Methods of Buddhist Meditation
Meditation plays a key role in the teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha himself was the greatest meditator the world has ever seen, and his usual stance, as depicted in statues, etc., is the cross-legged meditative position. He grasped the truths he discovered through deep meditation, analytical observation and study of the mind and the material body – and especially the mind with all the illusions and suffering it creates – and their transcendence through non-attachment and liberation, something that no one else dared to do.
The Three Primary Methods of Meditation
There are three primary methods of meditation:
- “Calm meditation” as a primary practice (samatha-pubbaṅgamaṃ),
- “Insight meditation” as a primary practice (vipassanā-pubbaṅgamaṃ), and
- “Calm & insight meditation” combined (samatha-vipassanaṃ yuganaddhaṃ), (AN Yuganaddha-suttaṃ).
Calm Meditation (Samatha) as a Primary Practice
Calm meditation leads to deep concentration (samādhi), mental ataraxia and ecstasies (jhāna). The meditator practicing this kind of meditation is called “the one who takes tranquillity as his vehicle” (samatha-yānika).
The fundamental principle in calm meditation is: concentration (samādhi) or “focus of the mind” (cittassa okaggatā) on an object or concept for an extended period of time. This concentration can gradually lead to ecstasies (jhānas) which can serve as a basis for insight meditation (vipassanā), which was discovered by the Buddha who thus achieved his final Enlightenment.
Insight Meditation (Vipassanā) as a Primary Practice
This type of meditation leads to the insight of the three central characteristics of existence: the impermanence (anicca), the suffering (dukkha) and the non-self (anatta). The meditator who practices this type of meditation is called “the one who has insight meditation as his vehicle” (vipassanā-yānika), or “the one who practices in bare (pure) insight” (sukkha-vipassaka). That is to say, he has not achieved any jhāna but directly applies insight meditation and achieves Nibbana.
The fundamental principle of insight meditation (vipassanā) is: the observation and study of the mind and matter, which comprise the whole of existence, and their true nature, which is nothing but the rise (samudaya) and fall (vaya), i.e. their impermanence. The rise and fall is the characteristic of a phenomenon that is transient, temporary, short, ephemeral, instantaneous, fleeting, momentary, unstable and impermanent. And this characteristic prevails and is ubiquitous in all material and mental phenomena.
Thus, the purpose of insight meditation is essentially to delve deeper into the understanding of the three central characteristics of existence:
- The impermanence (anicca) of mental and material phenomena that have the rise and fall in their nature.
- The strain, pain or suffering (dukkha) due to the repressive nature of all mental and material phenomena which are constantly overcome by the rise and fall, thus becoming the basis of strain, suffering and pain in this unstable world.
- The non-self, the non-soul, the non-essence (anattā) which points out that, ultimately, there is nothing perpetual or unchanging in human nature that can be called “self”, “soul” or “ego” and consolidate a stable sense of “ego”. The whole concept of the “ego” is in fact a fundamentally wrong concept that seeks to settle into an unstable and temporary aggregate of material and mental elements.
This understanding of the three characteristics of existence helps one to remain independent (anissito) and not cling to anything in the world (na ca kiñci loke upādiyati). Independent means that he does not depend on the desire (taṇhā) and the theories or views (diṭṭhi) for any phenomenon. And the fact that he does not cling to anything in the world means that he does not cling to any body, emotion, thought, consciousness and mental phenomenon, believing that “this is me” or that “this belongs to me”.
It is understood that in the ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca) there are only processes of material and mental phenomena which constantly rise and fall, according to causes and conditions (hetu-paccaya) – not a being, not a person, not a woman, not a man, not a self, not something that belongs to a self, not an ego and not something that belongs to me, not someone and not something that belongs to someone.
The words “self”, “soul”, “personality”, “ego”, “person”, “man”, “woman”, etc., are merely common expressions; relative, ceremonial, conventional truths (samutti- sacca). Ultimately it is all a process of causes and conditions and the effects of causes and conditions.
Causality and conditionality (dependence on conditions) are integral parts of existence. All phenomena are produced by a combination of causes and conditions. They are not absolute, self-existent, unchanging, independent and irrelevant to other things. They are made up, comprised, formed, shaped, molded and created by conditions. They are dependent and interdependent on conditions. That is why they are called causal and conditional (dependent on conditions). And all causes and conditions constantly rise and fall according to other conditions and causes.
Thus, the fundamental principle of insight meditation by observing the rise and fall also reveals that the nature of causes and conditions is transient, temporary, short, ephemeral, instantaneous, fleeting, momentary, unstable and impermanent. This contributes to the purification (visuddhi) of the mind from passions, etc. that cause strain and suffering by clinging to unstable phenomena, and thus contributes to overcoming the sadness and grief, to the disappearance of pain and sorrow, to the attainment of the true method and to the realisation of Nibbāna, the absolute bliss, an ideal state of equilibrium that overcomes the painful cycle of rebirth and death.
Regarding this characteristic of rise and fall, the Buddha says:
“Even if one was to live for a hundred years
without seeing the rise and fall,
a single day in the life of one who sees the rise and fall
is better (daya-vaya)”. (Dh 113)
And the last words of the Buddha were:
“All phenomena have the nature of fall (vaya-dhamma).
Try to understand this thoroughly”. (DN 16)
And those who have achieved the first level of enlightenment and are called “one who enters the stream” (Sotāpanna), are the ones who have understood this fundamental principle: “What has the nature of rise, within it lies entirely the nature of pause, of fall”.“Yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ, sabbaṃ taṃ nirodhadhamman’ti”.
This understanding is called the “Eye of Teaching” (dhamma-cakkhu). The Teaching (dhamma) mentioned here are the Four Noble Truths. Having seen these Truths through the observation of rise and fall, the meditator has severed the bond of sceptical doubt and now possesses the right mind that is excellent and liberating, leading to the complete cessation of pain and suffering. This cessation is caused by not clinging to the physical body, emotions, thoughts, consciousness and mental phenomena as if they are myself or as if they belong to me.
Thus, the practice of insight meditation aims at a very deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths, which are the essence of the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha said that the full knowledge and understanding of the Four Noble Truths leads to the Great and Final Liberation or Enlightenment, the Nibbana.
Calm and Insight Meditation Combined
This type of meditation combines calm with insight meditation. As mentioned above, although calm meditation brings about ecstasies (jhāna) which are blissful and beatific experiences, it cannot lead to the attainment of the ultimate liberation and enlightenment, the Nibbana. Therefore, the meditator must combine it with insight meditation.
Thus, when the meditator achieves the first ecstasy (jhāna), he exits it and immediately meditates insightfully, observing and studying the mental and physical phenomena that occurred during its course. He then achieves the second ecstasy and does the same, then the third… the fourth and does the same. This way, he combines both types of meditation in order to achieve the ultimate liberation and enlightenment, the Nibbana.
The Ecstasy (Jhāna)
Pāli’s commentators derive the word jhāna from the root jhe, meaning “to study, meditate”, and from the other root jhā, meaning “to burn”. Thus, jhāna means: (a) “meditation on an object” (ārammaṇ’ūpanijjhāna), or (b) “burning of opposite states” (paccanīka-jhāpana). The opposite states are those that oppose concentration and they are the five mental hindrances( nīvaraṇa ), namely: (1) sensory desire, (2) anger, (3) lethargy and drowsiness, (4) restlessness and remorse and (5) doubt.
Another word that Pāli commentators use for jhāna is appanā, which means “immersion” and is explained as “the fixation/immersion of focused thought on an object” (caggaṃ cittaṃ ārammaṇe appeti). Hence, a Pāli-English Dictionary explains the concept of appanā as “ecstasy”. (PTS Pāli-English Dictionary: appanā)
Although the word jhāna cannot be literally translated in Greek, it can be translated as “ecstasy”, [ἐξίστημι < ἐκ + ἵστημι], meaning “standing outside of”, which means the complete exit or separation of the mind from the world of the senses, from the hedonic sphere, and its union, its immersion into an object of concentration.
As described in the Pāli texts, jhāna (ecstasy) has the potential to transcend the hedonic sphere (kāmāvacara) of consciousness and reach the sphere of fine matter (rūpāvacara). Overall, jhāna (ecstasy) is a mental state beyond the five sensory functions and can only be achieved in isolation and silence, with uninterrupted persistence in the practice of concentration. Under these circumstances, every activity of the five senses is inhibited. No external visual or auditory impressions appear, no physical sensation is perceived. Even though all external sensory impressions have ceased, the mind remains active, fully alert, fully awake and clear, fully aware of the object of concentration and the experience that results from it, such as joy and bliss.
Proper concentration resulting from ecstasy collects the normally scattered and fractured stream of mental states and causes an internal unification. The two main characteristics of such a concentrated mind are the undivided attention to an object and the consequent calmness of mental functions – qualities that distinguish it from the unconcentrated mind.
The mind that is untrained in concentration moves in a dispersed manner, which the Buddha likens to the trembling of a fish that has been taken out of the water and thrown ashore. It cannot stand still, but jumps from idea to idea, from thought to thought, without internal control. Such a distracted mind is also a mind harbouring illusions. Overwhelmed by worries, it only sees things fragmented and distorted by the fluctuations of random thoughts.
That is why the Buddha advises:
“This fickle and unstable mind,
which is difficult to protect,
to be prevented and tamed,
is set straight by the wise,
like an archer sets straight an arrow.
Taming the mind is good,
because a tamed mind brings happiness”. (Dh 33, 34)
The mind that has been trained and tamed with concentration can remain focused on its object without distraction. By focusing the mind on a selected object, all mental distraction is eliminated. The mental obstacles are suppressed, the mind achieves ataraxia and is fully absorbed in its object. This freedom from distraction triggers further peace, joy and happiness that make the mind an effective means of immersion into wisdom and liberation.
A novice meditator who aspires to achieve jhāna can choose an initial concentration object on which to focus his attention. For example, his object can be breathing on the tip of the nose.
- The meditator chooses a suitable space, in a room or outdoors, where there are no disturbances from people and noises.
- Sits cross-legged or in a chair, keeping his spine straight.
- With eyes and mouth closed, he turns his attention to the tip of his nose, meaning the point of contact where the air touches the nostrils when it enters and exits.
- With his attention focused on this spot, the meditator observes the inhalation by telling himself “inhale” when he feels it, and observes the exhalation by telling himself “exhale” when he feels it. For a long inhalation, he tells himself “long inhale” and when he exhales, he tells himself “long exhale”. For a short inhalation, he tells himself “short inhale” and when he exhales, he tells himself “short exhale”.
- These words initially help to remind the mind what to look out for. Later on, when the mind becomes accustomed, the words can be omitted. It is important to be able to feel the inhale and exhale, by turning his mind to the feeling of contact of the air touching the nostrils.
- The meditator may slowly begin to observe the whole inhalation from beginning to end, telling himself: “beginning, middle, end [of inhalation]”, and observe the whole exhalation from beginning to end, telling himself: “beginning, middle, end [of exhalation]”. This helps to feel the inhalation and exhalation in full rather than partially and contributes to deep concentration.
During meditation, the breathing must be observed at its normal rate without pressure or change by the meditator. The time of meditation can be gradually increased, starting from 10′, 20′, 30′, 45′, 60′ for beginners and can last for hours for the more advanced meditators. Typically, quality concentration begins after 45′ have passed.
If the meditator practices on a daily basis, for long periods of time, in the right environment and under the right conditions, he will begin to see a light in front of his nose which is associated with breathing and which is the first sign of concentration (samādhi-nimitta). This sign is also called “acquired sign” (uggaha-nimitta) and is still unstable. With continuous concentration on inhalation and exhalation, the light becomes completely clear, immobile and transparent. This results from a higher level of concentration and is called “counterpart sign” (paṭibhāga-nimitta). As soon as this sign appears, one reaches the stage of “accessible concentration” (upacāra-samādhi) which is very close to jhāna. Continuing to concentrate on inhalation and exhalation, the mind is absorbed into the light, which has now become one with breathing, and is immersed in it. This is the moment of reaching the first jhāna.
It should be noted here that the light seen by the meditator is not something metaphysical or supernatural, but merely the energy of the mind that produces photons in the body and thus manifests itself when intense concentration is achieved.
The object of jhāna‘s consciousness is basically this mental image called “counterpart sign” (patibhāga-nimitta). This sign is considered to be an imaginary object (paññatti), but it generally emerges as a luminous form of matter and hence jhāna belongs to the consciousness of the sphere of fine matter. Ultimately, jhāna is the complete immersion of consciousness and mental factors in the “counterpart sign” (patibhāga-nimitta).
There are five important mental factors called the “five constituents of jhāna” (jhānaṅga), which are:
- applied thought (vitakka), which focuses the relevant mental factors on the object of concentration,
- sustained thought (vicāra), that keeps them there,
- joy (pīti), which brings pleasure for the object,
- bliss (sukha), as the feeling of experiencing happiness in jhāna, and
- one-pointedness (ekaggatā), which has the ability to unify the mental factors with the object of concentration.
This is the description of the first jhāna. When the meditator continues to attain it and enters it repeatedly, the applied (vitakka) and sustained thought (vicāra) begin to seem crude and his mind becomes more inclined towards joy and bliss, because they seem more fine and pleasant to him. Over time, his mind becomes detached from applied and sustained thought, thus attaining the second jhāna which has the “counterpart sign” as its object of attention, and only joy (pīti), bliss (sukha) and one-pointedness as its constituents.
When he continues to attain the second jhāna and enters it repeatedly, then his joy (pīti) begins to seem crude and his mind becomes more inclined towards bliss (sukha), which seems more fine and pleasant to him. Over time, his mind becomes detached from joy, thus attaining the third jhāna which has the “counterpart sign” as its object of attention and only bliss (sukha) and one-pointedness as its constituents.
When he continues to attain the third jhāna and enters it repeatedly, then bliss (sukha) begins to seem crude and his mind becomes more inclined towards one-pointedness, which seems more fine and pleasant to him. Over time, his mind becomes detached from bliss, thus attaining the fourth jhāna, which has the “counterpart sign” as its object of attention and only one-pointedness and equanimity (upekkhā) as its constituents.
The difference between joy, bliss and equanimity can be understood by the following example. If someone, thirsty and exhausted in a desert, saw a lake at the edge of an oasis, he would feel joy or delight (pīti). But if he went to the lake and enjoyed the cool water, he would feel bliss or happiness (sukha). If he quenched his thirst and sat under the shade of the trees of the oasis to rest, he would feel equanimity (upekkhā). So, joy is the pleasure one feels from acquiring a desired object, while bliss is the real experience one lives when one acquires it. Where there is joy, there is also bliss. But where there is bliss, there is not necessarily joy, as in the case of the third jhāna.
The Nature of Ecstasies
Although ecstasies are blissful and beatific experiences, it must nevertheless be said that they lack the wisdom of insight and thus are not sufficient in order to attain the ultimate liberation and enlightenment. They themselves are impermanent achievements. However, the high degree of concentration, which on the one hand appeases the five mental obstacles (nīvaraṇa) and on the other hand produces a deep tranquility and ataraxia, can be used for insight meditation (vipassanā).