- Buddhist Meditation
- Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr
The Pali word for meditation practice is bhavana, which
literally means 'development,' 'cultivation,' or 'culture.' Since this practice has to do
directly with the mind, the word bhavana therefore refers specifically to a
process of mental culture or mental development. In this respect the English word
'meditation' is a rather poor and inadequate equivalent of the word bhavana. In
employing the term 'meditation' in the Buddhist context, we should be aware of the
character and objective of Buddhist practice.
Buddhist meditation is a means to mental development. It deals particularly with the
training of the mind, which is the most important composite of the entire human entity.
Because mind is the forerunner and prime source of all actions, physical, verbal, or
mental, it needs to be properly cultivated and developed. Buddhist meditation is mental
development in the real sense of the term bhavana, for it aims not only at
temporary calm and tranquillity of mind, but at purifying the mind of defilements and
negative influences, such as sensual desire, lust, hatred, jealousy, envy, worry,
ignorance, restlessness, and indolence. It cultivates and brings to perfection such
wholesome and positive qualities of mind as confidence, compassion, wisdom, energy,
mindfulness, concentration, and penetrative insight. Meditation is also a practice through
which the Dhamma can be realized and the transcendent bliss of Nibbana
experienced. It is a useful discipline on all levels of experience, from the ordinary
worldly concerns of day-to-day activities up to the highest realization and transcendent
Meditation is essentially an experiential activity, not a scholastic subject to be
understood through books or secondhand information. It is not an escape from life or
evasion from responsibility. Even if the formal meditation practice may appear to the
uninformed to be disconnected from real life, its inherent purpose deeply concerns our
day-to-day existence and experience. Meditation means mindfulness and wisdom in what we
do, speak, and think; it means greater awareness and higher ability in self-control. It is
not, therefore, an irrelevant other-worldly practice meant only for monks and ascetics,
but is one of the most valuable practical skills there are for enhancing fulfillment in
Types of meditation
Buddhism teaches various methods of meditation practice, but all may be grouped
under the two main categories of samatha and vipassana. The former
refers to concentration (samadhi) and is a mode of training designed for the
specific purpose of cultivating one-pointedness of mind (cittekaggata); the
latter refers to insight, the penetrative mental faculty which perceives and understands
realities the way they really are.
Concentration meditation is designed to produce peace and tranquillity of mind (cittaviveka)
and stronger powers of will, which can be utilized for practical purposes in daily life.
Through constant effort and perseverance the meditator may also be able to attain the
higher mystic states called absorption (jhana). There are eight stages
of meditative absorption; the first four are the absorptions of form (rupajhana),
and the remaining ones are formless absorptions (arupajhana), the highest of
which is known as the Sphere of Neither-Perception-Nor-Non-Perception (nevasa˝˝a-nasa˝˝a-yatana).
However, all these mystic states are created and conditioned by the mind. They are
impermanent and still within the sphere of mundane realities.
Concentration meditation was known prior to the establishment of Buddhism, but it was
refined and standardized in the Buddhist system of practice. Nevertheless, in itself it
does not lead to the extinction of dukkha and the realization of Nibbana,
although it may be useful to a certain extent in mental development. Before enlightenment,
the Buddha himself practiced concentration under some highly accomplished teachers of the
day, attaining to the very final stage of absorption, the Sphere of
Neither-Perception-Nor-Non-Perception, but he soon discovered that it was unsatisfactory
and inadequate as a means for achieving the highest spiritual realization. Concentration
can be instrumental for a happy life in this existence (ditthadhamma-sukhavihara),
but it is insight meditation that really enables one to purify the mind and realize Nibbana.
Insight meditation is essentially a Buddhist contribution to the spiritual wealth of
the world. This is a method of analysis in which the emphasis is placed on the development
of mindfulness and knowledge of reality. By applying constant awareness to the present
reality of existence, the meditator becomes perfectly identified with his own being and
experience. He comes to perceive the realities of impermanence, change,
unsatisfactoriness, and non-substantiality in all existential phenomena, and intuitively
realizes the true nature of his own inner experiences. All things are characterized by
emptiness; in the ultimate analysis there is nothing that should be attached to as 'me' or
'mine.' The meditator sees for himself the wholesome and unwholesome thoughts rising and
falling in his mind, the defilements, the virtuous qualities, the good, the evil, the
noble, and the ignoble -- all are 'seen' and recognized in their true nature. Once the
realities are directly intuited and experienced, they can be subjected to further analysis
and investigation. Self-knowledge and deeper understanding of realities are obtained
through consistent effort and perseverance in the practice of this kind of meditation.
Popularity of Buddhist meditation in the West
Prof. Donald K. Swearer, a long-time student of Buddhism, observes: "Buddhist
meditation is attractive for many reasons, to be sure. For some it offers a retreat from
the chaos and complexity of today's world. For others it may serve as a means of
introspective self-understanding; and for still others it is the means for attempting
seriously to grasp the truth of Buddhism." This statement clearly epitomizes how
Buddhist meditation can serve a utilitarian objective for people living in the West and
how it may hold immense potential for fulfilling their socio-psychological needs.
Westerners are, as a rule, practical and goal-oriented people; they are not satisfied with
mere theory, but are more interested in experiencing the results of a given principle.
Meditation is a discipline that satisfactorily answers to this type of mentality.
The stressful life-style in Western society may be the strongest reason why people are
initially attracted to Buddhist meditation. Excessive materialism, the 'rat race,' and the
seeking for all the so-called good things in life have combined to produce a society which
is full of stress and tension. The need to compete in order to get to the top is
relentlessly driving people forward with no time to pause or slow down. The wastefulness
of consumerism represents a serious threat to the world's natural resources and
environmental stability; unethical commercialism has produced distrust among manufacturers
and consumers. Society seems to be more chaotic than we are officially prepared to admit.
In such a context, some people are more inclined to find solace and peace in the dynamic
quietude of Buddhist meditation. Through the practice they discover that the most
practical way to solve man's problems -- personal, social, or global -- is to begin with
their own minds and attitudes. Buddhist meditation offers a variety of techniques for
developing mental clarity and an undistorted view of life, and these are fundamental to
the real solution of the problems.
In many cases, Western interest in Buddhist meditation is not solely motivated by
problems such as stress or tension, but stems from a genuine conviction in the Dhamma and
a curiosity about its practices. This group of practitioners consist mainly of
intellectuals and students of Buddhism, who find in the religion something that answers
their questions and needs. But no matter what the motivation, earnest meditators always
stand to benefit from the practice, and that is one of the most attractive features of
Practical purpose of Buddhist meditation
Doubts about this topic betray a typical misunderstanding concerning Buddhist
meditation, prevalent not only among non-Buddhists but also among certain sectors of
Buddhists as well. Some people believe that meditation serves no practical purpose and is
an escape from the reality of everyday life. Those who embrace this wrong view fail to
distinguish between an active training attuned to a state of perfect mental health,
tranquillity, and equilibrium, which is Buddhist meditation, and a passive engagement in
nothing but mystic musings or recitation of mantras, which has nothing to do with Buddhist
meditation. They also fail to understand that sitting with closed eyes or repeating
unintelligible phrases does not in itself constitute Buddhist meditation. Buddhist
meditation by no means implies an escape from life. Its practice is largely based on life
activities and its effects are meant to improve the quality of life. To develop a high
level of concentration a certain degree of seclusion or a carefully-structured environment
may be more favorable, but Buddhist meditation means much more than just concentration
practice. In fact, the Buddha pointed out that concentration for its own sake is an
obstacle to the higher realization of the Dhamma. Nevertheless, the image of a meditating
monk sitting cross-legged, still as a rock, and deeply absorbed in meditation, may have
created a general wrong impression that it is the only way to practice meditation.
Because meditation, as the original Pali term bhavana, is the development of
the mind, and because mind is the most important determinant by which our physical,
verbal, and mental actions are conditioned and controlled, the practice of meditation can
bring infinite gains and benefits. The ultimate spiritual benefit attainable through
meditation is perfect enlightenment and the realization of Nibbana. However, Nibbana
may appear to be too remote a goal for many meditators who simply aspire to more mundane
benefits. Listed below are some of the advantages that can be immediately experienced in
1. Meditation increases awareness of inner potentialities and helps us to be more
positive in life.
2. Meditation helps to fortify will power and increase self-confidence.
3. Meditation provides mental calm and tranquillity and frees the mind from
restlessness, agitation, fear, and worry.
4. Because meditation promotes mental health, it can positively influence physical
health. People who are free from worry and mental turmoil, whose minds are calm and
serene, usually enjoy comparatively good health.
5. By helping the mind to concentrate and become better organized, meditation can help
increase efficiency in day-to-day work and in the performance of duties and
6. Meditation promotes virtuous qualities like compassion, good will, confidence (saddha),
wisdom, energy, perseverance, determination, etc.
7. Meditation helps to purify the mind of defilements (kilesa) such as greed,
selfishness, hatred, and jealousy, and frees it from the preconceptions and delusions that
normally prevent proper insight into reality. A meditator is therefore capable of seeing
things the way they really are and can better deal with the life experience.
There are no limits to the benefits that can be derived from the practice of
meditation. These benefits can be applied to personal and interpersonal use depending on
circumstances and the ability of the meditators themselves. However, it should be added
here that the amount of benefit derived from meditation and the measure of success in the
practice may be related to such incidental factors as proper understanding of the subject,
consistency in the practice, self-confidence, and the degree of perseverance. An
experienced teacher can be a great support, especially in the initial stages of training.
Comparison of samatha and vipassana
Samatha means calm or concentration, and vipassana bhavana is
a mental training process in which mindfulness is the most important element. Although
concentration and mindfulness are two distinct mental faculties, having functions of their
own, they do depend on one another and should therefore be cultivated together in a
balanced manner. In fact, they may be compared to the two ends of the same stick. If you
pick up one, the other will come up. In this way the two are inseparable, although
functionally they may constitute two separate roles.
The relationship between concentration and mindfulness is somewhat delicate and
sensitive. By definition, concentration refers to the faculty of mind to focus on a single
object in a sustained and uninterrupted manner. In order to achieve the state of
one-pointedness, it is necessary for the attention to remain unremittingly focused on the
meditation object for a long period of time. This presupposes the use of force; the
meditator constantly applies his will power to retain mental focus on the object of
Mindfulness, on the other hand, requires no use of force or will to maintain a mental
focus other than the application of bare awareness to the object of experience. Constant
practice of mindfulness leads to refined sensibilities and the ability to recognize
realities according to their true nature. When developed together with concentration,
mindfulness performs the function of selecting an object for concentration and subtly
helping to maintain the focus on that particular object. It is a state of bare awareness
of the object of experience, involving no desire or aversion, no force of will or
If mindfulness is strong, it is likely that concentration will become more
strengthened, and vice versa. There is the classical analogy of sunlight through a
magnifying glass: When sunlight is focused through a magnifying glass, it becomes so
concentrated that fire may result. Left to itself, the sun may not be powerful enough to
produce that burning effect, although it certainly contains the potential to do so. The
lens is therefore instrumental in actualizing the sun's inherent potential. In the same
way, the human mind possesses powerful forces and vast potential, which can be harnessed
and actualized through the practice of concentration. When the mind is well concentrated,
mindfulness is more able to refine the inner sensibilities and to sharpen mental
faculties. This finally leads to the development of penetrative insight that enables
meditators to perceive all phenomena in their true and undistorted state and to purify
their minds of all defilements.
In terms of method and application, mindfulness is broader and more comprehensive than
concentration. Mindfulness is inclusive, while concentration is exclusive. Because it is
capable of taking all kinds of experiences and phenomena as objects of investigation,
mindfulness represents an all-encompassing function. The possibilities of its objects and
application are unlimited. Mindfulness is capable of taking in and dealing with everything
that comes within the field of sensory and mental experience, leaving nothing aside, while
concentration focuses on one single object that has been chosen for the purpose and
rejects all others. Basically, it is concentration that generates the mental power and the
necessary stillness of mind that mindfulness requires for a deeper penetration into the
more profound levels of human consciousness. If concentration is energy, mindfulness
provides direction and guidance to that energy. Concentration and mindfulness balanced in
proportion will result in greater understanding and insight, which are most vital in
Right concentration is a wholesome type of one-pointedness which supports wisdom and
strengthens other wholesome virtues. Thanks to the power of concentration, mental
contaminants such as sensual desire, ill-will, laziness, sloth and torpor, and
vacillation, are suppressed, giving an opportunity for wholesome spiritual qualities to
arise and grow. If concentration is weakening or the mind drifts from the meditation
object, mindfulness immediately takes note of that and assists concentration to regain its
footing. It is the function of concentration to stabilize the mind and hold the mental
focus steady onto the object of meditation. Mindfulness plays a supportive role and in
addition continues on from where concentration ends. In this way, concentration and
mindfulness mutually coordinate and depend on each other throughout the whole process of
mental culture which is meditation.
Is meditation selfish?
There are a number of points to be considered here. In the first place,
meditation cannot be said to be a selfish activity, or meditators self-centered
individuals, any more than one may accuse college students who attend college and
concentrate on their studies of being selfish in the face of social problems. Meditation
is basically a course of training, and one of the most natural outcomes of the practice is
the destruction, partly or wholly, of selfishness. Just as going to college equips one
with greater ability to be productive and to contribute to society, training in meditation
helps one to do good for others with greater sacrifice and dedication. However, while
being more educated does not necessarily imply a lesser degree of selfishness, greater
spiritual advancement attainable through meditation does. Higher education may even prove
to be more socially counterproductive, if excessive greed and selfishness predominate a
person's decisions and actions. Meditation, on the other hand, is free from such
drawbacks, since what is actually achieved in the course of training is the elimination of
negative mental qualities, especially selfishness, and cultivation of the positive ones
like compassion, kindness, and wisdom. Far from being selfish, meditation is an entirely
virtuous and positive activity.
Secondly, it must be reiterated here that meditation does not necessarily mean sitting
cross-legged with closed eyes, reciting a mantra. Those who think that meditation is only
a passive engagement with the mind having nothing to do with worldly existence are greatly
mistaken. Buddhist meditation deals with life; it is an intensely vital activity.
Meditation can be practiced while eating, drinking, thinking, gardening, farming, and
engaging in other kinds of activities, personal or social. It is therefore improper to say
that meditation is a selfish activity. As a matter of fact, nothing is farther from the
Thirdly, meditation is something we live with, not simply a practice for its own sake.
The Buddha and his noble disciples are said to have dwelled constantly in meditation, but
they were most active in working for happiness and welfare of other people, with no
thought or expectation of reward. Their activities produced such great benefit for society
and humanity at large because their minds were free of greed, selfishness, ill-will, and
other kinds of defilements. People who unduly hasten to engage in social activities
without sufficiently preparing their own spiritual groundwork are likely to create more
harm than help, and whatever service they manage to render may become little more than an
extension of their ego. Examples such as the Crusades, the Salem witchcraft trials, and
the Inquisition are not lacking in the history of religions, and they stand as clear
testimonies of how dangerous human beings can become if their mental defilements are not
properly dealt with. By practicing meditation, one becomes aware of one's own mind and
thoughts, strengths and weaknesses, and the various subtle manners, including seemingly
beneficial social actions, in which egotism may manifest itself.
Is meditation a kind of running away?
This question demonstrates yet another serious misunderstanding concerning Buddhist
meditation. Mental purification is one of the many benefits of meditative practice; it is
not the only objective of the discipline. To purify the mind is not to reject existential
realities or to run away from them. On the contrary, the process of training requires that
meditators learn to recognize realities as they occur from one moment of experience to
another. Meditation is, in fact, the most daring kind of practice, one in which one learns
to squarely encounter realities; there is no better way to deal with them than through
The existential realities that we have to contend with are not only external phenomena
like earthquakes, flash floods, the AIDS epidemic, child prostitution, or high crime
rates. More intimate and closer to ourselves are the inner experiences that we feel and
perceive in each and every moment. These experiences are no less real and tangible than
other seemingly more concrete events that are happening in other parts of the world. They
are the most immediate realities we have to contend with, and if they are not handled
properly, chances are that we will add more problems and cause more suffering to ourselves
and the world.
Buddhist meditation, especially insight meditation, represents a unique mode of
practice by which meditators are trained to recognize realities without bias and fully
experience life as it is. We learn to go beyond our inherent preconceptions and illusions,
and try to analytically deal with our experiences in an objective manner. This enables us
to perceive things as they really are, not as we are conditioned, positively or
negatively, to see them. Most importantly, we learn how to see ourselves in a clear,
straightforward way, understanding our own character and temperaments, weaknesses and
shortcomings. Buddhist meditation is a noble method of accepting reality. It is the most
practical way to deal with the realities of life.
Can meditation cause insanity?
To say that meditation causes insanity is as true as the assertion that eating
can cause death or brushing teeth may cause mouth injury. Actually, insanity can be
produced in many different ways. Normal activities such as studying in college, business
dealings, playing the stock market, and even love affairs, all hold the potential to
induce insanity. It really depends on one's attitude of mind and on how these activities
are carried out. If you stretch yourself to an extreme by studying all day and night
without a rest or working nonstop without going to sleep, then there are good chances of
developing mental problems or neuroses. There are also reports of those whose sweet love
turns sour and, through the agony of a broken heart, suffer emotional imbalance and
insanity. Practically anything can be cited as a potential cause for mental derangement.
Those who assert that meditation can cause insanity do not really understand what
Buddhist meditation is and how it is practiced. Far from being a cause for mental disorder
or the loss of sanity, meditation is rather a subtle art for promoting mental health of
the highest order. We have seen that in meditation practice, mindfulness is the most
important factor, and it is mindfulness that has to be constantly developed and applied to
one's psycho-physical experiences in each and every moment. This leads to the growth of
other virtuous qualities such as compassion, generosity, morality, wisdom, energy,
perseverance, and selflessness. It is therefore appropriate to assert that meditation is,
in fact, not only conducive to emotional stability and psychological well-being, but also
greatly contributes to spiritual advancement and enhances personal and social lives.
It is most probable that people whose mental constitutions are abnormal, who are
afflicted with a severe case of mental disorder, such as paranoid schizophrenia, may not
be ready for meditation practice. These individuals are prone to display uncontrollable
and erratic behavior and are likely to suffer some degree of insanity no matter what
spiritual discipline they undertake or what activities they may engage in. If they indulge
in meditation practice without first taking sufficient professional care of their
problems, one would not expect them to fare very well in the training.
There are also those who profess certain ideas about meditation and start an intensive
practice on their own. Without proper background knowledge or guidance, it is possible
that such practice may result in a loss of mental equilibrium and hallucinations. But
meditation cannot be held accountable for these negative effects. Buddhist meditation is
completely safe and wholesome when undertaken with the proper frame of mind and under the
guidance of a capable teacher.
Because of lack of space, not all the methods or details of the practice of
concentration meditation can be given here. However, we may discuss the most fundamental
concepts and techniques of training to give readers a clear understanding of how
meditation is undertaken in the initial stages; those who are interested in putting these
techniques into practice may do so without harm or adverse effects if moderation is duly
Concentration is developed by single-mindedly focusing the attention on a selected
object. There is a wide range of objects that can be used for meditation, and forty have
been specifically recommended in Buddhist literature, although it is quite possible that
other things may be included in the list as well. Classical examples are one's own
breaths, a Buddha image, a candlelight, a painted disc or dyed cloth stretched on a round
frame (kasina), water, empty space, etc. The reason why a rather large variety of
objects is described is to provide a wide choice for practitioners with different
preferences and temperaments. A suitable object of meditation facilitates the practice and
ensures better progress.
The meditator can, if so desired, initially experiment with different objects of
concentration to see which is most suitable. Very often this may not be necessary if one
chooses to commence the practice with a more convenient device, like one's own breaths. A
good meditation object is one on which the practitioner finds it easier to concentrate.
With the help of an experienced teacher, a right decision is made much easier. On one's
own, a student of meditation may experiment until satisfied with the choice. However, once
the decision has been made, it makes more sense to stick to whatever has been selected
rather than keep changing the meditation object, otherwise the practitioner will become
confused and the practice will not progress as well as it should.
The concentration technique which involves a prolonged and constant focus on one's own
breaths has been praised by the Buddha as being suitable to all types of temperaments.
This technique is so popular that it is virtually taught in all Buddhist traditions. It is
so convenient to practice that even children, properly instructed, can do it.
There are different ways by which concentration on the breath is developed. In other
words, one may say that there are numerous ways and means to use one's breaths as the
object of concentration practice. These may be regarded simply as different variations of
the same method, and they are so many that it is impossible to list all of them here.
Individual meditation centers may have a specific preference for one variation over
others, although all are equally valid and beneficial. For the sake of illustration, we
may cite the method in which the two-syllable Pali word bud-dho is employed as an
aid to cultivate concentration. This is how it is done:
Sit cross-legged, placing the right foot on the left. Keep the back straight and
upright, but not uncomfortably rigid. If your legs are stiff, being unaccustomed to the
cross-legged maneuver, and you find this posture uncomfortable, try using a cushion to
support yourself from underneath so that the weight of the body will be less pressing on
the legs and your feet enjoy a little more room. If this is still a problem, you may sit
on a chair, although this is not a traditional posture. (Most people in Asia can sit
cross-legged with ease.) Sitting in the traditional way is said to effect a sense of
stability and helps to prepare you for the task of meditation that will follow. In any
case you should feel sufficiently comfortable that you do not have to move for a specific
period of time during the practice.
Having properly settled down, put your hands on your lap, the right one on the left,
palms upward. Close your eyes and begin to relax your body. You may will the different
parts of the body to relax, starting from the head downward and working with all the
muscles in each part. Do it slowly, in a leisurely manner, and systematically, avoiding
nothing in the process. This will take roughly two to three minutes, and by the time you
have completed this preparatory stage, your mind should have been appropriately attuned to
the meditation practice proper. You should be completely relaxed, otherwise meditation
will become more of a burden than the enjoyable spiritual experience that it is. Not only
should you feel physically relaxed, you should also train your mind to be free from
psychological tension by putting down for the time being any cares and concerns that may
cause mental disturbance or restlessness. Careful attention to small details prior to the
sitting, like making sure that the door is locked, the gas stove or television set turned
off, and the telephone unplugged or moved to another area where it will not be a nuisance,
can add much to the pleasure of the practice and further ensure success in the endeavor.
When you have gained a certain amount of relaxation and composure, turn your attention
to the in- and out-breaths. Now you become clearly conscious of your own respiration,
which has hardly been noticed before. Keep focusing on your in- and out-breaths to the
exclusion of anything else until your mind becomes further composed and still. Mentally
repeat the syllable bud (as in Buddha) as you breathe in and dho as you
breathe out. Synchronize each syllable of bud-dho with the in- and out-breath so
that they become completely identified with one another. Keep the body unmoved and the
mind still through the time assigned for the practice. In the likely event that your mind
gets distracted or starts to roam about, gently bring it back to the object of meditation
which is your in- and out-breaths. Continue to do this and your mind will gradually become
one with your breaths and attain the state of one-pointedness.
In this technique of concentration practice, inhalation and exhalation are employed as
a tool to keep the mind still and focused. The mental recitation of bud-dho
serves to fortify the practice. Some meditators may find this a more convenient concept on
which to retain their attention. For Buddhists, it adds a distinct flavor of faith to the
training, because the Pali word bud-dho really signifies the Buddha. Some
meditators prefer to use the nose-tip as a point of mental focus; others may like to
follow the inhalation movement down from the nostrils to the abdomen and the exhalation
movement up from the abdomen through the nostrils, especially if they are newcomers to
meditation. The breathing technique is the most popular form of Buddhist meditation; its
practicality and usefulness have been universally recognized wherever Buddhism is taught.
The incorporation of bud-dho into the practice is distinctly a Thai contribution
and the technique is very widespread in the country.
Different levels of concentration
Obviously, the strength of concentration differs in different stages of
training. The Buddhist commentaries mention three levels of concentration. The first,
momentary concentration (khanika samadhi), is a quality of mind that is
inherently common in all sentient beings. This is an essential faculty that we all need in
our everyday activities, and we can experience it even when we are engaged in the most
mundane chores like eating, drinking, reading, writing a letter, or driving. In fact, it
seems impossible to perform any function effectively without a certain amount of
concentration. In the same way, it may also be said that our capacity and efficiency to
work depend largely on the amount of concentration we are able to mobilize in the
fulfillment of our duties. Thus a higher degree of concentration almost invariably means a
better performance of actions. However, this type of concentration is hard to control and
not very stable. It is momentary. Normally, it is sustained by the interest we pay to
objects of sense stimuli at the moment of experience; as soon as the interest weakens, we
will also begin to lose concentration and will have to refocus our attention.
The second level, called access or approximate concentration (upacara samadhi),
is a more developed form of concentration attainable through the process of mental
development mentioned above. At this stage, the mind of the meditator is elevated beyond
the ordinary level of consciousness but is not as yet well established in deep
concentration. The state of one-pointedness of mind is still subject to some degree of
instability and fluctuation, although it can be better controlled than in the first type
of concentration. Concentration at this particular level provides the necessary basis for
the practice of insight meditation, and one need not develop it further should one chose
to develop insight. However, if the meditator prefers to continue with concentration
training, this stage will prove an important juncture where his consciousness has reached
a higher stratum of spiritual accomplishment and is acutely attuned to attain higher, more
steady one-pointedness of mind.
The third level is attainment concentration (appana samadhi). This is a stage
where the meditator's mind becomes well established in one-pointedness and is completely
under control. This means that at this level the meditator is in a position to retain
concentration for as long as he or she wishes, and the concentration reached is so
profound and deep it cannot be disturbed by any external elements. It is total mastery
over oneself, a mastery that is potentially capable of defying even the known laws of
nature. Here the meditator has become so entirely absorbed in the object of meditation
that he or she appears to be wholly identified with it. This kind of concentration is the
foundation of jhana or absorption. From this level of concentration, the
meditator enters into the first absorption, and if one continues to persevere in one's
effort, one will progress even further to higher stages of absorption.
Higher benefits of concentration
We have seen from the above discussion that concentration meditation involves
force, will power, and mastery of mind. The inner powers generated through a high
intensity of concentration may be used to influence other people and events. This is still
rudimentary compared to what the higher states of mental development can achieve, and such
powers are not the real objective of meditation practice and were not encouraged by the
Buddha. Due to the limitations of modern life-styles, few people can afford the luxury of
full-time practice as ascetics in mountain caves or forests. However, if one consistently
perseveres until attainment concentration (appana samadhi) is gained, one may
continue to achieve any of the eight levels of absorption.
The first four (five, according to the Abhidhamma) absorptions result from meditation
on some concrete form such as earth, fire, water, or a kasina (colored disc),
etc. A state of absorption achieved through the practice in this way is called absorption
of form (rupajhana).
The other four are called absorptions of the formless sphere (arupajhana)
because, rather than focusing the mind on any concrete form, the meditator employs
abstract concepts as objects of concentration. These conceptual objects are the sphere of
infinity of space (akasana˝cayatana), the sphere of infinity of consciousness (vi˝˝ana˝cayatana),
the sphere of nothingness (aki˝ca˝˝ayatana), and the sphere of neither
perception nor non-perception (nevasa˝˝anasa˝˝ayatana). To practice the
absorptions of the formless sphere one has to be first thoroughly accomplished in the four
absorptions of form.
Concentration increases the power of mind. This can be brought to such a high level
that psychic wonders, or what one may call 'miracles,' can be performed through it,
although we should again emphasize that psychic powers or miracles are neither the purpose
nor the goal of Buddhist meditation. In fact, the Buddha even laid down rules for the
monks against the display of such feats, for they are likely to distract the uninformed
and mislead them from the path of enlightenment and deliverance from Samsara,
which is the true goal of Buddhism. In the Buddhist system of meditation, right
concentration is that which serves as the basis for insight. It is a means to an end, not
an end in itself.
Practice of insight meditation
This properly requires a long description, but for reasons of space and balance
we shall have to limit our discussion only to a brief description of this uniquely
Buddhist meditation practice.
For the sake of clarity we may begin by briefly comparing some salient features in the
two types of meditation, concentration and insight, which we have been discussing at some
length. To practice concentration, a properly structured environment or atmosphere is
required. For example, the environment should be relatively secluded and quiet, somewhat
segregated from other activities, and completely free from disturbances. Insight
meditation does not need any of these requirements, although in the initial stages of
practice they may prove valuable. Concentration training employs only one object as a tool
for cultivating one-pointedness of mind, whereas insight meditation uses all available
experiences as the primary matrix by which mindfulness and insight may be developed. The
fact that insight meditation can take in all experiences, physical, emotional, and
psychological, as its objects of training also means that one can practice it in all
activities and situations. Concentration does not enjoy this kind of free range. So we may
assert that insight meditation is one spiritual discipline that can be practiced at all
times, in all places, and under all circumstances. Concentration and insight are also
different in terms of the objectives and goals each aims to achieve. The former is
connected with one-pointedness of mind, tranquillity, psychic powers, and miracles,
whereas the latter aims at increased awareness, knowledge, wisdom, right understanding,
virtues, purification of the mind, and the realization of Nibbana.
One of the most important discourses by the Buddha dealing with insight meditation is
the Satipatthana Sutta, or the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness. This
discourse contains what is considered by all Buddhist traditions to be the classical
explanation of how insight meditation should be practiced. In the opening words of the
discourse, the Buddha categorically affirms that the development of mindfulness in
accordance with the Satipatthana Sutta constitutes the direct way, the only way,
to purification, the extinction of suffering, and the realization of Nibbana. It
is one of the few discourses in which the Buddha has so explicitly and unequivocally given
such a strong assurance.
According to the Satipatthana Sutta, mindfulness is the key factor in the
development of insight. This mindfulness is the quality of awareness which is applied to
four groups of experiences, namely, the body, the sensations, the mind, and mental objects
(particularly in reference to moral and spiritual experiences or the Dhamma). Thus the
discourse is divided into four principal sections, each dealing with an individual class
of experiences on which mindfulness should be cultivated.
The first of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness deals with the body (kaya).
This includes the breaths, the physical postures, the bodily activities, the analysis of
various physical components, the material elements, and death. These are the realities of
life one has to deal with. A student of insight meditation should practice by constantly
applying mindfulness to all these experiences founded on the body. For instance, he should
be attentively mindful of his breaths, noting their ever-changing characteristics to see
if they are short or long, shallow or deep, refined or gross, regular or irregular, and so
forth. The purpose is to train the mind to dwell in the present, by being constantly aware
of what goes on at the moment. The same principle may be applied to the bodily posture,
such as standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, as well as to other physical activities
like eating and drinking, or even the movements of feet and hands. In the words of the
"Monks, a monk should further apply full attention to the act of going forward or
going back, looking straight or looking away, bending or stretching, putting on his robes
or holding the bowl, eating, drinking, chewing or savoring food, attending to the calls of
nature, walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, speaking, or being silent.
In all these activities he should be fully aware and attentive."
The second section deals with feelings (vedana), which are of three types,
pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. These feelings keep arising one after the other and the
meditator should apply mindfulness to them at the moment they arise, understanding them
objectively as conditioned phenomena that arise and fall according to the law of
causality, not subjectively as 'my feeling.'
Sensations or feelings have a peculiar way of misleading us into a false sense of
individuality. Because of feelings, man tends to conceptualize an essential agent within
that feels or does the act of feeling, the recipient of various experiences, including the
results of kamma. This is called a soul or self. According to the Buddha, the
false belief in the existence of self is largely due to our feelings. It is therefore
important that the meditator trains himself to perceive reality as it is by simply
observing his own feelings for what they really are, natural phenomena that constantly
arise and disappear in accordance with their conditionality.
Another way to consider feelings is the careful analysis of their nature and their
origination and dissolution. The meditator is fully mindful whether he experiences
pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling. He is aware of the feelings but does not become
attached to them. Says the Buddha:
"Here, a meditating monk dwells observing feelings internally, externally, or
internally and externally. He dwells observing the nature of origination, dissolution, or
origination and dissolution of feelings. His mindfulness is established merely to an
extent necessary for knowledge and awareness that feelings exist. He lives unattached and
clings to nothing in the world. In this way a monk dwells observing feelings."
The next section in the discourse deals with the mind. If part of the spiritual
practice involves the ability to understand and control one's own thoughts, this is,
perhaps, one of the most effective methods to realize that objective. Here, the meditator
dwells observing his own mind and thoughts, ever mindful of their origination and
dissolution. He also observes how they change and are conditioned. The meditator should
constantly apply full awareness to the present moment of experiences only, not the past or
the future, and simply acknowledge the existence and nature of those mental phenomena.
There is no conscious intervention involved to suppress one thought or encourage another.
It is a simple, uncomplicated process of recognizing the realities as they are, a pure
psychological act of detached understanding and acceptance.
The Satipatthana Sutta gives an elaborate explanation of the techniques for
observing the mind and recognizing its conditions in the present moment. We quote below
some examples from the text:
"Here a meditating monk recognizes the lustful mind as lustful; the non-lustful
mind as non-lustful; the hateful mind as hateful; the non-hateful mind as non-hateful; the
deluded mind as deluded; the non-deluded mind as non-deluded; the depressed state of mind
as depressed; the distracted state of mind as distracted; the cultivated state of mind as
cultivated; the uncultivated state of mind as uncultivated ..."
It is clear from this short passage how a practitioner may train in insight meditation
by steadfastly being mindful of his own mental states. By continually practicing according
to this method, one not only comes to understand oneself better but will eventually be
able to penetrate deeply into the most remote reaches of one's own consciousness. Thus one
learns to come to terms with oneself, and a genuine effort to improve oneself and do away
with weaknesses may now begin. This kind of practice is not only valuable as far as
insight is concerned, but substantially contributes to peace and harmony, both within the
individual and within society. If one, for instance, keeps taking mindful note of one's
own greed, lust, anger, or aggression as they arise in the mind, it is most probable that
the thoughts or actions associated with such negative qualities will be recognized as
quickly as they originate and will subsequently be kept under control or eliminated. It is
like having your hitherto clandestine enemies duly exposed so you can take appropriate
action against them. There is no better way to deal with them than this.
The last section of the Satipatthana Sutta discusses the Dhamma as the system
of ethical and spiritual experiences. In practical terms, this may also include
mindfulness in contemplation, deliberation, and investigation of the Buddha's teachings in
the context of one's own perception at the present moment. Because these Dhamma
experiences are subjected to the contemplation and investigation of mind, they are
referred to as mental objects. A few categories of Dhamma are listed in the Satipatthana
Sutta: the Five Hindrances, the Five Aggregates, the Six Sense Bases, the Seven
Factors of Enlightenment, and the Four Noble Truths. Detailed explanations illustrative of
the practice are also given, for example:
"How, monks, does a monk dwell observing the Five Hindrances as mental objects?
Here, when sense desire is present, a monk comprehends, "Sense desire is present in
me;" when sense desire is not present, he comprehends, "Sense desire is not
present in me." He comprehends how non-arisen sense desire arises; he comprehends how
arisen sense desire disappears. He comprehends how abandoned sense desire will not arise
in the future ..."
Broadly speaking, most of the deliberate intellectual exercises pertaining to ethics
and truth come within the scope of this mode of insight meditation. To be more precise,
however, each of the aforementioned categories of the Dhamma should not be viewed merely
as a subject for academic scrutiny or an article for purely abstract contemplation.
Rather, they are specific mental objects to which a meditator should apply mindfulness as
and when they are actually experienced and comprehended, right at the moment of their
arising and disappearing. In this way the meditator will be able to understand the Dhamma
not as some abstract concept, but as the actual reality of personal experience which it
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness as described by the Buddha can be practiced
simultaneously, depending on which of the four is more prominent or conspicuous at the
moment of experience. The present moment is what counts, not the past or the future.
Beginners may find it more practicable to begin training with mindfulness on the body,
particularly the breathing exercises. Once the basic technique has been mastered, it
becomes increasingly more natural to 'ever dwell in meditation,' constantly and
effortlessly observing the body, the feelings, the mind, and the mental objects while
carrying on their duties and responsibilities.
Concentration in insight meditation
Concentration in samatha bhavana is characterized by its mundane nature
and objective, whereas the same in vipassana is directed toward the transcendent
goal of Nibbana. Concentration in insight meditation, moreover, assists the
meditator to penetrate into the three existential realities in all experiences to which he
applies his mindfulness. These are the characteristics common to all existence, namely,
impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-substantiality. Based on these three signs of
reality, vipassana concentration is therefore divided into three types as
The first kind of concentration is called su˝˝ata samadhi, meaning
concentration on the void. This is the concentration which is specifically based on anattalakkhana
or the characteristic of soullessness. It supports and identifies with the insight that
contemplates on the relative, non-substantial nature of realities. This insight aims
primarily at liberation through penetration into the soulless nature of all things.
The second category of vipassana concentration is known as animittasamadhi.
Animitta means "signless," an expression referring to the
transitoriness of existence. This concentration supports insight which contemplates the
impermanent nature of all things (aniccalakkhana), particularly the experiences
to which the meditator's awareness is applied in the training of insight meditation. Here,
liberation is achieved through seeing things in their true nature as impermanent and
The third kind of vipassana concentration, called in Pali appanihitasamadhi,
is one which is directed toward the characteristic of unsatisfactoriness of all things (dukkhalakkhana).
The word appanihita means "desireless." Where this type of
concentration is involved in insight meditation, the meditator directs mindfulness to the
unsatisfactory aspect of experiences pertaining to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in
order to perceive things in their true nature. Such contemplation enables one to
relinquish desire and attachment and leads to the realization of Nibbana.
Strictly speaking, the three characteristics of existence are but different aspects of
one and the same reality. As the Buddha often stressed, "Whatever is impermanent is
unsatisfactory; whatever is unsatisfactory is nonself." The practitioner of insight
meditation may therefore select that characteristic which is most suitable to his
temperament and concentrate on that in order to make greater progress in his endeavor. For
instance, a person with inherent propensity for sensual desire may practice profitably by
constantly applying mindfulness to the unsatisfactory nature of things. This would serve
as a direct antidote to that weakness and enable one to advance more satisfactorily on the
[Originally published in Sunthorn Plamintr's Getting to Know Buddhism (Bangkok:
Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), pp. 157-183.]
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for retyping