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Chi-I - An Introduction to His Life and Work

by Kamalashila

... and his writing. Chih-i’s main writings are
his two works on the ‘White Lotus Sutra’ – the ‘Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra’
and the ‘Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra’ – plus his main work on meditation,
called ‘The Great Samatha and Vipassana’. The meditation text we draw inspiration
from in the FWBO, ‘Dhyana for Beginners’, is one of his many shorter works: its title
could as well be rendered ‘The Lesser Samatha and Vipassana’.

‘Dhyana for Beginners’, as I’ll call it, was especially influential throughout East Asian
Buddhism. It had a crucial influence on the development of the Ch’an school, for
example. In the 8th century it was virtually copied by the Ch’an in an effort to strengthen
a deteriorated practice of sitting meditation. At least one scholar believes that ‘Dhyana
for Beginners’ became the basis for all Ch’an and Zen meditation manuals thereafter,
including those of Dogen. This was the kind of effect Chih-i had. The Ch’an school grew
up under the massive shadow of Chih-i’s work and was forced either to react against or
borrow from it. In the end what the Ch’an school borrowed were Chih-i’s principles of
meditation, and what it reacted against was Chih-i’s interpretations of Buddhist doctrine.
So what were these? What did Chih-i teach?

As we have seen, the main inspiration for Chih-i’s spiritual life came from the ‘White
Lotus Sutra’ and of course the Lotus samadhi that he had realised. Chih-i in fact saw the
‘White Lotus Sutra’ as offering the fullest, most complete teaching of the Dharma. He
was also living at a historical juncture with one characteristic similar to our own: the vital
issue then, as now, was the assimilation of Buddhism into the prevailing culture. So many
scriptures had been translated into Chinese. So many generations of people had diligently
practised the Dharma. There were so many monasteries, so many study groups based
around particular texts. Coming out of those interests were the beginnings of different
Buddhist schools. But there had never been anyone with Chih-i’s intellectual and spiritual
capacity, no-one with his ability to look at Buddhism as a whole. No-one else had had his
encylopaedic mind, his capability to read, contemplate and meditate upon all the
translated literature that had become available. And not only that – not only to take it all
in and test it out in practice – but also, most importantly – to re-vision it. Chih-i
re-visioned the Dharma in China, and for the Far East in general. That is how his spirit
parallels Bhante’s, and that is, I presume, why he is on our refuge tree. He re-visioned the
Dharma: in other words saw the Buddha’s vision for himself, then promoted a new vision
of the Buddha’s vision which could inspire people in a new way. That vision was
fundamentally that of the ‘White Lotus Sutra’, but what Chih-i did was to apply that
vision, to integrate it with the rest of the Dharma that had come from India. The message
of ‘White Lotus Sutra’ is that the Buddha is eternal. This does not mean that behind
everything there is one great Buddha, who is in fact a kind of Creator God. The Buddha
being eternal means not only that Enlightenment or Reality is beyond time, but that
gaining Enlightenment does not put one beyond recall. In other words Enlightenment is
not some kind of black hole of timelessness into which the Enlightened person
disappears, never to be seen again.

There is a parable in ‘White Lotus Sutra’ about a physician who fakes his own death in
order to bring his foolish sons to their senses sufficiently for them to take the medicine
that will cure them of their foolishness. This is, of course, the medicine of the Dharma,
and we are the foolish sons who have yet to swallow it – we who understand,
theoretically, that the Buddha was Enlightened, but, being ourselves unenlightened,
cannot really understand what that means. We therefore do not understand where the
Buddha has ‘gone’. If we are not careful we may start thinking of the Buddha as being
dead, just part of history. Even though we know that his death is no ordinary death, that it
is a parinirvana, yet still for us he is ‘gone’ – we cannot help wondering where, if
anywhere, he is. We cannot help wondering: if so many beings throughout history are
supposed to have gained Enlightenment, where are they now? The Buddhas do not seem
to us to be around, and the world seems as pain-filled as ever. Yet the White Lotus
Sutra affirms that they have not gone away, like so many absent fathers. All
unenlightened beings create their own worlds of suffering. That is why the world appears
as it does, and even Buddhas can do nothing about it. The Buddhas are not all-powerful;
they are not Creator Gods; nor have they ‘gone away’. The primordial Buddha is still
here to be revealed in his stupa, as he has always been and always will be, just waiting for
the ‘White Lotus Sutra’ to be proclaimed. The nature of Enlightenment may be beyond
our ordinary human understanding, but that does not mean it is non-existent, or that it is
in some beyond our ordinary human understanding, but that does not mean it is non-
existent, or that it is in some way cut off or disconnected from the human realm. The
spirit of Enlightenment exists as a positive force in the universe – not in any way that can
be caught and measured quantitively, but it’s there, nonetheless. In fact it’s there, at least
potentially, in all of us. It’s as though each of us had a precious jewel sewn into the hem
of our garment quite unknowingly – it’s as though each of us was desperately poor,
unaware that we are in fact rich beyond our wildest dreams. The Buddha Nature is a
potential that anyone can awaken – says the Lotus Sutra.

And the Lotus Sutra also says that the universe within which the Buddha Nature can be
awakened – the universe that we see when we come to our senses, when we drink the
medicine of the Great Physician, when we drink the elixir of eternal Buddhahood – this
universe is one in which everything interpenetrates everything else. Everything is
interconnected with and even contains everything else; everything is simultaneous with
everything else. Everything that is happening anywhere and at any time is happening
right here, and right now.

And since everything in the universe is of this nature, so also is the Dharma of this
simultaneous, interconnected nature. According to Bhante’s lectures on the ‘White Lotus
Sutra’, one cannot fully understand any one aspect of the Dharma without coming to
understand the whole of it at once. Looking at it in another way, everything we hear
that’s new about the Dharma demands a review of everything we previously knew about
the Dharma, and each new insight modifies all our previous insights.

In writing this talk it’s been very interesting to discover how much Bhante’s choices of
subject for lecture series overlap with Chih-i’s: ‘The Vimalakirti Nirdesa’, and ‘The Sutra
of Golden Light’, as well of course as ‘The ‘White Lotus Sutra’, were all important for
Chih-i. No doubt the overlappings are simply because both men have seen the importance
of the same material for the full presentation of the Buddha-Dharma. Like the Tibetans,
the Chinese were forever travelling back and forth from India, bringing back material for
translation. Like the Tibetans – and us in the West too – Chih-i inherited the vast bulk of
the Indian Tipitaka and commentaries. I’m not sure exactly how much of it he inherited,
but clearly he was aware of a considerable range, and clearly he felt it necessary to offer
some perspective on it all. Were all the sutras to be considered of equal importance, or
were some more important than others? And important to whom? Were all the different
teachings contained in all the different sutras to be considered equally useful to all
practitioners of the Dharma?

Clearly they are not. Clearly, different practitioners have different aptitudes, they have
different capacities for understanding, they possess different degrees of openness, they
differ in their ability to apply the Dharma in their own lives, they differ – in other words
– with respect to the level at which they are Going for Refuge, and in their readiness to
Go for Refuge at another, deeper, level. So Chih-i took all the material that was available,
and he arranged it in accordance with criteria which compared the depth of the teaching
concerned wth the capacities of those for whom it was intended.

In this classification he considered the most complete, most developed, teachings of the
Buddha to have been given in the ‘White Lotus Sutra’, and to a lesser extent in the
Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Chih-i’s main interest in classifying the scriptures seems to have
been in discovering what the Buddha was actually trying to communicate in these
scriptures, and what their relevance was to the people of his day and age. We might say
his approach was ‘ultraistic’, in that ...

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