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Dhyana for Beginners - Volume 1

DISCLAIMER - This transcript has not been checked by Sangharakshita, and may contain mistakes and mishearings. Checked and reprinted copies of all seminars will be available as part of the Complete Works Project.

by Sangharakshita

Dhyana for Beginners seminar with Sangharakshita (unedited transcript)

Using the text in A Buddhist Bible (pp.437 et seq in the 1970 edition. Unfortunately not all editions of the Buddhist Bible contain this text.), ed. Dwight Goddard, and available on-line at www.buddhistinformation.com/dhyana.htm

Sangharakshita also refers to a translation by Charles Luk: Secrets of Chinese Meditation, pp.111 et seq, Rider 1975.

The on-line version has been inserted into this digitized version of the transcript; there might be minor differences between that and the version under discussion.

According to the FWBO Newsletter dated summer 1975, this seminar was held at Nash, a large house near Steyning in Sussex, and lasted ten days, from 23 June to 3 July 1975.

As well as Sangharakshita, those present included Abhaya, Buddhadasa, John Kerr, Lokamitra, Nagabodhi, Padmaraja, Dave Featherby, Ratnapani, Sagaramati, Sona, Vajradaka, Vajrakumara, and Vessantara. (Dave Featherby was ordained as Padmapani three weeks after this retreat, and the transcriber has used his Order name throughout.)

John Kerr took very little part in the discussion and the transcriber was unable to identify his voice. Vajrakumara probably accounts for most of the "Voice" credits in the margin: his was a very quiet voice, often inaudible.

The name(s) of the original transcriber(s) remain(s) unknown.

Digitized and annotated by Shantavira with assistance from Ashvajit.

Extracts from the actual text (only) are in "double quotes".

The start of each page is numbered according to the original transcript.

[1] [Tape 1 Side A]

Dhyana for Beginners

S: This morning we are going to start on 'Dhyana for Beginners', page 437 in the Buddhist Bible.

I am just wondering whether I should say a few words about the T'ien-tai school. I wonder how many people are familiar, or rather not familiar, with the T'ien-tai school of Chinese Buddhism? Does it convey anything to anybody? Perhaps I'd better just say a few words about it, though it won't be possible to give anything more than just a very general impression.

Buddhism was introduced into China quite early. There seems to have been some penetration of Buddhism into China as early as the first century of the Christian era, and from that time, say for four, five, even six hundred years, Buddhist teachers and Buddhist texts continued steadily to pour in from India, also from central Asia. So that by the time that this particular text, 'Dhyana for Beginners', came to be written, or rather the lecture on which it was based came to be delivered, Buddhism, we may say, was in a quite flourishing state in China. It was not only flourishing but it was quite young, as it were, it hadn't settled into any very definite form, it was still a bit fragmentary and still therefore perhaps quite lively, and the T'ien-tai school may be regarded on the whole as a sort of systematizing school.

The T'ien-tai school isn't a sect; I'm using the world school quite deliberately. It had no sort of sectarian emphasis. We could even say that the T'ien-tai school was just a sort of tidying up movement of all the Buddhist teachings and texts which had by that time been introduced into China. It was an attempt to arrange them in some sort of order. If you like, it was an attempt to organize, even, some, at least, of the vast mass of material, spiritual and cultural, that had poured into China, either directly or indirectly from India. So the T'ien-tai school is primarily, one may say, a systematizing school, both on the theoretical side and also on the practical side. It tries to organize the whole vast mass of Buddhist material introduced up to that time into China into a coherent whole. This I think is its distinctive feature, and Chih-i or Chih-chi, I'm not quite sure how to pronounce it, is the greatest master of this particular school, the T'ien-tai school.

Chih-chi himself was not the founder of the school; technically he was the fifth patriarch of the school, but he became very, very much better known than any of his predecessors and may be described as the virtual founder of the school, though he wasn't technically the founder of it, [2] and he spent much of his life, much of his time, on the Tien-tai mountain. It was there that he established a great centre which became the sort of headquarters of the whole school, the whole movement, and he delivered many of his lectures there, wrote many of his works there, gathered his disciples together there. So the T'ien-tai school was a sort of encyclopedic movement. I'm not going to go into the details of Chih-chi's teachings. He systematized the sutras, the Buddha's teachings, in a very interesting way. I'm not going to go into all that. I think it's sufficient to indicate that the T'ien-tai school, and especially the work of Chih-chi himself, was simply an attempt to systematize the whole Buddhist tradition as known at that time in China, both on the theoretical and on the practical side, and that there was no sectarian emphasis. This particular tendency comes out very strongly in the work that we are going to go through now: 'Dhyana for Beginners'. It's quite basic, as it were, it's basic Buddhist material, and though it is produced in China, a thousand years after the time of the Buddha, in many ways it's remarkably faithful to the original teaching.

There are quotations from Mahayana sutras, there are definite Mahayana touches, one could even say the whole spirit of the text is Mahayanistic, but these Mahayana mystic elements give, as it were, an extra depth to the original tradition rather than representing any departure from it. So in a way the whole text is a rather beautiful blending of the Hinayana and Mahayana elements. Incidentally there is nothing of the Tantra because at this stage Tantric Buddhism had not developed, at least had not come out into the open. So we have quite a wonderful blend of Hinayana and Mahayana; a sort of balance. We are definitely in touch with the older teachings or the older formulation of the teaching, that is to say the Hinayana formulation, but the spirit of the Mahayana is there too.

It could also perhaps be mentioned that both the Pure Land and the Ch'an or Zen development of Far Eastern Buddhism began virtually under the auspices of the T'ien-tai school. The T'ien-tai school also encouraged the recitation of the name of Amitabha. It also encouraged quiet sitting and meditation. And these tendencies, becoming more and more specialized and perhaps a little sectarian, eventually gave birth to the Pure Land school and the Ch'an or Zen school. But originally they were part and parcel of the great Tien-tai movement.

So in this way we see that the Tien-tai movement is not very different in a way from our own movement, and it provides us in some ways with a [3] quite interesting historical exemplar and model.

The T'ien-tai school and especially Chih-chi seems to have performed a great sorting out operation, which in some respects is what we are also trying to do so far as Buddhism in this country is concerned.

Anyway this is just a very rough introductory sketch. If anyone wants any further information about the T'ien-tai school he'll find it in, first of all, Sir Charles Elliot's 'Buddhism and Hinduism'. Also in Takakusu's 'Essentials of Buddhist philosophy' and Yamakami Sogen's 'Systems of Buddhist Thought'. Do you want me to repeat those?

Voice: Yes, please.

S: Sir Charles Elliot, 'Hinduism and Buddhism'. Then Takakusu 'Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy'. And lastly, there's a very old but still quite good and reliable book - there's a copy in the Order Library at Aryatara - Yamakami Sogen 'The Systems of Buddhist Thought'. There are also some translations in, I think it's 'Origins of Chinese Tradition'. It's a big thick volume of translations published in America. [Possibly 'Sources of Chinese Tradition', 2 vols, Columbia University Press, tr.]

I have sometimes thought that some time I should give a lecture on the T'ien-tai school. It's quite a big gap in our knowledge I think.

Voice: [unclear] [laughter]

S: That would be rather naughty wouldn't it? Anyone want to ask anything about what I have said so far about the T'ien-tai school? Or about Chi-chi or Chi-chi? [two different pronunciations used]. Remember that we're in the very early, very creative days of Chinese Buddhism. China is beginning to make its original contribution, as it were, to the development of Buddhism. Mm? Mm? There's a sort of outburst of spiritual energy. China isn't just taking in any more, just accepting, but has started to assimilate and started to express something of its own understanding of Buddhism in its own way.

Voice: Do you think there are any other parallels between Tien-tai and [unclear] [4]

S: No, I think that they're all more detailed forms of what I've already said, and more sort of specialized examples of what I've already said. We, of course, as yet haven't found any mountains to go to. [laughter]

Nagabodhi: Was it called the T'ien-tai school in the time of the Fifth Patriarch or was it something else?

S: This seems to be a later designation. Mm.

Voice: Is it Tien-dai or Tien-Tai?

S: Tien-Tai. It meant great heaven, great heaven mountains. In Japanese it becomes Ten-dai. The Tien-dai school was introduced into Japan. It was of considerable importance there for several hundred years until the rise of the more sectarian forms of Buddhism, especially Shin and Zen.

It is one of the great features, not only of the T'ien-tai school or movement, but of Chinese Buddhism generally, certainly during the whole classical period, ...

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