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Buddhist Meditation
Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr

Buddhist meditation

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 spiritual attainment.

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 everyday life.

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 Buddhist meditation.

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 meditation practice.

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 responsibilities.

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 meditation.

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 attachment.

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 spiritual practice.

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 truth.

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 meditation.

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.

Meditation technique

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 observed.

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 Buddha:

"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 truly is.

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 follows:

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 ever-changing.

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 spiritual path.


[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 this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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