Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 9

Buddha’s Vipassana
Full Moon Uposatha, January 8, 2012
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Centered Samadhi. Last week I began discussing Buddha’s samadhi and today I would like to talk about serenity and insight (samatha and vipassana) as features of samadhi.

In the meantime, I hope you will read or have read the replies to last week’s post, in which Michael has introduced some interesting and helpful discussion. Michael also expresses some confusion with how I describe samadhi that is one-pointed as opposed to samadhi that is not one-pointed, and would like to backup here for a moment to address.

If you recall, I claim that the Buddha’s description of samadhi points to something that is not one-pointed. Now, most later variants of Buddha’s samadhi are either one-pointed or integrate one-pointedness one way or another into samadhi. Again, I don’t want to suggest thereby that the variants are “wrong;” Buddhism has shown an enormous capacity for adaptation and sometimes I daresay improvement. But this does mean that for most readers this will be an important distinction to consider. So let me repeat here how I responded in my reply to Michael, which seems to have been helpful. This will however not be the end of the issue, because we would like to examine how one-pointedness works in the variants. I am from now on using the term “centered” to contrast with “one-pointedness.”

One-pointed concentration can be described as absorption into the meditation object. The mind becomes narrowly focused so that taken to its logical conclusion the meditation object eventually becomes all of experience. Often that object itself will lose its dynamic nature, a pure unmoving mental image will stand for it.

In the experience of centered concentration the mind itself seems to be unmoving, but experience comes and goes. There is openness to everything that arises remains a while and falls, perhaps within the bounds of some theme, as in full-body awareness, but what arises does not move the mind off center. The mind is vast but unified in its function; it is vast in its awareness but unified in its undistractedness. “Free from desire and discontent,” is an accurate description of the centered mind; it is the mind that is not grasping after experience, just mindful of it.

Shankman’s book, Samadhi, is concerned with this very distinction within Theravada Buddhism. He cites evidence, as I have here, that the suttas intended centered concentration, but that the very influential but much later Visuddhimagga describes one-pointed samadhi.

It is important to recognize that centered samadhi is not a more distracted version of one-pointed samadhi. In practice distractions arise in each and and in each are ideally put aside. Purely centered samadhi without distraction is unified, in that the mind is exactly where it is supposed to be and reflects everything that arises appropriately. But more is going on. Although the experiences are quite distinct they are also related, and the practitioner attempting one type of samadhi may find herself spontaneously flipping into the other. Now on to samatha and vipassana.

Knowledge and Vision. Samadhi sits on a mat woven of wisdom and virtue and is itself the basis of the knowledge and vision of things as they really are and of the loss of all defilements. Here are some representative passages that attest to the function of samadhi, or jhana, in the Buddha’s system.

When right samadhi does not exist, for one failing right samadhi, the proximate cause is destroyed for knowledge and vision of things as they really are. – A.V.4.9-11.

Bhikkhus, develop samadhi. A monk with samadhi understands in accordance with reality. – SN 22.5

The knowledges are for one with samadhi, not for one without samadhi. – AN 6.64

A monk who develops and makes much of the four jhanas slopes, flows and inclines toward Nibbana.

There is no jhana for one with no wisdom, no wisdom for one without jhana. But one with both jhana and discernment, he’s on the verge of nibbana. – Dhp 372

I say, bhikkhus, that the knowledge and vision of things as they really are too has a proximate cause; it does not lack a proximate cause. And what is the proximate cause for the knowledge and vision of things as they really are? It should be said: samadhi. – SN 12.23

The Samadhi Sutta (AN 4.41) states that samadhi leads to:

      1. Pleasant abiding here and now,
      2. Knowledge and vision,
      3. Mindfulness and alerness,
      4. Ending of effluents.

The development of psychic powers through samadhi, like reading minds and being able to jump up and touch the sun or moon, are also commonly attested to in the suttas.

Samatha-Vipassana. Two features arise in samadhi that are particularly relevant to its primary functions, serenity and insight, also often known by the Pali words samatha and vipassana. Beware that sometimes the word vipassana is used as roughly equivalent to Buddha’s mindfulness, and samatha is used for samadhi. This is not the Buddha’s usage. There is a close relationship between mindfulness and vipassana, but they are also quite distinct: Vipassana involves the subtle refined pure mind of samadhi. Vipassana is also not a common word in the suttas, but taken along with its synonyms — nyana, dassana, yatha-bhuta-nyana-dassana, the last meaning literally ‘insight into things as they are’ — turns out to be a critical element of the Path.

These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquility (samatha) and insight (vipassana). When tranquility is developed what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And where the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned. When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned. – AN 2.30

Samatha and vipassana almost always go hand in hand in the suttas. In one sutta they are referred to as “two swift messengers,” that in a rather complex simile travel together. They are often hyphenated. A number of suttas discuss the need to keep the two in balance, for instance AN 4.94, 4.157. Sujato has an great metaphor for the need to conjoin them: He writes that if the goal is to cut down a tree, applying vipassana without samatha is like trying to do this with a razor blade. Applying samatha without vipassana is like trying to do this with a hammer. Applying both together is like trying to do this with an axe.

How do they work together? A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the simile of the still mountain pond. Because of the stillness (samatha) you can see (vipassana) all the pebbles and fish in the pond. It is actually a bit more elaborate than that. The following couple of paragraphs are my own explanation, and is perhaps still an approximation, but it allows us to make systemic sense of the buddha’s statements on samadhi and vipassana in functional terms. The human mind is a wonderful thing: we can perceive and reason at many different levels. However, it is at the same time flawed: it creates reality at the same time it observes or interprets it. To see things as they really are we need the mind, but it will also always try to introduce a bias, trying to fit reality into its own categories, distorting through the passions. My series on non-self discussed the mind’s tendency to misperceive whenever it perceives.

Now, generally we do not see the faults of the mind any better than the eye can see itself. Most people in fact think they have plenty of insight into how things are, and think they are unique in this regard, that is, they are surprised at how badly that insight is lacking in others. Teenagers are noted for this. Most people claim an uncanny ability to judge the intentions of others, who is right and wrong, fair and unfair. They think they understand the nature of reality, what is true, what exists, and what don’t They even claim great insight about abstract domains like politics and economics. They are very sure of themselves. This is for the most part this is the deluded mind at work. They usually cannot see the limits of their own minds. It is usually only in seeing that life does not add up that people turn to Buddhism. Buddha’s meditation overcomes the deluded mind.

In samadhi many mental processes begin to shut down or slow down one by one. Discursive thought disappears, intentionality becomes subtle, perceptions are much more grounded and the senses may even shut off. Each time one of these stages happens, reality changes, at least our perspective on reality. As we see more directly, at the same time we lose some of our faculties, like the intellect, that otherwise help us make sense of what we see, albeit in this faulty way. All of this is instructive because we learn the way the mind biases our perception and understanding and we are thereby better able to appreciate things as they are, to see beyond those biases. At the same time we are learning the nature of reality, we are learning the nature of the mind. We need to do these together. This is vipassana. Now to sustain vipassana we have to be vigilant not to shut down the mind completely, nor to lose that active curiosity or sense of exploration. We also cannot get too excited about our explorations either, because we begin to become distracted and pop out of samadhi altogether. For these reasons we need to balance samatha and vipassana.

One of the interesting things about the Buddha’s discussion of the jhanas is how little he favors one jhana over another. One might expect him to strongly advocate the ability to attain the fourth and highest jhana, and to remain or return there as much as possible. Now, abiding in one jhana rather than another involves studying the mind’s biases at a different level; I suspect he intended for us to practice each of the jhanas and return to each. And again, it is significant that he also permits the discursive mind in the first jhana. In sum, we can attend the flames of samadhi in order to move along two dimensions: jhana and samatha-vipassana.

Notice that vipassana involves retaining a certain degree of mental functioning, with discernment and a degree of intentionality, through all the jhanas. Intentionality in this subtle and refined mind is often expressed as “inclining the mind.”

When his mind is thus concentrated in samadhi, is purified, bright, rid of blemishes, free of taints, soft, workable, steady and attained to imperturbability, he bends and inclines his mind toward knowledge and vision. He understands ‘this my body is material, made of four elements. … Just as if a man with good sight were to examine a beryl gem in his hand, saying ‘this beryl gem is beautiful, well made, clear and transparent, and through it is strung a blue, yellow, red, white or brown string.’ In just the same way he inclines his mind to knowledge and vision … to psychic powers … understands the Four Noble Truths.DN 2

Interestingly the states of jhana are figuratively referred to sometimes in the suttas as a kind of nirvana (e.g., AN 4:453-54). The Samadhanga Sutta(Factors of Samadhi Sutta, AN 5.28) describes the four jhanas as the first four of five factors of samadhi. It then describes the fifth factor as follows:

Just as if one person were to reflect on another, or a standing person were to reflect on a sitting person, or a sitting person were to reflect on a person lying down; even so, monks, the monk has his theme of reflection well in hand, well attended to, well-pondered, well-tuned by means of discernment. This is the fifth development of the five-factored noble right concentration.

When a monk has developed and pursued the five-factored noble right concentration in this way, then whichever of the six higher knowledges he turns his mind to know and realize, he can witness them for himself whenever there is an opening.

The idea seems to be that the mind has harnessed enormous power that is available with only slight effort. Today, in this electronic age, we would say that this power is “at your fingertips.” The Buddha offers three similes for wielding this power:

 Suppose that there were a water jar, set on a stand, brimful of water so that a crow could drink from it. If a strong man were to tip it in any way at all, would water spill out?

Suppose there were a rectangular water tank — set on level ground, bounded by dikes — brimful of water so that a crow could drink from it. If a strong man were to loosen the dikes anywhere at all, would water spill out?

Suppose there were a chariot on level ground at four crossroads, harnessed to thoroughbreds, waiting with whips lying ready, so that a skilled driver, a trainer of tamable horses, might mount and — taking the reins with his left hand and the whip with his right — drive out and back, to whatever place and by whichever road he liked; in the same way, when a monk has developed and pursued the five-factored noble right concentration in this way, then whichever of the six higher knowledges he turns his mind to know and realize, he can witness them for himself whenever there is an opening.

I speculate that the mind that has harnessed this kind of power led to the attribution of psychic power to it. Notice that mind like this is difficult to reconcile with one-pointed samadhi. For some practitioners of variant meditation practices it is assumed that samadhi is one-pointed, but that the yogi must leave samadhi for considerations of this kind. Aside from fact that leaving samadhi is never mentioned in this sutta or in any other as a prerequisite for vipassana, exercising vipassana with the clunky pre-samadhic mind is like trying to meld metal without fire or heat.

Samadhi as the Melder. Samadhi continues the two threads of virtue and wisdom that begin in pre-samadhic states. Wisdom begins with study and reflection of the Dhamma, for instance, the three qualities of existence (impermanence, suffering and unsubstantiality) and the Four Nobel Truths. It continues with Right Mindfulness, as the direct observation in the here and now of relevant themes are contemplated in a more disciplined, focused and present way. It then continues in samadhi in a highly refined state of mind that allows seeing beyond the biases of the mind itself, and this is vipassana. Similarly, virtue begins with behavior and continues with Right Effort, attending to the wholesome and unwholesome in the mind. The grosser unwholesome elements are largely excluded in the still mind of samadhi, yet intentions at a very refined level will arise and are subject to investigation also as vipassana. In this way samadhi is the foundation of ultimate liberation. (How exactly you get to final liberation is ineffable; just as you can develop the knowledge, exposure and other conditions that might enable you to appreciate a work of art or a piece of music, whether you “get it” in the end is up to you.)

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

  1. Michael Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    I would like to raise another issue. It is about energy and effort. I know that you have talked about right effort before, but my question is about the relationship between energy and effort, specially regarding the practice of meditation. Out of the 7 lists which constitute the 37 bodhi-pakkhiya-dhamma, energy is mentioned in 4 of them, while effort is mentioned in 2 of them. In none of the lists are effort and energy mentioned together. Quite often meditation teachers regard energy as the same as effort. But if that is the case why would the Buddha state them separately? Do you also regard energy as the same as effort?

    Thank you


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Michael, You might know Pali better than I. There seem to be three words used as “Effort”: vayana, padhana and viriya. Viriya is the most commonly translated as”energy, but the others seem to have that meaning as well. As you say, they are often treated as synonymous. I imagine there is a subtle difference in meaning.

      What I notice, though, is that viriya never seems to be used with “Right.” “Right Effort” is either “Sammappadhana” or “Sammavayama.” Now a lot of energy is not Right Effort, for instance, there can be a lot of energy in anger. In fact each mental factor has a certain amount of energy, whether it is wholesome or not. Right Effort seems not concerned so much with increasing one’s energy level, but with imposing “Right” on it, reducing the energy behind unwholesome mental factors and increasing that behind wholesome. That’s how I’ve sorted this question out in my mind.


      • Michael Says:

        Dear Bhante,

        I think there is not much dispute in interpreting vayama and padhana as effort and viriya as energy. While vayama and padhana can be clearly understood from the descriptions in the suttas, I think that is not so clear in relation to viriya. Although there are some suttas (SN 48.10) that describe energy in the same terms as effort I think there is something more to it. And I don’t think it is a subtle difference but something quite relevant in relation to the progress in meditation. I see effort playing a crucial role in the early stages of the practice while energy is the key mental quality which will propel the mind into deeper states. I think they are qualitatively very different, in fact I see them as opposites. Effort is a function of the will while energy is a function of letting go. Unfortunately there are no sutta references that I have found which can confirm this. In my view the 7 factors of enlightenment are a brief description of the causal chain for the development of deeper meditation states and liberation. In this formula, investigation of dhammas is closely related to right effort (SN46.2), and energy is the conditioning factor for the arising of piti. Following the formula of the 7 factors of enlightenment, in investigation of dhammas there is volition present, and when the mind is cleansed of unwholesome states (hindrances), volition is replaced by letting go, and based on that, energy is aroused and in the sequence, with that energy, the mind gets into samadhi. The greater the energy which is generated, deeper will be samadhi. Like charging a battery, with full charge it lasts longer and goes farther.

        Thank You


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