Before you fully embark on the path of the bodhisattvas and buddhas, says Chan master Sheng Yen, you must first practice the four steps to magical powers. What are these steps and what are the magical powers you need?
The four steps to magical powers are also called by such names as the four steps to the power of ubiquity, the four steps to unlimited power, and the four kinds of samadhi. In Sanskrit they are collectively known as riddhipada, meaning “steps to (magical) power.” Its Chinese translation, si ru yi zu, speaks of a mind that can accomplish whatever it wants to. This is a mind that is master of itself, free and at ease.
There is a Chinese saying, “Eight out of nine things that happen to us do not match our expectations.” Why does so much of what happens to us not match our expectations? It is because we are usually not the masters of our own mind. We think about things we should not, and we can’t bring ourselves to think about things we should. Both habits contribute to our not gaining control of our lives. We don’t learn from the past and have no clear plan for the future; therefore, we continue to make mistakes. Constantly faced with problems, our life is filled with adversity. Not being able to control our mind, we let small problems become big problems; not being able to reach our goals, we are ill at ease. However, with correct practice we can gradually eliminate these obstacles and more will happen according to our expectations.
The Four Enhanced Phenomena
The Mahayana path to buddhahood can be likened to a journey of five stages. In the first stage, we gather the provisions we will need for the journey. In terms of the path, this means practicing the four foundations of mindfulness and the four proper exertions. In the second stage, we actually set off on the path to buddhahood. This stage consists of practicing the four steps to magical powers, and it is characterized by the four enhanced phenomena. The third stage is realizing dhyana (jhanain Pali), whereby one directly perceives that the true nature of the self is that of a buddha. This is the stage of the arhat, or saint. The fourth stage is to actualize the bodhisattva path, in which one practices dhyana to realize samadhi and wisdom. This enables one to use skillful means to deliver sentient beings; that is, to help them enter or follow the path. The fifth stage of the journey is complete liberation in buddhahood.
Before talking about the four steps to magical powers, I want to briefly describe the four enhanced phenomena of warmth, summit, forbearance, and supreme in the world. These phenomena grow out of the practice of the four steps and validate that one has planted them as virtuous roots. Warmth means that one’s mind is becoming soft and gentle and that the harshness is receding. Summit means that having gotten rid of harshness, one’s mind has ascended to the peak, so to speak. Forbearance means that one will not bring harm to oneself or others. Supreme in the worldmeans that one has transcended worldliness and is approaching the stage of an arhat.
At the level of summit, one’s mind has become soft and gentle, not just sometimes but at all times. People often mistakenly assume that if one can enter samadhi, one’s problems will go away. Another misunderstanding is that having had a glimpse of enlightenment, one no longer has vexations. The truth is that only when wisdom and dhyana arise together are we at a stage where we will not bring vexation to ourselves or others. Until then, though we may be at ease with a joyous mind, we are not yet liberated because we are still attached to the idea of a self. To attain the summit level is not really that high, but it is still very good. It speaks of spiritual power, and it is at this level that we begin to practice the riddhipada, steps to magical power.
Two Kinds of Power
It is possible to generate two kinds of powers through practice. The first is supernatural powers through which one can transcend ordinary physical limitations; for example, the ability to transport oneself to different places and times, to perform alchemy, or to become invisible. If you were invisible, you could take whatever you wanted and not get caught. I guess you could call it magical stealing. One could become rich without working. But if you had such supernatural powers, would you use them that way? I think not. These are not the kinds of powers one would use on the dhyana path.
The second kind of power one can generate is freedom and ease of mind. To attain that state we practice dhyana, which is the reason these practices are also called the four kinds of samadhi. There are differences between the non-Buddhist and the Buddhist practices of samadhi. In non-Buddhist meditation, one’s goal is to stop wandering thoughts, to enter samadhi, and to experience freedom from vexation. However, coming out of samadhi, one will again experience wandering thoughts and vexation. So life is good in samadhi but not so good out of it.
The Buddhist approach is different because we first practice the four foundations of mindfulness and the four proper exertions. Through these contemplations we generate wisdom. Whether or not we enter samadhi, we can still use this wisdom to lessen our vexations and reduce conflicts and contradictions within our mind. This is why we begin with the four foundations and four proper exertions.
Buddhism emphasizes the need to practice in order to realize one’s own buddhanature. But this does not mean that someone who perceives buddhanature is no longer subject to vexation. After experiencing buddhanature for the first time, one still has habits and propensities that can lead to impure thoughts and impure conduct; greed and aversion may still arise. However, one is at least able to see clearly that one’s mind still cannot completely control the arising of vexations. At that point it becomes very important to practice samadhi.
To summarize, in the stages of practice toward enlightenment, we cultivate wisdom through contemplation, and when wisdom arises, we practice samadhi to develop freedom and ease of mind. This is the kind of power we want to develop through the four steps to magical powers, not supernatural powers.
The Four Steps
The first step to magical powers is chanda-riddhipada, concentration of desire; the second is virya-riddhipada, concentration of exertion, or diligence; the third is citta-riddhipada, concentration of mind; and the fourth is mimamsa-riddhipada concentration of inquiry, or investigation.
Chanda: Concentration of Desire
Chanda is the intense desire to attain the supreme and wondrous dhyana. This intense longing will cause one to prepare one’s mind accordingly and inspire one to practice hard. Translated into Chinese as “desire,” chanda can have a negative as well as a positive meaning. On the one hand it can mean greed, but as a step to concentrative power chanda also denotes a hope or vow. This vow is essential to overcoming the six obstructions to practice: drowsiness, scattered mind, idleness, laziness, forgetfulness (of one’s practice), and wrong view. The will to attain the supreme dhyana is the best antidote to laziness. So when you are practicing and begin to feel lazy, please give rise to the aspiration to attain the supreme dhyana.
To develop the power of chanda, one looks at the mind’s vexations and contemplates their true nature. Do these vexations have enduring existence? If you contemplate them deeply, you will see that vexatious thoughts are all indeed illusory. Since they are illusory, why be attached to them? You then realize that you suffer because of your attachments to vexations.
So the more we observe the mind and the more we realize that our vexations are illusory, the more we can let them go. In this practice, we remind ourselves that wandering thoughts arise because of our attachments and cause vexations. All of our thoughts, as long as there is attachment, are wandering thoughts. When you see that wandering thoughts are caused by vexation and also cause more vexation, you therefore see that you should not attach to them and will learn to let them go. Gradually the wandering thoughts will subside and your mind will become clearer and more stable, thus enabling dhyana.
Virya: Concentration of Diligence
Concentration of diligence, or exertion, means one is equipped with a strong vow to attain the supreme dhyana, and, therefore, one diligently applies the method of practice. Virya is diligence in dealing with the wandering thoughts that arise, whether they are thoughts of the past, present, or future. As for the present, thoughts come and go ceaselessly, and when we attach to them, they become wandering thoughts. However, thoughts of the past and future are also wandering thoughts, since the past is gone and the future is yet to be. All wandering thoughts, whether they relate to the past, the present, or the future, are illusory, so we just let them go. When we are diligent in letting go of thoughts of the past, not giving rise to thoughts of the future, and stopping thoughts in the present, we eventually enter the single-minded state of nonabiding. This corresponds to the line in the Diamond Sutra that says: “Abiding nowhere, give rise to [awakened] mind.”
Citta: Concentration of Mind
Citta is being mindful of your intent to practice. You need to be on guard against laziness, drowsiness, and scattered mind. You need to be aware that these states cause vexation and that they are the reasons we cannot attain liberation. Constantly be aware of their presence, and once aware of them, put them aside right away. Do not struggle with them, as that will make it worse. If you can do this, constantly observing your mind and putting down obstructions, you will be able to attain samadhi, the state of one-thought.
I have spoken of the need to practice dhyana diligently. But what do we use to practice dhyana? We use the mind of the present moment, keeping the mind on the present moment and only on the present moment. This is the mind that gives rise to dhyana, or wisdom.
The mind of ordinary sentient beings is selfish and full of vexation. Nevertheless, it is this same mind that we practice with, and it is the same mind as that of an arhat. However, when we start practicing dhyana, we cannot become pure immediately; we still have wandering thoughts, impure thoughts, and selfish thoughts. In the beginning, the mind is scattered, but when it is continuously on the method, it is on the path to dhyana.
Mimamsa: Concentration of Inquiry
Mimamsa consists of having an inquiring or discriminating mind, ensuring that chanda, virya, and citta are present. With consistent practice, it is possible to enter deep samadhi if desire, diligence, and intent are present along with inquiry. Mimamsa consists of knowing fully the importance of the other riddhis, or steps,and that the four steps to magical powers is an important stage on the path to buddhahood.
Concentration of inquiry also means using wisdom to observe whether our mind is in the proper state. The proper state is summit, where the entire mind is soft and gentle, without harshness. If the mind is selfish and impure, then it is not in the proper state, and we need to correct it right away.
At the level of supreme in the world, one is liberated from samsara as an arhat. Though the mind will no longer give rise to unwholesome activity or vexation, there still remain residual habit energies until one attains buddhahood. In other words, there are still subtle obstructions. When all obstructions have finally been overcome, one has attained buddhahood.
Karma and Supernatural Powers
Only those who have cultivated deep samadhi and who have attained the four dhyanas and eight samadhis have supernatural powers that they can control. One who has mastered real supernatural power can perform otherworldly feats at will. Even so, having these powers does not mean that one is liberated in the Buddhist sense. It may sound appealing, but actually these powers are not always useful and often yield negative results. They are not reliable and are often illusory. For instance, people may use supernatural powers to visit the past or foresee the future or witness things happening elsewhere. They may see concealed objects or read other people’s minds. Abilities like these may seem useful, but they mainly serve to give pleasure and pride to the user.
From the perspective of the present, seeing into the future may seem worthwhile. However, the future is really determined by causes and conditions and by causes and consequences; what will or will not happen is determined by karma. Trying to change one’s karma with supernatural powers won’t work, since that would violate the law of karma.
In both the early Buddhist and Mahayana traditions, there are records of supernatural powers being used. But what did the Buddha do when he was hungry? Did he conjure up a feast or have one catered by a deity? No, he walked around with his alms bowl begging for food. After he attained buddhahood, he walked from village to village spreading the dharma. He didn’t fly through the air. He didn’t magically erect monasteries but instead relied on laypeople to build them and to sew robes for the sangha. Before entering parinirvana, he received an offering of food that was tainted. You would think that he would have used his supernatural powers to know the food was bad, but instead he ate it and became very sick. So even though the Buddha possessed supernatural powers, he did not use them in self-centered ways.
One of the Buddha’s senior disciples, Maudgalyayana, was noted for his magic and clairvoyance. Another one of his disciples, called Color of Lotus, was famous for her supernatural powers. Both of them were ultimately beaten to death by people hostile to Buddhism. You could say that they should have escaped from their attackers because of their supernatural powers. But they couldn’t, because having supernatural powers does not change one’s karma.
Why We Practice Dhyana
I want to emphasize again that the reason we practice dhyana is not to acquire supernatural powers but to attain liberation. We begin the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment with the four foundations of mindfulness to calm our mind and to become clearly aware of how thoughts rise and fall in our mind. We then practice the four proper exertions along with the four foundations, with an attitude of great diligence. Practicing these contemplations together results in the generation of wisdom. However, without adequate samadhi, this wisdom will not be deep-rooted and firm. At this stage, we need to develop samadhi power for this wisdom to have a secure foundation. To do that, we cultivate dhyana.
I’ve already described the four enhanced phenomena of warmth, summit, forbearance, and supreme in the world. These phenomena characterize the practice of the four steps. I also described the four steps to magical powers as the second of the five stages to buddhahood. On the foundation of dhyana, we build our practice from which we move forward on the path of the bodhisattvas and buddhas.
A Glimpse of Buddhanature
One of the main methods of dhyana in Chan is investigating huatou. By investigating a huatou, one may make a breakthrough and perceive directly that self-nature is emptiness and that there is no enduring self. This self-nature is also called buddhanature. Seeing one’s buddhanature, however, does not mean that one is liberated, nor does it mean that one’s practice is completed. Rather, it means that one has gained more faith and confidence in the practice and that one now clearly knows where the path is. This may be likened to traveling on a dark road on a very dark night. All of a sudden there is a bolt of lightning, and for a split second you see the road before you, bright and clear. But seeing the road is not the same as having finished the journey. You still need to travel on to the end. In a similar manner, seeing your self-nature, you may have gained a little bit of wisdom but you still need to practice. The next step is to deepen your samadhi, to cultivate dhyana. So the four steps to magical power is really an analogy for the stages of meditative concentration.
Practicing any one of the concentrations is a great benefit, but the greatest benefit would be to practice all four of the riddhis. Once you have established a firm footing in one of the riddhis,it is easier to move on to the next. When you have mastered the four steps to magical powers, the next stage is to fully embark on the path of the bodhisattvas and buddhas. I have talked a lot about supernatural powers but mainly to make it clear that the attainment of such powers is not the purpose of dhyana. The true magical power of dhyana is in attaining the path of the bodhisattvas and buddhas. That is what is really useful.
© Reproduced with permission from Dharma Drum Publications
 The four proper exertions are the four proper ways to maintain diligence in the practice, which are: to keep unwholesome states not yet arisen from arising; to cease unwholesome states already arisen; to give rise to wholesome states not yet arisen; to continue wholesome states already arisen.
 The broad meaning of dhyana (Sanskrit) refers to any meditative practice in Buddhism where the purpose is to train the mind toward enlightenment. The narrow meaning of dhyana refers to progressive meditative states, whose precise meanings depend on the method being practiced. In China, the word dhyana was transliterated to “Chan.” “Zen” is the Japanese transliteration of “Chan.”
 The four dhyanas are 1) freedom from desire and unwholesome thoughts; 2) freedom from discursive thoughts; 3) freedom from blissful states; 4) perfect equanimity and wakefulness.
 The so-called nine samadhis describe levels of meditative absorption. The first eight do not entail complete liberation; liberation is achieved only with the ninth samadhi.
 The thirty-seven aids to enlightenment are a group of seven sets of practices that, taken together, may be said to comprise the path leading to enlightenment: 1) the four foundations of enlightenment; 2) the four proper exertions; 3) the four steps to magical powers; 4) the five roots; 5) the five powers; 6) the seven factors of enlightenment; 7) the noble eightfold path.
 Huatou is the Chan method in which a practitioner investigates a question, such as “What is my original face before birth and death?” By intensively seeking the answer to the huatou, the mind of the practitioner may develop a “great ball of doubt,” the resolution of which may result in insight or awakening.