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Even by the ardent standards of his day, the austerities and asceticism the soon-to-be Buddha had undertaken in the course of his spiritual quest were extreme, leaving him emaciated and weak, but no closer to his goal. After six years of seeking higher truth, he had been unable to achieve “any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones.” Now he remembered a time as a child, resting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, when he spontaneously entered the first jhāna—a deep, meditative state characterized by powerful concentration, profound calm, and bliss while watching his father lead a plowing ceremony. Realizing this was where the path to enlightenment lay, not in self-mortification, he took some food to regain strength and turned his attention in a new direction.
And so, on the night of his great awakening, the Bodhisattva entered he first jhāna, the second jhāna, the third, and the fourth. And when his mind was thus “purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection,
malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability,” he directed it to the recollection of past lives, to the knowledge of beings living, dying, and being reborn in all sorts of circumstances,
and finally, to the knowledge of the destruction of the taints. “When I
knew and saw thus, my mind was liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated, there came the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ I
directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’”
What is the nature of this jhāna the Buddha effortlessly stumbled upon in his youth and that became the basis for his great awakening and final enlightenment? Intensive concentration practices were well known and practiced by a number of renowned teachers of his day. The Buddha had practiced and excelled in several such meditations, declaring in each case that it did not lead to liberation. What was it about this jhāna that, rather than being a dead end leading merely to pleasant states of consciousness, became the pathway to enlightenment?
From soon after the Buddha passed into final Nibbāna, and continuing to this day, disagreements and disputes have arisen about the nature of jhāna and its proper place in the path to liberation. The more we listen, read, study, and practice,
the less we may feel we understand what the “real,” “correct” teaching is on the role and place of samādhi in Buddhist meditation and on the nature of jhāna. Everyone wants to follow the true path and to practice the authentic teachings. But what are they? Unraveling the mix of views and opinions about what exactly samādhi is and its proper place in meditation practice can be difficult.
Upon embarking on meditation in any of its forms, one regularly encounters a wide range of practices and teachings on samādhi. Typically translated as
“concentration,” samādhi is the quality of a mind that is calm and settled without distraction. There are so many teachers, each of whom seems to embody a depth of realization, teaching a range of often contradictory practices. Conflicting views exist regarding how much samādhi is necessary in meditation practice, and whether the meditator should emphasize concentration or insight practices. Virtually all
Buddhist meditation teachers stress the need for some degree of mindfulness and concentration that are developed together to cultivate insight. However, there is a diverse assortment of teachings and opinions regarding how to meditate so as to develop these qualities in the ideal way.
Initially, we may begin by practicing a technique or in a style we were taught without understanding the essential place of concentration in meditation practice or the various methods for its cultivation. Some teachers maintain that jhāna might be of interest in some cases, but is not of particular importance or interest for insight meditation, teaching that concentration develops simply through moment-by-moment attention to whatever experiences arise. Through mindfulness you develop all the concentration you need.
Others stress that deep samādhi is indispensable and, regardless of the technique or style of meditation you are engaged in, it is important to give attention to purposefully developing concentration. Among those advocating jhāna, there is no consensus on what the jhānas are or how to go about attaining them. Because there is no general agreement among teachers, students may become confused about the degree or type of samādhi they should cultivate, and how to incorporate concentration into their meditation practice. As our meditation practice matures, an understanding of the range of teachings and approaches to samādhi becomes increasingly important.
Rather than become disheartened or discouraged, we can appreciate the diversity of approaches and wide assortment of skillful means available to us. The
Buddha himself recognized that individuals have widely varying natural abilities and tendencies, and that practice unfolds in different ways among individuals. Recognizing that there is no single right or best technique among these various approaches, our task, then, is to find a style of meditation practice best suited to our individual temperament and needs. To do so, it is necessary to familiarize ourselves with the range of practices and teachings regarding samādhi.
We should investigate any teacher, path, or practice critically in order to make our best judgment as to what is wise and skillful, and then put those teachings into practice. Their value and truth are verified through our own direct experience and our ability and willingness to look clearly and honestly at the results of our practice. Dharma practice is not a matter of finding the one “true and correct” interpretation of the doctrine and practice that is out there waiting for us to discover, if only we could find it, but instead, it’s the ability to examine ourselves honestly, recognizing our strengths and limitations so that we may apply our efforts in the most fruitful directions.
Buddha taught contextually. In any given situation, for any particular person, how the Buddha dealt with that situation, how he would teach and what he would say depended on the circumstances. Sometimes the
Buddha would answer a question directly. Sometimes he answered a question with a question, or he might refuse to answer at all. At times he would tell people specifically what to do; other times he would simply tell them to do as they saw fit. The Buddha taught in an assortment of ways and offered many different practices. How he taught depended on the circumstances and what would be most effective to move people from ignorance and suffering to freedom and liberation.
Samādhi is an important aspect of meditation practice in any of its variations. The concepts of letting go and nonclinging are simple. Our conditioning and habit of mind are strong, though, and it is so easy for us to get caught over and over again in our daily lives. We need to acknowledge this and know it is the nature of being human. Understanding conditioning is the necessary first step, but it is not enough. We must find a way to recondition our minds, and ultimately free ourselves from conditioning altogether. It is through the power of a sustained,
concentrated attention that the fruits of meditation practice are realized, so samādhi plays an indispensable role in mental training.
Samādhi gives us strength of stability and continuity so that the mind is really resting in the current of nonclinging. Samādhi is associated with an assortment of insight and concentration practices, as well as combinations of both, so it is important to understand the range of teachings, the potential and limitations of the various practices, and our own aims and intentions for meditation.
Attaining samādhi, or any other meditative state, is not the ultimate goal of
Buddhist meditation, and we should not make samādhi more important than it is. But we should not diminish its importance either. The habitual tendencies of grasping to pleasant experiences, getting rid of unpleasant ones, and the underlying root cause of ignorance are deeply conditioned in us. Samādhi is an important tool in gaining freedom from these tendencies because a certain degree of mental calm and steadiness is required in order to directly perceive these fundamental dharma truths and break free of the subtler tendencies toward clinging. The untrained mind is scattered and easily pulled moment by moment from one thought, sensation, or experience to another. A powerful, steady awareness is needed for strengthening the supportive conditions necessary for the mind to see more clearly into the subtler layers of ignorance. For most people, perseverance and patience are required to gradually strengthen the mind’s power of concentration.
The many styles of meditation in the Pāli tradition can roughly be divided into three categories: practices that emphasize tranquillity or calm,
those that emphasize insight, and those that develop both in concert.
Some of us may be drawn toward intensive concentration practice, later making a conscious shift to insight as a distinct form of meditation.
Others will emphasize the cultivation of insight from the beginning of our practice without devoting much effort specifically to concentration, allowing samādhi to naturally strengthen through the sustained, moment-by-moment application of attention toward all the changing experiences that arise and pass away during meditation practice. A third style of practice strengthens tranquillity and insight together.