Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 10

Summary of Buddha’s Meditation and Template for its Variants
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day , January 16, 2012                            index to series

In the last weeks we looked at what the Buddha taught and described in the Suttas concerning meditation. This week we will summarize the main points in a way that also give us a means to catalog the variants of Buddha’s meditation, the daunting plethora of meditation practices within the broad Buddhist tradition that will differ in one or more of these points.

Prerequisites of Buddha’s Medititation.

The Buddha placed meditation clearly within the greater context of practice and understanding. Accordingly it presupposes or benefits from certain developments.

Wisdom and Virtue. The wisdom factors and the virtue factors of the Noble Eightfold Path precede those of meditation, so that you will begun to befriend the Dhamma, have learned about suffering and the ending of suffering, about the contingent nature of reality, and have begun reflecting on these things on the basis of your own experience, also so that you will have resolved to develop kindness and non-harming and a willingness to let go of personal advantage, so that you will also have begun to cultivate virtue in your deeds and words and established a lifestyle inclined to nonharming. In this way before meditation the mind is already inclined toward wisdom and virtue, so that meditation can meld wisdom and virtue along with serenity into a very refined kind of mind that leads to final liberation.

Delight and pleasure. These are factors (piti and sukha) developed in the Buddha’s method as critical to the entry into meditation and count as jhana factors. What counts here is spiritual joy, the explorer’s delight in possibilities and pleasure in experience. I mention them here because these may also be cultivated by other means to the benefit of meditation practice. Faith, or refuge in the Triple Gem, for instance, give these a boost.

Everyday Mindfulness. This is the mindfulness you carry with you through your daily tasks, not just on the cushion and with the intention of entering samadhi. This is covered in the Buddha’s method, rather seamlessly, but again I mention it here because this kind of mindfulness may also be cultivated by other means. Much of our daily mindfulness, for instance, is determined by the culture we live in; Western culture is often weak in this respect where multitasking and push-button “convenience” are pervasive. How we care for and order our surroundings, how well our mind stays with the doorknob as we open a door in front of us then close it behind us, are indicators of everyday mindfulness.

Effort but not striving. I did not include this in my description of the last few weeks, but it occurs to me that it can be an important factor in distinguishing certain variants from Buddha’s meditation. The most thrilling way to build a tall building is to build the top story first. It will indeed give an immediate sense of accomplishment, but is not very practical. Yet we are often tempted to do this in our meditation. Americans who begin a Tibetan practice, for instance, often want to jump right into the esoteric tantric practices before they’ve even gotten a chance to warm their cushions. This was not the Buddha’s way.

First, the Buddha advocated a gradual path.

Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch, in the same way this Doctrine and Discipline (dhamma-vinaya) has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual progression, with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch. – Ud 5.5

Furthermore, the Buddha emphasized in manny contexts that in establishing an appropriate foundation the next story seems to build itself. For instance, he famously stated that kalyanamitta, good spiritual friendship, is the entire path. This does not mean there is no goal or effort necessary once you meet the right inspiration, but that you will be inspired to set that goal and exert that effort; success on the path will follow (almost) inevitably in this way.

Just as, monks, when rain descends heavily upon some mountaintop, the water flows down along with the slope, and fills the clefts, gullies, and creeks; these being filled fill up the pools; these being filled fill up the ponds; these being filled fill up the streams; these being filled fill up the rivers; and the rivers being filled fill up the great ocean — in the same way, monks, … [I’ve omitted the first half of the sequence; the second relates to practice] suffering is the supporting condition for faith, faith is the supporting condition for joy, joy is the supporting condition for rapture, rapture is the supporting condition for tranquility, tranquility is the supporting condition for happiness, happiness is the supporting condition for concentration, concentration is the supporting condition for the knowledge and vision of things as they really are, the knowledge and vision of things as they really are is the supporting condition for disenchantment, disenchantment is the supporting condition for dispassion, dispassion is the supporting condition for emancipation, and emancipation is the supporting condition for the knowledge of the destruction (of the cankers). – Upanisa Sutta, SN 12.23

Methods of Buddha’s Meditation.

Removal of the hindrances. Lust, Ill-will. Sloth and torpor, Restlessness and remorse, and doubt are kept at bey.

Undistracted reflection on theme conducive to insight. This is never fixing the mind on one thing, but narrows the range of thought enough to induce samadhi.

The themes the buddha recommends tend to be centered in awareness of the body, but also include feeling, mind and dhammas. They are variously conducive to insight of:

Impermanence. These include the themes of breath, deportment, decaying corpses, feeling, consiousness, dhammas.

Suffering. For instance, feeling, five Hindrances, aggregates, the Four Noble Truths.

Insubstantiality. Including composition of the body, elements, decaying corpses, the aggregates, the sense-bases

Unattractiveness. For instance, decaying corpses, composition of the body, elements.

Mental factors. Focus on feeling, mind and dhammas also includes the wholesome and unwholesome, the factors of meditation itself, including concentration, mindfulness, investigation, discursiveness, and so on, as well as the arising of distractions.

Encouragement of active factors. These include spiritual delight, ardency and clear comprehension. These encourage investigation and discourage sluggishness and bedazement.

Adjusting and Balancing. These techniques provide way to respond to intruding distrations, to balance active factors like vipassana or investigation with still factors like samatha or serenity, to let go of factors or move into more intensive states of samadhi, and so on.

The Experience of Buddha’s Meditation.

Samadhi is the primary experience of meditation. I only consider two distinguishing aspects here:

Concentration is centered, not fixed. In fixed concentration the mind attaches unmovingly to a single meditation object into which the mind is absorbed. In centered concentration the mind itself seems to be unmoving, but experience comes and goes. Ther mind is pliant, open to everything that arises remains a while and falls, but what arises does not move the mind off center..

Investigation continues in samadhi. Mindfulness practice and investigation assume a subtler level in a stiller, more refined mind. Vipassana, seeing things as they really are, occurs in samadhi. This level of investigation is permitted because concentration is centered, not fixed.

Template for Considering Variants of Buddha’s Meditation.

What I hope to do in the coming weeks is to consider some variants of Buddha’s meditation in turn to see where they might differ from Buddha’s meditation and where they differ in what way they might actually be doing something equivalent by other means. Accordingly I propose the following template of points of possible variation. I am hoping this will provide a useful tool for asking critical questions about each of these variants (I don’t know yet, because I am doing this on the fly, but let’s see).

Prerequisites of a Variant of Buddha’s Medititation.

Wisdom and Virtue. How are these practiced?

Delight and pleasure. How might these be encouraged independently of mindfulness itself?

Everyday Mindfulness. Is there an independent basis for this?

Effort but not striving. Is this observed?

Methods of a Variant of Buddha’s Meditation.

Removal of the hindrances. What are the recommendations for this?

Undistracted reflection on themes conducive to insight. What are the opportunities for investigating impermanence, suffering, insubstantiality, unattractiveness and mental factors?

Encouragement of active factors. Are investigation and delight encouraged and how?

Adjusting and Balancing. What balances and movements are implemented during meditation?

The Experience of a Variant of Buddha’s Meditation.

Concentration is centered, not fixed. Is this the case always, sometimes or never?

Investigation continues in samadhi. How does investigation with a still mind occur?

Next week I will begin trying to discuss Zen meditation in these terms.

9 Responses to “Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 10”

  1. Michael Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    In relation to the Buddha’s Meditation I would phrase the sequence slightly different from what you did:

    Undistracted sati, atapi and sampajañña to a theme conducive to the removal of the hindrances and arousal of contentment.
    Encouragement of the factors: sati, atapi, sampajañña.
    Adjusting and balancing to intruding distractions
    Removal of the hindrances which is the gateway to samadhi.

    Upon reading again your description of centered concentration it seems to me that what you are describing is in fact a mind with a subtle level of restlessness still present. In my dictionary restlessness is the opposite of being still. Stillness is unmoving, staying with the object, undistracted. In centered concentration the mind doesn’t seem to leave the main object of contemplation but at the same time it notices that there is something else present (a sound, a thought, a feeling) in the background as it where, which subsequently disappears without apparently moving the mind away from the main object. But in reality the mind is moving, although quite swiftly, between the main object and the distraction. I would agree that this is a state where a good degree of investigation can take place with some very positive insights that will help many people. In fact I see it akin to momentary concentration which is used in vipassana or dry insight practice. But in my view that level of samadhi is still not enough to produce the transformative insights taught by the Buddha, and therefore I cannot agree with your statement that centered concentration is the Buddha’s Meditation Method.

    Thank You

    • bhikkhucintita Says:


      If I am missing something, I hope you can explain it so that I get it. I think you are saying that mindfulness serves only to remove hindrances, which produces (through intervening steps) samadhi? I agree that removing the hindrances produces samadhi and have no problem with the intervening steps, but what is missing for me is bringing wisdom into samdhi. In the method you are describing, where or when does investigation take place? Is it within samadhi or without?

      Centered concentration can be perfectly still; there is no sense of restlessness once it has settled in. It is also not momentary (“momentary concentration,” is not the Buddha’s term, but one predicated on the fixed concentration advocated in the much later Visuddhimagga, so it does not make much sense for me here); The mind can stay perfectly stable (unmoving) indefinitely in centered concentration. Of course when we talk about the mind moving or staying with an object, we are employing clunky spatial metaphors to describe very subtle ineffable experiences. There is no way around it, so it is very easy to miscommunicate. But in the experience of centered concentration there is no sense at all of the mind moving out to meet the sound, thought or feeling; the latter just arises. The mind is vast and does not need to move, it just encompasses. In fact the mind is not AT any point at all; it doesn’t really even HAVE to have a defined center.

      I have assumed, according to my experience, and backed by how I read that Buddha, that centered concentration is the natural result of a method that does not fix the mind on a single object, yet is able to induce the stillness of samadhi. What intrigues me about your method is that you report it does not involve fixing on an object (what I have stopped calling “one-pointed mindfulness”), yet you report it produces in your experience a fixed (was: one-pointed) samadhi. Is this right? I’m not clear how that happens.

      • Michael Says:

        Dear Bhante,

        You probably came across situations where people are so taken by something that is happening in front of them, like some sports event, or a movie, that they become completely oblivious to anything else that is happening around them, their mind does not go searching after other sounds, feelings, thoughts; but, you wrote those things “just arise” in centered concentration, well, this is the important difference because for someone in that situation no sounds, feelings, thoughts “just arise”, the only thing present is the experience they are involved in. I think that if there are other stimuli “just arising” in the sense doors that implies some degree of restlessness because the mind is not completely still and at peace with what it is experiencing, the mind is still “open” to whatever arises because there is no full contentment with what it is experiencing.

        There is a vast number of suttas which make it clear that consciousness does not arise without an object. So, although you argue that in centered concentration “there might not be a center as such, or that the mind is not at any point at all, that the mind does not fix on any single object,” in all of those situations there has to be an object, otherwise there is no consciousness. The object can be fixed or moving. I don’t think the right process is to fix the object (that is what you initially described as one-pointed mindfulness, and my reading is also that this is not the right approach). In relation to moving objects, and in fact even the breath at least during the initial stages of meditation is a moving object – sensations of the breath are changing in terms of exact location, “flavor”, and intensity. But over time, this variety is reduced, and in accordance with the sixth step of Anapanasati, the experience of the breath is calmed down which means that the breath complexity is reduced, which gives rise gradually to contentment and then joy and happiness of just being with this very pleasant experience of the breath. Because of that, the mind will gradually loose interest in any other sense stimuli and as a consequence those stimuli simply do not arise in the mind. The first ones to go are thoughts and body sensations. The more difficult one is hearing. That is how the mind ends up fully experiencing just the breath, completely satisfied with that experience. In turn, since the mind is completely satisfied, the hindrances are also gone because if there is complete contentment, there is no space for any hindrance to arise.

        Thank You

  2. Michael Says:

    …. In fact I would add that centered concentration is a variant on the Buddha’s main method

  3. bhikkhucintita Says:

    The approach you follow seems wonderfully organic. I’m sorry: I did not properly respond in this way when you described it the first time. Rather than locking onto a fixed object, it builds through contentment. It must be a very good way to observe “transcendent dependent origination” in action. And I agree, that things naturally fall away from consciousness if they fall outside the scope of interest. The foundations of the approach seem well supported in the suttas. It still surprises me a bit that this ends up in fixed concentration, though I trust that that is your experience. I still ask, though, what the value is of reaching a samadhi in which your senses are cut off? As profound as the state you might reach might be, it is not really supportive of vipassana.

    • Michael Says:

      Dear Bhante,

      I think the value of experiencing a samadhi in which the sensory experience is removed, in other words, where only mind is experienced, is the depth of experiential material given to the mind. It is an out of this world experience. I believe that it is only with this kind of experience that the deeply ingrained and deluded notion of a self can be removed from the mind. Maybe in terms of personal impact similar to a near death experience. I read recently that the vinaya states that jhanas as well as the supramundane paths and fruits are considered uttari-manussa-dhamma = beyond the capacity of ordinary men. In other words the jhanas are regarded at the same level as the supramundane realizations. There is another sutta, which unfortunately I cannot recall, where the Buddha says the jhanas are the closest experience possible to nibbana. I believe it is this kind of samadhi that is really profound and has a deep transformation power.

      But I don’t see the development of samadhi completely cut off from vipassana. One teacher once said that samadhi and vipassana are the two sides of the same hand. Practicing one automatically develops the other as well.

      Thank you

      • bhikkhucintita Says:


        I hope you don’t mind if I change hats here a moment. I have not intended to teach meditation in this series, but to explore the comparative logic of meditation systems. In fact you sound articulate enough to be a meditation teacher yourself; if so let this be one meditation teacher offering a pointer to another.

        I think you have taken a wrong turn in your approach. I thought you were going to tell me you leave samadhi in order to practice vipassana, which has its own problems. But now I see no basis for vipassana at all. Yes, the Buddha did say that samadhi is like Nibbana (I don’t remember where either), and yes samadhi leads to vipassana. But he was talking about Right Samadhi.

        I am pretty sure that you are being sidetracked in the same way the Bodhisatta was sidetracked for six years in running after profound states of mind that will bear no fruit. If you would find the expansive mind of centered concentration at that point where you are now becoming narrowly focused, I think you will be happy with the result. From our discussion you don”t seem to be familiar with that state, but I hope you will look for it. It should not be hard to find. You seem to have a lot of good energy in your meditation, it just needs to flow in a slightly different direction so that it will give you a samadhi that has room for vipassana.

        Just yesterday I found a series of talks that might be helpful on this difference between fixed and centered concentration (http://www.audiodharma.org/teacher/135/) by Richard Shankman, who wrote a book about the difference between samadhi in the suttas and in the Visuddhimagga. This might be helpful. I was going to refer to this when I discuss the Visuddhimagga.

      • Michael Says:

        Dear Bhante,

        Thank you for the heads up about the expansive mind of centered concentration. In fact I think I already do that in most of my practice and I think I know what you have been describing. But as I have been trying to explain, I still think that the samadhi the Buddha reminded from his childhood experience is something different, much deeper with the complete silencing of all the senses and as I mentioned before it relies very much on energy and not effort. The path the Bodhisatta was following with his teachers and in the subsequent 6 years I think was based on effort and that is in my view the reason why it wasn’t working. His practice was based on “no pain no gain”. Reminding the experience as a child he finally realized that the correct path is non-doing or complete letting go, and that includes all the senses. But I think we can leave it at that. Thanks for the fruitful conversation. I have Richard’s book and will look into his talks. Thanks for that as well.

        With much mettaa

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