The Concentrated Mind by Richard Shankman

Samadhi, typically translated as “concentration,” is the ability of the mind to remain calm and settled without distraction. It is through the power of a sustained, concentrated attention that the fruits of meditation practice are realized, so samadhi plays an indispensable role in mental training on the path towards liberation.

Attaining samadhi, or any other meditative state, is not the ultimate goal of Buddhist meditation, but it is an important element. The habitual tendencies of grasping to pleasant experiences and pushing away unpleasant ones, and the underlying root cause of ignorance, are deeply conditioned in us. A powerful, steady awareness is needed for strengthening the supportive conditions necessary for the mind to see more clearly into the subtler layers of clinging and identity. We should not make samadhi more important than it is, but we should not diminish its importance, either.

Unraveling the mix of ideas about what exactly samadhi is and its proper place in dharma practice can be difficult. Students may become confused about the intensity or type of samadhi one should cultivate. I have found it helpful to go back to the scriptural sources, but they can be conflicting. The Buddha of the early Pali suttas taught contextually, varying his advice depending on his audience and the immediate circumstances. The suttas, therefore, presenting an array of practices, are not entirely consistent and lend themselves to various interpretations regarding the path of meditation.

The deepest stages of samadhi are associated with meditative absorption states of profound mental unification called jhanas. Teachers disagree about what the jhanas are, and the term is used to describe a range of experiences by various teachers. The suttas define jhana in terms of five jhana factors (applied thought, sustained thought, rapture, happiness and one-pointedness), along with a number of other associated attributes that are present, to varying degrees, throughout a wide range of levels and types of samadhi. Various meditation teachers, each presenting a different idea of what jhana is, can legitimately claim to be teaching the “real” jhana. There is no consensus on whether or not jhana is necessary to realize the deeper stages of insight, and scriptural evidence can be found to support either view.

Within the Pali suttas there are teachings suggesting that in meditation practice one should first develop samadhi until jhana has been achieved and then switch to insight practice. For example, the Buddha states that after attaining jhana and with a mind now “concentrated, purified and cleansed, unblemished, free from impurities, malleable, workable, steady and having gained imperturbability,” one then directs the mind toward insight practice. This can be variously interpreted to mean the meditator comes out of jhana to begin insight practice, or that insight practice continues after the meditator has attained and is still in jhana. There are many other sutta passages supporting the view, both implicitly and explicitly, that samadhi and mindfulness are not easily separated, and, in fact, should be developed in concert and synthesized into one unified practice and path.

The suttas teach that through mindfulness and insight practice the mind penetrates into the nature of experience and realizes directly the three characteristics of existence—impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness. However, the suttas also state explicitly that concentration in and of itself is a condition for seeing directly and clearly into the true nature of things:

Bhikkhus, develop concentration. A bhikkhu who is concentrated understands things as they really are.

And what does he understand as they really are? He understands as it really is: “[all things are] impermanent.”

Bhikkhus, develop concentration. A bhikkhu who is concentrated understands things as they really are.

(Samyutta Nikaya, Book of Six Sense Bases, 1: 99)

From just these few examples it is easy to see why there is a range of views about samadhi and jhana, and easy to understand why commentators have been eager to clarify the meaning according to their own understandings.

As the understanding and interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings evolved over the centuries, later commentaries, including the highly influential Visuddhimagga, appeared with their own interpretations of the doctrine. For some Theravada Buddhists, the entire teaching is funneled through the one commentarial lens of the Visuddhimagga, greatly influencing the understanding and style of meditation practice. In contrast to the suttas, the Visuddhimagga clearly divides meditation practice into two separate paths: samatha (calm), in which samadhi is cultivated to a high degree without regard to mindfulness, and vipassana (insight), in which mindfulness is highlighted and samadhi can sometimes be de-emphasized.

In samatha practice, fixed concentration is developed such that the mind is fixed or absorbed into a meditation object. Concentration on a fixed object becomes so intense that no other consciousness can arise, resulting in a state in which the meditator no longer experiences changing phenomena. In insight meditation, momentary concentration is developed. In this case, samadhi is strengthened until the mind is relatively stable and concentrated, not so much that it becomes fixed on an unchanging object, but present for moment-by-moment change, and thus able to practice insight into the three characteristics of existence.

The Kayagatasati (Mindfulness of the Body) Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 119) states that, as one enters jhana and two of the jhana factors (rapture and happiness) arise, one should “drench, steep, fill and pervade the body, so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by the rapture.” It goes on to say that this is how one develops mindfulness of the body. This is a clear example of jhana presented as a meditative state in which body awareness has been retained. In contrast, the Visuddhimagga defines jhana as an intense state of fixed concentration in which awareness of the body, and most other experiences, disappears. In order to reconcile with the suttas, where one is instructed to permeate the body with the jhana factors, the Visuddhimagga interprets the term body as referring to the “mental body.”

Given the wide range of interpretations and approaches to samadhi in meditation, how are we to practice? How can we sort through the many methods and styles to find the best practice for ourselves? There is no single right or wrong path, technique or approach to meditation, only the appropriate practice best suited to each of our individual temperaments and needs. We may go through many phases of practice as meditation develops throughout the course of our lives.

In the path of vipassana meditation, some of us may be drawn toward intensive samatha practice, delving deeply into Visuddhimagga-style jhanas and later making a conscious shift to insight practice. Others will emphasize the cultivation of mindfulness from the beginning of practice, allowing samadhi to naturally strengthen through the sustained, moment-by-moment application of attention toward all the changing experiences that arise and pass away during meditation practice. A third style of practice strengthens samadhi and mindfulness together, bringing the mindfulness up to meet whatever level of samadhi there is, including full absorption states.

Breath meditation is an example of a practice that can be used in any of these ways, and I have found it extremely useful in my own practice for developing both concentration and insight. Breath is constant enough that, by giving strong preference to it as a single meditation object, samadhi can be developed all the way to jhana. Yet breath is always changing, so that mindfulness can be strengthened if we choose to incorporate insight into the practice.

On a long retreat I learned a hard-won lesson in samadhi practice. My plan was to attain jhana in five or six weeks, as I had done previously, and then continue from there for many months deepening into the classical insights. But for the first few months I was not entering jhana, and I suffered terribly worrying about how the practice was going. I finally complained to my teacher, who kindly pointed out that the deeper realizations came, not from attaining jhana, or any particular meditative state, but through nonclinging to whatever state was arising.

Regardless of the style of meditation you practice, remember that everything develops in its own way and its own time, as we find the balance between making effort and relaxing into our moment-to-moment experience. “Right” effort means applying oneself without overstriving. You cannot make anything happen in meditation but only strengthen supportive causes and conditions. I suggest you develop as much samadhi as you can without making it an object of clinging, as I learned the hard way.

From the Fall 2006 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 23, No. 1)
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