A discussion of the scholastic character of Tiantai zhiguan in relation to the function of vitarka/vitakka and vicāra in the four dhyāna-s - taking tongmin chan as an example
廖永賢 (Yung-hsien Liao)

Master Zhiyi stated clearly in the Cidi Chanman that his tongmin chan derived its name from the Daji Jing (Mahāsamnipata Sutra) and shares the same features with that of the four dhyāna meditation system both in terms of “the stages for progressing”, and the “practice method to realize liberation”. Recent study, however, indicated that tongmin chan may have been formulated almost entirely based on Zhiyi’s creative interpretation of the terms jue-da-jue that appears in the phrase used to explain vitarka (one of the five dhyāna factors pertaining to the first dhyāna in the Daji Jing). Having consulted Cousins’ study of vitarka and vicāra in Nikāya literature, and analyzed texts in the commentaries from the northern tradition (such as those cited by Zhiyi, the Abhidharma-vibhāṣā-śāstra, and Śāriputrābhidharma-śāstra) on the corresponding phrase that may seem to correspond to the places where an exposition of the two dhyāna factors appear, this study found that fixing the mind on its object is the role essentially served by vitarka and vicāra in the four dhyāna meditation system. In this contextual vein, the phrase containing jue-da-jue that explains vitarka in Daji Jing does not seem to have deviated from this mental function of fixing the mind on its object, nor does it appear to connote any other meaning. Thus, Zhiyi’s creative interpretation and scholastic classification by dividing jue-da-jue into jue and da jue to be in correspondent to the dichotomous concepts of the mundane (loka) and supra-mundane (lokottara), the conventional truth (saṃvṛti-satya) and the ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya), the three levels of human capacities (trīndriya), and so forth may have not only misunderstood or over-interpreted the phrase in question. The essential function of vitarka (fixing the mind on its object) may have therefore departed from its original mental context to become scholastic-like concepts as well. The question may arise then as to whether the tongmin chan that is built upon this interpretation and is designated as “the wheel of practice” in Tiantai’s two wheels teaching system can actually fulfill its function (in conjunction with the wheel of doctrine) on the way to liberation.


tongmin chan, four dhyāna, vitarka/vitakka & vicāra, fixing the mind on its object, zhiguan practice