The Six Subtle Dharma Doors
The Six Subtle Dharma Doors (Lu Miao Fa Meng) is a manual attributed to T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i that explains a meditation method consisting of six steps, each one of which is said to directly bring about purification of mind and the transcendence of suffering.
Still well known in Asian, both the text and the technique are relatively unfamiliar here in the West. One can find references to the Lu Miao Fa Meng here and there, for instance, Thich Nhat Hanh in several of his book mentions “The Six Wonderful Dharma Doors.” He describes them as “counting the breath, following the breath, concentrating the mind, observing to throw light on all that exists, returning to the source of mind, and going beyond the concepts of subject and object.”
There is an English translation of Chih-i’s text, titled “The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime,” and it appears to be a good literal and authoritative, translation, yet I wonder how familiar the translator is with the teachings of the T’ien-t’ai school. For one thing, in the title of the work, we find the Chinese character miao (pronounced “meow”), that this translator renders as “sublime”, which is certainly acceptable, but he associates it with the term pranita, rather than the Sanskrit sad (or sat), which has a more direct relationship with T’ien-t’ai doctrine and practice.*
Miao is a key term in Chih-i’s philosophy. In “Profound Meaning of the Dharma Flower Lotus Sutra”, he devotes a lengthy section discussing the meaning of miao and miao-fa (saddharma). For Chih-I, miao meant “subtle”: “beyond conceptual thought.”**
As The Six Subtle Dharma Doors focuses on the breath, there is another, more literal aspect of “subtle” to consider. The breath is the perfect object for meditation because it is so subtle. One of the chief aims of meditation is to let go of discursive thinking, and we often breathe without thinking about it at all. It follows, then, that it should be relatively simple to focus on the breath without attaching a great deal of conceptual thought to the process.
In Lu Miao Fa Meng, Chih-i tells that the name “six subtle dharma doors” (or gates) means they are linked together and mutually inclusive. As progressive steps, though, the sequence moves from learning to concentrate the mind, to effortless mindfulness of breath, calming the mind, severing delusions, returning to original mind (which includes returning to the original teachings and meditation of the Buddha), and finally, realization of the emptiness (non-substantiality) of all dharmas, or things.
The Six Subtle Dharma Doors falls under “Subtlety of Practice”, the third of Chih-i’s three categories of Subtlety (Subtlety of Objects, Subtlety of Knowledge, and Subtlety of Practice), and is actually a rather simple meditation technique, although the last three steps are not as straightforward as the first three.
The textural source for this meditation that has been most helpful to me is from Yin Shih Tzu. His explanation and instructions from Chapter 6 of his book Experimental Meditation for the Promotion of Health appears in Secrets of Chinese Meditation by Charles Luk. The same material was translated into English some years ago in Tranquil Sitting.
Evidently, Yin Shih Tzu, was a lay person who first studied Taoist meditation as a member of the Dragon Door Sect (Lung Men Tsung) and later went on to master practices taught in the T’ien-t’ai, Ch’an and Tibetan schools. In the early 1950’s, when he was in his 80’s, he wrote several books that are considered classic works on the subject of meditation. In Luk’s book, the Lu Miao Fa Meng is translated as “The Six Profound Dharma Doors,” while in “Tranquil Sitting” it is rendered as “The Six Mystical Steps.”
Here are the opening paragraphs to Yin Shih Tzu’s instructions in Tranquil Sitting, as translated by Shi Fu Hwang and Cheney Crow, Ph.D.:
Breath is the origin of life. Anyone who cannot breathe will soon die. The nervous system cannot sustain its reflexes and the mind dies. His life is finished. Breath alone makes it possible for us to connect the body and the mind, and maintain life. The entry and exit of air through our nostrils depends on this breath. Although it is usually invisible to our eyes, breath has both form and weight, since it has both weight and form, during its passage it is also a material part of our body. We realize that entry and exit of the breath depend entirely on our mind, and that is part of the spirit. Since breath can connect the body and mind, we know that breath itself is part of the body and mind.
The six mystical steps will teach the practitioner to manage the technique of breathing. It is a method of continuous meditation. After learning the principles of Chih Kuan, the practitioner can go further to study the six mystical steps. Even without practicing the principles of Chih Kuan, he may begin the study of the six mystical steps.
The six mystical steps are: counting, following, resting, visualization, returning, and clarifying.”
And now, the practice:
The Six Subtle Dharma Doors, taught by T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i, based on instructions by Yin Shih Tzu.
The Six Subtle Dharma Doors center on breath and are a thorough method of meditation.
The method consists of:
(1) Counting the breath (shu),
(2) Following the breath (sui),
(3) Stopping (chih),
(4) Contemplating/seeing (kuan),
(5) Returning (huan), and
(6) Refining (ching).
1. Counting (shu)
Regulate the breath so that it is even and rhythmic. Count slowly, from one to ten, placing the count on either the inhalation or the exhalation, not letting the mind wander. If you notice that your mind has strayed, go back to count one and begin again.
As you become comfortable and proficient with the counting method, your breathing will become so regular and subtle, that you will no longer need to count.
2. Following (sui)
When counting is no longer necessary, practice the method of following. Just follow the breath going in and out. As in counting, if the mind wanders simply bring your attention back to the breath. As practice progresses in this method, breath and mind become one. It will feel as if the breath is passing through all the pores of the body, and the mind is peaceful and still.
3. Stopping (chih)
Once the method of following has been mastered, the breath still may not be subtle enough. Stopping, then, is the next step. Here, the entire practice consists of simply focusing the mind on the tip of the nose. As this method proceeds, the practitioner should lose his or her constant awareness of a physical body and mind, indicating entry into level of deep quiescence.
4. Seeing (kuan)
The seeing method is visualization. It is also called “turning back the light of the mind upon itself.” Visualize the breath coming in and going out of the body. Eventually you can mentally observe the breath entering and exiting through every pore in your body. When the light of the mind is turned back in this way, the practitioner should see that all things are empty and without a substantial reality of their own.
5. Returning (huan)
After practicing seeing for some time, follow up with returning. The practice of returning consists of two steps. First involves visualization. Having already visualized the breath, the mind is now attuned to the art of intelligent visualization, which differs from intelligent activity. The aim here is to dissolve the duality between the mind that contemplates the breath and the breath that is contemplated. This opens the way for tracing the origin of one’s thought back to the fundamental, true mind.
The second step is to understand that like the breath, the mind also rises and falls. This is likened to water that rises in waves. Waves, however, are not the water. Thus, the mind that rises and falls is not the true mind. We look into true mind and see that it is uncreated, beyond ‘is’ and therefore, empty. As it is empty, there is no subjective mind that contemplates, and since there is no contemplating mind, there is nothing contemplated.
Going back to the true mind in this way is what is meant by “returning.”***
6. Refining (ching)
In returning, there may linger some idea of returning. The first step of refining is to clear the mind of any vestiges of this thought. The second step of refining is to keep your mind like still water, with all random thinking and discrimination stopped. In this way, you can observe your true mind.
In observing the true mind, one realizes that it does not exist apart from the random thinking mind that discriminates. It is like the waves disappearing on the surface of the water. This is called pure realization.
In The Six Subtle Dharma Doors, counting (1) and following (2)are the preliminary practice. Stopping (3) and seeing (4) is the main practice, and returning (5) and refining (6) are the concluding practice, or the “fruit of the meditation.” Stopping is the chief training, and seeing is its support.
Here ends the instructions on The Six Subtle Dharma Doors.
- Pranita, is “pure, immaculate, beautiful.” Chih-i understood and used miao in relation to sad (or sat), as in the saddharma of the Lotus Sutra (a very important sutra for the T’ien-t’ai school), meaning “wonderful, beautiful, mystic, profound, subtle, mysterious.” [See A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, 1994 compiled by William Edward Soothill, Delhi., pg. 234] Without going into a lengthy explanation, it is suffice to say that the distinction between sad and pranita in relation to miao is important.
- “Returning” is also to return to the original meditation of the Buddha, as Chih-i maintained that The Six Subtle Dharma Doors was the method Shakyamuni used the night of his awakening beneath the Bodhi Tree. Even though he cites several ancient text in support of this claim, it must be noted that Chih-i’s sense of the Buddha was not historical, but more the Mahayana Shakyamuni, or quite possibly Shakyamuni as the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra.