How to Build a Fire
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day index to series
Meditation in Buddhism is an integral part of the totality of Buddhist practice, as most commonly stated as the Noble Eightfold Path, and cannot be understood apart from it. The Path is as follows, eight folds falling into three groupings, the last of which concerns meditation:
- Right View
- Right Resolve
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Samadhi
Right Samadhi is the furnace in which the products of the previous seven folds are melded to produce knowledge and vision and ultimately liberation.
There are Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. The one-pointedness of mind equipped with these seven factors is called Noble Right Samadhi with its supports and accessories. – SN 45.28
Samadhi comes in different forms, but it is not Buddha’s meditation unless it derives from straightening views and intentions, from purifying virtue and from kindling and stoking the flame with Right Effort and Right Mindfulness, that is, with Buddha’s effort and Buddha’s mindfulness.
Ideally before beginning meditation practice you will begun to befriend the Dhamma, have learned about suffering and the ending of suffering, about the Noble Eightfold Path, about the contingent nature of reality, and have begun contemplating these and starting to observe these things in your own experience. You will have resolved to develop kindness and non-harming and a willingness to let go of personal advantage. You will also have begun to cultivate virtue in your deeds and words and established a lifestyle inclined to nonharming. Even without meditation virtue can be very strong, but wisdom based only on hearing and reflection will have an upper limit until it is melded in the furnace of samadhi.
Right Effort is a deepening of the practicing of virtue from the physical level of speech and action to the mental level of thought and intention. It is an ongoing project undertaken by every Buddhist practitioner and is ideally maintained throughout the day, not just in the context of seated meditation. It works as a gardener cultivating that which is pure, skillful or wholesome in the mind: flowers of kindness and generosity and shrubs of equanimity and wisdom, while ridding the mind of what is tainted, unskillful or unwholesome: weeds of greed and ill-will and infestations of delusion. It plays a role in every other step in the Path insofar as each step represents what is skillful; that is why we call these steps “Right.” In the context of meditation Right Effort turns its attention particularly to purifying the mind of the five hindrances: lust, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, and doubt. These are unskillful factors that, according to experience, have a particular talent for inhibiting or disrupting meditation.
Right Mindfulness is a wonderfully skillful practice that the Buddhist practitioner is also encouraged to engage throughout the day, not just in the setting of seated meditation. It is the ability to stay on top of things, to discern appropriately, to remember what task is at hand, not to be distracted by what is irrelevant, to return the attention to the relevant should it go astray. Mindfulness is a stabilizing factor of the mind as well a faculty that keeps us out of trouble, a factor that keeps us from falling off of a ladder and that reminds us to buckle our seat belts and to close the door. Mindfulness is a factor in all steps of the virtue group, since each of these steps requires keeping on top of ethical decisions as situations arise. Right Effort is itself a kind of mindfulness focused on discerning and managing skillful and unskillful thoughts. Just as Right Effort is a deepening of virtue, mindfulness is used as a medium in the Buddha’s method for deepening the development of wisdom. In the context of meditation Right Mindfulness turns its attention to any of a set of delineated contemplations, in the four topic domains of body, feeling, mind and phenomena, the four foundations of mindfulness. Depending on the success of our practices of wisdom and virtue, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness will feed dense and fragrant logs into the flames of samadhi so that it burns hot and bright and smells good to boot.
Right Samadhi is a resultant quality of mind, pure, refined and rarified. Right Samadhi is equated with the four jhanas (in Pali, dyanas in Sanskrit), progressive degrees of this remarkable quality of mind. Samadhi and jhana are often translated as concentration or meditative absorption, but the Buddha’s samadhi seems to be quite distinct from concentration or absorption in other meditative traditions, as are the other factors of the Path.
Bhikkhus, these eight things, developed and cultivated, if unarisen do not arise apart from the discipline of a Bhagava (Buddha). What eight? Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Samadhi. – SN 45.15
Unlike effort or mindfulness, but like fire, samadhi is not something you do directly, but arises at least partially from what you do. It is said to arise from seclusion, from the satisfaction that arises with virtue, as well as from Right Effort and Right Mindfulness.
For one of Right Mindfullness, Right Samadhi springs up. – SN 5.25-6
It is also also encouraged by assuming a still bodily posture. Accordingly, how-to meditation instructions in the Suttas are primarily framed in terms of mindfulness, while meditation in broader contexts, such as the entire Path or the life of a bhikkhu is almost always framed in terms of the jhanas.
I am using fire today as a simile for samadhi in order to capture the causal connections among the factors involved, but fire poorly expresses the actual experience of samadhi. The experience of Right Samadhi is serene and keenly aware, that is, relaxed, calm, open, sensitive to, but unperturbed by, whatever arises. It is often referred to in the Suttas as calm abiding. For a clearer idea let’s switch to the Buddha’s own simile of a pond in a mountain glen, which also captures two critical factors that arise in samadhi: samatha, or serenity, and vipassana, or insight.
Just as if there were a pool of water in a mountain glen — clear, limpid, and unsullied — where a man with good eyesight standing on the bank could see shells, gravel, and pebbles, and also shoals of fish swimming about and resting, and it would occur to him, ‘This pool of water is clear, limpid, and unsullied. Here are these shells, gravel, and pebbles, and also these shoals of fish swimming about and resting.’ In the same way — with his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability — the monk directs and inclines it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations. – Maha-Assapura Sutta MN39
It is in Right Samadhi that serenity is established and at the same time that the highest knowledge and wisdom are cultivated, leading to the total eradication of taints, and ultimately to the attainment of final liberation. In short, Samadhi provides the conditions for working with the mind at a very pure, refined and intimate level that then turns back to complete the development of wisdom begun at the start of Noble Eightfold Path.
That one could fulfill the wisdom group without having fulfilled the samadhi group that is not possible. – DN18
The Noble Eightfold Path provides a natural flow from wisdom and virtue, progressively refined to the level of thought, intention and contemplation then melded in the flame of the very refined mental state of samadhi to begin the path anew with a refined degree of cognitive and affective purity. The result is that all of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path build on and support each other. This is the genius of the Buddha’s Path of training.
How to build a fire. To make a fire you need to find or create a place free of smothering dampness and cooling wind and access to dry wood. Preparing to make a fire is like Right Effort. Right Effort tames the distracting mental factors, the hindrances , which could easily inhibit the fire, like wind and dampness.
You then place and adjust kindling and logs and other flammables, and blow air, in a way that encourages the embers of the previous fire (assume that embers already exist). Tending to the fire is like Right Mindfulness and the fire itself is like Right Samadhi. Right Mindfulness stabilizes the mind by providing a focus, bringing the mind into alignment like carefully placed logs.
Finally a flame arises and grows and, if the first two steps are skillfully performed, it provides constant and ample heat and light. Right Samadhi is the flame that arises in at least partial dependence on the things that you do to burn hot and bright. Take note that whereas preparation, tending, effort and mindfulness are things you do, fire and samadhi each arise of its own accord in at least partial dependence of the things you do. In fact that can even arise spontaneously as factors happen to come into line in the presence of the ever-present embers.
Singleness of mind is samadhi, the four foundations of mindfulness are its themes, the four right efforts are its requisites, and any cultivation, development and pursuit of these qualities are its development. – MN44
The process of tending, aided by preparation, not only gives rise to the fire, it also determines the particular qualities of the fire, the heat, light, smoke, oder and type of ash it produces, whether it flares up and quickly dwindles, the size of the flame, how the flame spreads, and so on. You tend to the fire in a way that produces the desired qualities. The process of mindfulness, aided by effort, not only gives rise to samadhi, it also determines the particular qualities of samadhi, the intensity or level of samadhi, the levels of delight and pleasure, concentration, arising thought processes and other features, how supportive it is of samatha or of vipassana, and so on. Part of tending a fire is to monitor and adjust the qualities of the fire and part of being mindful is to monitor and adjust the qualities of samadhi.
Although there is a causal progression from Right Effort through Right Mindfulness to Right Samadhi, as samadhi grows it begins to dominate and assume a life of its own. In its early stages the flame of samadhi must be kindled carefully and adverse influences, such as too much wind or anger, need to be controlled. For a while after that logs still must be placed carefully and attention carefully focused. However when samadhi is burning fiercely, when the fire has become deep and serene, effort and mindfulness flow of themselves: samadhi dries out any moisture in its vicinity and determines itself the flow of air, from all sides then skyward, the hindrances are pretty much locked out and tending to samadhi entails merely tossing in a log every once in a while any which way. In samadhi the mind eventually settles in imperturbably pulling mindfulness along.
This has been a concise pass through Buddha’s meditation. In the next weeks I will report in a bit more detail in turn about Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Samadhi, and about the attainment of knowledge and vision in Right Samadhi, giving particular attention to the uniquely Buddhist features of each of these.