By Robert Epstein
What is the actual practice that Bodhidharma brought to China?
Somewhere around 500 AD, Bodhidharma was sent by his teacher—the female sage Prajnatara—to bring the practice of Buddhist Dhyana (Jhana/Ch’an/Zen) to China, thus starting the school of Ch’an Buddhism which became Zen in Japan. Prajnatara and Bodhidharma belonged to the Indian Sarvastivadin school of Mahayana Buddhism. Bodhidharma’s overall practice had two main aspects: study of the Lankavatara Sutra and Dhyana meditation.
In both Yoga and past Buddhist traditions, Dhyana was about deep internal absorption on the breath and subtle mental factors such as joy and equanimity. In the early Buddhist form of Dhyana (called Jhana) meditation, the monks closed their eyes and traversed these deep states of concentration for exceptionally long periods of time.
It took a lot of time and discipline to reach even the first level of Dhyana, in which all outside perception was cut off, let alone the deeper ones. There were a total of eight levels that needed to be navigated before reaching full spiritual awakening in Nirvana or pure awareness.
This long and difficult path was similar to the way in which Dhyana was practiced in Indian Yoga in the Hindu tradition, but the Buddha’s techniques and specifications of the internal states to be navigated was much more specific and systematized. The most important difference between Buddhist and Yogic Dhyana was that the Buddha emphasized sharp awareness and discernment, even in the deepest trance states. The meditator should keep awareness and discernment awake, not zoned out, and continue to observe the characteristics of each state.
As you can imagine, in a very deep absorbed state of meditation, this is very difficult to do. The mindfulness of the meditator must be sufficiently developed to allow such a strong focus in the deep, subtle meditation states. The meditator worked through each Jhana by realizing that their current trance state was temporary and unsatisfying. That realization was the impetus for the next, deeper, state. Eventually, the meditator surpasses the 8th Jhana and attains Nirvana—pure awareness.
This distinction is so important that you could call it the defining mark of Buddhism. The state of deep peace of the Yogi is important but doesn’t lead to full enlightenment. Pure awareness (awareness without ordinary delusions distorting the mind) does lead to full enlightenment, so the goal was markedly different.
Buddha went beyond the popular understanding of the time—that peace beyond ordinary life was the highest goal—-and said that awakening the mind to its true nature was the highest goal. To end internal human suffering, we must see through delusion and awaken to the nature of awareness, not just pacify the mind. That, in essence, is the message of Buddhism in a nutshell.
The long, arduous path of concentration and mindfulness that marks Jhana meditation still exists today in the Theravadin schools, but for most meditators, it is too difficult to practice. It typically requires a monastic lifestyle of quiet surroundings and constant meditation to be successful.
The Sarvastivadin form of Dhyana meditation that Bodhidharma practiced evolved during the millennium since the time of the Buddha, and it’d been influenced by Mahayana philosophy. Bodhidharma’s form of Dhyana had taken on familiar Zen characteristics: the eyes were kept open, he meditated in front of a wall, and he practiced almost unbroken meditation of this kind for the better part of a decade while he was in China.
This form of eyes-open Dhyana meditation had some attributes very different from the old school Yogic and Buddhist forms of Dhyana, where one has the senses totally turned inward. The effect on the nervous system is quite different when the eyes and ears can take in local sights and sounds, and the attention registers body sensations. In a way, it is more difficult. One includes the perception of the body and surroundings without focusing on them. The mind, the senses, the body, and the world are not separated from each other but included in the field of awareness.
This kind of inclusive perception is more in line with the Mahayana school of Buddhism, of which Zen is a part. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of body, mind, environment and other people rather than the separate individual quest for enlightenment present in the closed-eyes schools of Theravadin Buddhism and Yoga.
In the Sangha, the Theravadin style has each individual focusing on one’s internal state in isolation with the eyes closed. There is, of course, a sense of camaraderie and sharing, but in meditation one is isolated. In Rinzai Zen, meditators face each other with their eyes open, so others are directly included in the perceptual field.
In Soto Zen, the meditators face a wall—as Bodhidharma did—but their senses are still open to the world, so they’re still aware of the presence of their fellow practitioners even if they aren’t focused on any particular perception or sensation. This creates an inclusive, unified field of mental and perceptual awareness.
Ultimately, awareness itself is the object of meditation. In this sense, Bodhidharma took the final goal of the deep absorptive meditation present in early Buddhism—pure awareness—and adopted it as the object of meditation right from the beginning. Instead of a long path of deep isolated absorptions leading to pure awareness, pure awareness itself is the object of meditation, and one’s view of it develops within awareness itself from the outset.
This radical approach to Dhyana meditation focusing on awareness itself was much more in line with the Mahayana philosophy that led to it, and it has also been said that it leads much more quickly to full awakening. However, it is not only a very arduous path in its own right, requiring great meditative skill, but has less of a systematic structural roadmap for the journey. A different set of practices and distinctions developed in the Zen schools to match this radical focus, some of which will be discussed in subsequent columns.
Some think that Robert Epstein has TOO eclectic a background. He studied three forms of T’ai Chi and Taoist standing meditation, learned The Sedona Method from Lester Levinson and his staff, introduced a friend to his lifelong path studying the Seth work, studied and taught Iyengar Yoga for 15 years, practiced deep tissue massage and was certified in Reiki, studied inner light meditation at the school of Actualism for almost a decade, was ordained an Interfaith Minister after attending an intensive seminary program in NY and did some spiritual counseling, was certified in hypnotherapy, introduced his wife to her lifelong path studying the Course in Miracles. He learned basic Buddhist meditation from zen and Tibetan teachers, briefly met Chogyam Trungpa and attended the Vajra Crown Ceremony in Boston, studied Theravadin suttas, Mahayana Sutras, Abhidhamma and the Blue Cliff Record, studied Advaita Vedanta and attended retreats with Ramesh Balsekar – Sri Nisargardatta’s Dharma heir, and then practiced Vipassana meditation for a period of years. Then a series of events led him back to Chan and zen and his current practice: sitting zazen, koan study, and exploring Hua Tou meditation. If hearing that list made you dizzy, think of how Robert must feel! In addition to collecting spiritual practices, Robert plays sax, piano and other instruments, writes poetry, plays and screenplays, and teaches acting classes for a living.
Editor: John Pendall