Thursday, July 09, 2009

Samadhi and Prajna

Here's my translation of the opening section of Chapter 4 of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor Huineng.

Platform Sutra

Chapter 4 Samadhi and Prajna

The master instructed the assembly and said, "Learned and virtuous ones, In this Dharma door of ours samadhi and prajna are considered to be the root. Great assembly, do not be confused. The words “samadhi” and “prajna” are different, but samadhi and prajna are one substance and are not two. Samadhi is the substance of prajna; prajna is the function of samadhi. Immediately at the time of prajna, samadhi is in prajna. Immediately at the time of samadhi, prajna is in samadhi. If one knows this meaning, then samadhi and prajna are equally learned. You various people who study the Way, do not say, 'First samadhi, then comes prajna,' or 'First prajna, then comes samadhi,' to separate them. Those with this view make the Dharma have the characteristic of duality.

"When the mouth speaks virtuous words but the heart-mind is not virtuous, in vain does one have samadhi and prajna, and samadhi and prajna are not equal. If the heart-mind and mouth are virtuous together, then the inner and outer are one thusness, and samadhi and prajna then are equal. When awakening for oneself and cultivating practice, do not be involved in disputes. If one disputes before or after, then one is the same as a deluded person who does not cut off winning and losing, still enlarging the Dharma of “I” and not separating from the four characteristics."


I translated this section in response to a discussion about samatha and vipassana in which I was pointing out that in the Zen view as expressed by Huineng, samatha and vipassana, like samadhi and prajna, cannot be separated. Several people challenged this view of the identity of samatha with samadhi and vipassana with prajna so I presented the following to show that I'm not a nutcase just making these things up.

Here's my post on this issue.


So what is the connection between samatha-vipassana and samadhi-prajna? Are they two different things or the same thing from two orientations or perspectives?

Samatha and samadhi refer to the same thing in the way that cattle and beef refer to the same thing. Though they are two different words, cattle is beef on the hoof, and beef is cattle on the plate. In the same way, though they are two different words, samatha is the method or process of samadhi, and samadhi is the realization, actualization or state of mind (or state of being) of samatha. Samatha-vipassana are the methodological terms and samadhi-prajna are the ontological terms of the same Dharma thing.

Samatha means “stopping” or “calming” and is used in the sense that the waves of the ocean are stopped or calmed when the sea becomes placid. What is stopped and calmed in the method or process of samatha are the delusions of the waves of dualistic thinking and differentiation in the ocean of the Alayavijnana, i.e. one’s own nature or mind. Samadhi may be appropriately translated as “absorption” or “concentration” in the sense that waves are absorbed or concentrated and is a total or complete occupation of mind without the disturbance of oppositions or dualistic thinking. The state of mind called samadhi is the absorption or concentration of mind that ocures when the waves of dualistic thinking have been stopped or calmed, i.e., in samatha.

In "A Honed and Heavy Ax, Samatha and Vpassana in Harmony" Ajahn Chandako says, "Before proceeding further it may be helpful to clarify some terms. Samatha is virtually synonymous with samadhi: peaceful, focused attention or concentration."

The same holds for the two words vipassana and prajna, which though they are two different words refer to the same "thing" from different perspectives, i.e., vipassana from the methodological and prajna from the ontological perspectives.

In the history of Buddhism, when the focus was on the methodology the discussion tended to discuss samatha and vipassana and when the focus was on the state of being or mind, then the discussion focused on samadhi and prajna. The Pali Suttas preferred the terms samatha and vipassana to discuss meditation practice because they focused on method. In the Mahayana Sutras, compared to the frequent use of the terms samadhi and prajna, it is rare to find the terms samatha and vipassana used. This is because of the perspective of the Mahayana focusing on the realization or state of being rather than on the meditation techniques of samatha and vipassana. This distinction in the orientation of discussion is something that distinguishes the Mahayana from the Theravada and leads to some difficulty in discussions when people from one of the two traditions don’t acknowledge the different perspective or orientation of the other.

In China, both Buddhist traditions of the Early Schools and the Mahayana were imported and it is very interesting to see how the great synthesizer Zhiyi (W-G, Chih-i) brought them together in the Tiantai school analysis. Though he was a committed Mahayanist and placed supreme importance on the Lotus Sutra, Zhiyi was also entirely committed to the samatha-vipassana (zhi-guan) meditation as taught in the Agamas (the Sanskrit version of the Pali Suttas). One of Zhiyi’s most famous works, mostly known in the West by the Wade-Giles romanization of the title “Mo-ho Chih-kuan” (Mo-ho is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskit Maha meaning great), is dedicated to teaching zhiguan (chih-kuan) mediation. Zhiyi emphasized that meditation was essential to the practice of Buddhism and that sutra study alone makes a dead-letter Buddhism, but also vice versa, meditation without Buddhist study was also one sided. Zhiyi’s great vision recognized samatha-vipassana as the core of Buddhist meditation and he presented his comprehensive view in this opus on meditation.

For those who may imagine that I make up such things as the correlation of samatha-vipassana and samadhi-prajna, here’s an excerpt from a paper by Professor Daniel B. Stevenson, a scholar and translator of Zhiyi, from the University of Kansas that was presented as part of the education program of the Ch'an Meditation Center, Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture.

Selections from Chi-i's Great Calming and Contemplation

The selections that follow are taken from the Mo-ho chih-kuan or "Great Calming and Contemplation," a massive treatise on meditation edited by Kuan-ting from lectures of the T'ien-t'ai patriarch Chih-i (538-597). The Mo-ho chih-kuan is revered along with the Fa-hua wen-chu ("Words and Phrases of the Lotus Satra") and Fa-hua hsuan-i ("The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra") as one of the "three great treatises of T'ien-t'ai." However, where the latter two treatises are mainly explanatory or analytic works concerned with articulating the doctrinal implications of the Lotus Sutra, the Great Calming and Contemplation is a work of meditation. This affiliation is indicated by the use of the terms "calming" (chih) and "contemplation" (kuan) in its title. Chih and kuan are the Chinese equivalent of the Sanskrit samatha and vipasyana -- the two key terms around which Indian Buddhists traditionally organized the diverse techniques for cultivating meditative concentration (samadhi) and liberative wisdom (prajna).

Here’s the table from a Tiantai website showing the relation between samatha-vipassana and samadhi-prajna in a table desciption of the title of the “Mo-ho Chih-Kuan”

The Meaning of the Title:
Chinese---Japanese---Sanskrit----Meaning---Resulting in:
Mo-Ho---Maka------Maha-------Great-----The Great Vehicle
Chih------Shi--------Samatha-----Calm,---- Samadhi; Meditation,
.....................................................................Serenity, ............Singleness of Mind,
.....................................................................Inner Silence.......Mental Concentration
Kuan-----Kan-------Vipasyana--Observation-- Prajna;
......................................................................of the Mind,........Spiritual Insight,
......................................................................Contemplation.....Illumination of
............................................................................................the Spiritual Realm

Again, in a synthesis of the Early Schools and Mahayana, Zhiyi taught that there were three kinds of zhiguan (samatha-vipassana) (1) the gradual and sequential, (2) the variable, and (3) the perfect and sudden. The “perfect and sudden zhiguan” is in fact chan (zen) meditation. or chan/zen samadhi-prajna as taught by Huineng. Here’s the description of the perfect and sudden zhiguan from Kuan-ting's introduction to the Mo-ho Chih-kuan :

The perfect and sudden calming and contemplation from the very beginning takes ultimate reality (shih-hsiang) as its object. No matter what the object of contemplation might be, it is seen to be identical to the middle. There is here nothing that is not true reality (chen-shih). When one fixes [the mind] on the dharmadhatu [as object] and unifies one's mindfulness with the dharmadhatu [as it is], then there is not a single sight nor smell that is not the middle way. The same goes for the realm of self, the realm of Buddha, and the realm of living beings. Since all aggregates (skandha) and sense-acceses (ayatana) [of body and mind] are thusness, there is no suffering to be cast away. Since nescience and the afflictions are themselves identical with enlightenment (bodhi), there is no origin of suffering to be eradicated. Since the two extreme views are the middle way and false views are the right view, there is no path to be cultivated. Since samsara is identical with nirvana, there is no cessation to be achieved. Because of the [intrinsic] inexistence of suffering and its origin, the mundane does not exist; because of the inexistence of the path and cessation, the supramundane does not exist. A single, unalloyed reality (shih-hsiang) is all there is--no entities whatever exist outside of it. That all entities are by nature quiescent (chi) is called "calming" (chih); that, though quiescent, this nature is ever luminous (chao), is called "contemplation" (kuan). Though a verbal distinction is made between earlier and later stages of practice, there is ultimately no duality, no distinction between them. This is what is called the "perfect and sudden calming and contemplation." [Footnote references removed.]

At some point in Buddhist history samatha and vipassana began to be taught as separate paths or vehicles (yanas). Even today for example, one can find practitioners of Vipassana in the USA who have no idea what samatha is about and who would say that they leaned vipassana without ever being taught samatha. Huineng’s teaching on the identity of samadhi and prajna is given in this context of a mistaken Dharma that would separate samatha from vipassana or samadhi from prajna and create a dualistic view of Dharma.

Here’s an example from a modern day Dharma talk titled Benefits of Meditation by the Zen teacher Ven. Jian-Hu, given on January 5, 2002 during the Zen-Seven Day Retreat at Buddha Gate Monastery discussing the relationship of samatha and samadhi and vipassana and wisdom (prajna).

What is the purpose of meditation? How do you practice meditation? What are the different types of meditation? There are many different types of meditation but they all fall into two categories. One is to concentrate the mind, to make your mind still, calm, and focused. The other is to make the mind observant and able to contemplate clearly. Sometimes the terms samatha and vipassana are used. Samatha means to calm, to still, to focus, or to stop the mind. Vipassana means to perceive, to reflect, or to contemplate. Vipassana has also been translated as “insight”. These are the two general types of meditation. Both are important.

While you are practicing the breath counting method, you are focusing on the breath and nothing else. That is samatha or concentration. Your mind never leaves the breath. Every number that you count, you are counting it single-mindedly. When you are counting the numbers your mind should be very clear; for every number that you bring forth from your mind (1, 2, 3, etc), you should put your full attention on it. When you are counting the numbers clearly without getting mixed up, that is vipassana. What is the benefit of samatha practice? Practicing samatha results in samadhi, a state of deep concentration. What is the benefit of practicing vipassana—perception, reflection, or contemplation? It is wisdom. Wisdom is a result of practicing vipassana.

We should understand that depending on what we are contemplating, we might obtain either secular wisdom or prajña wisdom. So everything we do in life, the skills we’ve learned and the knowledge we’ve acquired, those come from keen observation or insight. Being able to observe the principle, to understand the principles, to see phenomena clearly, that is vipassana. To observe or perceive clearly or correctly brings us wisdom. However, if we reflect on our mind, we turn our attention inward. That kind of observation, reflection and contemplation can bring us prajña. Prajña is the kind of wisdom that can cut through all the delusions we have, that can even help us to understand and transcend life and death. So it is important to know what you do during sitting meditation.

Ven. Jian-Hu clearly and exactly echos Huineng when he says,

Finally, we should realize that samatha and vipassana are one and not two. While being mindful of the breathing, the fact that your mind or attention doesn’t stray, that is called samatha. The fact that you can observe clearly and carefully very minute details of the breathing, that is vipassana. As a result, you will achieve samadhi, wisdom [i.e., prajna], and the four benefits of meditation. You need to have faith in the teaching, in the Dharma, and in yourself. Even in these seven days, you can do it. [Italics and brackets are inserted]

I hope that it will be clear from these various references to Theravada, Tiantai, and Zen traditions that samatha-vipassana and samadhi-prajna are indeed referring to the same thing, i.e., the processes of mind and meditation, and that the only significant difference is in the two points of view that may be characterized as the two perspectives of methodology and ontology.



Anonymous said...


Are you saying that all we need do is meditate - there is no additional practice of prajna?

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Dear Anonymous, I don't understand the presumption in your question or how you might think that question is derived from what was written. Do you care to explain more clearly? thanks.

Bananananda said...

Excellent! I'm gratified to have my own "insight" confirmed. Your post is a lovely distillation of the issue.
More power to you, sir!