Buddha’s Samadhi: The Shape of the Flame
First Quarter Moon January 1, 2012 index to series
In summary of last week, Buddha’s samadhi is at its core concentration, but it is not one-pointed concentration; it is broad. Its breadth is clear in the various descriptions of what factors give rise to Right Samadhi, most particularly Right Mindfulness, and of what factors are alive within Right Samadhi itself. It is also clear from the core function of Right Samadhi in the attainment of knowledge of vision of things as they really are, which would not come to fruition in one-pointed concentration.
Conditions for Right Samadhi. Last week I listeda variety of factors that the Buddha described as conditions for samadhi, by way of demonstrating that one-pointedness, which would be almost sufficient in itself, is not needed. Let’s look at these factors in a bit more detail, mostly because they are really interesting.
Systemically I see two functions for the broad conditioning of Right Samadhi: First, to weave wisdom and virtue into our meditation, and second, to displace one-pointedness. Both serve the larger functions of samadhi in promoting knowledge and view, and in ending the taints. To accomplish the first the entire Eightfold Noble Path prior to Right Samadhi is regarded as prerequisites for Right Samadhi, as stated in DN 18, MN 117, SN 45.28, etc. The mind thus prepared as it enters samadhi already inclines toward wisdom and virtue, toward viewing reality in terms of impermanence, suffering and non-self, toward renunciation, kindness and harmlessness, toward purification of the mind of unwholesome factors and toward wise consideration and mindfulness.
Mindfulness is most generally regarded as the most immediate condition for samadhi.
For one of right mindfulness, right samadhi springs up. – S.V.25-6
It is indeed to be expected … that a noble disciple who has faith, whose energy is aroused, and whose mindfulness is established will gain samadhi … – S.V. 225.23-28.
Seclusion, dispassion, renunciation, wise reflection, and of course good wholesome friends, are often mentioned. Right Effort is an especially critical factor, and in fact it is only with the stilling of the hindrances that samadhi arises.
As he abides thus diligent, ardent and resolute, his memories and intentions based on the household life are abandoned; with their abandoning his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness and concentrated. That is how a monk develops mindfulness of the body.– Kayagatasati Sutta MN 119
Now, the Buddha describes mindfulness in terms of attending to alternative themes. Some of these themes may arouse samadhi more readily than others; this can be determined through personal experience, and I venture to guess there will be considerable variation in personal experience. However, probably no theme is incapable of arousing samadhi. For instance,
… a monk guards a favorable basis of samadhi which has arisen: the perception of a worm-infested corpse, the perception of a livid corpse. – A II 17.1-6
Notice that perception of a livid corpse is unlikely to be a one-pointed contemplation, another indicator that one-pointedness is not a necessary condition for samadhi.
Elsewhere the transition from mindfulness to samadhi is viewed with finer resolution. The well known seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhangas) actually take us through a causal sequence from mindfulness to samadhi and beyond:
- mindfulness (sati)
- investigation of states (dhammavicaya)
- energy (viriya)
- delight (piti)
- calm (passadhi)
- concentration (samadhi)
- equanimity (upekkha)
Actually these various factors snowball and are all present in samadhi, equanimity coming to the fore in the higher jhanas as delight recedes. Delight is again particularly noteworthy in this sequence.
Constituents of Samadhi. Last week we considered concentration (ekaggata) as the essence of samadhi. In fact a variety of factors are present to varying degrees and sometimes absent. These need to be tuned in tending the fire of Right Samadhi, basically along two dimensions: jhana level and samatha-vipassana. Jhana in simple terms is the depth of concentration; the mind becomes stiller and more subtle and refined as one moves from first to second to third and finally to fourth jhana. The following are often listed as the factors of jhana used to describe this progression:
discoursive thought (vitakka-vicara)
This progresses from gross factors to more refined factors. It may be surprising to find discoursive thought in this list, since we think of that as the opposite of meditation, but there it is. In fact it is the grossest factor that can be present in samadhi, but is only present in the first jhana. Discoursive thought is actually two factors, applied thought (vitakka) and sustained thought (vicara), having a thought and running with a thought. This is identified as discursive in this passage:
Applied and sustained thought are the verbal formation, one breaks into speech. -MN 44
Also, the second jhana and beyond, in which discursive thought no longer arises, is often referred to as Noble Silence.
Every meditator, I assume, is aware of the persistence discursive thought in meditation, but will notice that once the hindrances are removed, such as restlessness, it is a much more refined kind of discursive thought than our normal babbling. In fact it often represents some of the most creative and insightful forms of discursive thinking you will ever do, and commonly turns to the Dharma. It also plays a role in reviewing what we are doing on the cushion, adjusting our postures, clarifying our intentions for the sitting period, and of course following the contemplations of mindfulness. The Buddha could well have said that this is not yet samadhi and started counting the three jhanas after discursive thought has disappeared, yet he did not. This would seem to indicate that he thought of this factor as valuable and worth sitting with in itself.
Be that as it may, progressing through the jhanas is simply a matter of progressively losing the currently most disturbing factor at each stage. Losing discursive thought puts you in the second jhana, where the elation of delight becomes the dominant factor. Now delight is a crucial factor in developing the stillness of concentration in the first place. However at this subtle stage is becomes an impediment to yet deeper samadhi; it is the most disturbing of the remaining jhana factors.
Losing delight puts you in the third jhana, where the lift of happiness is the most disturbing factor. Losing happiness puts you in the fourth and highest jhana, in which singleness of mind remains. As jhana factors are lost is progressively higher jhanas they are replaced with inner composure, keener mindfulness and pure equanimity. Delight and happiness might not seem so disturbing prior to jhana, but when the mind becomes very subtle and refined these can be like acid rock or “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” blaring from a neighbor’s house.
One way I generally think of depth of samadhi — maybe this will help — is as different parts of the mind progressively shutting or slowing down. The more active parts have to do with formations, that is, intentions and complex thoughts. Then feelings and perceptions might begin to stop. However, you discover that the mind has many very subtle layers of intentionality, of thinking, of feeling, so it is very difficult to pin down what happens at what point. But that’s OK: you don’t need to. The Buddha’s description of the jhanas is actually a very brief and coarse outline; the Buddha certainly understood he did not have to devote a whole a basket of leaves to describing the ineffable realm we will each explore for ourselves in our own meditative experience.
Now, it is important to recognize that at least something we might call “thought” is present in all of the jhanas. For instance, MN 136 admonishes us to continue satipatthana practice in the second, third and fourth jhanas, but “without thought and examination.” So this must involve a non-discursive form of reflection, and intentionality, extending all the way to the deepest jhana. Also relevant here are the practices of suffusing the body with delight, happiness and equanimity discussed in previous weeks. In MN 111 the Buddha takes Sariputta as a model and says of him,
Whatever qualities there are in the first jhāna … he ferrets them out one by one. Known to him they remain, known to him they subside…
He then makes exactly the same statement but with regard to the “second jhana,” the “third jhana” and the “fourth jhana.” In AN 9.36 we have:
A monk in each jhana regards whatever phenomena connected with form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an afflection, alian, a disintegration, a void, non-self …
AN 8.63 describes the contemplation of each of the brahmaviharas in each of the jhānas. Why isn’t all of this discursive thinking? I would say, because it is clear of purpose and extremely concentrated. Yet the mind is moving, perhaps subtly.
A question often arises in discussions of samadhi whether at some point the senses shut down, in particular whether there is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and bodily sensation in the different jhanas. Many meditators report this, but if they are engaged in some kind of one-pointed meditation practice their experiences are not relevant to this discussion. It nonetheless seems to be an individual phenomenon that does occur, but it is not a state to be worthy of development: In the Indriyabhavana Suttathe Buddha explicitly belittles a practice like this taught by the brahmin Parasiri:
[Uttara:] “There is the case where one does not see forms with the eye, or hear sounds with the ear [in a trance of non-perception]. That’s how the brahman Parasiri teaches his followers the development of the faculties.”
[Buddha:] “That being the case, Uttara, then a blind person will have developed faculties, and a deaf person will have developed faculties, according to the words of the brahman Parasiri. For a blind person does not see forms with the eye, and a deaf person does not hear sounds with the ear.”– MN 152
On the other hand there is a reference in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta to the Buddha sitting in samadhi and failing to hear a lightning strike that killed two farmers and four oxen. In another passage Mogallana while sitting in meditation hears elephants plunging into the river and crossing it while trumpeting, to which the Buddha remarked that his samadhi was not fully purified. Brockhurst speculates that these are in fact “foreign intrusions,” that is, a non-Buddhist practice attributed to the Buddha, since similar qualities are attributed to the meditation of the Buddha’s two teachers, whose meditation the Buddha clearly rejects. Āḷāra Kālāma, for instance, did not perceive 500 carts going by.
Another account of these cases is available: Hearing a lightning strike or elephants splashing and trumpeting is actually a complex event that involves mental processes at several levels. First, there is impingement on the ear and arising of a sound experience in consciousness. Then there is a process of perception as to the nature of this experience. Then there is an inference as to the external source of the experience. Then there is the arising of interest in, or distraction by, the external source. If any of these processes fails to complete the whole event of hearing as described will not be fulfilled. It is not necessary that the senses themselves have shut down.
Next week we will discuss samatha and vipassana, two remaining and very critical features of Buddha’s samadhi.