Noble Eightfold Path: Right Concentration

Uposatha Day Teaching

The Eighth and final Fold of the Eightfold Path is Right Concentration. Concentration in Pali or Sanskrit is samadhi, a familiar word in Buddhist vocabulary. A potter or other skilled craftsman also requires a degree of concentration and does his or her best work with concentration, in which the mind of the potter is collected in one place, concerned with one task, still, focused. Concentration contrasts with the more typical scattered state of the human mind. However the average human mind seems to be naturally concentrated when there is danger, when the cost of making a mistake is high, or when something is just darn interesting. Concentration when present typically brings euphoria, a blissful feeling, which might be why some people engage in dangerous activities like bungee jumping or driving fast for recreation. Buddhism provides the training that makes very deep levels of concentration available on demand.

The functions of the concentrated mind in Buddhist practice are in support of the other folds of the Noble Eightfold Path. In the mind’s typical state thoughts come at us like a rushing river, like a fire hose or like a sand storm. Alternatively we can say that the mind jumps around from place to place like a monkey, like a basket ball or buzzes around like a swarm of gnats. Under such conditions we have little opportunity either to observe our thoughts to get to know them, and almost all opportunity to observe and get to know what is happening in the world around us gets lost in the deluge of thought. Likewise under such conditions we have little opportunity to respond appropriately to thoughts as required by many of the steps in the Path.

Thoughts are also like choppy water, stirred up by paddlers and power boats, that obscures both external phenomena and the mind itself.. On the other hand, the concentrated mind is serene and sharp like a still forest pool, without a ripple, such that you can see every detail of the bottom of the pond. The serenity of concentration gives Right Speech, Right Action, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness each a boost. Each of these involves making decisions with consideration of intentions and other mental factors. Serenity is like seeing these mental factors with a magnifying glass. For instance, part of Right Speech is not to speak in anger. For many people this is nearly impossible because the gap between anger and speech is slight. With a serene mind this gap is large. In fact one is likely to catch the series of thoughts leading to anger at an early stage with a softening effect. The sharpness or clarity of concentration gives a great boost to Right View, Right Resolve and Right Livelihood because it supports penetrating insight into the way things really are. For instance, one cannot avoid a continuous awareness of the flux and contingency of all things, and the tendency of the mind toward fabrication.

So concentration or samadhi is a very useful tool, for the potter as well as for the Buddhist on the Path. How do we get there? The short answer is, Through all of the other folds of the Noble Eightfold Path. If your life is less dispersed, if you do not spend your time struggling, your mind will be more concentrated. All the folds from Right Resolve through the three factors of Ethical Conduct and up to Right Effort establish a non-self-seeking relationship to the world, reducing our stress and anxiety. We will see next week how Right View brings this to an even deeper level. All this reduces the scattering of our mental resources, brings the mind to the here and now. Cultivating physical serenity in our lives is an additional aid to concentration: walks in the woods, avoiding idle chatter and mindless entertainment, reducing clutter in your surroundings, living an orderly, which often means highly conventional, life.

But the most direct instruments for establishing concentration are Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. Bhikkhu Bodhi in his treatise on the Noble Eightfold Path describes a metaphor used in an ancient commentary for the relationship of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration: Three boys see flowers blooming high in a tree, but even the tallest of them, boy C, cannot reach them. Therefore another boy, A, leans over to let the tallest boy climb up on his back. This gives the needed height but boy C has trouble keeping his balance and is afraid to stand as high as he can. So the remaining boy, B, takes hold to steady C. Boy A is Effort, boy B is Mindfulness and boy C is Concentration. Through Effort, which works with the earlier folds, we gain a degree of purity and stability of mind. Concentration takes this to an even higher level, but cannot do this without Mindfulness.

Right Concentration is most effectively practiced in seated meditation, but tends to carry over from there into everyday life in a less rarefied form. The most common form of seated meditation involves selecting an object of concentration, such as the physical sensation of breath felt in the rising and falling of the abdomen, or simply a candle. Your task is to keep your mind focused on the object. Mindfulness reminds you of this task as distractions arise. It is the guard that protects concentration from all of the fascinating things the mind would like to do instead. Right Effort is primary in working with the unskillful mental factors that are likely to otherwise be distractions. These factors working together often feel like a struggle as the mind is repeatedly distracted from its object of concentration, sometimes for minutes at a time. But with practice, and especially as one sits for long periods, the mind settles and the concentration narrows increasingly in on the object. The struggle stills, or even disappears, leaving serenity and clarity.

Most meditation traditions take as their primary aim to develop intense levels of concentration. Concentration can be very intense indeed. The aim of meditation in Buddhism is somewhat different. Recall that in the years immediately preceding his enlightenment the future Buddha engaged in developing extraordinary state of concentration but in the end recognized the inadequacy of concentration. Intense states of concentration develop serenity with the advantages described above, but past a certain point this is at the expense of the clarity or sharpness necessary for insight into the nature of reality. The extreme one-pointedness of mind eventually shuts down investigation. In fact many adepts are said to have reached enlightenment with limited concentration. Also deep levels of concentration carries a couple of dangers. First, one can become attached to the pleasure of concentration, which then becomes a self-serving impediment to progress on the Path. Second, the intense serenity of concentration can mislead you into thinking you have reached some great attainment on the path, possibly even awakening. With these caveats, concentration is nevertheless and important tool which the sincere practitioner should give a lot of attention to developing.

On this day of the Last Quarter Moon spend some time in seated meditation, enjoy the serenity of clarity that comes with concentration and resolve to make seated meditation a part of your daily routine if it is not already, even if it is for ten or fifteen minutes each day.

One Response to “Noble Eightfold Path: Right Concentration”

  1. Aparna Pallavi Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    Thanks a lot for this post, though the thanks comes more than a year too late. I had often wondered, reading the life of the Buddha, about the difference between the states of concentration in his pre-enlightment days and the enlightment. And I used to see what you call the Big E as simply an even intenser state of concentration. I have also heard of people going mad as an impact of meditation in many Indian spiritual traditions, though I could never make out why such a thing should happen

    But what you say makes great sense. Rank beginner that I am,

    I still find it tempting to remain seated in meditation after time is up — it does give that kind of a ‘high’. Till now I used to think of that as a positive sign, but I guess one must be careful not to get addicted.

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