The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment was written in Tang Dynasty China, probably in the early 8th century, around the same time as The Platform Sutra, just prior to the formation of Baso’s Hongzhou School of Zen, which proved the most durable, going forward into the later Song Dynasty.
The Sutra was very popular in China and subsequently in Korea, but did not become widely known in Japan. Although, I think, it’s clear that Dogen was familiar with it, not least because the initial and dominant metaphor in the sutra – sky flowers – is one of the chapters of the Shobogenzo, which Dogen re-renders as the flowers of emptiness (Kuge). That chapter substantially repeats what is said in the sutra.
One of the reasons the sutra was so popular was because it gave a lot of practical instruction about meditation.
It essentially says that in meditation there are three ways to practise: Samatha, Samapatti and Dhyana. From those three approaches it generates 25 separate practices, using various combinations of these three.
So what are they?
Samatha we are familiar with. It is the wide range of practices focused on the necessity of undispersing, calming and gathering the mind. It is strongly associated with the idea that meditation cultivates tranquility, quietude, and serenity. The metaphor which the sutra uses for this aspect of meditation is the mirror. Just as a bright mirror will reflect everything truly without being caught up in it, and whose primary characteristic, brightness, is unaffected by the nature of the reflections, then likewise the meditator rests within the brightness of calm spacious awareness, unperturbed by any arising thoughts or emotions.
The second kind of practice, Samapatti, is described tersely as using illusion to overcome illusion. The meaning can be unpacked by reading the early part of the sutra, where the metaphor of sky flowers is explored. Sky flowers represent illusory ideas: self, separation from the world, permanence and so on. The mind of the practitioner which sees no-self, impermanence and non-duality is also a sky flower, because there is no ‘mind’ separate from everything else. That is what the sutra means by using one illusion to overcome another. One of the other metaphors used is two sticks being rubbed together to create a fire, which then consumes both. Another brilliant metaphor is of a person cutting off his own head; prior to the act there is a person intending to do something, but after he succeeds, there isn’t. Samapatti focuses on how we can, in the course of meditation, actively examine our tendency to separate, to continually create a “me”, to construct a familiar world of known objects and qualities, and so on. The metaphor that is used is that of a green and lively shoot bursting up through the earth. The aliveness, the activity of the green shoot bursts through the earth of ignorance, but doesn’t become separated from it, like the Lotus Flower.
The metaphor for Samatha is one of peacefulness and tranquility, that for Samapatti is very different, it is a vigorous and dynamic engagement.
The third – Dhyana – is where the separation between body, mind and world drops off or is forgotten about. In Dhyana we are just sitting, ‘One Piece Zen’, as Isso Fujita would say: body, mind and world all dropped off and gathered up in this One Piece. The metaphor for Dhyana is the ringing bell. The bell can ring because it is hollow, empty at its center. It is self-less. Yet, the ring of the bell of zazen rings out everywhere.
We can look at these three meditations as three different practices. We can also look at them as being three aspects, although not the only aspects, of our own practice. We are experiencing this One Piece Zen. At other times we are aware of the necessity of undispersing our mind. At other times we are aware of our habits of fabrication and construction. All of this can be explained in a way which is inclusive, and which broadens our practice, and stops it falling into easy formulation.