Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 7

Buddha’s Samadhi: Concentration
New Moon Uposatha, 
December 24, 2012                  index to series

Mindfulness is the method of meditation, samadhi is the resulting experience of meditation. The analogy is the tending of a fire, and the fire itself as the result. You never know what samadhi is from any description, but practice the method and you shall see; samadhi is ineffible.

Nevertheless certain qualities of samdhi need to be highlighted because you need to be mindful of its proper shape. Again, this is like tending a fire: If the fire is for heating a house you want it to give off heat, but not too much, and to burn long and steadily. If the fire is for forging metal you probably want a small fire that you can bring to a very high temperature at critical times. Similarly, you want a samadhi that gives rise to knowledge and vision and to the ending of taints. To that end you need to be mindful of certain qualities of samadhi. For the next couple of weeks we will look at the qualities of Buddha’s samadhi.

Concentration. The word samadhi derives from ‘sam + ā + dhā‘ , which means ‘bring together’, or ‘collect’. The mind, left on its own, tends to be scattered, jumping from here to there, relentlessly churning, generally beyond control. Samadhi is a controlled state of mind, arising from mindfulness, in which the various factors of mind seem to run in a common direction, it is often translated as ‘concentration of mind’. Again, as the enlightened nun Dhammadinna states in the suttas:

Unification of mind, friend Visakha, is samadhi, the four foundations of mindfulness are the basis of samadhi, the four right kinds of striving are the equipment of samadhi, the repetition, development and cultivation of these same states is the development of samadhi therein. – MN 44, Cuḷavedalla Sutta

Now, a powerful technique in the absence of a match or lighter for getting a fire to flare up quickly is to use a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun unmovingly on a single point of easily combustible fuel. Similarly a means of producing the flames of samadhi quickly is to focus the mind unmovingly on a single point of experience. Fixing the mind in this way brings it under strict control, it produces an extremely narrow and very effective concentration of mind. The method here is what I called one-pointed mindfulness. The result is a one-pointed samadhi. Now, I pointed out in our discussion of mindfulness that the Buddha never ever seems to recommend one-pointed mindfulness. I want here to make the complementary point that the Buddha’s Samadhi is similarly not one-pointed. In one-pointed mindfulness experience is fixed an unmoving; in its pure form that one point is all that is happening. In contrast in Buddha’s samdadhi the mind is unmoving, or we might say centered, but vast and perceptive as experience flows past, around and through it. The Buddha’s samadhi is a state that is open but stable and unified, a middle way between being scattered and fixed.

This centered, but broadly aware and fluid basis for concentration is probably the most important point to understand about Buddha’s meditation. Most variants make at least some use of one-pointed mindfulness and one-pointed mind. When I teach meditation to beginners, for instance, I teach one-pointed focus on the breath, locating the point in the belly. This yields a fairly quick experience of concentration that gives the beginner confidence and inspires him to pursue meditation further, and that has many beneficial qualities by itself. But I also explain explain that it is inadequate as a basis for attaining knowledge and vision nor in ending the taints, nor attaining final liberation. As far as I can see the Buddha was very clear and consistent about this, … but he seems to have found no use for one-pointedness.

To underscore the point that Buddha’s meditation is not one-pointed, I list the evidence.

First, the suttas make no reference to a method of one-pointed mindfulness that would form a basis of one-pointed samadhi. I pointed this out a couple of weeks ago. I also mentioned on the other hand that there is a common contrary interpretation of Satipatthana and Anapanasati Suttas that alleges one-pointed mindfulness. This has to do with the interpretation of one word, parimukhaŋ in the Pali, which occurs in the phrase parimukhaŋ satiŋ upaṭṭhapeti. Satiŋ upaṭṭhapeti means ‘sets up mindfulness’; everyone agrees on that. Parimukhaŋ is alleged to refer to the experience of the in-and-out breath as it touches the nose or upper lip. Apparently the word derives from ‘mouth’, which would put it very roughly in the general vicinity needed, but mouth is not its normal interpretation. The on-line Pali Text Society dictionary provides the following entry:

Parimukha (adj.) [pari+mukha] facing, in front; only as nt. adv. ˚ŋ in front, before, in phrase parimukhaŋ satiŋ upaṭṭhapeti “set up his memory in front” (i. e. of the object of thought), to set one’s mindfulness alert Vin i.24; D ii.291; M

Under sati it also provides this interpretation:

parimukhaŋ satiŋ upaṭṭhāpetuŋ, to surround oneself with watchfulness of mind

Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out a use of parimukha in the Vinaya clearly conveys in front of the chest‘. It seems like a stretch to interpret it as referring to the point where the breath touches the nostrils or the upper lip. If the Buddha wanted to set up a fixed point of concentration we would expect him to provide a more less casual description of what that point is in any case.

Second, the suttas do not refer to one-pointed samadhi that I am aware of. The word ekaggata in Pali, used to describe concentration and equated with samadhi, is often translated as ‘one-pointed-ness’ but alternatively as ‘unified”. Now, eka means one, and agga can mean ‘point’, and ta means ‘-ness’. However agga means ‘point’ as of a knife and also means ‘peak’ as of a mountain, which is something that can be rather broad. And in fact the PTS dictionary defines aggata as follows:

Aggatā (f.) [abstr. of agga] pre– eminence, prominence, superiority Kvu 556 (˚ŋ gata); Dpvs iv.1 (guṇaggataŋ gatā). — (adj.) mahaggata of great value or superiority D i.80; iii.224.

There is nothing here to suggest a fixed very precise object of attention, only a prominence of a single theme.

Third, the suttas provide a sufficient basis for samadhi independent of one-pointed mindfulness. One-pointed mindfulness is a powerful means of inducing samadhi and then attaining deep levels of concentration. This raises the question, Is one-pointed mindfulness necessary for samadhi? Can you attain samadhi at all without it? The answer is “Yes.”

First, there are many yogis of greater authority than I who will answer affirmatively on the basis of personal experience.

Second, the Buddha gives a wide variety of other, unpointed, factors as conditions Right Samadhi, which collectively seem to put you over the top. In fact it is remarkable how many conditions he describes as underlying samdhi. These include faith, mindfulness, ardency, alertness, seclusion, peace and quiet, investigation, delight, pleasure, inner composure, tranquility, virtue, wisdom andall seven steps prior to Right Samadhi in the Noble Eightfold Path. This is not to mention sitting at the root of a tree in meditation posture.

Many of these conditions, aside from helping to induce samadhi, probably serve primarily to weave the qualities of wisdom and virtue into samadhi rather to induce a state of concentration, but I suspect that these conditions as a whole are intended to displace the necessity of one-pointed mindfulness.

Fourth, the suttas refer to many mental processes that occur even in deep states of meditation, i.e., in the higher jhanas, that according to experience would be shut down by one-pointed concentration. One-pointedness narrows the range of consciousness to such a degree that there is little room for much else to go on.

Yet in the Buddha’s samadhi “the repetition, development and cultivation of these same states [factors giving rise to samadhi in the first place] is the development of samadhi therein.” This means that the cultivation of Right Mindfulness, for example, continues in the jhanas. Furthermore, you are able to visualize delight, happiness and equanimity suffusing the body in all the jhanas, and to turn the attention selectively to an inspiring theme if the hindrances begin to intrude. You are able to “regard whatever phenomena connected with form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, a void, non-self.” You are able to contemplate each of the brahmaviharas in each of the jhānas. You are potentially able to “ferret out one by one” whatever qualities arise in each of the jhanas and know them as they remain and know when they subside.You are able to “incline [your] mind toward realizing any state that may be realized by direct knowledge.” More about these things, including references, next week.

Fifth, one-pointed concentration would seem to inhibit the process of cultivation of insight, of vipassana. You will appreciate that many of these mental activities listed in the last couple of paragraphs support knowledge and vision. The reason that it is important that these activities occur in samadhi is that the mind in samadhi is highly refined, still and clear, qualitatively different from the clunky common mind we usually use to bungle about in the world. It is the mind that is capable of considering things as they really are in and of themselves, without the bias of passion, habit or preconception. It is a mind that is subtle, but not shut down.

The mind is not one-pointed because that would not support insight.

Assumptions in Presenting Evidence. Since the claim that Buddha’s meditation is not one-pointed is contrary to how many people practice Buddhism, let me reiterate my game rules in reaching these conclusions. I’ve used all three of the following methods in today’s post:

  1. We let the early suttas speak for themselves and try to read nothing into or out of them. This is not entirely reliable in itself because of the ancient history of these texts.

I have tried to represent the early texts faithfully. Although these ancient texts are often subject to debate and confusion, concerning meditation I find them surprisingly consistent when interpreted quite simply. Notice I am scrupulously avoiding the evidence of later texts often taken as authoritative, such as the Pali commentaries. Otherwise we have no way of distinguishing Buddha’s meditation from its variants, since most variants make some claim to purity of pedigree. There will always be pressure among those who, like me, practice a variant to read the variant back into the early texts.

  1. We see if a coherent system shines through, with its own internal logic. This is like the jig-saw puzzle in which confidence in the result is established in spite of missing or extraneous pieces.

I have been giving particular attention to this source of evidence, showing that the Buddha’s meditation has a brilliantly conceived internal logic, that all of the parts fit into a unified whole that functions to consolidate all of the rays developed in the initial five stages of the Noble Eightfold Path and progressively focus then toward liberation. Both wisdom and virtue, developed initially by other means, are combined to form the fuel of samadhi, the hyer-refined state of clarity and calm in which higher knowledge the loss of taints can be developed. This logic is surprisingly consistent with the simplest interpretations of the suttas as mentioned in (1).

  1. We see if the system and its parts work in practice.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the system that seems to shine through in the texts fails to shine through on the cushion, then we need to reconsider what the texts say and what the underlying logic might be. If the same system shines through in both places, then we can be fairly confident are sitting on the bodhimanda (seat of enlightenment). I cannot verify the system that shines through in others’ practice; I need to ask each of you to do that for your own. I can report my limited experience of the various parts of the system I have described are quite consistent with the results of (1) and (2) above.

Next week we will look at the various factors of samadhi in more detail.

9 Responses to “Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 7”

  1. amyable27 Says:

    Very thought provoking.


  2. Matt W Says:

    As someone who was taught the nose focus early on in books and hasn’t had the benefit of a teacher since then, the news that persistently staying on the nose is eye opening and a relief. Thank you for an incredibly detailed and helpful post.


  3. Michael Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    In light of what you explained, how would you interpret the description of samadhi/jhanas given by Ajahn Brahm and Ayya Khema? Do you think they have gone too far or have gone astray, and are not describing the jhanas taught by the Buddha?

    Thank you


    • bhikkhucintita Says:


      As far as I can see almost all teachers teach variants of Buddha’s meditation. I don’t criticize variants as having gone astray, or as being lesser than the Buddha’s original teaching, My goal is rather to place these variants with respect to what the Buddha actually taught and then let them justify themselves. I have a lot of confidence in strong practitioners to maintain or return to something equivalent to what the Buddha taught, and I think innovation has often served Buddhism well.

      The Theravada tradition is complicated by the great authority given to the commentarial tradition, which does not always accord with the Buddha’s teachings. But I think most meditation that is influenced by that tradition actually returns to the Buddha’s intent with different terminology. As a result “jhana” (or “samadhi”) can mean either of two distinct things, but accordingly we find each of these “jhana” ends up playing a distinct role in meditation practice. We will explore this more in a few weeks.


  4. rossdavidh Says:

    So, perhaps you are going to cover this later, but I’ll ask it anyway. If, as you seem to suggest, it is ok to use one-pointed concentration when beginning to practice meditation, is there some signpost or indication that it’s time to move on?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      One-pointed concentration is a close relative of what I have been describing. It has the advantages that it is easy to teach and that the experience is readily accessible. I think when someone has established a degree of confidence in this meditation and facility with it, they are ready to move on to the type of meditation more conducive to developing insight and wisdom. This is the assumption I normally make.


  5. La meditazione del Buddha e le sue varianti (VII): La Samadhi del Buddha: Concentrazione – Cintita Dinsmore « Lokanātha Says:

    […] prossima settimana daremo uno sguardo più dettagliato ai vari fattori della samadhi. [Continua] Articolo originale Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore (1949, San Francisco), al secolo John David Dinsmore, è un monaco che […]


  6. Baoqing Ye Says:

    Hi Bhante,

    Here’s another thing that seems to corroborate that the Buddha’s samadhi was not simply “one-pointed”.
    It’s in how the relevant terms are rendered in the Chinese agamas:

    Samatha -> 止 “cease”
    Samadhi -> 定 “settle” (this word has many nuances depending on what other word it’s paired with, but on it’s own, it seems to connote the opposite of “drifting about”)
    Ekagata -> 心一境性 “one realm/condition -ness of heart”

    So there is no allusion to completely focusing on one object.
    Rather, concentration as understood by the ancient monks who translated the agamas into Chinese,
    Is a state of mind in which mental disturbances cease, the mind becomes especially settled, and it operates in one realm/condition (as opposed to going all over the place).


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