Intermediate Zen

Step 4 – Catching the Ox

The Seventh Dharma Realm

I seize him with a terrific struggle. His great will and power are inexhaustible. He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists, or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

Oxherding_pictures,_No._4 four

Catching the Ox

Mindfulness of the Body

The seventh dharma realm is the dharma realm of the asuras.

The central practice of this dharma realm is cultivation of mindfulness of the body as the antidote to the aggression and struggle of the asuras.

The commentary for the ox-herding pictures says that Catching the Ox requires a great struggle because the Ox repeatedly escapes and the Zen practitioner must work hard to bring it back.

The Ox is glimpsed frequently, but it keeps getting away. When we find a teacher, he or she will tell us to return to the practice whenever we drift away from it. Glimpse the ox, lose sight of it, glimpse it again, and so on. As we practice the discipline of returning to the practice, the glimpses will come more frequently and they will last longer until they are more than mere glimpses; we will settle down and catch the ox for extended periods of time.

I seize him with a terrific struggle. His great will and power are inexhaustible.

Thus, the meditator struggles with the practice, but the practice gets better as time passes if the meditator practices daily.

Zen Masters say that the people who succeed in catching the Ox typically become arrogant, insisting that no higher stage of enlightenment is possible. The pictures again remind us that this is merely the fourth stage of ten.

The realm of asuras is also known as the dharma realm of the titans, the fighting gods.

Dharma Master Hsuan Hua teaches that upon rising from the third lowest dharma realm, the eighth or animal dharma realm, by cutting off ignorance, hatred and greed, we enter the human dharma realm. He places the asuras one dharma realm above the human dharma realm.

However, the famous Lotus Sutra, (The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law), places the realm of the demon gods, the asuras, above the animal realm but below the human realm. And the Theravada school includes the Asuras in one of the four evil realms. (There are a total of thirty one dharma realms described in the Pali canon).

The seventh or asura dharma realm is the realm of fighting, the realm of aggression. The ancient Buddhist texts describe the asuras as gods who have cultivated happiness, loving kindness and generosity to rise from the hell worlds (the tenth dharma realm), the world of hungry ghosts (the ninth), and the animal world (the eighth), but their constant strife prevents them from rising to the sixth dharma realm, that of humans. They are the gods of combat and strife.

Humans who are drawn to militarism and pursue combat, and those who urge others to enter into the military profession, are working hard to get into the asura dharma realm.

As Master Hsuan Hua says, in The Ten Dharma Realms Are Not Beyond A Single Thought, the asuras are laden with blessings but they lack power.

  • We will follow the Lotus Sutra’s and the Theravada school’s arrangement of dharma realms for convenience.
  • The cultivation of happiness is the antidote for the sorrow and lamentations that pave the way to the hell worlds.
  • The cultivation of goodwill is the antidote for the ill will that leads to the realm of the hungry ghosts.
  • The cultivation of generosity is the antidote for the greed that leads to the realm of animals.
  • The antidote for aggression and struggle is the cultivation of peace and relaxation through mindfulness of the body.

The next four steps of this course, which together form Intermediate Zen, include the sixteen steps of the Buddha’s Tranquil Wisdom meditation. He taught the meditation in four groups of four steps each so we will keep his arrangement.

He called the first four steps: “Mindfulness of the body.” We will soon see how mindfulness of the body is the cultivation of peace, relaxation, and non-struggle; the perfect ticket to get out of the realm of the asuras.

This is the meditation that the Buddha performed to attain enlightenment. He taught the meditation in The Anapanasati Sutta.

The Anapanasati Sutta is the one hundred eighteenth (118th) sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya. Anapanasati means “mindfulness of breathing” but the meditation is often referred to as Tranquil Wisdom meditation. The sutta is short but not easily understood without commentary.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi has written a clear explanation of that sutta, entitled: The Anapanasati Sutta, A Practical Guide to Mindfulness of Breathing and Tranquil Wisdom Meditation.


Bhante U. Vimalaramsi

Another clear, but different, explanation is provided by Venerable Ajahn Brahm in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond. Both of these books, when read together, provide a priceless introduction to the meditation “technique” taught by the Buddha.

This hyperlink provides a brief overview of the sixteen steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation showing how these two prominent teachers diverge in their teachings of this important sutta.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi’s work has the advantage of including the entire text of the sutta, and Venerable Ajahn Brahm’s work has the advantage of practical teachings that make it easier to follow the sixteen steps.

As we read and re-read both of these works, we learn more with each re-reading.

As instructed by the Venerable Ajahn Brahm, we begin Mindfulness of Breathing with Present Moment Awareness followed by Silent Present Moment Awareness.

We modify that by practicing metta/Loving Kindness meditation after Present Moment Awareness and then we flow into Silent Present Moment Awareness which natually appears as the Loving Kindness meditation is concluded.

The two steps of Present Moment Awareness and Silent Present Moment Awareness are together the first of the sixteen steps. If they are skipped, practice of the remaining fifteen steps becomes meaningless.

The Buddha did not teach the Present Moment Awareness and Silemt Presemt Moment Awareness as presented in Beginning Zen. Here is how the Buddha described the first of the sixteen steps:

Here a Bhikku (monastic), gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or an empty hut, sits down; having his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.

The Buddha did not elaborate further because he knew his listeners knew how to establish mindfulness in front of them. We are grateful to Venerable Ajahn Brahm for showing us how to put mindfulness in front of as the first of the sixteen steps.

Singapore Chinese Garden Pagoda

Chinese Garden pagodas, Singapore

So let’s learn the next three steps. As we practice Minfulness of the Body, we are asuras residing in the seventh dharma realm. We seize the ox “with a terrific struggle.”

When we learn to relax and practice these four steps in peace, we rise above the dharma realm of the fighting gods.

Step one – Establishing mindfulness

Venerable Ajahn Brahm says that the Buddha’s instruction to “put/establish mindfulness in front of you,” i.e., to establish mindfulness, is not the first step of Tranquil Wisdom meditation. He finds mindfulness to be an indispensable preliminary step and says the reason most people do not awake when practicing Tranquil Wisdom meditation is because they fail to establish mindfulness first. However, most scholars refer to Tranquil Wisdom meditation as having sixteen steps. If we don’t count the practice of Silent Present Moment Awareness , which includes Present Moment Awareness, as being the first step, then we have fifteen steps.

There is no reason, of course, where the four major groupings of steps have to be divided into four steps each to have a nice symmetry that adds up to sixteen. In this course, we are trying to learn how to practice, so having a neat grouping of four meditations with four steps each is simply easier to remember so we will count establishing mindfulness as the first step of sixteen, not a preliminary step that precedes a fifteen step meditation.

To summarize, the Buddha recited the first step as:

  • Ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.
  • To help us do exactly that, we count our exhalations. When we do our Beginning Zen Present Moment Awareness, we are doing the first of the sixteen steps.
  • Step two- Awareness of long and short breaths
  • Instead of ending Silent Present Moment Awareness (SPMA) with a recitation of the repentance gatha as we did in Beginning Zen, in Intermediate Zen we continue our SPMA practice by lightly watching the breath as it goes in and out.
  • More particularly, the Buddha said that after we perform the step of putting mindfulness in front of us, we “understand” that a breath is long or short.

Here are the Buddha’s words:

  • Breathing in long, he understands: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he understands: ‘I breathe out long.’
  • Breathing in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short.’

This gives the mind something to watch during Silent Present Moment Awareness. This is a passive watching. We don’t take a long breath so that we can say: “I just took a long breath.” It is breathing that is doing the breathing, not us. We have to get out of the way and let it breathe. We are just passive observers, aware of long and short breaths.

When we practice Present Moment Awareness, forgetting about the past and not thinking about the future, counting our exhalations from one to ten, we reduce the diversity of our consciousness, i.e., we become more focused on the present so our mind is less scattered.

When we practice Silent Present Moment Awareness by dropping the inner chatter, the inner dialog, and commanding our so-called self to speak up,  we reduce the scope of consciousness even further, focusing even more on the present moment.

When we pay light attention to the breath, doing nothing more than watching the long and short breaths, we reduce the diversity of our consciousness even more. Now we are in a focused frame of mind, not thinking about the past or the future, not listening to inner chatter, and just watching our breath in a light, casual way that causes no strain or tension.

If tension arises, Venerable U. Vimalaramsi counsels us to relax, smile, and let it go. In his words: “Don’t resist or push, smile.” (DROPS)

Each step of the Buddha’s meditation reduces the diversity of consciousness, increasing our concentration or focus on fewer and fewer things – goodbye past, goodbye future, goodbye thoughts, and goodbye everything except the breath. (And, as we shall see, that eventually goes away as well).

We are following a natural progression from diversity of thought or scattered thought to single-pointed mindfulness. And that single-pointed mindfulness is not the end, either.

Our practice is like operating a garden hose in a spray mode. As we turn the control knob, the wide spray gradually becomes a narrow spray and further turning of the knob produces a focused, pencil-thin stream. And we know that the pencil-thin, concentrated flow has more power behind it than the diverse, widely spread spray.

Step three – Awareness of the whole body of the breath

Having casually (without tension) watched the breath, taking notice of the long and short ones, we now follow the Buddha’s instructions to reduce the diversity of consciousness even more by paying sustained attention to the breath.

This means we watch each in-breath from its beginning to its end, noticing how it arises in a crescendo and then rapidly fades away. We do the same for each out-breath. And we pay attention to the pause, calmly noticing whether it’s long or short, between the end of an out-breath and the beginning of the next in-breath. We also notice the moment that the in-breath becomes the out-breath. And we notice that the breath is cool coming in, warm as it exits.

In other words, we go from casual, relaxed observation of long or short breaths to a more focused awareness of the entire body of each in and out breath. But we remain relaxed and drop tension whenever it arises.

Here are the Buddha’s words that describe this third step:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body of breath’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body of breath.’

It is important that we dwell with patience in each of these stages before moving on. We need to sit in Present Moment Awareness a while before we can cut off the inner chatter and we need to sit in Silent Present Moment Awareness for a while before we start watching the long and short breaths and Venerable Ajahn Brahm counsels us that it is very important to maintain that practice for a long time before paying full sustained attention to each in and out breath.

These stages are not the end of the Buddha’s meditation but until they are mastered, there is no reason to learn anything further.

We are summarizing his explanations of the Buddha’s teachings as set forth in detail in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond. To practice generosity and to express gratitude to this modern day Buddha, click here.

Step four – Awareness of the breath of the moment

Having practiced full sustained awareness of the breath for a long time, also known as experiencing the whole body of the breath, we now move on to the fourth stage of the mindfulness of breathing that the Buddha practiced.

However, this fourth stage, and all of the steps that follow it, is not produced by an act of will. It arises naturally as we pay sustained attention to the full body of each in and out breath.

After paying attention to the full body of each in and out breath during the third stage, the mind focuses naturally, without effort, on just the breath itself in each moment. This is a further reduction on the diversity of consciousness as explained by the venerable Ajahn Brahm.

Venerable Ajahn Brahm likens the awareness of the whole body of the breath to watching a saw as it cuts through wood, observing the full length of each stroke, the moments where the direction of travel is reversed, and so on. He likens awareness of the breath of the moment to awareness of a single tooth of the saw at a moment in time; nothing exists but that single tooth.

Now all of our consciousness is reduced to just the moment-by-moment experience of the breath. We have never experienced anything like this before.

We experience the breath in the moment without inner comment. Long forgotten is the past and future, the breaths both long and short, the entire body of the breath from beginning to end. Our world is now the breath and nothing but the breath. Our pencil-thin stream of water has become a laser beam. We are aware only of the present moment and the only thing in it is the breath of that moment.

Our focus is now so refined that we don’t even know if the breath is going in or out. We just experience the breath in the eternal now and everything else is gone.

We are aware only of the breath. Nothing else exists.

The Buddha was very subtle in reciting the fourth step:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquilizing the body formation’: He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquilizing the body formation.’

That seems at first glance to be far removed from watching a single tooth of a saw! But we learn from experience that the breath of the moment always follows our awareness of the whole body of breath. We then understand that tranquility is what we are experiencing. Instead of saw teeth flying back and forth, a single tooth sits there, tranquil as could be. Our breath becomes tranquil, as does our entire body. When we experience the breath of the moment, we experience tranquilizing the body formation.

When we complete our practice of these four steps, we have practiced Mindfulness of the Body which is the first foundation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

And we have caught the ox when we experience the breath of the moment, step four. And of course step four is unattainable without the three steps that precede it.

The world of sense desire is the lowest of the three worlds, i.e., the world of sense desire is also known as the six worlds – the hell worlds, the hungry ghosts, animals, asuras, humans and the gods of the six worlds.

The other two worlds are the world of form, realized only through jhana practice which we encounter in step six (Riding the Ox Home) and the world of formlessness, realized only through practice of the immaterial attainments, which we encounter at step 7 (Self Alone, Ox Forgotten).

Cultivating the practice of mindfulness of the body delivers us from the asura dharma realm into the realm of humans. The terrific struggle of seizing the ox has ended.

Breathing Through the Whole Body

Step Five – Taming the Ox

The Sixth Dharma Realm

The whip and rope are necessary, else he might stray off down some dusty road. Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle, then, unfettered, he obeys his master.


Taming the Ox

Mindfulness of Feelings

The sixth dharma realm is the dharma realm. Counting from the bottom up, i.e., ten, nine, eight, seven, six. So we have arrived at our fifth practice.

The central practice of the sixth dharma realm is Mindfulness of Feelings, the second of the four foundations of mindfulness. This practice is the antidote for the five hindrances of sense desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety, and doubt.

By practicing these next four steps, we reach the half-way point of the sixteen steps.

We practice in the human dharma realm. But when we master the four steps of Mindfulness of Feelings, we graduate to the dharma realm of the gods of the six lower dharma realms.


Master Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of Plum Village

These steps can’t be forced to happen for obvious reasons. Only after we have followed every instruction, including the cultivation of happiness, the practice of loving kindness, and so on, can the fourth stage of catching the ox, evolve without effort and without tension into the fifth stage of the Ox-Herding pictures, that of taming the ox.

Step five of sixteen- Awareness of joy

This is how the Buddha describes step 5:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in experiencing joy’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out experiencing joy.’

When feelings of extreme happiness explode upon us while we are enjoying the breath of the moment,  we will know that we have arrived at the fifth step of Tranquil Wisdom meditation. The happiness appears naturally; it can’t be willed. We don’t need to remember what the fifth step is. We can say: OK, I’ve watched the breath of the moment for a long time now – it’s time to get happy, but that won’t work.

The Buddha’s words imply that the joy can be willed. They also imply that the trainee must remember what the fifth step is. So maybe it can be willed by some of us.

We sit with patience and not with greed for the joy that announces we have arrived at the fifth step of our sixteen step meditation.

It is a bubbling, unstable level of delight that naturally evolves into a serene, more stable form of happiness as the sixth step. Ajahn Brahm teaches that this is not yet the joy and happiness of the first two jhanas; it is a herald, though, of what is to come.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi, however, teaches that the joy of the fifth step is the first jhana. We can say, then, that experience of the first jhana catapults us from the human dharma realm to the dharma realm of the gods of the six worlds.

Meditation is an art, not a science. Thus, both Ajahn Brahm and Venerable U. Vimalaramsi are right; it depends upon the practitioner. For some, the happiness of the fifth step of the Buddha’s Tranquil Wisdom meditation is a mere warmup for the real thing. For others, it’s the first jhana.

Most of us are jolted out of our meditation by the sudden experience of the bliss of the fifth stage, whether it’s the first jhana or not, and the meditation ends abruptly.

With practice, however, we can maintain our calmness and the stage five rapture will settle down into the stage six serenity that lasts a long time.

Step six – Awareness of serenity

We remain aware only of the breath of the moment (the fourth stage) when stage five joy mellows into stage six serenity.

This is the sixth step in the Buddha’s words:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in experiencing joy’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out experiencing joy.’

Note that he simply substitutes the word “happiness” for the word “joy” as used in the fifth step. Again, this implies that the trainee must remember that happiness follows joy and that the transition from joy to happiness can be willed. For most of us, the joy will naturally settle into happiness and we don’t have to make a conscious decision to make that transition.

Ajahn Brahm calls the breath of one who is experiencing the brief joy of the fifth step and the long-lasting happiness of the sixth step: “the beautiful breath.”

The serenity is stable and long-lasting, unlike the unstable, short-lived rapture of step five. But Ajahn Brahm says this is still not the first jhana.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi, on the other hand, finds that this is the second jhana, characterized by stability. We are now firmly in the dharma realm of the gods of the six worlds, far above the dharma realm of humans.

Step seven – Awareness of the end of breathing

As the serenity of the sixth step continues, there will come a time, said the Buddha, when the breath is no longer a physical experience. It becomes a mind object, a mental formation.

The meditator is no longer aware of the breath as something that is happening to a living body. From a physical perspective, the breath has become so subtle that it seems to have stopped.

The Buddha describes step seven as follows:

  • He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in experiencing the mental formation’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out experiencing the mental formation.’
  • We can understand experiencing joy and happiness, but how do we experience “the mental formation”?
  • The mind is now breathing. As Venerable Ajahn Brahm so eloquently puts it: In the seventh step of the Buddha’s meditation, the beautiful breath is gone, only the beauty remains.

At this point in his wonderful book, Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond, he shows us an unforgettable connection between this seventh step and Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass.

Plum Village

Plum Village, France

When the breath seems to disappear and only the beauty remains and the diversity of consciousness has been brought to this fine point, we still are not finished. As Ajahn Brahms says, there is more bliss to come.

But if we ignore the precepts, as so many modern Japanese, Tibetan and American masters seem to do (I am unaware of any scandal involving a Chinese master), we might as well embrace suffering because we always get what we want. Mick Jagger, who has practiced with Theravada monks in Laos, was wrong when he said we can’t. Yes, I know, it was just a song lyric, but everything is mind alone and we always get what we want.

Step eight – Awareness of equanimity; The Still Forest Pool

After the breath seems to have faded away, we arrive at the eighth step, the Still Forest Pool made famous by the great Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah. We sit by the still forest pool in this eighth step of the Buddha’s Tranquil Wisdom meditation in absolute stillness and tranquility, and wait.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi teaches that this step eight represents the third jhana, characterized by tranquility. The meditation is named after this step. So we see that the serenity of the sixth step mellows into the minimizing of breath in the seventh step and that mellows even further into tranquility.

The Buddha describes this eighth step as follows:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquilizing the mental formation’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquilizing the mental formation.’

So instead of experiencing the mental formation of the seventh step, we now tranquilize that mental formation. This just means, apparently, that a feeling of tranquility will follow when the breath stops.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi teaches that step eight is the fourth jhana, the jhana of equanimity. I suppose tranquility matures into equanimity.

If we become excited at our progress, such excitement ends the progress.

As intermediate practitioners, if we can make it to the Still Forest Pool, experiencing the tranquility or equanimity of no breath, we are advanced intermediate practitioners.

If we can make it to the Still Forest Pool, we are in the neighborhood of Nirvana.

If we can’t make it to the Still Forest Pool, we can’t move on and there is no reason to attempt to move on. Ajahn Brahm counsels us that whenever we feel our progress has stopped, we go back and repeat the steps of the meditation that we probably rushed through. Each step has to unfold naturally – we just can’t say: OK, that’s enough happiness, I’m going to start the serenity stage now.

We just sit and watch the meditation unfold all by itself. The mind is unfolding itself and the thing we call our self has nothing to do with it.

When the mind, at its own pace, arrives at the Still Forest Pool, it will stay there awhile. The remaining stages of Tranquil Wisdom meditation will unfold for us just as they did for the Buddha in the year we now call 528 B.C. (The Buddha was most likely born in 563 B.C. and experienced enlightenment at the age of 35).

When absolute tranquility is experienced, the experiencer disappears. Tranquility is, but it doesn’t belong to us.

By taming the ox we arrive at the Still Forest Pool. The mind is tamed. The mind is tranquil. The practitioner has become a meditation master and can catch the ox and tame it. What else could possibly need to be done?

We are just half way through the sixteen steps.

Zazen has become so easy that the temptation to stop practicing is strong. We begin to carefully consider the teachings of the Zen masters that we are perfect and complete, just as we are. We begin to feel that we really are perfect and complete, and that there is no further reason to practice.

Yasutani Roshi says this is the stage where the meditator must vow to practice for another thirty years.

images.jpg Yasutani Roshi

Yasutani Roshi


Just as the cultivation of peace and non-struggle, by practicing mindfulness of the body, is the antidote to the fighting and struggling of the asuras of the seventh dharma realm, practicing mindfulness of feelings is the antidote to the untamed mind, the mind subject to and controlled by sense desire, the mind of the sixth dharma realm of humans.

When we practice mindfulness of feelings, the whip and rope are no longer necessary. Our mind becomes well-trained and naturally gentle.

We have reached a point where further progress on the path becomes difficult if we don’t follow the precepts. The next group of four steps, mindfulness of the mind itself, leads to the jhanas according to the understanding of Venerable Ajahn Brahm, and attaining the jhanas while ignoring the precepts is simply impossible.

Nor is it easy to practice present moment awareness without precepts. Counting one’s breaths from one to ten, and repeating that practice, again and again, does not come easily if we are awash in sense desire. Nor can we send out thoughts of loving kindness if we don’t practice acts of loving kindness to all sentient beings in our daily life.

So we pause mid-way through Intermediate Zen to introduce the precepts. Following the precepts helps us practice mindfulness of feelings which is the antidote to the sense desires that dominate the untrained mind of the human dharma realm.

Following the precepts is our insurance against re-birth below the human realm, just as cultivating happiness insures against falling into the hell realms, cutivating good will insures against re-birth in the hungry ghost realm, cultivating generosity insures against re-birth as an animal, and cultivating peace and non-struggle insures against re-birth in the realm of the titans.

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

The Precepts

The sixteen steps of the meditation taught by the Buddha, steps 4-7 of this program, can’t be followed successfully if we ignore the preliminary steps, 1-3, of Beginning Zen, or if we ignore the precepts.

Earlier versions of this website put the precepts earlier in the course but feedback told us that many people never completed the course because they couldn’t get past the section on the precepts.

A common comment was: “If I have to be a vegetarian, I don’t want to be a Buddhist.”

Or: “How dare you put such nonsense on your website? I have been a Buddhist all my life and I love eating meat!” One guy commented that he was happy to learn that I was a vegetarian. “That means there’s more meat for me,” he concluded.

So we now introduce the precepts in the middle of the course even though they should be at the very beginning.


A view of the Tassajara zendo

Precepts are commandments, not suggestions as so many commentators love to say. Whenever a writer says the precepts are mere suggestions, you know they are getting ready to say it’s OK to violate them if you would rather not follow them. A Buddha follows the commandments perfectly and without effort; the rest of us work at it, i.e., practice, until we can do the same. We do not take the precepts flippantly as mere suggestions unworthy of even trying to follow.

However, the Sanskrit word (sila) that is translated as “precepts” means “calming” or “soothing.” Thus, following precepts is soothing, calming. Rejecting the precepts means that one chooses to be unsoothed, uncalmed. Rejecting the precepts means that one chooses not to awaken and to be aggravated.

If we spend many hours in meditation but reject the precepts, we are indistinguishable from those who spend no time in meditation and who also reject the precepts. If meditation has no manifestation in our daily life, it is meditation without wisdom and is utterly worthless. If we live heedlessly, behaving just like a non-meditator, why meditate at all?

The first precept, for most people, is the hardest.

The first five of The Ten Cardinal Precepts are the “lay” precepts; monks and nuns follow hundreds more. They date back to the time of the Buddha and before; the first five, for example, were practiced by the Brahmans long before the advent of the Buddha.

The ancient Buddhist masters tell us that there are ten Dharma Realms. The top four are heavenly realms and the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Pratyekabuddhas and Arhats/Arahants of those four realms can never be reborn into the six lower realms (realms ten through five).

Chinese masters teach that keeping the first five precepts ensures that the precept-keeper will at least be reborn in the human dharma realm, which is better than being reborn in the asura realm, which is either one rung down from the human realm or one rung above, depending upon the teacher, or the animal realm which is one rung further down, or the realm of hungry ghosts which is below the animal realm, or the realm of hell dweller which is the lowermost rung, even down from the hungry ghosts.

They further teach that keeping all ten of the precepts ensures rebirth in the Pure Land. The Pure Land is a dharma realm (the fourth dharma realm in the Mahayana order of dharma realms) conducive to spiritual practice, unlike the human realm which sometimes is and sometimes is not. Once the Pure Land has been attained, there can be no further rebirths in the six lower realms and enlightenment is guaranteed. We therefore strive to follow all ten precepts.

When the Virgin Mary became infinitely pure, she gave birth to the Christ. Western theologians can argue at length about whether the conception was immaculate, why God in his infinite power could not just create a Christ from a lump of clay as he did Adam, thereby not requiring the services of Mary, but Buddhists understand that purity produces perfection and that is the true meaning of the Bible story.

Whenever a person practices the Ten Cardinal Precepts to perfection, the Pure Land appears, a Christ appears, a Buddha arises. Different cultures use different words and symbols, but perfection is made manifest when purity is attained and attainment of purity flows from following the Ten Cardinal Precepts.

As enunciated in modern terms by the late Roshi Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice and Enlightenment and founder of the Rochester Zen Center, here are The Ten Cardinal Precepts:

  1. I resolve not to kill, but to cherish all life.
  2. I resolve not to take what is not given, but to respect the things of others.
  3. I resolve not to engage in improper sexuality, but to lead a life of purity and self-restraint.
  4. I resolve not to lie but to speak the truth.
  5. I resolve not to cause others to take substances that impair the mind, nor to do so myself, but to keep the mind clear.
  6. I resolve not to speak of the faults of others, but to be understanding and sympathetic.
  7. I resolve not to praise myself and disparage others, but to overcome my own shortcomings.
  8. I resolve not to withhold spiritual or material aid, but to give them freely where needed.
  9. I resolve not to indulge in anger, but to exercise restraint.
  10. I resolve not to revile the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) but to cherish and uphold them.


Taking Precepts at the Zen Community of Oregon

The first precept, the one that drives many people away from Zen practice because they can’t keep it, is a call for not killing.

It doesn’t say not to kill people. It says not to kill, period. See The Lankavatara Sutra.

Again, following a precept results in a calm, soothed mind. The average vegetarian is a little less agitated, a little slower to anger than the average meat-eater. And not even slightly supportive of wars of aggression that the meat-eaters wildly applaud.

Those who do not care about animal life also do not care about human life. They think war is cool and that soldiers are admirable people who “serve” us. But they serve no one but the arms merchants, those who desire the profits that war can generate.

People who eat animals argue that vegetarians also kill carrots, bacteria, etc. and that, therefore, no living being can avoid killing.

True, but there is a difference between killing a sentient being with a central nervous system that can feel pain and killing a carrot that has no central nervous system and that therefore has no means for feeling pain.

Meat-eaters like to say: “You can’t hear the broccoli scream,” as if killing a broccoli plant is the same as killing a cow or a human being. Nice try, but a broccoli plant like a carrot, lacks a central nervous system, lacks nerves, and is not a sentient being.

So the animal killers argue that Buddhism teaches that all things are one, that there are no distinctions between life and death, killing and non-killing, and so on.

They argue that a liberated mind could kill a cow or a human without karmic retribution, by maintaining a pure mind, just like killing an ant as one walks down a sidewalk absorbed in meditation and generating thoughts of goodwill towards all living things.

That is what Japanese Buddhists practiced during the Rape of Nanking (Nanjing). They beheaded people with “the life-giving sword.” They were merely sending the Chinese off to a better world. “We kill them because we love them so much,” said a Japanese commander.

The argument that it is OK to kill people because they are merely being sent to a better world has a major flaw. The same flaw exists in the argument that it is OK to kill animals for food because Buddhists are free of distinctions such as good and bad, right and wrong.

Only an enlightened Buddha has transcended right and wrong. The rest of us have not and therefore we have no license to kill. And no enlightened master chooses to kill people, animals, or insects.


Master Hsing Yun, Founder of Fo Guang Shan (Buddha Light Mountain)

But the Buddha ate meat! Sure; he was a beggar, a mendicant who ate whatever was placed into his bowl. He would not eat the body of an animal if it had been killed for him; he merely accepted whatever leftovers people gave him.

When we walk into a grocery store, we are not beggars who have to go to the meat freezer in the back of the store.

Although it is true that a broccoli plant, like all plants, lacks a central nervous system and thus lacks the ability to feel pain (we hope), nothing in the universe, not even an inanimate object, is dead.

The Buddha taught that there are no two things – the life/death dichotomy, the form/emptiness dichotomy, simply doesn’t exist. That is the meaning of the enigmatic Heart Sutra, perhaps the most famous of the Mahayana texts. (The Heart Sutra is chanted daily in almost every Zen monastery, temple, or meditation practice center in the world.)

How could the life/death dichotomy not exist? The Buddha spent forty five years of his life explaining that only suffering arises and only suffering passes away. This thing we call “living” is just a string of thought moments. There is no thinker of the thoughts.

In the early years of World War II, before U.S. involvement, the Japanese bombed many Chinese cities and towns. Master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud), who lived to be nearly 120, the teacher of master Hsuan Hua, founder of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, lived in one of those towns. Witnesses reported that bombs landing near the Master’s house fell silently, like snow flakes. Not a single one exploded.

Hsu yun

Master Hsu Yun


Even a bomb knows when it is in the presence of a Buddha.

Years later, after founding The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas near Ukiah, California, Master Hsuan Hua visited a student who neglected to tie up his dog. The dog charged up to the Master, and came abruptly to a stop. He bent his front legs and dropped his head, performing a bow.

Even a dog knows when it is in the presence of a Buddha.

When the venerable Dau Sheng spoke the Dharma, dull rocks nodded their heads.

When Zen masters advise us to shun meat and fish eating as a part of our compliance with the first precept, we should at least be as smart as a bomb, a dog, or a dull rock.

For more information, see Vegetarianism, The Food Revolution,  and this article from Scientific American.

Being a vegetarian, or better yet, a vegan, is not just a Buddhist stance. All Jains and many Hindu sects have long been vegetarian. Even Christians are slowly coming around. See the Christian Vegetarian Association.

It is about time that some Christians have finally understood that “dominion” implies “stewardship,” and is not a green light to kill.

The second (stealing is to be avoided), third (“improper” sex is wrong) and fourth (don’t tell lies) precepts are self-explanatory and easily understood. But not so easily followed. Being gay, for example, can’t be considered “improper” because it’s an inherent feature and is not consciously chosen, just as heterosexuality is not consciously chosen.

The fifth precept is closely related to the first because it also refers to what we ingest. In the fifth precept we find the Buddha’s instruction to refrain from taking substances that impair the mind such as intoxicating drinks or drugs.

Tea is the traditional drink of Zen, but caffeine can disrupt meditation for people who are sensitive to it. We can find a source of tea that has either been de-caffeinated or better yet, one that is without caffeine from the beginning, like Roibos (red tea from South Africa).

If we drink caffeinated coffee, we can gradually change to decaf and after awhile, drop the coffee and focus on tea, soy, almond, or rice-based milk, fruit juices, and water. We can break our soft drink habit if we have one. If we drink beer, we can switch to a non-alcoholic beer and then gradually cut it out as well so that we can live simply with water, tea, and other non-dairy drinks.

A smoker has a hard time practicing zazen as well; if we smoke, we must stop.

Those who eat animals, drink caffeinated products, smoke, or take drugs other than caffeine and nicotine cannot make it to the end of this program. A pure, undefiled mind cannot reside in a defiled body.

Even those who drink water and tea without caffeine have unstable, wildly veering minds that careen from one excitement to the next; caffeinated minds are even crazier. Those who imbibe caffeinated drinks and soft drinks and booze of any kind are just making a difficult situation worse.

Caffeine and nicotine, like alcohol, are drugs. As the Buddha always said, don’t take anything I say in blind faith; always test it and see for yourself. The Buddha knew that those who take intoxicating drugs were setting up just another roadblock against awakening. So try it and see; as we transition from caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and animal food, our sitting will become easier.

It may take a few weeks or even months to make the transition, but we can do it.

If we feel that the precepts present an almost insurmountable barrier, let’s consider the heroic example of Tz’u-ming, a tenth century Chinese master.

He would sit and meditate outdoors in the cold of northern China for days on end. When he felt drowsy, he would stab his thigh with a sharp tool known as a gimlet so that he could stay awake to meditate more. For Tz’u-ming, Zen was not a hobby to be casually approached or practiced half-heartedly.

Empty Field Farm Zendo snowy

Empty Field Zendo

We can follow the example of Tz’u-ming or the example of the average American Zennie who treats Zen practice as just one of the many things he or she likes to do. We can watch American Idol or we can sit in a snowy field and jab ourselves whenever our zeal fades.

Note that all ten of the Precepts include the word “not.” They tell us what not to do. Recognizing that, Roshi Kapleau has added a positive step to each of them (animal food is not served at the Rochester Zen Center).

Hsuan hua

Master Hsuan Hua

Sakkaya ditthi is the belief in an independent self. It is listed in the suttas as the first of the ten fetters that bind us to existence in the world of sense-desire. Following the precepts helps to loosen the fetter of sakkaya ditthi.

Ironically, a self-centered desire to get benefits from practice is sakkaya ditthi and a sure guarantee that no benefits will be received. The practice must be approached with a wholesome mind, a relaxed mind that wants only to practice Zen for the daily satisfaction of practicing, not to get a future reward for an illusory self.

The practice is not separate from awakening. As Master Hakuin said, when we sit in meditation, we are doing what a Buddha does.

Sitting in meditation, zazen, is the easiest part of Zen practice. The hard practice comes during the school or work day. The moments between formal sittings, chanting practice, prostrations and the like are when we must learn to carry our Zen practice with us. It is during the moments of our daily life that we must learn to walk in Zen.

And if we are not holding the precepts, we are just wasting our time. Three of the folds of the eightfold path are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. If we ignore the precepts and the moral folds of the eightfold path, the time spent in meditation is just as well spent watching sports on TV.

Step Six – Riding the Ox Home

The Fifth Dharma Realm

Mounting the Ox, slowly I return homeward. The voice of my flute intones through the evening. Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm. Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Oxherding_pictures,_No._6 six

Riding the Ox Home

Mindfulness of the Mind

The fifth dharma realm is the dharma realm of the gods of the six lower realms, often called the six worlds.

The central practice of this realm is the cultivation of the jhanas, the antidote for the desire to remain in the world of desire.

The picture entitled “Riding The Ox Home” is subtitled: “Great joy.” The ox is ours, and we are riding it home. The gods of the six worlds also exist in great joy.

In the traditional explanation of this sixth stage, this stage is so exalted that the meditator is certain that no further zazen is needed. The battle to catch the ox was long ago, and the ox was tamed after a long period of intense post-enlightenment practice. Steps one through five have brought us to the fifth dharma realm, the dharma realm of the gods.

However, these are the gods of the lower six realms, the world of desire which is the third and lowermost world of the three worlds of desire, form, and formlessness.

These are the gods that exhibit all-too human traits like jealousy and anger. The god of the Old Testament (who says men who shave off their beards should be killed, for example) is a god of the fifth dharma realm.

The dharma realm of the gods is far above the human, but it’s still just the fifth dharma realm, the highest of the lower six realms.

The gods of the fifth realm are not infallible, omniscient or perfect. They too, can fall into the lower realms of humans, asuras, animals and worse if they fail to be happy, loving, kind, generous, and upholders of the precepts.

They may endlessly circle the six worlds, i.e., the lower six dharma realms, if they do not practice. Without practice, even a large storehouse of good karma will eventually be used up.

These are the gods who have lifetimes, the ones who become jealous of other gods, the ones who command humans to smite their enemies, and so on. They have great merit but they still belong to the six dharma realms and can fall into any of them, including the lowest, the tenth dharma realm. For example, when the god of the Bible gets so angry that smoke pours from his ears and he starts killing people, he is visiting – taking a vacation in – the evil dharma realms.

Still, when in the fifth dharma realm we feel that we are in the presence of something greater and other than ourselves. We have not yet conquered the feeling of duality, of a self within and a world of others without.

In the ten dharma realms, the leap from the fifth to the fourth is the second biggest one: From the six lower realms to the four heavenly realms. As long as we are in the lower six dharma realms, we can visit all six of them and that is not a good thing. Only the upper four dharma realms are immune from falling into the lower realms, the six worlds.

The three worlds (sense-desire, form and formless) are the three planes of existence and all of them are below Nirvana, which is transcendental and undefinable as a plane of existence.

So even when we reach the dharma realm of these gods, we are still in the lowest of the three worlds and we remain in jeopardy of re-birth in any of the lower six dharma realms.

Instead of one heavenly realm in the bottom six realms (Hakuin’s “six worlds” that we “endlessly circle”), the Pali Canon recites that there are six heavenly realms in the sense-sphere realm.

So who are these unenlightened gods of the Mahayana fifth dharma realm?

From the bottom to the top, with their Theravada dharma realm in parentheses, they are:

The gods under the Four Great Kings (26);

(Recall that Theravada dharma realms 31-27 are the same in number, but in a slightly different order, as the five lower dharma realms (10-6) of the Mahayana dharma realms).

The gods of the Thirty-three (25) (which may explain the name of the famous San-Ju-San Gen Do in Kyoto, san-ju-san meaning “33.” However, there are also said to be 33 gods living atop Mt. Sumeru so the 33 could come from that reference as well);

The Yama gods (24);

The gods of the Tusita heaven (23) (where Bodhisattvas reside before final birth, and thought by some Buddhist scholars to be the heaven of the Bible);

The gods who delight in creating (22); and

The gods who wield power over others’ creations (21).

So the lower six realms of the Mahayana school coincides with the lower eleven realms of the Theravada school, there being an extra five heavens in the latter. But all of those heavens are still in the desire realm and the gods of those realms are subject to re-birth in any of the six or eleven lower realms.

The world of form is realized only through experience of the four jhanas and the world of formlessness is realized only through practice of the four immaterial attainments.

For this reason, we don’t count the experiences of happiness, serenity, tranquility, and equanimity of steps five through eight, respectively, as the four jhanas because we remain in the human dharma realm. It is perhaps best to think of them as heralds of the four jhanas, the jhanas that propel us out of the desire world into the world of form.

Completing the practice of mindfulness of feelings delivers us from the human dharma realm into the realm of the gods of the lower six worlds. We rise above the dharma realm of these gods only upon practicing mindfulness of the mind itself; this is jhana practice.

Steps nine through twelve of the Buddha’s sixteen step meditation are the mindfulness of mind steps.

We experience the body (through the breath) with the four steps of catching the ox, we experience feelings (through joy, serenity, breath cessation and tranquility) with the four steps of taming the ox, and now we experience the mind (and mind alone) with the four steps of riding the ox home.

474956179_M3t8o-S ox herding riding ox home

Riding the Ox Home

Step nine – Awareness of the nimitta

The Buddha recited the ninth step of Tranquil Wisdom meditation as follows:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in experiencing the mind’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out experiencing the mind.’

As Venerable Ajahn Chah says, if we sit by A Still Forest Pool with any degree of agitation, the animals won’t come out for a drink. Only when we are as quiet as a pine tree by the pool will the animals come out.

After arriving at the Still Forest Pool, the eighth stage of the Tranquil Wisdom meditation, we sit in absolute equanimity, i.e, our mind is the Still Forest Pool, silent and unmoving. We await the appearance of a nimitta.

Nimitta is the sign of nirvana. We are in the neighborhood of nirvana when it appears. Its appearance is the ninth step.

A nimitta is the mind as seen by the mind, it is the mind experiencing itself. A pure and beautiful mind will experience a pure and beautiful nimitta. If we see a dull, lifeless, ugly nimitta, we know what our mind is.

If a nimitta fails to appear, that means that we have rushed through at least one of the first eight stages.

If we experience no nimitta, we will need to go back and practice, with enhanced patience, the stages we rushed through.

However, the Burmese masters teach that enlightenment may occur even in the absence of a nimitta. I have no idea what they are talking about so we are following the Buddha’s teachings even though it is entirely possible that the Burmese masters have discovered an alternative path that works.

Step ten – Polishing the nimitta

Once the nimitta appears, the tenth step is to “polish” it, in the words of Venerable Ajahn Brahm. His book, Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond describes how to stop the nimitta from wobbling, i.e., how to strengthen it before moving on to step eleven.

His instructions are quite helpful, because the Buddha’s recital of the tenth step is:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in gladdening the mind’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out gladdening the mind.’

Ajahn Brahm tells us how to gladden the mind.

Step eleven – Sustaining the nimitta

In step eleven, with the nimitta now stable, we sustain it by the techniques taught by Venerable Ajahn Brahm.

Again, Ajahn Brahm’s specific instructions are helpful. The Buddha’s explanation of the eleventh stage is:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in stilling the mind’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out stilling the mind.’

Step twelve – Entering into the jhanas

Step twelve, in the Buddha’s words:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in liberating the mind’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out liberating the mind.’

According to Venerable Ajahn Brahm, once the nimitta is polished and sustained, the four jhanas and the four immaterial attainments may appear as the twelfth step.

Other scholars, however, teach that the four jhanas may be attained in step twelve, but the immaterial attainments are experienced in steps thirteen through sixteen, i.e., the last four steps of the Tranquil Wisdom meditation which we encounter in Step Seven.

Depending upon how well we keep the precepts and how well the nimitta is polished in step ten and made stable in step eleven, we may make it to the first jhana only, to the second jhana only, and so on. No jhana can be skipped, i.e., we cannot experience the third jhana unless we have experienced the first two, and so on.

Just like the joy of the fifth step, the explosion of joy associated with the first jhana usually causes the meditation to end. It takes practice to let the first jhana mature into the second jhana, and so on.

The jhanas transport us from the third world of sense desire to the second world of form, also known as the fine-material world.

In the Theravada teachings, there are sixteen dharma realms in the fine-material world.

The beings of the fine material plane of existence are no longer subject to sense desire and they have left the lower six realms, the desire or sense-sphere realm, never to fall back.

As the name of this collection of realms implies, however, the beings are free of the gross material world but they still have some connection to the material world and have not achieved anuttara samyak sambodhi, total liberation.

Of the sixteen planes of existence, three are associated with the first jhana, three are associated with the second jhana, three are associated with the third jhana, two are associated with the fourth jhana, and the final five are associated with The Pure Land, referred to in the Pali Canon as The Pure Abodes.

More specifically:

Development of the first jhana to an inferior degree leads to rebirth among:

Brahma’s Assembly (20);

Middling development of the first jhana leads to rebirth among:

The Ministers of Brahma (19); and

Superior development of the first jhana leads to rebirth among:

The Maha Brahmas (18).

Thus there are three planes of existence or dharma realms associated with the first jhana.

How can we know if we have attained the first jhana? The Pali Canon mentions four features of the first jhana, as follows:

1. Vittaka which is translated as “thinking”;

2. Vicara which is translated as “examining”;

3. Piti which is translated as “joy, bliss or rapture”; and

4. Sukha which is translated as “happiness.”

Venerable Ajahn Brahm translates vittaka and vicara as subverbal, i.e., non-thinking reactions of the mind.

He teaches that vittaka is the mind’s tendency to flow into a blissful state and vicara is the mind’s tendency to grasp at that blissful state. That grasping weakens the bliss but vittaka lets go of the grasping and the bliss strengthens again.

So if we feel blissful but that bliss seems to “wobble,” as Ajahn Brahm says, that’s the first jhana.

In the same inferior-middling-superior development way, development of the second jhana leads to rebirth among:

The gods of Limited Radiance (17);

The gods of Immeasurable Radiance (16); and

The gods of Streaming Radiance (15).

How can we know if we have attained the second jhana? Well, the first jhana is exhilarating and it doesn’t last long. When the pounding bliss fades away, and only happiness remains, we have entered into the second jhana.

The second jhana is a more stable level of concentration whose primary features are serenity and solidity and it can last for hours; the first jhana is unlikely to last anywhere near that long.

Inferior, middling and superior development of the third jhana leads to rebirth among:

The gods of Limited Glory (14);

The gods of Immeasurable Glory (13); and

The gods of Refulgent Glory (12).

Superior development of the fourth jhana leads to rebirth among:

The gods of Great Fruit (11).

However, if the fourth jhana is developed with a desire for insentient existence (which seems to be a contradiction in terms), then it leads to rebirth among:

The Non-percipient gods (10) “for whom consciousness is temporarily suspended” to quote Bhikkhu Bodhi, author of A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma.

Bhikku Bodhi has also provided the modern translations of the Anguttara Nikaya (numerical discourses of the Budddha, the Mahjjima Nikaya (the middle-length discourses of the Buddha, the Samyutta Nikaya (the connected discourses of the Buddha), and In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of the Pali Canon.

As mentioned earlier, the six lower realms of the Mahayana dharma realms are the eleven lower realms in the Theravada understandng because the dharma realms of the gods of the sense sphere is one realm in Mahayana and six realms in Theravada. Thus, in Theravada, dharma realms 31-21 are the realms of sense desire and the lowest of the form realms (Brahma’s Assembly) is thus number 20 of 31.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, author of The Noble Eightfold Path, calls the sixteen realms (20-5) of the fine-material realm the “objective counterparts” of the four jhanas.

But the formless world, the immaterial world (dharma realms 4-1), lies beyond the world of form, and it cannot be experienced until we experience the immaterial attainments.

When I first read about these realms of consciousness, and the creative names by which they are known, my first reaction was to laugh. I thought the gods under the four great kings, the gods of the thirty three, and so on, were the products of someone’s over-active imagination.

I had the same feeling of comic relief when I first read about the levels of consciousness that belong not to the realm of desire but to the realm of form, enterable only through the jhanas.

Brahma’s Assembly, The Ministers of Brahma, the Maha Brahmas, the gods of limited radiance, immeasureable radiance, streaming radiance, limited glory, immeasureable glory, refulgent glory, of great fruit, the non-percipient gods, it was pretty corny.

I have no doubt that someone about 2500 years ago entered into very high levels of bliss and then wrote down his or her experiences.

As the bliss increased, that cultivator would report: I felt like I had entered into Brahma’s Assembly, but then it got even better and I met the Ministers of Brahma, higher still I met the Maha Brahmas. The bliss deepened and I met the gods of limited radiance and they took me to meet the gods of immeasurable radiance and they introduced me to the gods of streaming radiance and after that…

We learn early in our study of Buddhism that the Buddha talked often of the impermanence of things. He taught that those who build their inner happiness on external things are doomed to lose their happiness because nothing lasts forever.

I am sure that a person who enters into the first jhana today, 2500 years after the experience of one early Buddhist was recorded, is unlikely to enter into Brahma’s Assembly, followed by meeting the Ministers of Brahma, and so on.

Brahma’s Assembly and all the other levels of awareness have morphed into something else by now.

A modern person who is ardent and resolute in the cultivation of Zen practices on an unrelenting, daily basis, will certainly enter into blissful states of mind and that bliss will increase in intensity with practice, but it would be nonsensical to believe that these states of bliss with these names will be encountered and that they will appear in the order as recorded by our ancient practitioner.

It’s fun to memorize these states of awareness (I can’t help it) but accepting them as factual, down to their names, would be ludicrous. They were one person’s experience thousands of years ago and we will have our own.

Note that in the Theravada dharma realm countdown, the non-percipient gods reside ten levels of awareness from the top.

Levels 9, 8, 7, 6, and 5 are the highest levels of the realm of form and these levels are the pure abodes of which the Buddha spoke, the realm of the non-returners. They are, from bottom to top:

The Aviha (9);

The Atappa (8);

The Sudassa (7);

The Sudassi (6); and

The Akanittha (5).

The lifetime of the beings in these Pure Abodes increases “significantly in each higher plane.”

We can find in the Pali Canon how far these abodes are from the earth and the specific lifetimes of the inhabitants of each.

No kidding: Some people have actually done the math. They can tell you which Pure Abode is located near the orbit of Jupiter, for example. I hope their humor is intentional.

And if we take such facts literally, we’re nuts. The point is that there are levels of awareness beyond that of the fourth jhana but below the awareness of the immaterial world that lies beyond the world of form.

If the fourth jhana takes our awareness to levels of bliss that some creative ancient cultivator dubbed the gods of great fruit and the non-percipient gods, what meditation practice takes us to the five Pure Abodes, dharma realms 9-5 in the Theravada listing of dharma realms?

Answer: None. The Pure Abodes are like the Christian heaven; we have to die to get there. The five Pure Abodes are where non-returners are reborn. They cannot possibly be re-born into the first world of sense desire but they have not yet attained Nirvana.

As mentioned earlier, keeping all ten precepts to perfection ensures against re-birth in the lower six dharma realms but doesn’t guarantee re-birth in The Pure Land. Keeping all ten precepts will result in a re-birth in the world of form, i.e., the fine-material world, but not necessarily at the high end of that world.

Those who make it the Pure Abodes, where there are no impediments to practice, are guaranteed success. Cultivation continues unabated until all dharma realms are left behind in the Theravada view and Nirvana is attained, or the first dharma realm of Nirvana is attained in the Mahayana reckoning of dharma realms.

But we humans can practice Buddha Name Recitation which the Pure Land teachers say will assure us rebirth in the Pure Land. This is technically not a meditation practice but it probably develops mindfulness and it probably can take a practitioner to the jhanas.

We could make Buddha Name Recitation a practice of the Mahayana sixth dharma realm, the human dharma realm, but since we introduced the precepts at the sixth dharma realm, we have saved Buddha Name Recitation for the Mahayana fifth dharma realm, the realm just above the human dharma realm and the last stop before leaving the third world of desire and entering the second world of form.

Since the fifth dharma realm is the highest of the six lower realms, it makes sense to make Buddha Name Recitation a practice of the unenlightened gods.

Zen and the Pure Land are separate schools in Japan, with Pure Land practitioners greatly outnumbering Zen practitioners, but in China the two schools have merged. Most Ch’an (Zen) practice centers teach Buddha Name Recitation as a Ch’an (Zen) practice.

The Mahayana school does not teach Tranquil Wisdom meditation and thus does not teach cultivation of the jhanas. It has a different approach to the Pure Abodes, referred to in Mahayana texts as the Pure Land.

Intuitive Awareness

Buddha Name Recitation

The Buddha spoke repeatedly of the Pure Abodes in the Pali Canon and taught that the sentient beings of the Pure Abodes were safely beyond the reach of the desire realm, never again to be reborn as a hell-dweller, a hungry ghost, an animal, a god of strife, a human, or an unenlightened god.

The Mahayana practice is to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of infinite light and life. We don’t count the number of recitations.

Buddha Name Recitation niemphat 1

Buddha Name Recitation in Viet Nam

Pure Land practitioners teach that Buddha Name Recitation is the only practice one needs to ensure re-birth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, i.e., the Pure Land. They recommend recitation practice for people who have trouble with meditation.

With daily Buddha Name Recitation, we assure rebirth in The Pure Land, never again to descend into the lower six realms.

We are not reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha. Amitabha Buddha is reciting Amitabha Buddha.

The sixth fold of the eightfold path is right effort. The Buddha divided right effort into four efforts: 1) Nipping evil/unwholesome thoughts in the bud as they begin to arise; 2) Abandoning evil thoughts that have arisen; 3) Planting wholesome thoughts if our thoughts are neutral; and 4) Nurturing wholesome thoughts that have already arisen.

Buddha Name Recitation practice is an ideal way to practice the four right efforts.

1) Whenever we notice our thoughts taking a negative turn, we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha.

2) If we fail to notice that moment and are already awash in negative thoughts, we drop them by reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha.

3) If we notice that our thoughts are neutral, we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha.

4) If we notice that our thoughts are wholesome, we maintain those wholesome thoughts by reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha.

Amitabha Buddha is not an “other.” We are reciting our own name, remembering who we are.

With whole-hearted and unbroken daily practice of Buddha Name Recitation, we leave the realm of the unenlightened gods and thus leave the six worlds referred to in Master Hakuin’s chant, i.e., the tenth, ninth, eighth, seventh, sixth, and fifth dharma realms, the realms of desire.

Again, the four upper dharma realms are the heavenly dharma realms. The sentient beings in the heavenly dharma realms can never fall back into the six worlds, the bottom six realms.

I once attended a Buddhist Summer Camp in Orlando and after a monk-delivered talk on Buddha Name Recitation, a member of the audience said her practice was to chant One, One, One. She asked the monk if that was a good practice and he said:

“You can chant something that you have developed for your personal use, but you will be chanting alone.”

Buddhism is flourishing in the Republic of China (Taiwan) as well as in the People’s Republic of China (the mainland) so if we chant the Mandarin Namo Amituo Fo, we will not be chanting alone.

Here is an audio file of Namo Amituo Fo in Mandarin Chinese. Very few people chant Namo Amitabha Buddha, the Sanskrit version, but millions chant Namo Amituo Fo.

The fourth dharma realm, that of the Pure Land or the Pure Abodes, is the lowest of the four heavenly realms, but the step from the fifth to the fourth dharma realm is the second biggest step of all because it is the step from the six worlds to the heavenly realms, it is the step of no return. Buddha Name Recitation helps us make that leap.

Moreover, making the effort, every day, to practice Buddha Name Recitation as much as possible by following the four right efforts, samma vayama, helps us to develop the sixth fold of the eightfold path. Whenever we catch ourselves daydreaming or singing a catchy pop tune in our head, we switch to singing Namo Amituo Fo instead. If we are stuck in traffic, we know what to do instead of getting peeved.

Turning to Buddha Name Recitation whenever we can remember to do so gradually clears out the mental cobwebs created by the onslaught of pop culture.

If we practice with diligence, every day, we learn that the dharma realms are real. The Pure Abodes is not a fantasy land.


Amitabha Buddha (Amida Butsu in Japanese)

The Pure Land or the Pure Abodes is the Pure Lotus Land to which Master Hakuin refers in his Chant in Praise of Zazen.

The Pure Land sect, like Zen, is a Mahayana sect and therefore is practiced primarily in the Mahayana countries of China, Japan, Korea, and most of Viet Nam. I don’t know if it’s a part of Tibetan practice or not.

The Buddha mentioned the Pure Land when he discussed the four levels of enlightenment in the Pali canon: the stream winner, the once-returner, the nonreturner and the fully enlightened one.

Venerable Ajahn Brahm in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond cites the commentary on the Anguttara Nikaya for his observation that:

“Nonreturners have advanced even further to completely eliminate all desire within the world of the five senses and ill will. Should they not win full enlightenment at the time of their death, then they will arise in the pure abodes (suddhavasa) to attain full enlightenment there. They are never again reborn in the human world.”

This passage from the Pali canon, and many other passages that refer to “the pure abodes” did not inspire the Theravada school to speculate at length about the pure abodes where one may practice until full enlightenment, samyak sambodhi, is attained wihout fear of falling back into the six worlds.

But the Buddha’s multiple references to the Pure Abodes inspired great speculation in the Mahayana school.

Since there is nothing outside us, we make our own world. We take ourselves to the hell worlds, the heavenly realms, the human dharma realm, the animal realm, and so on. As advanced practitioners, we might as well take ourselves to the pure abodes, the Pure Land, the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

The Pure Land is described in the Mahayana sutras as a place that sounds to westerners like the Christian heaven. However, instead of sitting around singing hosannas to the King as in the Christian heaven, the beings in the Land of Ultimate Bliss are cultivating Buddhahood.

Unlike the earth, where cultivation is not always easy, practicing zazen and other forms of cultivation is easy in the Pure Land where everyone is a cultivator.


The Pure Land

Pure Land practice requires Faith, Vows, and Practice. The following vow to be reborn in the “Western Pure Land” is recited at the end of a practice period:

“I wish to be reborn in the Western Pure Land, with the nine grades of lotus blossoms as my parents. When the lotuses are in full bloom, I shall see Buddha Amitabha and be enlightened to the Absolute Truth, with non-retrogressing Bodhisattvas as my companions.”

Such a recital strikes us Westerners as bizarre but with repetition it becomes beautiful.

By the way, the term “western” does not refer to the western hemisphere which was of course unknown to easterners when the Pure Land School developed, long before 1492.

Here is my non-scholarly theory of why they called the Pure Land the Western Paradise:

It is known that the ancient Chinese preferred to build their homes facing the south to derive maximum benefit from the sun. Facing south, they knew that the Pacific was to their left and straight ahead so they assumed the Pure Land was to their right. And the west is to the right when facing south.

That’s my theory, but like the lady chanting “One,” I probably hold it alone.

The real reason is that they viewed the setting sun as symbolic of the ending or relinquishment of sense desire or more broadly, the setting of ignorance. And of course the sun sets in the West, in the Western Paradise.

The practice of reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha is reminiscent of the Biblical injunction to “pray without ceasing.” The practice is usually called Buddha Name Recitation or simply Buddha Recitation. English speakers are sometimes encouraged to chant in Sanskrit: “Namo Amitabha Buddha.” The term “namo” looks like the forerunner of the English work “name” but scholars translate it as “praise.”

Amitabha Buddha is not Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha who announced the Four Noble Truths and taught The Anapanasati Sutta. According to the Mahayana sutras, Amitabha Buddha is a prehistoric Buddha, a Buddha of times that were ancient even during the lifetime of the historical Buddha. Amitabha Buddha vowed to help all sentient beings to awaken if they would but call upon his name.

In Japanese, the Buddha Name Recitation is “Namu Amida Butsu.”

Chinese Buddhists (and others influenced by Buddhism as developed in China) routinely greet and say goodbye to one another with hands palm-to-palm and the words “Amituo Fo.” (“Fo” is Mandarin for the Buddha).

So “Amituo Fo” is used among Chinese Buddhists in the same way as is “Aloha” in Hawaii. A good translation of “Aloha” is: “May you be well, happy, calm and peaceful.”

Worldwide, practitioners of The Pure Land school outnumber Zen practitioners. Some observers conclude that The Pure Land School is for the masses and Zen is for the elite. Au contraire!

Such observations are made by those who recite the Hsin Hsin Ming and still cling to their opinions.

Some Zen writers have said that the Pure Land school violates the basic principle of Buddhism that there are no two things and that we will never find the Buddha outside ourselves. (“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” means that if you think the Buddha is outside yourself, kill that notion).

Accordingly, some Zen scholars equate Pure Land practice with Christian practice: Calling on a Savior to come and save us is reliance on an “other” whereas Zen teaches self-reliance because there is no other.

In Japan, the practice of Zen is characterized as “jiriki,” meaning “self power,” and the practice of Pure Land is characterized as “tariki,” meaning “other power.” Suffice it to say that even those who think they are reciting the name of someone other than themselves will eventually learn that they have been reciting their own name.

Even though Pure Land practitioners outnumber Zen practitioners, there are still very few serious Pure Land practitioners.

A Pure Land practitioner is not really calling upon an “other” for help. Amitabha Buddha is our true Buddha nature; when we practice Pure Land chanting, we are reciting our true name, remembering our beginningless beginning. It was we who vowed to save all sentient beings. When we chant the name of Amitabha Buddha or Amituo Fo, we are merely calling ourselves to ourselves, remembering our ancient vow. There is no “other” and there is no “out there.”

When we recite the name of the Buddha, the Buddha is reciting the name of the Buddha.

Ch’an Master Hsuan Hua encourages Pure Land practice because it doesn’t conflict with Zen practice in any way. He often assigned to students the koan: Who is reciting the name of the Buddha?

As our Buddha Name Recitation practice matures, we begin to remember who we are.

Chin kung

Master Chin Kung, greeting the Archbishop of Brisbane

Zen as practiced in the States is sometimes called Elite Zen (the exclamation Au Contraire is a joke, stolen from comedian Mark Russell) because its practitioners tend to be middle and upper middle class. The majority of American Zennies, as they call themselves, are college educated and financially secure. Most are heavily into meditation and know little about the Buddhist sutras, the Precepts, and Buddhist practice in general. They pride themselves in being free of the cultural baggage of Asians.

This course includes the cultivation of mindfulness through Present Moment Awareness and Silent Present Moment Awareness, loving kindness meditation, the Repentance Gatha, following the precepts, and taking refuge, subjects seldom if ever discussed in American Zen centers. Very few follow the first precept and many ridicule the very idea of vegetarianism, for example, and threaten to leave the meditation group if the subject ever comes up a second time.

A number of prominent American Zen Centers have been led by sex-crazed Roshis, meat-eating Roshis, alcoholic or drug-taking Roshis, and others who deem themselves to be “above” such “trivial” matters as vegetarianism and a clean lifestyle.

Not only have they failed to repent of their pre-Zen ways, they have never taken the precepts seriously but they do wear a rakusu as if they have. They have no foundation upon which to stand when teaching students.

Starting a meditation practice without precepts and without repentance leads to a Zen practice that is not authentic.

An unrepentant, precept-shunning Zen practice that further ignores the sutras, that considers prostrations a waste of time, and that scoffs at Pure Land practices is equally lacking in authenticity. “Anything goes” Zen is not authentic Zen.

A Pure Land practice also requires authenticity. We cannot just say: “OK, it’s recommended at the Intermediate level so I’ll do it.”

Japanese Zen, as taught in the U.S., does not incorporate Pure Land practice. Chinese Ch’an does and this course obviously tilts toward Chinese Ch’an.

Mark Unno

Professor Mark Unno at The Henry David Thoreau Sangha

There are ten great vows that form the foundation of an authentic Pure Land practice. They are recited in the Avatamsaka sutra by Bodhisattva Samantabhadra and form the basis of an authentic Pure Land practice.

The vow to venerate and respect all Buddhas is the first of the ten great vows. Every Buddhist tradition venerates and respects all Buddhas, so this vow is not unique to the Pure Land.

When we perform prostrations, we are bowing to our true selves; we are venerating and respecting all Buddhas. Practicing prostrations, introduced in Advanced Zen, is therefore practicing the first great vow of Pure Land practice.

The second vow grows from the first. A sincere veneration of all Buddhas leads to the vow to praise the Buddhas. This may take the form of mentioning the Buddhadharma to one’s confidants. Buddhists do not, however, proselytize.

The praise may also take the form of Buddha Name Recitation. Thus, when we perform Buddha Name Recitation, we are practicing the second great vow of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra.

If we can recite the name of Amitabha Buddha while performing prostrations, we are simultaneously practicing the first and second vows of the ten great vows.

Responding to a growing veneration for the Buddhas causes the practitioner to praise the Buddhas and to vow to make abundant offerings to them. We do not make abundant offerings just by writing a check payable to a Buddhist organization. Abundant offerings are also made when we practice daily; our practice is our offering. It takes a great vow to follow through and practice these expedient means with diligence.

So our daily practice can represent our making of abundant offerings to the Buddha in fulfillment of the third vow.

We may also make abundant offerings to the Buddhas at our home zendo altar or the altar of our local Zen center in a more mundane way. Flowers, incense, fruits, and the like may be placed with respect on such altars. When we do so, we are practicing the third great vow.

images offerings

An altar

The fourth vow is to repent of misdeeds. So when we follow our Silent Present Moment Awareness with recitation of the Repentance Gatha, we are practicing the fourth great vow.

The fifth vow is to rejoice over the merits and virtues of others. This is mudita, one of the Four Brahma-viharas. This erases envy and the belief in a separate, independent self that causes envy. When a practitioner awakens to the reality that there are no “others,” the merits and virtues of the apparent “others” become a source of delight instead of envy. Our Loving Kindness meditation helps us uphold this vow.

We also practice the fifth vow when we follow the sixth and seventh precepts:

6. “I resolve not to speak of the faults of others, but to be understanding and sympathetic.”

7. “I resolve not to praise myself and disparage others, but to overcome my own shortcomings.”

The sixth vow is to request the Buddha to turn the dharma wheel (to teach the Buddhadharma) and the closely related seventh vow is to request the Buddhas to stay in the world so that the teachings continue.

buddha-statues fo guang shan

Fo Guang Shan (Buddha Light Mountain)

The eighth vow is to be reminiscent of the eightfold path, i.e., to follow the Buddha’s path at all times in all situations. The Arhats of the fourth dharma realm have followed the eightfold path to perfection. We recite the eightfold path daily during our prostrations.

The ninth vow is to accommodate and benefit all sentient beings. This is the heart of the Mahayana path. Enlightenment is not pursued for self-gratification because such a pursuit merely strengthens the delusive belief in an independent self. To practice authentic Zen, not just a bare, meditation-only stripped down Zen that ignores the need to follow the precepts, and so on, is to practice for the benefit of all sentient beings.

The practitioner who desires to practice Zen in all of its fullness for the benefit of all sentient beings is a Bodhisattva, a Buddha-to-be, one who has developed the Bodhi Mind.

Recall the first line of The Four Vows: All beings, without number, I vow to liberate. We are making the ninth vow of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra when we repeat the Four Vows. We are also making the ninth vow when we recite the third line of the Three General Resolutions.

The tenth vow is to transfer all merits and virtues universally. The true Bodhisattva practices Zen in all its fullness and transfers the merit gained thereby to all sentient beings, universally, without discrimination. This is why we end all chanting sessions with the Return of Merit.

All ten of these ten great vows are made daily. We breathe every day, we eat every day, we sleep every day. If we want to wake up, we repeat and practice the ten vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra every day.

Just as the sutras require study, so do The Ten Great Vows of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. An authentic Zen practice requires that we fulfill these Ten Great Vows.

Those who ignore the fullness of Zen practice are ignorant of the benefits to all sentient beings that would accrue if they would only fulfill the Ten Great Vows.

The following lines may inspire us to perform Buddha Name Recitations:

  • Speak one sentence less of chatter;
  • Recite once more the Buddha’s name.
  • Recite until your false thoughts die,
  • And your Dharma body will come to life.


The Great Buddha of Kamakura

In some countries, the practitioners of Buddha Name Recitation have reduced the practice to Christian-like prayer, asking Amitabha Buddha to help them pass school exams, have many children, etc.

The degeneration of Buddha Name Recitation into mere favor-seeking from a god-like entity is probably the reason why it is not practiced in most Japanese-influenced Zen centers in the States.

In centers influenced by Chinese Ch’an, the masters teach that there is no entity out there who is listening to the recitations, no one who will grant favors; again, we are reciting the name of our own original Buddha nature, seeing our face before our parents were born.

We therefore include Buddha Name Recitation as one of the advanced practices that make up our daily Zen practice. Performed with no thought of personal gain, performed as a means for remembering who we are, and performed in the exercise of Right Effort, it adds a valuable dimension to our daily practice.

If we join a Japanese-influenced Zen center where Buddha Name Recitation is not practiced, it is of course OK to respect the teacher’s decision not to include that practice as a part of the center’s practice. We can practice on our own, outside the formal boundaries of the center.

After this lengthy introducton to Pure Land practice, we must recall that it is a practice of the world of form.

The formless world, the immaterial world, lies beyond the world of form, and it can’t be experienced until we experience the immaterial attainments.

Step Seven – Self Alone, Ox Forgotten

The Fourth Dharma Realm

Astride the Ox, I reach home. I am serene. The Ox too can rest. The dawn has come. In blissful repose, Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and ropes.


Self Alone, Ox Forgotten

Mindfulness of Mind Objects

The fourth dharma realm is the dharma realm of the Arhats/Arahants (Sanskrit/Pali).

The central practice of this dharma realm is cultivation of the four immaterial attainments, the antidote for the desire to be re-born in the formless world (the seventh fetter).

Here we see the primary split between Mahayana and Theravada teachings. The Arahant is a fully enlightened being, a Buddha, under the Theravada teachings but a dweller of the fourth dharma realm in the Mahayana teachings. As a being of the fourth dharma realm, his or her enlightenment is not fully complete, according to the Mahayana teachings.

The Mahayana teaches that the Arhat/Arahant has liberated his or her self, but cannot liberate others.

Which seems nonsensical, since the Buddha said an Arahant is one who has destroyed all ten fetters and has attained anuttara samyak sambodhi, full and complete liberation.

The traditional commentaries on the seventh stage represented by the Ox-Herding pictures say that this level is reached only by those who have passed many koans and have attained a certain, but not total, degree of enlightenment. At this point, Master Yasutani says that further koan study is useless. The quest for the ox has ended because the empty true self has been seen, tamed, ridden home, and the quest for the ox has been forgotten.

True meditation begins with the first jhana (Sanskrit dhyana). We feel that we are meditating as we practice Present Moment Awareness, metta, and Silent Present Moment Awareness. However, those steps produce the mindfulness needed for true meditation.

We feel that we have gone into deeper meditation as we experience the breath at increasingly subtle levels until it disappears completely and we experience the equanimity of the Still Forest Pool. Yet, this is a prelude to the true meditation that lies ahead.

When the nimitta appears, we will want to congratulate ourselves on achieving such a remarkable state, but Ajahn Brahm says we still haven’t begun true meditation, the right concentration of the eightfold path.

When the nimitta is polished and sustained, the explosion of the first jhana makes the unmistakeable announcement that meditation has truly begun.

The quality of our practice, our adherence to the precepts, and our diligence, determine how far we go into the jhanas and the immaterial attainments.

Venerable Ajahn Brahm describes each jhana and immaterial attainment in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond.

Steps thirteen through sixteen – cultivation of the immaterial attainments

The eleven sense-sphere or desire realms of the Theravada school and the sixteen form or fine material realms of that school total twenty seven so there are four more.

These four dharma realms are in the immaterial realm and are the “objective counterparts” of the four immaterial attainments. These four highest realms are named accordingly:

The realm of infinite space; (4);

The realm of infinite consciousness (3);

The realm of nothingness (2); and

The realm of neither-perception-nor-non-perception (1).

Again, Nirvana/Nibbana is not counted as the first dharma realm in the Theravada school; it is not a dharma realm under the teachings of the Buddha as recorded in the Pali Canon.

Thus we see that development of the four jhanas leads to rebirth in the form/fine-material realm whereas development of the four immaterial attainments leads to rebirth in the formless/immaterial realm. And that development of all four jhanas and all four immaterial attainments falls short of Nibbana.

The Buddha said that the final four steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation, i.e., steps thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, are the stages of contemplating infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither perception nor nonperception, respectively. These final four steps, he said, also constitute the practice of the fourth foundation of mindfulness, i.e., mindfulness of mind objects.

However, the steps of experiencing infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither perception nor nonperception are supplied to The Anapanasati Sutta by another sutta, i.e., The Anupada Sutta. It is scholars of the Pali Canon that have made the connection between the two suttas.

The Buddha in The Anapanasati Sutta used the words “impermanence, fading away, cessation, and relinquishment” as the objects of contemplation of the four final steps. However, in The Anupada Sutta, he used the terms “infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor nonperception” so those terms are typically used in commentaries on The Anapanasati Sutta.

There is no direct one-to-one correspondence between the terms “impermanence, fading away, cessation, and relinquishment” as used in The Anapanasati Sutta and the corresponding terms “infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor nonperception” as used in The Anupada Sutta.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi explains that “impermanence” includes both “infinite space” and “infinite consciousness.” The term “fading away” includes “nothingness.” The term “cessation” includes “neither perception nor nonperception.” The term “relinquishment” thus includes the cessation of all thoughts and feelings, Nirvana.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi thus teaches that the final four steps correspond to the four immaterial attainments and Nirvana and Venerable Ajahn Brahm says that the four final steps are not the four immaterial attainments because the four immaterial attainments are experienced after the four jhanas in step twelve of the sixteen steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation.

He concludes that the final four steps are for contemplation with super power mindfulness after the meditator has emerged from the four jhanas and the four immaterial attainments.

These two understandings of the teachings of the Buddha can be reconciled from a Zen Sect perspective. The Buddha used words to point at the moon and it is easy to fall into the quagmire of words and to miss the moon.

It doesn’t matter if all four jhanas and all four immaterial attainments arrive at step twelve of the sixteen step meditation as taught by Venerable Ahajn Brahm, or if they are spread out (the first jhana of joy arising at step five, the second jhana of serene happiness arising at step six, the third jhana of tranquility arising at step seven, the fourth jhana of equanimity arising at step eight, and the four immaterial attainments arising at steps thirteen through sixteen) as taught by Venerable. U. Vimalaramsi.

It doesn’t matter because one teacher reports his experiences and another teacher reports his and we will never find the Buddha outside ourselves.

No doubt there are other teachers with still further explanations of the Buddha’s sermon as recorded in The Anapanasati Sutta. All we can do is to follow the steps as best we can, and forget about ambiguities caused by words. We can study both teachers, digest their words, and aim for the moon that both of them, as well as the Buddha, want us to see.

Obviously, practice of this sixteen step meditation requires “diligent, ardent and resolute” practice, as the Buddha so often says in the suttas/sutras.

The Buddha’s words were open to interpretation and he probably wanted it to be that way, understanding that no two people would practice the sixteen steps in the same way and have the same experience at each of the steps.

It’s easy to see how Venerable U. Vimalaramsi could teach that the joy and serenity of steps five and six could be the first and second jhanas, respectively, and how Venerable Ajahn Brahm could teach that the joy and serenity of those two steps are merely harbingers of the real joy and serenity that arrive at step twelve. (The Buddha called the twelfth step “liberating the mind”).

It’s just as easy to see how Venerable U. Vimalaramsi could teach that the tranquility and equanimity of steps seven and eight could be the third and fourth jhanas, respectively, and how Venerable Ajahn Brahm could teach that the tranquility and equanimity of those two steps are merely precursers of the real tranquility and equanimity that arrive at step twelve.

The Buddha did not specify which of the sixteen steps represented attainment of a jhana or an immaterial attainment, so both teachers can present convincing arguments.

Our practice is to follow the sixteen steps and to investigate our own experience as to whether or not we attained the jhanas and immaterial attainments.

The two teachers even diverge on which steps are included in the classic sixteen step formulation of the sutta.

Ajahn Brahm refers to the first step as a preliminary, preparatory step that does not count as the first step of the sixteen steps.

This can get quite confusing since the two commentaries diverge from the very beginning. However, in order to make some sense of the divergence, we offer the following step-by-step comparison of the two interpretations of the sutta.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi: Step 1 is going to a secluded spot and practicing mindfulness.

Venerable Ajahn Brahm: Going to a secluded spot and practicing mindfulness is a preliminary step and not one of the sixteen steps. Mindfulness is practiced by following the two-step procedure of present moment awareness and silent present moment awareness.

Ven. UV: Steps 2 and 3 are watching the long and short breaths. It would seem that this is one step, not two, but virtually every Buddhist scholar refers to the sixteen steps of the Anapanasati sutta. So if this is just one step, then there are only fifteen steps so watching long and short breaths must be interpreted as covering two steps.

Ven. AB: Step 1 is watching the long breaths and Step 2 is watching the short ones, or vice versa. Step 3 is full sustained attention on the breath.

Ven. UV: Step 4 is a continuation of watching the long and short breaths as in steps 2 and 3 until tranquility arises. He emphasizes the importance of relaxing and letting go at this stage of meditation.

Ven. UV states in his explanation of the fourth step that no nimitta will arise if the Buddha’s instructions are followed carefully. This is a very obvious clash with the outlook of Ven. AB who contends that no jhana can appear unless a nimitta is first experienced, polished and sustained.

Ven. AB: Step 4 is the arising of the moment-by-moment awareness of the breath that arises naturally from full sustained attention on the whole body of the breath.

So at Step 4 the two teachers have pretty much arrived at the same place. They begin to sharply diverge at Step 5.

Ven. UV says that step 5 is the most important step of the sixteen steps – the arising of tranquility, the prerequisite to the arising of the jhanas. This is the equivalent of the eighth step as explained by Venerable AB.

Ven. AB says that joy (piti) arises at step 5 but that joy is not the joy of the first jhana.

Ven. UV says that steps 5 and 6 are the arising of the first two jhanas.

Ven. AB holds that step 6 is the arising of happiness (sukkha) but that no jhana state has yet arisen. This is the stage of “the beautiful breath.”

The third jhana arises at step 7 according to Ven. UV.

Step 7 is the breath becoming a mind object according to Ven. AB. This is the step where the breath of the beautiful breath is gone and only the beautiful remains, like the grin of the Cheshire cat.

The fourth jhana arises at step 8 under Ven. UV’s understanding.

Under Ven. AB’s understanding, when only the beauty remains, and that beauty alone is experienced for a considerable length of time, the mind eventually enters into a serene calmness that sets the stage for the appearance of a nimitta. He explains that step 8 is the Still Forest Pool of which his teacher Ajahn Chah spoke.

Steps 9-12 are not jhana steps in the teaching of Ven. UV. They are the steps of experiencing the mind, gladdening the mind, stilling the mind, and liberating the mind. Those are the same words the Buddha used to describe these steps.

Ven. AB teaches that the ninth step is the step where the nimitta, the sign of Nirvana, arises. The nimitta is the mind that is experienced. The tenth step, gladdening the mind, is one of polishing the nimitta to make it stronger. The eleventh step, sustaining the nimitta, ensures that the polished nimitta is sustainable, thereby ensuring that the jhanas will be reached.

Step 12 is the step, under the teachings of Ven. AB, where all of the jhanas as well as the immaterial attainments appear. However, a weak nimitta (which arises from weak following of the precepts; no nimitta at all will appear if the precepts are not followed) will probably fail to produce an experience of the first jhana.

As the polished nature and sustainable strength of the nimitta are enforced by prolonged polishing and strengthening at the tenth and eleventh steps, the meditator experiences the stages of jhana and immaterial attainments, in the order experienced by the Buddha, even all the way to Nirvana if the mind is truly pure, the five hindrances are overcome, and dependent origination is realized both forwards and backwards.

It follows that the final four steps, Steps 13-16, for Ven. AB are post-jhana and post-immaterial attainment stages of the meditation because the jhanas and immaterial attainments are experienced at step 12, if they are experienced.

The super power mindfulness developed by the jhana and immaterial attainment experience is harnessed to contemplate the four subjects that the Buddha refers to in the final four steps (impermanence, fading away, cessation, and relinquishment).

In the teachings of Ven. UV, the final four steps, Steps 13-16, are as follows:

Step 13: The first and second immaterial attainments (that of infinite space and infinite consciousness) arise from meditation on impermanence;

In the words of the Buddha:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in contemplating impermanence; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out contemplating impermanence.’

Step 14: The third immaterial attainment (that of nothingness) arises from meditation on fading away;

In the words of the Buddha:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in contemplating fading away; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out contemplating fading away.’

Step 15: The fourth immaterial attainment (that of neither perception nor non-perception) arises from meditation on cessation; and

In the words of the Buddha:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in contemplating cessation; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out contemplating cessation.’

Step 16: Nirvana arises from meditation on relinquishment.

In the words of theBuddha:

He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in contemplating relinquishment; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out contemplating relinquishment.’

Although not quite “Supramundane Nibbana,” this final stage of the meditation is “very close” to Nirvana, which arises only when dependent origination is seen backwards and forwards and when the stage of neither perception nor non-perception is transcended by cessation of perception and feeling.

To summarize, under Ven. AB, the jhanas and immaterial attainments arise at Step 12, if they arise at all, and the number of jhanas and immaterial attainments experienced depends upon the purity of the mind.

Under Ven. UV, the jhanas arise at steps 5 and 6 (the first two jhanas), 7 (third jhana), 8 (fourth jhana), and the four immaterial attainments arise at steps 13-16.

Ven. UV agrees with Ven. AB that no jhanas arise in the presence of a defiled mind, i.e., one that does not follow the precepts.

These rather striking differences in teachings arise from the fact, as already noted, that there are sixteen steps and only four jhanas and four immaterial attainments.

As mentioned earlier, the Buddha assigned no correlation to the sixteen steps and the jhanas and immaterial attainments so reasonable minds can assign different jhanas and immaterial attainments to different steps.

Does it matter? Probably not. As we have said before, after the first few steps the mind takes over and a natural flow from one step to the next begins. The “doer” gets out of the way and the diversity of consciousness becomes less and less diverse at each step with no input from the meditator.

It is helpful to study the words of both teachers. It helps us to realize that we need to overcome the tyranny of words and to see the moon that both teachers are pointing at.

The Buddha said that investigation was the second of the seven factors of enlightenment (the first factor being the development of mindfulness, which is what we do with the practices of Beginning and Intermediate Zen).

After each meditation, we are advised to investigate that meditation. Did we start thinking about the cold glass of chocolate soymilk that we are going to enjoy when the meditation is over? Or did we fondly remember that cold glass of chocolate soymilk that we enjoyed before beginning the meditation? If so, the first hindrance of sense desire prevented further progress. We did not follow our pre-meditation instruction to forget the past and the future.

We can also investigate the onset of the jhanas, if they appeared at all. Did we see a nimitta or did the jhanas appear without a nimitta?

We can reconcile the disparate commentaries on the sixteen steps in this way. It is readily apparent that Venerable Ajahn Brahm enters into the jhanas after seeing, polishing, and sustaining a nimitta.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi enters into the jhanas at an earlier stage of his meditation and doesn’t require a nimitta in order to do so.

As we perform our own investigations, we will find, if we attain the jhanas at all, that some of us will do so on the twelfth step after seeing, polishing and sustaining a nimitta, and some of us will enter into the jhanas earlier, without benefit of a nimitta.

And if all of us were to then publish our commentaries on the sixteen steps, we would find a very wide divergence of opinion as to when the jhanas were first encountered and whether or not nimittas are necessary or not.

And all of us would be following the Buddha’s instructions to do the practices and to investigate our experiences. If a million of us follow the sixteen steps, there will be a million different experiences, and that’s why the Buddha did not link any particular jhana to any of the sixteen steps.

Venerable U. Vimalaramsi’s work has the advantage of including the entire text of the sutta, and Venerable Ajahn Brahm’s work has the advantage of practical teachings that make it easier to follow the sixteen steps.

As we read and re-read both of these works, we learn more with each re-reading.

And we recall that both of these teachers are Theravada teachers who pay little or no attention to the Ten Ox-Herding pictures of the Zen school.

Again, since the Buddha did not specify which of the sixteen steps represented attainment of a jhana or an immaterial attainment, both teachers can present convincing arguments as to which steps represent which jhana or immaterial attainment.

Our practice is to follow the sixteen steps and to investigate our own experience as to whether or not we attained the jhanas and immaterial attainments.

When we relate the Ten Ox-Herding pictures of the Zen sect to the ten dharma realms of the Mahayana school, we have a one-to-one correspondence.

When we relate the sixteen steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation of the Theravada school to the Ten Ox-Herding pictures, we discover another very nice fit:

The four steps of Mindfulness of the Body relate to Catching the Ox, representing the rising of a sentient being from the dharma realm of animals to the dharma realm of the asuras. The peace we feel when cultivating mindfulness of the body counteracts the aggression of the fighting gods.

The four steps of Mindfulness of Feelings relate to Taming the Ox, representing the rising of a sentient being from the dharma realm of asuras to the dharma realm of humans. Since the dharma realm of humans is in the realm of desire, we count the happiness, serenity, tranquility and equanimity of these fifth through eighth steps as harbingers of the first four jhanas.

And we tame the ox by incorporating the precepts into our daily lives as we cultivate mindfulness of feelings.

The four steps of Mindfulness of the Mind relate to Riding the Ox Home, corresponding to the dharma realm of the gods of the desire realm.

The four steps of Mindfulness of Mind Objects relate to Self Alone, Ox Forgotten, corresponding to the the dharma realm of the Arhats. According to the teachings, the realm of the Arhats is the realm of form and is attainable only through cultivation of the four jhanas.

The realm of formlessness is attainable only through cultivation of the four immaterial attainments so such cultivation is the practice of the Arhat dharma realm.

The Buddha continued his meditation practice after his Great Enlightenment, thereby demonstrating that just as practice has no beginning, enlightenment has no ending. So even if we attain the jhanas and the immaterial attainments, our practice has not ended and it just doesn’t matter at which steps of the procedure we experienced them.

If we follow the position of venerable Ajahn Brahm, upon attaining one or more of the jhanas and one or more of the immaterial attainments if we first attained all four jhanas, during the twelfth step of the sixteen steps, the Buddha taught us to harness the mindfulness created by the experience of the twelfth step to investigate impermanence, fading away, cessation, and relinquishment as steps thirteen through sixteen.

Venerable Ajahn Brahm says there are many forms that the final four steps can take, because the Buddha said that the final four steps of the sixteen steps were the contemplation of mind objects and he gave four examples of mind objects. Specifically, he mentioned the contemplation of impermanence, fading away, cessation and relinquishment, but he did not rule out the contemplation of other mind objects as well.

To  help us remember these sixteen steps, we can very briefly summarize them as follows:

Mindfulness of the body

1. Ever mindful, he breathes in, mindful, he breathes out. (Present moment awareness; silent present moment awareness)

2. He understands breathing in long, breathing out long. He understands, breathing in short, breathing out short.

3. Experiencing the whole body of the breath.

4. Tranquilizing the bodily formation.

Mindfulness of feelings

5. Experiencing joy.

6. Experiencing happiness.

7. Experiencing the mental formation. (cessation of breath)

8. Tranquilizing the mental formation. (the Still Forest Pool)

Mindfulness of the mind

9. Experiencing the mind.

10. Gladdening the mind.

11. Stilling the mind.

12. Liberating the mind.

Mindfulness of mind objects

13. Contemplating impermanence.

14. Contemplating fading away.

15. Contemplating cessation.

16. Contemplating relinquishment.

Happily, at the end of The Anapanasati Sutta, the Buddha explained that if all sixteen steps of the meditation technique taught in that sutta are followed, then the meditator will have practiced:

The foundation of mindfulness of the body by practicing the first four steps of the sixteen (step four of this course);

The foundation of mindfulness of feelings by practicing steps five through eight (step five of this course);

The foundation of mindfulness of the mind by practicing steps nine through twelve (step six of this course); and

The foundation of mindfulness of mind objects by practicing steps thirteen through sixteen (step seven of this course), thereby practicing all four foundations of mindfulness.

He further explained that, after a jhana experience, the seven factors of enlightenment will arise:

A first time upon investigation/contemplation of mindfulness of the body;

A second time upon investigation/contemplation of mindfulness of feelings;

A third time upon investigation/contemplation of mindfulness of mind; and

A fourth time upon investigation/contemplation of mindfulness of mind objects.

And Venerable Ajahn Brahm explains that we perform these investigations/contemplations with the super power mindfulness generated by the jhanas.

So by following all sixteen steps, we automatically practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and we automatically meet the Seven Factors of Enlightenment four times.

Both Venerables U. Vimalaramsi and Ajahn Brahm find that Tranquil Wisdom meditation is a full, complete practice, a practice that requires no supplementation with other practices, i.e., Tranquil Wisdom meditation is not just a samatha or calmness practice; it also includes vipassana or insight meditation.

As students, we can easily remember that we enter the world of form (the fine-material world), leaving behind the world of sense desire when we experience the jhanas.

That makes it easy to remember that we enter the immaterial world, leaving behind the fine-material world, when we perform the post-jhana contemplations of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor non-perception, or the four foundations of mindfulness, or other mind-objects, with the super power mindfulness generated by the jhanas.

The sixth and seventh fetters are fetters that prevent a non-returner from attaining Arhatship or Nirvana.

The sixth fetter is desire for existence in the world of form, the world attained through experience of the jhanas, and the seventh fetter is the desire for existence in the immaterial world, the world attained through the experience of the immaterial attainments.

For those of us mired in the sense-desire world who would be delighted to attain the jhanas to gain a glimpse of the world of form and even more delighted to experience the immaterial attainments to gain a glimpse of the immaterial world, it is sobering to contemplate that these aspirations are just two more fetters to be dropped.

So how do we know if we have attained the immaterial attainments? If we become even more calm after the fourth jhana…do we begin to understand impermanence, letting go of passions, cessation and relinquishment? Do we experience infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor non-perception?

At this advanced level of mysticism, words are of little help. But if we are diligent, ardent and resolute in our practice of these sixteen steps, we will develop super powerful mindfulness, and Advanced Zen practice will be easy.

The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: Satipatthana

Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs

Advanced Zen