Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Five

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, April 18, 2011

Right Concentration (Samma-Samadhi) is the final step on the Noble Eightfold Path, the culmination of the Path, the last termite implicated in the destruction of the structure of the self.

The Termite of Right Concentration.

Right Concentration is a different kind of step because it is not actually something you do, but rather a natural consequence of the preceding seven steps. The five steps immediately prior to concentration involve volitional actions, practices in the purest sense. These are the three Virtue steps of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, and the first two meditation steps of Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. All of these are things we do over and over in the Buddhist life, things we make choices about, individual actions of body, speech and mind. The initial two steps of the Noble Eightfold Path, on the other hand, which make up the Wisdom group of Right View and Right Resolve, are practices of a less discrete sort: they are matters of study, contemplation and commitment, but still things we do in some sense. Right Concentration is the consequence of all of these steps. As such the steps leading up to Right Concentration are like building a fire: we start with some newspaper, then kindling, then logs, of course oxygen is available without effort, and we add heat (say as a spark from a flint stone), and a flame arises. Right Concentration is like the fire, it is a rarified quality of mind, call it concentrated wholesomeness.

Now, concentration is common in meditation practices, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, and it is also something that sometimes arises spontaneously, or when something is of utmost importance and urgency. But these instances of concentration are generally not Right Concentration. For instance, a hunter or a sniper commonly has extremely strong concentration just before a kill. A dog, or particularly a cat, similarly seems to have unblinking concentration when stalking prey. A hunter’s concentration, as deep as it may be, is not Right Concentration, because it is based in the intention to kill; it lacks at a minimum the backing of Right Resolve, Right Action, Right Livelihood and Right Effort. Concentration also seems to arise naturally when there is danger, when the cost of making a mistake is high, or when something provokes lust. But here concentration would arise as an accomplice of the self. Concentration typically brings temporary euphoria, a blissful feeling; in fact, some people engage in dangerous activities like bungee jumping or driving fast for recreation … on purpose, probably to induce states of blissful concentration.

In most forms of non-Buddhist meditation concentration is achieved almost exclusively through Mindfulness, which we looked at last week. There we learned that Mindfulness is a practice of remembering to keep the mind on a single task, most commonly holding one’s attention on a single object. This is a simple yet difficult exercise that can quickly lead to the arising of a very stable quality of mind. These forms of meditation also tend to produce temporary feelings of bliss without the cost or risk of sky diving or alligator wrestling.

Right Concentration is not something we do; it is instead a mental space that we dwell in and explore at every opportunity. We make use of the other steps of the Noble Eightfold Path to do this, much as a smith produces in his forge a fire of the desired size and temperature by feeding it with the right kind and amount of wood or coal, by the skillful use of the bellows, and so on. As we attend to our concentration we bring the other factors of the Noble Eightfold Path to bear in a focuses and coordinated way to move our concentration in the direction we would like. We will see that the benefits of Right Concentration ultimately feed back into the effectiveness all of the other steps in the Noble Eightfold Path, as if the Termite of Right Concentration kicks back pep pills, or growth hormones, to all of the other termites.

In Right Concentration two qualities are highlighted, serenity and clarity. These are captured in the metaphor of a forest pond. If kids are splashing in the pond, someone is throwing in a stick for his dog to swim out and fetch, another is jumping out of a tree, plunging into the water holding his nose, and a motorboat is pushing up waves, pulling a water-skier, the pond will be neither serene nor clear. Our minds are like this in their normal state, jumping around like a money or coming at us with a constant stream of useless thoughts. However, when the kids have gone, the dog is snoozing at home, the motorboat and water skis have been taken out of the water and are out on the highway somewhere, the pond has a chance to settle and after a time the surface becomes like glass. From one angle we see the reflection of the trees against the sky and the setting sun. From another we can look down into the depths of the water and see fish, crabs, growing plants every pebble at the bottom of the pond as clear as can be. Serenity and clarity arise in unison.

And so it is with the mind, normally churned into a frenzy by our self-centered delusions, our self-centered aspirations, our unvirtuous speech and action, our ignoble livelihood, our runaway unskillful thoughts and our unsteady minds. As each of these departs, our thoughts begin to float rather than rush past, they are kind, and sometimes stop altogether, we can see what is there prior to our fabrications and how our fabrications arise. Serenity and clarity arise in unison. At some point we flip into a state in which serenity and clarity come effortlessly, Effort and Mindfulness are no longer a chore, we simply dwell there.

We can fruitfully explore this space of concentration in various ways. We can, for instance, go into deeper and deeper levels of serenity, or we can apply our clarity in certain directions. This is why we often talk about serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassana) meditation. The Buddha actually never really talked about two separate kinds of meditation, since serenity and clarity always arise together, but by choice of object of mindfulness, for instance, we seem often to favor one over another. Attending to something highly localized like the touch of the breath at the edge of the nostrils, for instance, can propel us into deep states of concentration, quantified as jhanas. Attending to something like the decaying of the body is less focused but opens up theme of investigation in which clarity can be of particular efficacy. Also as we get up from the meditation cushion and begin to move about in the world, the depth of our concentration tends to let up, but with training does not disappear altogether and can also be recalled in an instant. Thereby the clarity of concentration has many fruitful opportunities to alight on new subjects throughout the day.

Right Concentration is a quality of mind that is already imbued with the qualities acquired through the seven practices that precede it. It includes the habit of contemplating the arising and cause of suffering, the nature of impermanence and the notion of non-self. It includes the aspirations toward kindness and renunciation, and the many practices of virtue. It includes the practice of weeding and watering in the garden of the unskillful and the skillful. And of course it includes mindful of various wholesome things. As such the concentrated mind tends to settle into and become even clearer about these qualities. This is what I mean by concentrated wholesomeness. From the perspective of clarity is is like turning a magnifying glass on each of these aspects of practice; in effect in Right Concentration we walk the whole Path anew but at a much more refined and detailed level. Our contemplations become very sharp, we begin to see directly impermanence and emptiness. Our aspirations are brought into relief and any deviation from renunciation, kindness or non-harming is immediately noticeable. The whole process of acting in the world, from inception of intention to tracing of consequences comes into sharp focus, and we begin to act decisively without entangling ourselves in justifications. Skillful or unskillful qualities of thoughts jump out at us as soon as they arise, we can feel the tension in the unskillful.

The self does not fare well in the world of the rightly concentrated mind. The self’s tendencies toward fabrication, excuse and manipulation settle down and appear as cheap trickery. The pain of maintaining a self or acting out the self’s demands becomes all too clear. The self is discovered to be elusive as a primary phenomenon of actual experience; no matter how hard we look for it all we see is the flux and contingency of the things imagined to be a self, to belong to a self or to contain a self.

Right Concentration is the last of the termites chewing on the trestle of the self and all of its supports. Next week we will see what happens when the bridge collapses.

One Response to “Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Five”

  1. Kim Says:

    jumping around like a money or coming (typo)


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