The Six Wondrous Doors

法雲雜誌第十二期

The Six Wondrous Doors.1

(The Six Marvelous Paths to Nirvana)

A talk given by the Venerable Miu King
in Guan Yin Chan Monastery at Peitou,
Taiwan, on April 22, 1998


A. Brief Introduction to the Method of Samatha and Vipassana

My respects to Venerable Liao-Yi, the Abbot of Guan Yin Chan Monastery! It is indeed an auspicious event that we are all gathered here, willing to learn meditation (Chan). In our daily activities, our bodies, speech and minds are in a chaotic state but ordinary people seldom pay attention to it. As a Buddhist, it is not until we have learned from the scriptures do we realize that this is an imperfect state of mind. That is why Buddhists are willing to work on the mind and improve in this respect. How shall we do that? We can start by taking precepts, use them as a foundation, and then practice meditation. Meditation is samatha (serenity) and vipassana (insight), that is to say, meditative concentration and wisdom. In this way, we are actually cultivating the precepts, meditative concentration and wisdom in our practice.

Upholding the precepts means to improve our behaviors, stopping bad deeds and developing good ones. Behaviors are driven by thoughts, so we need to work on our mind.  Generally, the mind has two faults; namely, restlessness and ignorance (considering all phenomena to be obtainable). The fault of restlessness can be remedied by concentration (samatha) while the fault of ignorance can be corrected with wisdom (vipassana). After we have succeeded in conquering the two faults of the mind, we become noble beings and not ordinary beings anymore. Now, let us learn the Six Wondrous Doors -- counting, following the breath, samatha, vipassana, revolving and purifying, which we can apply to improve the state of our mind.  The practice of samatha is to bring your mind that is originally distracted to rest clear and still on a mental object. By which means will it rest clear and still? There are two methods of practice.

First, you have to select an object and then visualize its image in the mind clearly and sharply without the slightest obscurity. For example, if a lotus flower is selected as the mental object, you must first observe closely the shape and color of the flower, then, with your eyes closed, recall the flower’s image and rest your mind on the visualized lotus flower . There are many other objects that you can select.

Second, you need to maintain mindfulness of the mental object moment after moment. This will allow your mind to have a continuous state of clarity and stillness without distraction. For instance, when we think of our mother, her image will appear in our mind. If we keep thinking of her, then her image will stay all the time. This principle is the same as having the mind rest on the mental object without interruption. If we don’t maintain mindfulness, we will loose our concentration on the mental object and delusions will arise.

Therefore, if people who are interested in practicing meditation find their minds always distracted and restless, it is because the right mindfulness was not maintained. In practicing samatha, what we often refer as the “key to success” is to maintain continuous mindfulness of the mental object. Once delusion has been eliminated, our mind will be able to stay undistracted and to rest clear and still on the mental object all the time.

In fact, there are two components included in the practice of meditation. One is sitting and the other is walking. The two go hand-in-hand in the job of meditation. The pace of walking meditation can be either fast or slow. In the Theravada tradition, slow walking is generally practiced while in the Chinese Buddhist Chan tradition, the pace starts slow and gradually speeds up. In any case, the purpose is to keep the mind from distraction. Therefore, pay no attention to your surroundings or to other people. Watch your mind of the present moment carefully even in the action of walking, let it not be disturbed.

As to the second method, the slow walking meditation, concentrate on the rising and falling of the foot. There are three movements in a walking action, i.e., the rising, the advancing and the falling of foot. Keep the mind focused on these movements without any distraction. This alone can also help cure bodily pain and illnesses. Each session of walking meditation should last at least fifteen minutes and may be extended to even one hour if necessary.

To become an accomplished Buddhist, practicing meditation is a requisite. Nowadays, books written about meditation are abundant, so it is the most suitable time as compared to fifty years ago when reference books are scarce as it would be difficult to practice meditation without proper guidance.

B. The Six Wondrous Doors 

The “Six Wondrous Doors” are counting, following the breath, samatha, vipassana, revolving and purifying. The term “Wondrous” is used to signify marvelous. What is considered the best ? Nirvana is the best! Worldly mundane affairs are nothing but a cvexation. Only Nirvana offers true bliss. Therefore, Nirvana is described as a wonder. These six methods are the doors of Nirvana, just like a treasure house in which we need to find the door first in order to enter. Thus, they are called “Six Doors of Wonder”.

As mentioned earlier, the mind has two faults: first, being restless; second, lacking of wisdom, unable to see the ultimate truth. One who cannot see the truth, his mind will be restless. Restlessness and disturbance are signs of afflictions in action. Nirvana is the ultimate state after we have accomplished the cultivation on precepts, meditative concentration and wisdom, so that our mind will be conform to the truth and able to eradicate all afflictions. The first three of the six methods––counting, following the breath, and samatha belong to the category of samatha; while the last three––vipassana, revolving, and purifying require samatha and vipassana techniques. The six wondrous doors, as taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, are like a doctor’s prescription to cure the illness of our body, speech and mind. Each prescription has its own function to treat certain disease respectively. When all the faults have been eradicated, then the cultivation of the Noble Path is accomplished. 

1. Counting

i. Four types of breath

The methods of counting and following the breath uses the breath as the mental object of meditation. Breath is the air drawn into and sent out of our lungs, that is, inhalation and exhalation. There are four types of breath: 1) outgoing breath, 2) inner-outgoing breath, 3) incoming breath, and 4) inner-incoming breath. The outgoing breath goes out from the abdomen to the nostril, directing the inner air out of the body. When exhaling, the air is exhaled naturally without intentional control. At the end of each exhalation, there is a pause before next inhalation, when the air is neither going out nor coming in. This brief pause before the incoming breath starts is called the inner-outgoing breath. After that, the incoming breath directs the air into our body, from the nostril all the way to the abdomen. The inhalation lasts a while, then there is a brief pause before the air is exhaled again; this brief moment wherein the air is neither coming in nor going out is called the inner-incoming breath.

People who do not meditate may not notice this process but at least can know the outgoing and incoming breaths, yet rarely aware of the other two. However, an experienced meditation practitioner knows the existence of these four types of breath. Furthermore, his inner-incoming breath and inner-outgoing breath will gradually be lengthened with time. For old people, inner-outgoing breath are longer than the other three breaths and the opposite is true for the children. According to the Chinese medical theory, this is because old people have weak kidneys. When the inner-incoming breath reaches the kidney, it is not taken in; thus the inner-incoming breath becomes shorter. For children, they have strong kidneys, so their inner-incoming breath is longer. The above situation only applies to people who do not meditate in general since it is not necessarily true for diligent practitioners. They can advance in age but the breathing patterns may gradually be improved and not only the inner-outgoing breath is long, the other three types of breaths will be prolonged as well.

ii. Methods of Counting

Counting uses breath as the meditation object. It counts the number of exhales and inhales. There are numerous ways of counting and it is up to individual preference to count the outgoing breath, inner-outgoing breath, incoming breath, or inner-incoming breath. Although one can count both incoming and outgoing breaths, he will be busy with counting then, since the time interval is rather short between each type of breath. Therefore, it is better to concentrate in counting just one type of breath, for instance, only the outgoing breath is counted and not the other three, for one will have a certain leisure between two counts. The count starts from one and ends in ten, then repeat again and again in a one-to-ten cycle.

There are some varieties in the counting method. You can first count one, two and three silently, and then rest to sense the following three rounds of inhalation and exhalation. Resume counting four, five, and six, and then rest again to sense the next three rounds of inhalation and exhalation. Pick up counting seven, eight, nine and ten, which is then followed by observing the next four rounds of breaths without counting. The benefit of this method is to allow our mind to rest quiet and still in such moments. Another alternative way is that you can count one then skip two and three, count four and skip five and six, then count seven but not eight, nine and ten. This way of counting allows a longer interval of quietness.

By this method of counting, one may reach different levels of meditative concentration, from the Concentration of the Desire Realm, the Access Concentration, up to the Third Dhyana-concentration. Including and up to the Third Dhyana-concentration, inhalation and exhalation are still noticeable. In the Fourth Dhyana-concentration there will be no more inhalation or exhalation. When the practitioner reaches the level of Access Concentration, breathing starts to slow down. It becomes even slower in First, Second, and Third Dhyana-concentration. It takes a long while for the air to travel out to the nostril from the abdomen, and vice-versa. 

iii. The Ideal Time to Practice

There are two ideal periods to practice meditation. One is when the energy is high; the other is right after a rest. When practicing the breath-counting method, one will notice the difference between high and low energy. When the energy is high, one can count easily from one up to thousands or tens of thousand without losing concentration. On the contrary, when one feels tired, one can only count for a little, and then be interrupted by delusion. In general, we also get a high surge of energy some time after a meal because the food is being digested and the nutrition is transmitted all over the body. Consequently, with the body and mind relatively stronger, one is able to practice and switch between samatha and vipassana as one wishes. This is the benefit of practicing with full energy.

After a rest is also a great time to meditate. In Buddhism our mind is described to have a “carry-over mood.” For instance, when something happens against your wish, anger arises in your mind and you can’t help shouting at others. After this event is over, the anger should cease by then, yet it’s beyond your control and the state of being angry is meant to last for a certain time; this is due to the “carry-over mood” of your mind. It is the same when you sleep without having dreams or being disturbed, you can take a good rest for several hours; a dreamless sleep will allow your mind a certain calmness, but not clarity. Consequently, it will be easier for your mind to rest still in meditation, since the “carry-over mood” of calmness will last. On the other hand, if you meditate after having a talk on the phone, the contents of this talk will repeat in your mind, then it’s more difficult to rest calm and still. This is also due to the “carry-over mood.” Therefore, if a diligent practioner can practice based on this principle, taking advantage of the “carry-over mood” of calmness, certainly he will have good achievement.

For such a long time, our mind has been accustomed to act freely without restraint; therefore, it will be difficult to go against its habit and to hold it still. For beginners, the breath-counting method is very powerful, for it can subdue all delusions and bring the floating mind to rest in stillness. So the beginners should make the best use of high energy and the carry-over mood, in order to make progress in their practice. 

2. Following The Breath

How do we practice the method of “following the breath”? To start, we silently recite, “Be aware of the breath out. Be aware of the breath in. Be aware of the breath-long. Be aware of the breath-short.” After saying these four sentences in mind, don’t count but just set mind on the incoming and outgoing breath. One observes the breath going from the abdomen to the nostril and from the nostril to the abdomen, while allowing the mind to follow the movement for each outgoing and incoming flow of the air one-pointedly in body. This is why this method is called following the breath.

The practice of following the breath requires a higher level in meditative concentration than the breath-counting method. The reason is that the mind can follow the sequence of numbers while counting, and therefore it is not difficult to rest clear and still. In the following the breath method, if your meditative concentration is not firm enough, delusions will appear quickly, so the state of clarity and stillness will not be able to last. If one can practice successfully with the following the breath method, it means the person has most likely has developed a certain level of meditative concentration. At this concentration level, one will feel the air reaching down not just to the abdomen but to the toes as well. The entire body can also feel the breath going in and out. Experienced meditators will even feel warm when the air goes out of the body and feel cool when the air comes in. Those who are not familiar with this often mistake this as a sign of illness. On the contrary, it is actually a good sign.

Beginners who practice the counting method may feel tense and uneasiness in breathing. In that case, you don’t have to keep counting, redirect your attention to the rising and falling of the abdomen. It rises when the air is coming in (inhalation), and it falls when the air is going out (exhalation). This is different from the breath-counting method, for in the method of counting inhales and exhales, we sense the air moving from the abdomen to the nostril and from the nostril to the abdomen; while with the following the breath method, we can rest the mind quiet and still on the rising and falling of the abdomen. Watching the rise-and-fall of the abdomen without counting is what we call the method of “following the breath.”

Furthermore, with the breath-counting method, since the air comes in and out at the tip of the nose, the mind tends to focus on the tip of the nose; if the meditator is especially diligent and sits for a long time, he may experience headaches. Therefore, if we redirect our attention down to the abdomen, it will release the tension in the head and avoid the problem caused by concentrating the mind on the tip of the nose too long. Practicing prolonged walking meditation can also relieve headaches.

Counting the rising-falling of the abdomen is a way to avoid the tensions of breathing derived from counting inhales or exhales. If the level of stillness and clarity of mind has been improved by this way, then one can stop counting and just watch the rising-falling of the abdomen. 

3. Samatha

Samatha (Pali) or Śamatha (Sanskrit) means serenity or resting still. According to Master Chih-I, the founder of the Chinese Tien-Tai School, there are three types of samatha. We will be talking about two of them. First is the samatha of mental-object mindfulness ; second is the samatha of mind regulation.

i. Practicing samatha of mental-object mindfulness 

The "samatha of mental-object mindfulness" is to rest the mind on a mental object. There are many meditation objects that one can use in the practice of samatha. If one does not experience sloth and torpor during meditation, one should focus on some lower part of the body: the navel, the “dantian” (three finger widths below the navel), the sole of the foot (yongquan acupuncture point), or the big toe. Only when trying to break the torpor does one focus the mind on the uppers part of the body such as the crown of the head. We can start by pressing the crown of the head with our fingers to bring the attention there, and then let go of the hand. This will help get rid of a light torpor. We can also bring the focus to the hairline, either on the forehead or at the back of the head. Women can also focus on the point between two breasts. Using this object, monthly menstruation may stop if she has practiced successfully. 

ii. Practicing samatha of mind regulation 

The second type of samatha is to regulate the mind. This method does not use the breath or any other matters as the mental object. Instead, it takes the mind as the mental object. The mind of clear awareness is neither blue, yellow, red, or white; neither is it earth, water, fire or wind. However, the mind does have a particular function. Confucius wisely said, “When the mind is absent, one looks without seeing, listens without hearing, and eats without tasting the flavor.” This statement proves that he knew the existence of a mind of clear awareness aside from this body of material substance. It is the mind that watches, it is also the mind that is watched. Watching the mind with the mind––this is hard to understand for people who have not practiced the counting or following the breath method. Therefore, it is best to practice counting and following the breath for a certain period at first. After having obtained a deeper understanding of “the mind of clear awareness,” it will be more suitable to practice the samatha of mind regulation. Samatha of mind regulation has marvelous benefits. For example, when meditating with the methods of counting or following the breath, desire or hatred may emerge all of a sudden and it will not be easy to get rid of them. However, if one is successful with the samatha of mind regulation, he will find that all scattered thoughts disappear instantly.

The aim of samatha is to stop all scattered thoughts and let the mind rest clear and still on the mental object. When one is successful with this practice, even if he may not have attained the bliss of lightness, he will nonetheless feel great comfort and will be addicted to sit one session after another. Practicing samatha will enable one to attain the Concentration of the Desire Realm, Access Concentration, all the way up to the four Dhyana-concentrations of Form Realm and the four Concentrations of Emptiness of Formless Realm.

Those who have attained the Concentration of the Desire Realm or Access Concentration will sometimes manifest psychic power (however, this is not the divine power.) For instance, when sitting in meditation in the morning, one might know that it will rain in the evening, or that something is going to happen next day. The psychic power sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. If one has reached the state of First Dhyana-concentration, Second Dhyana-concentration, Third Dhyana-concentration or Fourth Dhyana-concentration, he can cultivate divine powers such as the divine eye, the divine ear, the knowledge of others’ minds, the divine foot, and the knowledge of past lives. When successful, he will have real divine power.

The divine power that one is born with is different from that which is cultivated. One has innate powers certainly will show some extraordinary ability, however, it is not reliable. On the other hand, the cultivated divine powers are incredibly powerful. With such power, one who enters the meditative concentration can see things that have happened or will happen tens, hundreds, or thousands years before or after. However, if he lacks the wisdom to understand the cause-effect relation of all phenomena, he may commit tremendous mistakes with his power.

People with desires have many problems and much suffering. When one reaches the concentrations of Form Realm or Formless Realm, he is already free from desires and possesses deep samadhi and divine power. However, he will still be a mortal being and not a noble one. The heavenly beings of Form Realm and Formless Realm have great blessings and longevity. Once their lives come to an end, however, their power of meditative concentration also disappears. They will still be subject to the karmic power that they created in the past and be reborn either to the Desire Realm or to fall into the three evil paths.

The success in practicing samatha does accompany many extraordinary things, which is great! However, if one who attained samadhi does not practice vipassana (insight), neither can he see the truth nor can he cut off affliction, with his wrong views still held. Once his samadhi power is lost, it is still unavoidable that he will be stuck in the cycle of birth and death. Thus, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas tell us, with their great and bright wisdom, that one must practice vipassana aside from cultivating samatha, so as to cut off affliction, to see the truth and to become noble beings, liberated forever from the great suffering in the cycle of birth and death.

To be continued……