulation of nervous energy; it is a sort of spiritual storage battery in which an enormous amount of latent force is sealed,--a force which will, whenever demand is made, manifest itself with tremendous potency. A mind trained in dhyâna will never waste its energy, causing its untimely exhaustion. It may appear at times, when superficially observed, dull, uninteresting, and dreamy, but it will work wonders when the occasion arises; while a mind ordinarily addicted to dissipation
succumbs to the intensity of an impulse or a stimulus without much struggling, which ends in complete collapse, for it has no energy in reserve. Here, let me remark incidentally, can be seen one of the many characteristic differences between Orientalism and Occidentalism. In all departments of Oriental culture a strong emphasis is placed upon the necessity of preserving the latent nervous energy and of keeping the source of spiritual strength well fed and nourished. Young minds are trained to store up within and not to make any wasteful display of their prowess and knowledge and virtue. It is only shallow waters, they would say, that make a noisy, restless stream, while a deep whirlpool goes on silently. The Occidentals, as far as I can judge, seem to be fond of making a full display of their possessions with the frankness of a child; and they are prone to a strenuous and dissipating life which will soon drain all the nervous force at their command. They seem not to keep anything in reserve which they can make use of later on at their leisure. They are indeed candid and open-hearted-traits which sometimes seem wanting in the Orientals. But they certainly lack the unfathomableness of the latter, who never seem to be enthusiastic, clamorous, or irrepressible. The teaching of Lao-tze or that of the Bhagavadgîta was not surely intended for the Western nations. Of course, there are exceptions in the West as well as in the East. Generally
speaking, however, the West is energetic, and the East mystical; for the latter's ideal is to be incomprehensible, immeasurable, and undemonstrative even as an absolute being itself. And the practice of dhyâna may be considered in a way one of the methods of realizing this ideal.
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In the Chandradîpa-samâdhi Sûtra, the benefits of dhyâna-practice are enumerated as follows: (1) When a man practises dhyâna according to the regulation, all his senses become calm and serene, and, without knowing it on his part, he begins to enjoy the habit. (2) Lovingkindness will take possession of his heart, which, then freeing itself from sinfulness, looks upon all sentient beings as his brothers and sisters. (3) Such poisonous and harassing passions as anger, infatuation, avarice, etc., gradually retire from the field of consciousness. (4) Having a close watch over all the senses, dhyâna guards them against the intrusion of evils. (5) Being pure in heart and serene in disposition, the practiser of dhyâna feels no inordinate appetite in lower passions. (6) The mind being concentrated on higher thoughts, all sorts of temptation and attachment and egotism are kept away. (7) Though he well knows the emptiness of vanity, he does not fall into the snare of nihilism. (8) However entangling the nets of birth and death, he is well aware of the way to deliverance therefrom. (9) Having fathomed the deepest depths
of the Dharma, he abides in the wisdom of Buddha. (10) As he is not disturbed by any temptation, he feels like an eagle that, having escaped from imprisonment, freely wings his flight through the air,
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The practice of dhyâna is often confounded with a trance or self-hypnotism,--a grave error which I here propose to refute. The difference between the two is patent to every clear-sighted mind, for a trance is a pathological disturbance of consciousness, while dhyâna is a perfectly normal state of it. Trance is a kind of self-illusion which is entirely subjective and cannot be objectively verified, but dhyâna is a state of consciousness in which all mental powers are kept in equilibrium so that no one thought or faculty is made predominant over others. It is like the pacification of turbulent waters by pouring oil over them: no waves are roaring, no foams are boiling, no splashes are spattering, but a smooth, glossy mirror of immense dimension. And it is in this perfect mirror of consciousness that myriads of reflections, as it were, come and go without ever disturbing its serenity. In trances certain mental and physiological functions are unduly accelerated, while others are kept altogether in abeyance, the whole system of consciousness thus being thrown into disorder; and its outcome is the loss of equilibrium in the organism--which is very
opposite to what is attained through the practice of dhyâna.
Again, some superficial critics think that Buddhist dhyâna is a sort of intense meditation on some highly abstracted thoughts, and that the concentration which works in the same way as self-hypnotism leads the mind to the state of a trance, called Nirvâna. This is a very grievous error committed by those who have never comprehended the essence of religious consciousness, for Buddhist dhyâna has nothing to do with abstraction or hypnotization. What it proposes to accomplish is to make our consciousness realize the inner reason of the universe which abides in our minds. Dhyâna strives to make us acquainted with the most concrete and withal the most universal fact of life. It is the philosopher's business to deal with dry, lifeless, uninteresting generalizations. Buddhists are not concerned with things like that. They want to see the fact directly and not through the medium of philosophical abstractions. There may be a god who created heaven and earth, or there may not; we could be saved by simply believing in his goodness, or we could not; the destination of evil-doers may be hell and that of good men paradise, or this may be reversed: true Buddhists do not trouble themselves with such propositions as these. Let them well alone; Buddhists are not so idle and superficial as to waste their time in pondering over the questions which have no
vital concern with our religious life. Buddhists through dhyâna endeavor to reach the bottom of things and there to grasp with their own hands the very life of the universe, which makes the sun rise in the morning, makes the bird cheerfully sing in the balmy spring breeze, and also makes the biped called man hunger for love, righteousness, liberty, truth, and goodness. In dhyâna, therefore, there is nothing abstract, nothing dry as a bone and cold as a corpse, but all animation, all activity, and eternal revelation.
Some Hindu philosophers, however, seem to have considered hallucinations and self-suggested states of mind as real and the attainment of them as the aim of dhyâna, practice. Their conception of the eightfold dhyâna-heaven in which all sorts of angels are living is evidence of it. When the mythical beings in those regions practise dhyâna, they enter into different stages of samâdhi. They first come to think that they are lifted up in the air like a cloud; (2) they feel the presence of some indescribable luminosity; (3) they experience a supernatural joy; (4) their minds become so clarified and transparent as to reflect all the worlds like a very brilliant mirror; (5) they feel as if the soul has escaped bodily confinement and expanded itself to the immensity of space; (6) they now come back to a definite state of consciousness in which all mental functions are presented and the past and present and future reveal themselves; (7)
they then have the feeling of absolute nothingness, in which not a ripple of mentation stirs; (8) lastly, they are not conscious of anything particular, nor have they lost consciousness, and here they are said to have reached the highest stage of samâdhi.
But according to Buddhism all these visionary phenomena as the outcome of dhyâna are rejected, for they have nothing to do with the realization of the religious life. In the Çûrangâma Sûtra fifty abnormal conditions of consciousness are mentioned against which the practiser of dhyâna has to guard himself, and among them we find those psychical aberrations mentioned above.
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To conclude. Dhyâna, beside its being an indispensable religious discipline for attaining enlightenment, is one of the most efficient means of training oneself morally and physically. It is beyond question that dhyâna leads to the awakening of a hidden spiritual faculty possessed by all conscious beings and to the realization of one's spiritual significance in spite of the various material limitations. But, apart from this religious importance, dhyâna is singularly effective in the tranquillization. of the mind, the purification of the heart, as well as in the relaxation of the nervous tension. A man will never realize, until he is thoroughly trained in dhyâna, how confused and entangled his thoughts are, how susceptible he is and how
easily his mind is unbalanced, how soon his nervous force in reserve is exhausted and his entire system is given up to an utter breakdown, how fully his senses are occupied in seeking excitement and gratification, and finally how neglectful he has been in the promotion of higher and nobler interests of life and in the cultivation of refined thoughts and purer feelings. Dhyâna, therefore, whatever its religious merits, is not devoid of its practical utilities and even for this reason alone its exercise is universally to be recommended.