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Dhyāna sutras

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The Dhyāna sutras (Chinese: 禪経) or "meditation summaries" (Chinese: 禪要) are a group of early Buddhist meditation texts which are mostly based on the Yogacara meditation teachings of the Sarvāstivāda school of Kashmir circa 1st-4th centuries CE. Most of the texts only survive in Chinese and were key works in the development of the Buddhist meditation practices of Chinese Buddhism.

The Dhyāna sutras focus on the concrete details of the meditative practice of the Yogacarins of northern Gandhara and Kashmir and were known as masters of Buddhist meditation. Kashmir probably became a center of dhyāna practice due to the efforts of Madhyāntika (Majjhantika), a disciple of Ānanda, who traveled north to practice and teach meditation.

The five main types of meditation in these sutras are:

anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing),

paṭikūlamanasikāra meditation - mindfulness of the impurities of the body,

loving-kindness maitrī meditation,

the contemplation on the twelve links of pratītyasamutpāda,

the contemplation on the Buddha’s thirty-two Characteristics.

In addition some sutras contain instructions on contemplation of the dhātu-s (elements); contemplation of white bones and fresh corpses; and contemplation of bodhisattvas such as Amitābha.

The content of these texts is connected with the Yogacara abhidharma works, especially the Abhidharmamahāvibhāsā-śāstra (MVŚ, 阿毗達磨大毗婆沙論), which frequently cites the practices of the early Yogacarins, and the large Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra (YBŚ).

Though the doctrines in these sutras are mostly in line with early Buddhist orthodoxy, they are the work of Buddhists and translators who also lived and traveled through Central Asia and China, therefore some of them also include Mahayana Buddhist teachings and meditation methods common to the Samadhi sutras. The Dhyāna sutras are thus a set of texts which illustrate the evolution of meditation from early Buddhist methods to Mahayana techniques. Sutras such as the Chanfa Yaojie (Chinese: 禪法要解, compiled in India no later than the third century) contain meditations which are derived from the earlier nikāyas as well as material dealing with the Mahayana bodhisattva ideal and Mahayana śūnyatā teachings.


One of the earliest Chinese translators of meditation summaries was the Parthian meditation master An Shigao (安世高, 147-168 CE) who worked on various texts including the influential Anban shouyi jing (Sanskrit: Ānāpānasmṛti-sūtra), or the “Mindfulness of Breathing discourse”. During the Eastern Han period the foremost meditation technique taught by An Shigao and his school was a form of anapanasati (annabanna 安那般那) which remained influential for centuries afterwards. Most of these summaries only survive in Chinese translation and often they are not in their original form but also include later accretions such as commentary work by Chinese translators. The difficulty of working with the Chinese translations is shown by the corrupt nature of the Da Anban shouyi jing, which according to Florin Deleanu "gathers together An Shigao's original translation, almost impossible to reconstruct, fragments from An Shigao's own commentary as well as fragments from glosses by Chen Hui, Kang Senghui, Zhi Dun, Daoan, and Xie Fu." A recently discovered manuscript of the Anban Shouyi Jing at Kongo-ji temple (Japan) seems to be an actual An Shigao translation. Other highly influential and widely studied An Shigao meditation treatises by early Chinese Buddhists include the 'Scripture on the Twelve Gates' (Shier men jing) and the 'Canonical Text Concerning the Skandha-s, the Dhātu-s, and the Āyatana-s' (Yin chi ru jing, YCRJ). According to Eric Greene, the Scripture on the twelve gates and its commentary provide some of the most comprehensive information on the practice of early Chinese Meditation (Chan), while Zacchetti concludes in his paper on the YCRJ that this text was considered by An Shigao’s disciples, Kang Senghui 康僧會 (? - 280 CE) and Chen Hui 陳慧, to be “one of their main doctrinal sources”.

Another work, the Discourse on the Essential Secrets of Meditation (Taisho 15 no. 613) is one of the oldest texts to be translated into Chinese on the subject of meditation (circa 2nd or 3rd century CE) and therefore was likely to have had an influence on the meditation practices of Tiantai Buddhism and Chan Buddhism. This text belonged to the Buddhist Dārṣṭāntika school and the first Chinese translation was made by Zhi Qian in the early part of the 3rd century CE.[3]

A later important Chinese translator of these texts was Kumārajīva (334–413 CE) who translated several important meditation sutras by 402. Kumarajiva's translated meditation scriptures such as the Chanfa yaojie (禪法要解) were widely promoted by his disciple Tao Sheng. A contemporary of Kumarajiviva, Buddhabhadra, a Sarvastivadin from Kapilavastu, translated the Damoduoluo chan jing (Dharmatrāta Dhyāna sūtra), a Sarvastivada Dārṣṭāntika meditation manual associated with the Indian teachers Dharmatrāta and Buddhasena. This text, written in verse, includes orthodox Sarvastivadin meditation techniques such as ānāpāna-smṛti as well as tantric Mahayanist practices such as visualization and maṇḍala instructions. Hence this work is proof that some later Mahayana meditation practices were derived from techniques developed by Sarvastivada Yogacarins. Taken together, the translations by Kumarajiva and Buddhabhadra of Sarvastivadin meditation manuals laid the groundwork for the practices of Chan Buddhism (Zen) and the works of the Tiantai meditation master Zhiyi.