Prescriptive and Descriptive Approaches to the Threefold Discipline:

A Response to Professor Ishigami

by Dr. Carl Bielefeldt

Stanford University

Prof. Ishigami's paper addresses the relationship between Nembutsu and the practice of sangaku -- i.e., the traditional Buddhist formula, which I shall refer to simply as the "Threefold Discipline," of precepts, meditation, and wisdom. This ancient formula, common throughout the Buddhist literature, organizes the various practices of the religion under three categories: the ethical discipline of restraining behavior though the precepts, the psychological discipline of controlling the mind in meditation, and the intellectual, or cognitive discipline of understanding the meaning of the Dharma.

Because the formula of the Threefold Discipline is so common in the Buddhist literature, it has received a wide range of interpretations; because the formula is often used as a rubric for summarizing what is to be done on the Buddhist path, the study of these interpretations can tell us much about the differing approaches that Buddhists have taken not only to specific practices but to the understanding of the path itself. Prof. Ishigami's paper deals especially with one type of interpretation, important for understanding the Pure Land tradition's approach to Nembutsu -- an interpretation that sees the Threefold Discipline as a challenge of the very possibility of following the path.

Why does the Threefold Discipline represent such a challenge? The standard account of the formula treats it as a graded series of spiritual exercise, such that the acquisition of wisdom, the culminating member of the list, is dependent upon the mastery of meditation, which is itself dependent upon the practice of the precepts. On this account, then, it would seem that those who cannot keep the precepts cannot proceed along the path.

As Prof. Ishigami points out, from the beginning, Buddhists were well aware of this problem and, therefore, were much concerned with the practice of repentance of their transgressions of the precepts. Even in such technical contemplative practices as the four kinds of samadhi taught by the great sixth-century T'ien-t'ai master Chih-i, Prof. Ishigami notes that repentance played an important role.

The argument of his paper, if I understand it, is that this sense of humility and inadequency in the face of the Threefold Discipline led to a search for less daunting alternatives to the religious life that would make the fruits of Buddhism available to those unable to keep the precepts, master meditation, and acquire wisdom. Hence, we see a Pure Land figure like Honen confessing his inability to fulfill the practices of the Threefold Discipline, turning instead to the Nembutsu practice based on the saving vow of the Buddha Amitabha.

In this argument, we can see clearly that the formula of the Threefold Discipline is being used to represent the traditional arya-marga, or "noble path," that is regularly contrasted in Pure Land discourse with the "easy way" offered by birth in Amitabha's land of Sukhavati. We can also see that such use interprets the formula not simply as a set of practical guidelines for the religious life but as a set of standards that must be met in order to measure up to Buddhist ideals.

Probably like all models of the Buddhist path, the Threefold Discipline functioned on at least two levels: it was at once a prescription for how to lead a Buddhist life and a description of the ideal Buddhist. It could be understood, in other words, either as a set of exercises to be undertaken or as a set of ideals against which to measure oneself. On the former understanding, the formula provided a working model for the life of a monk (though rarely of a lay person); on the latter understanding, it also stood as a challenge (for monk and lay person alike) to recognize the gap between one's actual state and the Buddhist ideal.

How are these two understandings of the Threefold Discipline related to the theme of our conference, "Zen and Nembutsu"? At first glance, it might seem that the Zen tradition known for its hard training focused on zazen, or seated meditation, favored the former approach, treating the Threefold Discipline as a prescriptive program to be followed, whereas the Pure Land Nembutsu tradition, in its reliance on "other power," emphasized the descriptive ideal and the difficulty (or practical impossibility) of actually achieving it. Yet, historically speaking, the situation is more complicated: just as many masters of the Pure Land tradition saw the Nembutsu of other power not only as an alternative to the Threefold Discipline but also as a means to make possible its practice, so, too, many Zen masters not only practiced zazen but also sought to distance their practice from dhyana, the meditation exercises prescribed by the Threefold Discipline.

The Zen approach to meditation has roots in the very T'ien-t'ai literature that Prof. Ishigami cites on the four kinds of samadhi. In the preface to the Mo-ho chih-kuan, the great treatise on meditation by Chih-i, the author, Kuan-ting, makes a famous distinction between two approaches to Buddhist practice that seems to parallel the distinction I am making here between prescriptive program and descriptive ideal. What Kuan-ting calls the "gradual" (chien) approach to practice seeks to make progress along the path, overcoming each obstacle in turn until one reaches the perfected state; in contrast, the "sudden" (tun) approach recognizes that the goal of the path is present from the beginning and that the perfected state is present in every state, even our benighted states poisoned by greed, anger, and delusion. We might say, in other words, that Kuan-ting's gradual approach takes Buddhist practice as a matter of striving for an ideal beyond the ordinary human state; while the sudden approach sees it as somehow an expression of that ideal in the midst of ordinary human life.

As you know, the Zen tradition makes much of this distinction between sudden and gradual styles of Buddhism. In the famous Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, for example, the Patriarch Hui-neng criticizes the gradual approach to the Threefold Discipline and offers instead a sudden approach based on what he calls "one's own nature": here, the disciple of the "precepts" refers not to a set of restraints intended to overcome one's ethical errors but to the fact that one's mind is by nature not in error; similarly, "meditation" means that one's mind is by nature not disturbed; "wisdom" means that one's mind is by nature not ignorant. Since one's own nature is like this, he concludes, there is no need to set up the practices of the Threefold Discipline; rather, we should recognize that we are naturally -- i.e., by our very natures practicing the Threefold Discipline even in the midst of our errors, disturbance, and ignorance.

We find this sudden approach to the Threefold Discipline -- sometimes referred to as the "formless discipline" (muso sangaku) -- appearing again and again in the texts of the Zen tradition, often accompanied by sharp criticisms of meditation and strong denials that the tradition's practice of zazen is the traditional discipline of dhyana. So, for example, the Lin-chien lu, an important treatise by the Sung-dynasty Zen master Hui-hung, denies that Bodhidharma's famous nine years of sitting before a wall was the practice of dhyana; and the famed Japanese Zen master Dogen, who emphasized the centrality of zazen, rejects its identification with the meditation of the Threefold Discipline and treats it instead as what he calls "the practice of the buddha" (butsugyo). For Dogen, as for many in the Zen tradition, zazen was not simply the act of a human, training to be a buddha, but the act of a buddha seeking to express himself through human practice. Practice, then, was not simply an achievement of our own power but the surrender of our own power to that of the buddha within us.

When Zen practice is viewed in this way, it reminds us to avoid easy dichotomies between Zen and Nembutsu: self power vs. other power, practice vs. faith, the haughty Zen master vs. the humble Pure Land believer. Of course, the two traditions work with different symbolic systems and often express different styles of faith and practice; of course, there will be those in each tradition who can be fit into stereotypes of our easy dichotomies. But when viewed dispassionately over the long course of their histories, both traditions seem to have acknowledged both approaches to the Threefold Discipline -- as prescription for human practice, and as description of a higher ideal fully realizable only beyond human practice.

In both traditions, these two approaches seem to circle around each other: the effort to follow the prescription reveals how far we are from the ideal and prompts us to have faith in something beyond the limits of our human practice; faith in the ideal reveals a higher power working within us and urges us to put that power into practice in our daily lives. Thus, as Prof. Ishigami remarks, "One who earnestly recites Nembutsu may not be aware of the Threefold Discipline, but he is forging ahead in the way of the Buddha." Or, as I would like to add, one who is earnestly practicing the Threefold Discipline may not be aware of the presence of the Buddha, but her way is being illumined by his vow.