The Powers of Meditative Absorption
Buddha encouraged everyone to engage in sati (or mindfulness), which is to develop a full awareness of the present moment – an awareness of one’s thoughts, actions or motivations. Samma-sati, as the seventh step of the Eightfold Path, is called “right mindfulness” and it means to discern phenomena as they truly are, in and of themselves, while staying ardent, alert, and mindful and putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. The eight step, samma-samadhi, is “right concentration” as it refers to jhana (or dhyana), which is meditative absorption. Buddha also refers to them again at his parinibbana (Skt: parinirvana; i.e. total release, total unbinding, complete liberation, etc).
In Buddhist meditation, there are Five Hindrances (Nivarana) that are the major obstacles to concentration:
1. Sensual desire (Pali: kamacchanda; Skt: abhidya) as obsessive craving and indulgence in the senses.
2. Ill will, enmity, hatred, or anger (Pali: vyapada; Skt: pradosha) directed towards others.
3. Torpor/lethargy/dullness and laziness/indifference/boredom (Pali: thina and middha; Skt: styana and middha) with little to no concentration at all.
4. Restlessness and worry/anxiety (Pali: uddhacca and kukkucca; Skt: anuddhatya and kaukritya) as the inability to focus or calm the mind.
5. Doubt, skepticism, indecisiveness, vacillation, or a lack of trust or confidence without the wish to cure it, etc. (Pali: vicikiccha, Skt: vichikitsa) which is more like the common idea of cynicism or pessimism rather than open-mindedness.
What most people think of as “Buddhist meditation” refers to “bhavana” which literally means “calling into existence” or producing, as it is an aspect of development and cultivation. For example, metta-bhavana is often translated as the “meditation of loving-kindness”. As you can probably tell, bhavana is usually used in compound form, such as: samadhi-bhavana (development of concentration) and its two qualities of samatha-bhavana (cultivation of tranquility) and vipassana-bhavana (development of clear insight); citta-bhavana (development of mind or cultivation of heart); kaya-bhavana (development of the body); metta-bhavana (development/cultivation of loving-kindness); panna-bhavana (cultivation of wisdom); etc. In the context of the eighth step of the Eightfold Path, “right concentration” and “meditation” specifically refers to samadhi-bhavana and the jhana factors.
Samadhi-bhavana is the development and cultivation of concentration or one-pointed meditation. It involves an intense focusing of consciousness. There are four developments of samadhi, which are:
1. Jhana (Skt: dhyana), or meditative absorptions
2. Increased alertness
3. Insight into the true nature of phenomena (knowledge and vision)
4. Final liberation (Nibbana)
The Visuddhimagga identifies three different types of samadhi:
1. Momentary concentration (khanikasamadhi)
2. Access concentration (upacarasamadhi)
3. Fixed concentration (appanasamadhi)
The Gopaka Moggallana Sutta actually points out that the Buddha never recommended all types of samadhi, either. Any which promote, support, or intensify the five hindrances are obviously not wholesome and are therefore not suitable for development. One may also develop “intuitive powers” (abhinna or siddhi) with samadhi, including the ability to display psychic powers, clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, recollection of past lifetimes, and the knowledge that does away with mental effluents. However, Buddha often warned that these should not be allowed to distract one from the path of freedom from suffering. In fact, in the Kevatta Sutta, Buddha explains why he is “horrified, humiliated, and disgusted” with the “miracles” of psychic powers, telepathy, etc. They often backfire, as someone might think that one is just simply engaging in cheap magic tricks. So, instead of inspiring any kind of conviction, such displays only increase doubt.
Samatha-bhavana calms the mind by focusing it on a suitable object (kasina) in order to develop one-pointed concentration and positive emotions. There are ten external kasina meditation objects that are described in the Suttas. It is typically a circular or hemispherical colored device or disc, with the particular color, properties, dimensions and medium often specified according to the type of kasina. The earth kasina, for instance, is a disk in a red-brown color formed by spreading earth or clay (or another medium producing similar color and texture) on a screen of canvas or another backing material. However, these are often practiced in tandem with anapanasati (i.e. air kasina – that is, mindfulness of breathing, or mindfulness of the in-breath and out-breath – as mentioned in the video above) and the development of the four brahma-viharas (sublime abodes) which are metta-bhavana (development of loving kindness), karuna-bhavana (cultivation of compassion), mudita-bhavana (development of sympathetic joy), and upekkha-bhavana (cultivation of equanimity).
Vipassana-bhavana builds upon the calmness, focus, and positive emotions of samatha-bhavana with the observation of things such as parts of the body, feelings, thoughts and emotions (mental objects), and etc. in a detached manner. This develops an awareness of the impermanence, interconnectedness, and the contingent nature of our experience with the contemplation on impermanence, the six element practice, and contemplation on conditionality. Samatha-bhavana usually precedes and prepares for vipassana-bhavana, and they both are necessary factors of the Noble Eightfold Path as Right Mindfulness (samma-sati) and Right Concentration (samma-samadhi).
The jhanas refer to eight states of consciousness that can arise during periods of strong concentration. Jhanas are a natural meditative state of profound stillness and concentration in which the mind becomes fully immersed and absorbed in the chosen object of attention. They are the cornerstone in the development of Right Concentration. The eight jhanas are:
1. “Detached from sensual objects, o monks, detached from unwholesome consciousness, attached with thought-conception (vitakka) and discursive thinking, born of detachment (vivekaja) and filled with rapture and joy (sukha) he enters the first absorption.
2. “After the subsiding of thought-conception and discursive thinking, and by gaining inner tranquility and oneness of mind, he enters into a state free from thought-conception and discursive thinking, the second absorption, which is born of concentration , and filled with rapture and joy (sukha).
3. “After the fading away of rapture he dwells in equanimity, mindful, clearly conscious; and he experiences in his person that feeling of which the Noble Ones say, ‘Happy lives the man of equanimity and attentive mind’; thus he enters the 3rd absorption.
4. “After having given up pleasure and pain, and through the disappearance of previous joy and grief, he enters into a state beyond pleasure and pain, into the 4th absorption, which is purified by equanimity and mindfulness.
5. “Through the total overcoming of the perceptions of matter, however, and through the vanishing of sense-reactions and the non-attention to the perceptions of variety, with the idea, ‘Boundless is space’, he reaches the sphere of boundless space and abides therein.
6. “Through the total overcoming of the sphere of boundless space, and with the idea ‘Boundless is consciousness’, he reaches the sphere of boundless consciousness and abides therein.
7. “Through the total overcoming of the sphere of boundless consciousness, and with the idea ‘Nothing is there’, he reaches the sphere of nothingness and abides therein.
8. “Through the total overcoming of the sphere of nothingness he reaches the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception and abides therein.”
There are 4 stages of deep concentration which are called the Rupa Jhana (Fine-material Jhana):
1. Pleasant Sensations – This is attained when the mind is focused on the meditation object to reduce and eliminate the lower mental qualities that are called the five hindrances (sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry and doubt) and promote the growth of five jhana factors (applied thought [vittaka], sustained thought [vicara], joy [piti], happiness [sukha], one-pointednesss [ekkagata]). Only the subtlest of mental movement remains, and the ability to form unwholesome intentions ceases. Therefore, in this stage, bliss appears.
2. Joy – The second jhana is entered when you reduce and eliminate the two initial factors of the first jhana itself (applied/directed thought and sustained thought). Therefore, the three remaining jhana factors are rapture, happiness and one-pointedness. In this stage, all mental movements completely cease and there only remains bliss. The ability to form wholesome intentions ceases as well, as one acquires complete confidence.
3. Contentment – To enter the jhana of contentment, you must reduce and eliminate the third initial factor of the first jhana itself (rapture), while the two remaining jhana factors one still possesses are the happiness and one-pointedness. Three additional components are also acquired (equanimity, mindfulness and discernment).
4. Utter Peacefulness – To attain this jhana, you must reduce and eliminate the fourth initial factor of the first jhana itself (happiness) and replace it with another jhana factor (equanimity/neutral feeling), while the two remaining jhana factors still possessed are the neutral feeling and one-pointedness. In this stage, you will enter a state of supreme purity, indifference to everything, and pure consciousness.
Beyond the four jhana lie four higher attainments in the scale of concentration, usually referred as the Arupa Jhana (Immaterial/formless Jhana). The immaterial jhanas are designated as:
5. Base of boundless space – One enters this jhana by remaining in the utter peacefulness state and then shifting attention to the boundaries of one’s being. You focus your attention outward as if you are watching yourself from above. You may feel like you are floating above your body at first. You put your attention on your body so that it feels like you are filling the room. This is expanded further and further so that you fill your whole neighborhood, city, country, continent, and then to space itself. You find yourself in this huge expanse of empty space.
6. Base of boundless consciousness – This jhana is attained by realizing that the infinite space one occupies includes one’s consciousness. So you shift your attention to infinite consciousness instead of infinite space. You may feel “at one” with all nature and existence, but do not be fooled, this is not full enlightenment. Concentration is further increased and there is still one-pointedness of mind.
7. Base of nothingness – This jhana is entered by realizing that the content of the infinite consciousness is basically empty of any permanent nature. We also realize that there is no “thing” either. There is nothing in the universe that has any permanent essence to it. We realize that everything is in constant flux.
8. Base of neither perception nor non-perception – One attains this jhana by letting go of the sense of no-thingness, and entering a very natural, calm place. In this jhana there is very little recognition of what is happening, but you are also not totally unaware of what is happening. There is such a peaceful state and you have gone beyond the duality of perception nor non-perception that it is easy to be fooled that you have experienced full enlightenment. But there is still more to do.
When the limits of perception have been reached, you may realize that less mental activity is actually much more conducive to a calm and peaceful state. You will enter a state of the “cessation” of feelings and perceptions, where mental fermentations are reduced to the finest and most subtle degree. Someone in this state may even appear to be unconscious, or in something like a very deep sleep. There have been reports of those in this state having a much lower heart rate, at about 20 to 40 beats per minute. Of course, this is most certainly not full enlightenment, although it does bring one closer full awakening.
It is better to first master the first four jhanas, before going into the immaterial jhanas. There are five ways of mastering jhana:
1. Mastery in adverting is the ability to advert to the jhana factors one by one after emerging from the jhana, whenever you want, wherever you want, and for as long as you want.
2. Mastery in attaining is the ability to enter upon jhana very quickly.
3. Mastery in resolving is the ability to remain in jhana for exactly as long as any predetermined length of time.
4. Mastery in emerging is the ability to emerge from jhana quickly and without any difficulty.
5. Mastery in reviewing is the ability to review jhana and its factors with retrospective knowledge, immediately after adverting to them.