Buddhism: Pali Bhavana and Chinese Ch’an


In 1996, I spent a short but fruitful period studying under the Theravada Buddhist monk named Mangala Thero – who was then the Head Monk of the Ganga Ramaya Temple in Beruwela (Sri Lanka). He was not particularly interested in the Mahayana Buddhism of China (or anywhere else, for that matter), but when I explained what Chinese Ch’an (禪) was, the venerable monk thought for a moment, and then explained that he would explain this approach as an exclusive focus upon the development of ‘bhavana’ (Pali: भावना). Broadly speaking, Mangala Thero stated that ‘bhavana’ begins and ends with ‘reigning in’ the mind, so that it is nolonger ill-disciplined. When a mind is disciplined (through concentration upon the breathing, or upon generating loving kindness, etc), the habitual thoughts calm-down and eventually ‘cease’. When the mind is ‘stilled’ in this manner, the ‘thought formations’ (i.e. the fourth aggregate) nolonger arise in their delusive form and ‘pure consciousness’ (i.e. fifth aggregate) can be clearly ‘perceived’ (third aggregate) as the body continues to ‘sense’ (second aggregate) the material environment (first aggregate), and the mind is ‘aware’ of the absence of thought. After this, it is a matter of deepening and enriching the experience through further meditation practice performed within a conducive environment. When I asked my main teacher Richard Hunn (1949-2006) about ‘bhavana’, as usual, he knew the Chinese translation for this Buddhist technical term – which is ‘修習’. Chinese transliterations and translations are useful as the early Chinese scholars had to understand the Indian Pali and Sanskrit terms before they could be rendered effectively into the Chinese language. Obviously, some of the early transliteration of Indian Buddhist terms are purely ‘phonetic’ in nature and in themselves do not convey much meaning as ideograms. This represents an initial process of a slow, careful and gradual building-up of knowledge in China about a thoroughly ‘foreign’ Indian philosophy that had to develop an ‘interface’ with existing Chinese culture. As understanding grew, literal transliterations often gave way to more ‘exact’ translations and I suspect this process happened to the Pali and Sanskrit term ‘bhavana’. Today, within Chinese Buddhism, ‘bhavana’ is not a commonly used term, but it is written as ‘修習’ (xiu2 xi2). The ideogram ‘修’ (xiu2) carries the meanings of ‘repair’, ‘to mend’, ‘construct’, ‘to cultivate’, and ‘to sharpen’ – whilst the ideogram ‘習’ (xi2) carries the meanings of ‘training’, ‘habit’, ‘custom’, ‘repeat’, ‘cultivation’, ‘to follow’ and to ‘learn’. When ‘修習” (bhavana) is taken together, it does appear to be a very good Pali definition of the Ch’an (禪) method. The ideogram ‘修’ (xiu2) contains the left-hand particle ‘攸’ (you1) which depicts a person ‘expertly’ fording a river with a pole (and ‘travelling far’) – whilst the right-hand particle ‘彡’ (shan1) signifies ‘writing’ as used in the act of of committed ‘developmental study’. The ideogram ‘習’ (xi2) carries the upper particle ‘羽’ (yu3) which refers to feathered ‘wings’ that ‘uplift’ (with flying associated with ‘progression’ and ‘advancement’), and the lower particle ‘习’ (xi2) which directly refers to the act of ‘disciplined study.’ Bhavana (修習), therefore, refers to a committed and uplifting Buddhist meditational practice that requires dedication, expert guidance, repetition, and a suggestion of ‘transcendence’ if practised correctly. In other words, ‘bhavana; is a means to get ‘from here’, to ‘there’ – but these two ideograms suggest that it is not an ordinary path of ‘mind culture’. Scholarship, study and expertise are extolled activities and characteristics within Chinese culture, and ‘bhavana’ is a prime example of this activity. A bow of thanks to Mangala Thero and Richard Hunn (Upasaka Wen Shu). Finally, ‘bhavana’ (भावना)) appears to be linked to ‘भ‍वन’ (again, pronounced ‘bhavana’) which is used in the sense of ‘constructing’ a material object such as a building or a shelter, etc. In this context ‘भ‍वन’ (bhavana) suggests a very firm grounding in the material world, with the training of the mind in Buddhist though being considered a part of, or extension of that material world. The ‘mind’ within Buddhism is not a spirit that stands in opposition to the physical world – but is an integral part of it. This means that ‘भ‍वन’ (bhavana) can also be used to denote ‘physical existence’ (or its ‘arising’), with the term ‘abhava’ (अभाव) referring to the ’empty’ nature or ‘insubstantiality’ of physical existence – which is void of any permanency.

Other Dimensions (Out There)


The main stumbling block with analysing the idea of witnessing another reality, is ensuring that what is experienced, is not a product of the malfunction of the human brain, and its ability to perceive, cognise or interpret. An individual could be suffering from any number of internally generated psychological and physiological conditions, that interfere with the usual process of sensing the material environment. Such divergence away from normal function in the brain (and body), obviously leads to an internally generated view of the physical world, that does not actually exist ‘out there’. If a group of people appear to share a ‘visionary’ experience, it cannot be rejected out of hand, that all concerned are suffering from a perceptual ailment, or that the group is engaging in a ‘cult-like’ activity involving peer pressure, mutual conditioning, and interpretive reinforcement (i.e. a group hallucination). From a scientific perspective, these issues cannot be ignored whilst attempting to establish the theoretical principle of the existence of different planes of reality. Of course, belief systems effect how the world is perceived simply because that is one of their primary functions, but ‘belief’ does not necessarily equate to correct perception or interpretation of reality. Although theoretical physics postulates that other dimensions may exist (i.e. ‘String Theory’ and ‘Quantum Theory’, etc), these realities are mathematical probabilities, and not the product of sensory observation in the usual or mundane sense. In other words, the only manner in which these realities have been understood to exist, is through the use of numbers as cognised by the human brain. This is very different to the structure of religious or spiritual visions of other realities, which always appear to be like this (mundane) reality – but ‘ideal’ in nature. This can be ‘ideally’ good or bad, depending upon belief ad circumstance, but there is no scientific reason why other dimensions should be in anyway ‘familiar’ to human beings and their cognitive sensory array (which has evolved within a particular environment), or even ‘perceptible’ to the human mind in the ordinary sense.

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