About the Chen Yen Meditation Tradition

Shifu Nagaboshi

Meditation practice has developed many forms of training which lie perhaps at an opposite end of the spectrum to learned, intellectual knowledge. In our group we view all meditations as falling into one of two realms: those ‘with structure’ and those ‘without structure’.The meditations ‘with structure’ are embraced by many of the World’s religious systems and although sometimes very different in practice requirements, they do accept the importance of inner rather than outer knowledge.Meditation within Christianity, especially in the Russian Church, often includes prayer repetition together with contemplation upon some aspect of the central Divinity, e.g., the compassion of God, the nature of Jesus, or specific attributes of saints. There are also many forms of concentrative prayer involving continued recital in a manner similar to Oriental systems.

In Judaism, love of the Torah (the books expressing the teachings of the God through Moses) thematises a central point for contemplation.

In India, the followers of the Vedas practice meditation upon universal principles and qualities, conceiving these qualities as emanations of their central Divinity.

All of these forms of meditation are externally orientated in that they conceive or presuppose that spiritual development comes from an understanding of, or communication with, something external to the practitioners’ consciousness. However diverse these practices, most involved spiritual systems do acknowledge that the understanding developed within meditation or some similar supra-intellectual practice is useful and relevant to the development of spiritual perception. They all clearly recognise that Wisdom can be developed out of the context of formal knowledge, and that Compassion also can be developed out of the ordinary social or hospital services environment.

The extreme differences within the various schools of practice invariably stem only from their descriptions of, or orientation towards, the understanding of the practice itself. What one calls ‘the will of God’ another views as ‘inward perception’. While one conceives World peace as being borne of the ‘Spirit of Krishna’ , another views it as the manifestation of ‘Eternal Law’ as revealed by prophets.

Within the schools of Mahayana Buddhism there are also practices ‘with structure’ similar to those of non-Buddhist teachings. In Shin Buddhism Enlightenment is viewed as developing from within the faith inspired by Amida Buddha. In other sects who follow the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, faith is also a central virtue to be accrued. There are many other newer religious systems in Japan sharing this orientation.

Sometimes, although some form of faith is required, the object of faith itself is not described at all. In Taoism the ‘Way’ is viewed as being manifest in any experience or situation and Taoism expresses itself in non-expression. To quote the opening lines of the “Tao te Ching” : “The Way that can be spoken of is not the Eternal Tao”. The higher, non-superstitious, forms of Taoism accord with this ideal. Taoism shares this principle of non description with the meditational schools of the other category mentioned, that of the ‘non structured’.

The Buddhist schools that express this ideal perfectly are those of the Ch’an sect and those of the Chen Yen. Within Ch’an (Zen) meditation practice itself it is seen as the apex of all Buddhist understanding. Despite the influence of Pure Land Buddhism upon its Chinese form the modern and Japanese Zen schools hold true to this tenet. No representation of the Buddha is needed in practice and Zen temples are renowned for their austerity and simplicity.

The Chen Yen (Shingon) school attains the same end by a different process. In its meditations great use of both structured and unstructured meditation is made but these are viewed as being equally valueless predicates of the reality experienced within the attainment of Wisdom. Both Ch’an and Chen Yen base their teachings around the doctrine of self-lessness (muga). Their teachings are only methods and means to attain this self-lessness. Within Chen Yen, ritual plays an important part of the training, although many of the rituals are in fact seen as meditation practices in themselves. This fact differentiates Chen Yen ritual from other schools using ritual observances.

Zen sects also use a great number of rituals, although in many of the popular books one reads very little mention of this is made. The Zen temple practices many diverse forms of rituals through its year. The manner in which Zen views ritual is the same as in other sects, only the Chen Yen considers it differently.

Chen Yen sees the principle of Enlightenment in every manifestation. It is represented in various symbolic manners, most commonly in the form of Vairochana Buddha. Vairochana is present everywhere. He is the synonym for the universal enlightenment of all beings. He epitomises their ability to attain complete and perfect wisdom within this lifetime and within this body. Only the Chen Yen school considers itself esoteric. It views all others as exoteric in nature. A parallel can be drawn to the Ch’an school in the practice of the Christian Trappist monks who follow a very similar form of training involving silence, abstention and devotion. The Chen Yen school however has no real parallel in any other system except perhaps simple Shamanism or European occultism. Because both Ch’an and Chen Yen begin from the point of agelessness in action, they can incorporate many other things into their practices without compromising their essential doctrine. They are free to do so by virtue of the teaching that everything should be seen as potentially wisdom-enclosing and self-less in nature. Because of this freedom Chen Yen and Ch’an have in fact taken different forms through history. They preserved their teachings within periods of history inimical to Buddhism in general. They developed adaptability and a non-reliance upon either centralised organisation or authorised scriptures.

Chen Yen uses elaborate rituals of Initiation and Empowerment to express development in understanding. It upholds the concept of one’s teacher being equivalent to the aspired for Wisdom but because of its selflessness base, the concept of this wisdom – as distinct from the attainment of it – is seen as universal in essence. Thus anything can be used as a skilful means to develop the Bodhisattva heart, ritualistic or not.

Chen Yen is part of the Diamond Vehicle training. This Vehicle is described as ultimate, formless and inexpressible in nature. Chen Yen school uses what is present within one’s selfhood to attain this non-selfish formlessness, it exhausts and develops the spirit of non-attachment to both concepts and experiences equally. No doubt there are many elements within Chen Yen which have no place there at all, as indeed within Ch’an also, however, as Chen Yen teachers say, the only way to really understand its teaching is to practice it.

Meditation within Ch’an teaching takes one form, in Chen Yen it takes hundreds, according to sect and Master. There is a broad base upon which most sects agree. A great deal of visualisation technique is utilised. Students are taught how to create certain colours, sounds, shapes and special symbols as standard practice. After some time they come to recognise that these symbols are in fact part of their own ego natures and with this understanding the symbols are relinquished. The training then develops along paradigmal lines in the students’ emotional, intellectual and physical experience.

Much of the training could be viewed as mystical in that its inner essence can only be understood by the practitioner via his teacher. Thus the importance of the teacher is indeed great. He is the guide who points the way. Most serious students live close to their teachers and study for some years before being given permission to leave and practice alone. There is no central canon of sutras in Chen Yen. Although by tradition certain ones are utilised these are not considered essential for development. With the right teacher any of his writings can be considered as a scripture. Within our group these are called Himitsuwa, that is, mystical writings of the various teachers. These are considered as records of their personal experiences and as students ‘guidelines’ rather than authoritative texts of a Canon or Doctrine. The Himitsuwa developed as expression of the teachers’ experience in meditation or meditational practice and it is this charge to practice which is most important for the development and understanding of any form of Buddhist teaching.

Because the world we inhabit is a complicated and intricate place, enmeshed in its own dehumanising machinations, Vairochana has chosen to explain his teachings by means of describing the nature of structure itself. From within this understanding we can begin to develop an awareness of our own part in its perpetration and thus, hopefully, emerge from within it free and spiritually awakened. One way in which the teaching of Vairochana is expressed is via Art and Form. The designs known as Mandara (mandalas) form patterns describing qualities of experience and understanding potentially within our natures towards which we begin to orientate our aspiration and development. By being shown the meanings of the Mandara at many levels we can begin to understand the interplaying forces present within our ego natures. The associations of colours and shapes within the Mandara describe varieties of our own religious and mundane experiences and by understanding this interplay and integrating the recognised ‘blind spots’ within our development, we can begin to see clearly the path that has to be walked.

The two main Mandara, that of the Taizokai and that of the Kongokai, describe the same experience of understanding from two points of departure, they are not differentiated from each other by any innate quality, it is only our own ignorance which halts us from seeing one within the other. Suitably taught, we can recognise one as the other and vice-versa. This state of equal recognition is described in a further Mandara called in our Order the Ryobu Mandara. This means the Mandara of Two Worlds united and representative of total Enlightenment itself. The Ryobu Mandara is a paradigm of our own spiritual journey, for the integration of the Mandara is none other than the development of our own understanding of the teachings. The Mandara is ourselves and we are it. The form of instruction is in fact very practical, by studying and sometimes reproducing the Mandara patterns ourselves in a meditative manner we can begin to experience the meanings behind our sense of sight and form, consciousness and ego in many different manners. The Mandara is in fact giving or helping to develop a sense of our own mental aggregates ‘at work’ in a way quite unlike ordinary meditation. As each part of the Mandara has to be painted with certain Shingon (mantra) and other devotional practices, we cannot fall into the ego trap of self-pleasure in our own artistic creation, the manner of activity precludes this entirely. What we are aware of is the interpenetration on all manifestations of Vairochana and, by this, of all human beings and their suffering in the world of Samsara. The Mandara itself is also a paradigm of our own circle of influence. At all levels the Mandara makes us aware of our limits and boundaries, be they of commitment or emotionality. Creating the border of our own mind is an indispensable experience of Chen Yen teaching.

Copyright ©Shifu Nagaboshi Tomio 1993