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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



(‘Kobo Daishi Zenshu,’ I, 98 ff.) Kukai (774-835) learned in China and introduced to Japan the Buddhism known as the True Words (Mantrayana in Sanskrit, Shingon in Japanese). In Shingon Buddhism the mysteries are transmitted orally from master to disciple. This Esoteric Buddhism became the most important religion of Heian Japan.The passage printed below is taken from the Memorial Presenting a List of Newly Imported Sutras, which Kukai wrote to the emperor upon his return from studying in China. Kukai wrote reports on the results of his studies and cautiously relates his initiation.

During the sixth moon of 804, I, Kukai, sailed for China aboard the Number One Ship, in the party of Lord Fujiwara ambassador to the T’ang court. We reached the coast of Fukien by the eighth moon, and four months later arrived at Ch’ang-an, the capital, where we were lodged at the official guest residence. The ambassadorial delegation started home for Japan on March 15, 805, but in obedience to an imperial edict, I alone remained behind in the Hsi-ming Temple where the abbot Yung-chung had formerly resided.

One day, in the course of my calls on eminent Buddhist teachers of the capital, I happened by chance to meet the abbot of the East Pagoda Hall of the Green Dragon Temple. This great priest, whose Buddhist name was Hui-kuo, was the chosen disciple of the Indian master Amoghavajra. His virtue aroused the reverence of his age; his teachings were lofty enough to guide emperors. Three sovereigns revered him as their master and were ordained by him. The four classes of believers looked up to him for instruction in the esoteric teachings.

I called on the abbot in the company of five or six monks from the Hsi-ming Temple. As soon as he saw me he smiled with pleasure, and he joyfully said, ‘I knew that you would come! I have been waiting for such a long time. What pleasure it gives me to look on you today at last! My life is drawing to an end, and until you came there was no one to whom I could transmit the teachings. Go without delay to the ordination altar with incense and a flower.’ I returned to the temple where I had been staying and got the things which were necessary for the ceremony. It was early in the sixth moon, then, that I entered the ordination chamber. I stood in front of the Womb Mandala [Garbha Mandala] and cast my flower in the prescribed manner.1 By chance it fell on the body of the Buddha Vairochana in the centre. The master exclaimed in delight, ‘How amazing! How perfectly amazing!’ He repeated this three or four times in joy and wonder. I was then given the fivefold baptism and received the instruction in the Three Mysteries that bring divine intercession. Next I was taught the Sanskrit formulas for the Womb Mandala, and learned the yoga contemplation on all the Honoured Ones.

Early in the seventh moon I entered the ordination chamber of the Diamond [Vajra] Mandala for a second baptism. When I cast my flower it fell on Vairochana again, and the abbot marvelled as he had before. I also received ordination as an acharya early in the following month. On the day of my ordination I provided a feast for five hundred of the monks. The dignitaries of the Green Dragon Temple all attended the feast, and everyone enjoyed himself.

I later studied the Diamond Crown Yoga and the five divisions of the True Words teachings, and spent some time learning Sanskrit and the Sanskrit hymns. The abbot informed me that the Esoteric scriptures are so abstruse that their meaning cannot be conveyed except through art. For this reason he ordered the court artist Li Chen and about a dozen other painters to execute ten scrolls of the Womb and Diamond Mandalas, and assembled more than twenty scribes to make copies of the Diamond and other important esoteric scriptures. He also ordered the bronzesmith Chao Wu to cast fifteen ritual implements. These orders for the painting of religious images and the copying of the sutras were issued at various times.

One day the abbot told me, ‘Long ago, when I was still young, I met the great master Amoghavajra. From the first moment he saw me he treated me like a son, and on his visit to the court and his return to the temple I was inseparable from him as his shadow. He confided to me. ‘You will be the receptacle of the esoteric teachings. Do your best! Do your best!’ I was then initiated into the teachings of both the Womb and Diamond, and into the secret mudras as well. The rest of his disciples, monks and laity alike, studied just one of the Mandalas or one Honoured One or one ritual, but not all of them as I did. How deeply I am indebted to him I shall never be able to express.

‘Now my existence on earth approaches its term, and I cannot long remain. I urge you, therefore, to take the two Mandalas and the hundred volumes of the Esoteric teachings, together with the ritual implements and these gifts which were left to me by my master. Return to your country and propagate the teachings there.

‘When you first arrived I feared I did not have time enough left to teach you everything, but now my teaching is completed, and the work of copying the sutras and making the images is also finished. Hasten back to your country, offer these things to the court, and spread the teachings throughout your country to increase the happiness of the people. Then the land will know peace and everyone will be content. In that way you will return thanks to Buddha and to your teacher. That is also the way to show your devotion to your country and to your family. My disciple I-ming will carry on the teachings here. Your task is to transmit them to the Eastern Land. Do your best! Do your best !’ These were his final instructions to me, kindly and patient as always. On the night of the last full moon of the year he purified himself with a ritual bath and, lying on his right side and making the mudra of Vairochana, he breathed his last.

That night, while I sat in meditation in the Hall, the abbot appeared to me in his usual form and said, ‘You and I have long been pledged to propagate the esoteric teachings. If I am reborn in Japan, this time I will be your disciple.’

I have not gone into the details of all he said, but the general import of the Master’s instructions I have given. [Dated 5th December 806].

Note1 Mandala is a rather complex design, comprising a circular border and one or more concentric circles enclosing a square divided into four triangles; in the centre of each triangle, and in the centre of the Mandala itself, are other circles containing images of divinities or their emblems. During the initiation, the guru blindfolds the disciple and puts a flower in his hand; the disciple throws it into the Mandala, and the section into which it falls reveals the divinity who will be especially favourable to him. On the Symbolism and the Rituals of the Mandala, cf. M. Eliade, Yoga (New York: Bollingen Series LVI, 1958), pp. 219 ff.; G. Tucci, The Theory and practice of the Mandala (London, 196l).

Translation by Wm. Theodore de Bary, in De Bary (ed.), Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), PP. 144-6. Introductory comment adapted from De Bary, pp. 137 ff. Note by M. Eliade.

Saichõ and Kukai: A Conflict of Interpretations

                       by Ryuichi A

This article reappraises the interaction between Saichõ (767–822) and Kukai (774–835), founders, respectively, of the Japanese Tendai and Shingon schools of Buddhism. This new appraisal is based on the historical conditions in which these two men sought to introduce new types of Buddhism at the close of the age of Nara Buddhism, rather than on the conventional, idealized characterizations of the two figures as the founding fathers of their respective schools. What emerges is the unbridgeable difference
between Saichõ and Kukai in their interpretive strategies for delineating the role of esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyõ) in establishing a new order in the early Heian Buddhist community, a difference that presented itself as a persistent tension that underlay Saichõ’s alliance with Kukai from the very outset of their relationship.


Ten Verse Kannon Sutra of Timeless Life

(repeat 7 times)
I venerate the Buddha;
with the Buddha I have my source,
with the Buddha I have affinity–
affinity with Buddha, Dharma, Sangha,
constancy, ease, the self, and purity.
Mornings my thought is Kanzeon,
evenings my thought is Kanzeon,
thought after thought arises in mind,
thought after thought is not separate from mind.

The following is from James Deacon’s excellent site.


One look at the letter A destroys evil passions

Ajikan is a core meditation in mikkyo (esoteric) Buddhism. Its purpose is to bring the practitioner into a state of ‘non-duality’ with Enlightened Cosmic Reality as personified in the form of Dainichi Nyorai – the Cosmic Sun Buddha.

In Ajikan, the practitioner focusses on an image of the shuji (seed character) ‘A’ (‘Ah’), as depicted in the sacred Shittan (Sanskrit: Siddham) script. This image, referred to as a honzon, often takes the form of a wall-hanging scroll.

The ‘A’ shuji, when used as a meditational focus, is usually depicted in a bubble or ‘moon-disc’ resting on an open lotus-blossom, or alternatively (as depicted above) both the ‘A’ shuji and the lotus-blossom are inside the bubble/moondisc.The moon is a sign of purity of heart and the lotus represents the desire to achieve enlightenment.

As the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, the ‘A’ character is considered the supreme shuji, and is seen to embody great holiness and spiritual power.The ‘source’ of all the other vowels and consonants, it is the core or essence of all possible sounds that human beings can give expression to.

A – ji (the first letter) represents the basic essence of all things: the unproduced, the impermanent, the immaterial – the void from which all creation emerges.

The kan part of ajikan implies perception/contemplation of this essence with one’s Heart-Mind (kokoro).

While ajikan is ideally learnt in an environment where the practitioner can receive direct feedback from an experienced instructor, all may benefit from even the basic form of practice outlined here.

Ajikan begins with centering yourself, and ‘watching the breath’, gradually allowing yourself to enter into a state of slow rhythmic breathing and relaxation.With eyes half open, focus your awareness on the honzon, effortlessly allowing yourself to hold the image on the honzon clearly in your mind’s eye, so that when you close your eyes, the image will still be there before you, perceived as pure bright light.

When you reach the point where you can hold the image on the honzon clearly in your mind’s eye while your eyes are closed, allow the luminous image of the shuji, moondisc & lotus to gradually increase in size, clarity and brightness.

Let the image continue to intensify and expand to the point where becomes so immeasurably vast as to fill the entire universe, being aware that it now surrounds and contains you and all beings in its almost blinding radiance – that you, all beings and the shuji-moondisc-lotus are one in essence – inseparable.

Stay in this awareness for as long as you feel you drawn to.

Then gradually become aware of the image beginning to decrease in brightness and in size, eventually diminishing and returning to its original dimensions as expresses on the honzon.

With this, the meditation draws towards its conclusion.

Maintain your state of slow rhythmic breathing for a few moments, as you gradually return your focus of awareness to the world around you once more.

Alternative version

Centering yourself, and ‘watching the breath’, gradually allowing yourself to enter into a state of slow rhythmic breathing and relaxation.With eyes half open, focus your awareness on the honzon, effortlessly allowing yourself to hold the image on the honzon clearly in your mind’s eye, so that when you close your eyes, the image will still be there before you, perceived as pure bright light.

While visualising the shuji, recite the shingon (mantra) “a vi ra un ken” [this is one of the two primary shingon of Dainichi Nyorai] to further the process of integration with the Cosmic Reality.

When you reach the point where you can hold the image on the honzon clearly in your mind’s eye while your eyes are closed, become aware that the luminous image of the shuji, moondisc & lotus are being absorbed into the core of your being – your heart centre.

From within your heart centre, the honzon image gradually intensifies and expands – emanating out around your body, and on out beyond your aura, radiating the intense, clear Light and Grace of Dainichi Nyorai out to all beings as a source of healing, protection, and spiritual and worldly benefit.

Stay in this awareness for as long as you feel you drawn to.

Then gradually become aware of the image beginning to decrease in brightness and in size, eventually dissolving back into your heart centre, and from there out once more to its original place on the honzon

With this, the meditation draws towards its conclusion.

Maintain your state of slow rhythmic breathing for a few moments, as you gradually return your focus of awareness to the world around you once more

January 2018
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Tao Te Ching

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations. These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery.

Virtues of Kong-zi (Confucius)

道 tao; path, right way * 仁 ren, benevolent * 徳 de, virtuous * 禮 li, propriety * 義 yi, morality * 忠 zhong, loyalty * 恕 shu, reciprocity * 信 xin, trustworthy * 命 ming, destiny, fate * 天 tien, heaven, above * 理 li, principle *