When the Buddha spoke about meditation, he spoke about samādhi. The word samādhi comes from ‘sam-a-dha’, which means as much as ‘gathering’, ‘uniting’ or ‘unifying’ the mind.
In other words: concentration.
The word samādhi is almost synonymous with the word samatha (calm) and samatha meditation is the meditation method by which one develops samādhi.
Concentration is a condition for the development of insight, and the level of concentration required as a prerequisite for insight is many times higher than is often thought.
It’s not a question of breathing a few times and then it’s quiet enough, but the ability to keep the mind fully focused on an object of your choice whenever you want, without the emergence of a single thought or other mental disturbance.
Only when the mind is calm and serene, manageable, malleable, light and workable is it able to perceive the rise and fall of phenomena, the transience of nāma-rūpa (the mental processes and matter).
Without concentration, the mind is simply not pure and sharp enough to observe this process.
Through the practice of samatha meditation you develop the foundation upon which true liberating insight can manifest itself.
Read on for more information about:
- The Path of Samatha Meditation
- Samatha Meditation on Buddho
- Samatha Meditation and ‘Mindfulness’
- Samatha vs Vipassanā
Just as the water of the great ocean has but one taste, that of salt, so this Dhamma-Vinaya has but one taste, that of liberation… Just as the water of the great ocean gradually slopes, bends and undulates, and there is no sudden abyss, so in this Dhamma-Vinaya there is a gradual practice, a gradual course, a gradual progress, and there is no sudden penetration of true knowledge.Buddha, Ud 5:5
The Path of Samatha Meditation
When practicing samatha meditation, at first it may seem as if the mind is only becoming more restless. This is because you look at your mental processes with an increasing magnifying glass and will perceive your resltessness with increasing refinement.
Every time you reach a new point of calm you become aware that even this point is essentially still restless.
In his book “The Heart of Compassion” the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche writes beautifully about this process by describing five stages of concentration:
(1) Meditation like a waterfall pouring down over a cliff. The thoughts continuously follow one another , and at first seem even more numerous than usual, because you have become aware of the mind’s movement.
(2) Meditation like a river rushing through mountain gorges. The mind alternates between periods of calm and turbulence.
(3) Meditation like a wide river flowing easily. The mind moves when disturbed by circumstances, but otherwise rests calmly.
(4) Meditation like a lake lightly ruffled by surface ripples. The mind is slightly agitated on the surface, but remains calm and present in its depth.
(5) Meditation like a still Ocean. An unshakeable, effortless concentration in which antidots to discursive thoughts are redundant.
With samatha meditation on buddho you try to achieve the highest possible concentration. That is the foundation for wisdom.
Slowly but Surely
The path of samatha meditation is not a fast path. Is is the gradual path to liberation as taught by the Buddha.
Samatha meditation requires courage, perseverance, patience and loving-kindness (mettā).
However, these qualities do not have to be present at the start of the practice. You develop them naturally as your meditation practice progresses.
Thoughts such as “I can’t meditate” can therefore be left aside. Anyone who puts time into the meditation process takes steps, slowly but surely.
Do not meditate with desire for concentration or insight, for this longing is nothing less than a new hindrance in itself.
Taking the time to meditate is enough, no matter what happens afterwards. It’s just a matter of continuing and trying again and again.
Slowly but surely. Maybe 10 minutes or 20 minutes a day, but meditate every day, that is very important.
Ahba very often emphasizes the patient and gradual development of the mind.
The Dhamma (the truth) so he says, is very beautiful if you see it slowly, little by little. What you get quickly you also lose quickly, but what you have worked hard for, what has come slowly, that satys with you for a long time.
When you meditate on buddho your mind slowly becomes pure and clear. Concentration can then arise and you become receptive to wisdom. With this wisdom you know how things work, in yourself and in the world.
Your life then becomes very easy.
Through meditating on buddho you develop a clean and clear mind. In a clean and clear mind concentration can develop. With concentration comes wisdom. In this way you get true knowledge, and with it an easy and happy life.Ahba
Samatha Meditation on Buddho
In the practice of samatha meditation the mind is focused on a specific object.
The Buddha taught 40 such meditation objects. He never said that one object is better than another, they can all be used to achieve concentration.
We practice samatha meditation on buddho by listening to the sound one makes by repeating the word buddho (spoken as “bodaw”) out loud over and over again.
This is a form of buddhanusati meditation, the recollection of the qualities of the Buddha, one of the meditation objects recommended by the Buddha.
Traditionally one actively reflects on these qualities during buddhanusati meditation to generate inspiration and energy for example. Samatha meditation on buddho is a derivative of this method.
The sound created by repeating buddho out loud represents and embodies the qualities of the Buddha. During this meditation there should be only one intention, one object in the mind, namely the Buddha.
In essence the practice is to listen to the sound and do nothing else. The rest happens on it’s own.
It’s very simple.
So the meditation method is easy, but the mind is not easy, it makes difficulties. That’s why continuous practice is so important. If you try to focus your mind on buddho over and over again, day in, day out, it will become easier by itself.
As the strength of your mind and the depth of your concentration on buddho increases, you connect to the qualities of the Buddha at a deeper and deeper level and enliven them in yourself to an ever-increasing degree.
Inner Silence through Meditation on Sound
Ahba, our teacher, emphasizes that concentration on sound as an object is very suitable for our western mind.
With samatha meditation you try to calm your mind, but at first your mind does not want to be calm at all. It resists the inner silence.
If you don’t yet have concentration, everything that can distract you is an extra obstacle, an extra possibility for the mind not to be still. Especially seeing or hearing things makes it very difficult to get concentration.
Visual input can easily be switched off by simply closing your eyes. With sound it is a different story. If you live in a city, there is a good chance that you will always hear sound around you. A moped driving by, a siren, the neighbors, etc.
By using sound as a meditation object the hearing and therefore the mind can be further protected against external distractions.
Another advantage of meditation on sound is the increasing clarity that comes with increasing concentration. With meditation on breathing, for example, the clarity of the object (the breath at the tip of the nose) decreases with increasing concentration. With sound one hears more and more layers with increasing concentration, and this can cause an upward spiral of concentration to be generated.
But it’s all about Insight isn’t it?
Ahba teaches that developing insight through vipassanā–meditation (insight meditation) is meaningless as long as there is no foundation of concentration. After all, you do not build a house without a foundation either.
Only when there is a solid foundation do you build the walls and place the roof. Furnishing the house is then an easy matter.
Concentration is the foundation. Only once concentration is deep and solid will there be room for wisdom to arise.
Ahba gives a window through which you look outside as an example. If the window is dirty you can’t see what’s going on outside. If you clean the window a little, you can look through it a little. If you have cleaned the window completely you can see through it without distortion. It is the same with purifying the mind through concentration meditation after which you can see things as they really are.
By meditating on buddho you build a very strong foundation. Ahba uses this meditation as a key to open the gate to concentration, after which another object can be used if that helps to bring about further deepening.
If concentration has become deep, firm and reliable in the sense that it always arises as soon as you sit down, then it is possible, for example, to switch to the mental recitation of buddho or to meditation objects such as mettā (loving-kindness), marana (death), anapana (breathing) or vipassanā (insight).
However, this is not strictly necessary. Ultimately it is possible to use samatha meditation on buddho to achieve such a high concentration that all sensory doors can be closed and only the mind focused on the Buddha remains.
The wisdom of the Buddha then comes along in the wake of this concentration, and liberation can be achieved.
There are the roots of trees; there are secluded dwellings. Practice concentration, monks. Do not be careless. Have no regrets later. That’s my message to you.
Buddha, SN 35:145
Samatha Meditation and ‘Mindfulness’
The word ‘mindfulness’ as an indication for a meditation system found its entry in the west when John Kabat-Zinn started his program of ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction’ (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979.
Since then, mindfulness has been used by therapists in the treatment of stress, pain, anxiety, etc. It has also found it’s way into companies and there are now many books that link mindfulness to daily activities such as cooking, flower arranging, walking, working, etc.
The mindfulness phenomenon has become big business. However, mindfulness has its origins in the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. There it has a very prominent place in the way that leads to liberation from suffering.
Modern ‘mindfulness’ is completely detached from this deep doctrine in order to make it more accessible for Western people.
For the record, there is nothing wrong with the use of mindfulness as therapy. However, when one begins with the Buddhist path to liberation through samatha meditation, ‘mindfulness’ takes on a different charge.
We start with the translation ‘mindfulness’. This is a translation of the Buddhist term sati.
Bhikkhu Bodhi talks about the meaning of sati in his essay What does mindfulness really mean:
I believe it is this aspect of sati that provides the connection between its two primary canonical meanings: as memory and as lucid awareness of present happenings. Sati makes the apprehended object stand forth vividly and distinctly before the mind. When the object being cognized pertains to the past-when it is apprehended as something that was formerly done, perceived, or spoken-its vivid presentation takes the form of memory. When the object is a bodily process like in-and-out breathing or the act of walking back and forth, or when it is a mental event like a feeling or thought, its vivid presentation takes the form of lucid awareness of the present.
In the Pali suttas, sati has still other roles in relation to meditation but these reinforce its characterization in terms of lucid awareness and vivid presentation. For example, the texts include as types of mindfulness recollection of the Buddha (buddhānussati), contemplation of the repulsiveness of the body (asubhasaññā), and mindfulness of death (maraṇasati); for each brings its objective domain vividly before the mind. The Mettā Sutta even refers to meditation on lovingkindness as a kind of mindfulness. In each of these cases, the object is a conceptual phenomenon-the qualities of the Buddha, the repulsiveness of the body, the inevitability of death, or lovable living beings-yet the mental pose that attends to them is designated mindfulness. What unites them, from the side of the subject, is the lucidity and vivacity of the act of awareness, and from the side of the object, its vivid presentation.
Sati is often divided into four Satipaṭṭhāna s, i.e. four foundations of conscious attention. These are four distinct areas on which attention can focus to develop sati. The four are body, sensation, awareness and dhamas.
We will not go further into these four here but refer to the excellent account of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta by Bhikkhu Analaya in his book Satipatthana, the Direct Path to Realization or our own tekst Mindfulness According to the Buddha.
The Role of Sati in the Development of Samādhi
Ahba teaches that sati cannot be seen separately from samādhi (concentration).
Sati should be practised as often as possible during the day. If you have weak sati you get low concentration, firm sati gives high concentration.
You should therefore always know your mind, knowing where it is, and during meditation keep the mind focused on the meditation object.
Sati is not the goal in itself but one of the factors of the process.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes about this in his text “The Path of Concentration and Mindfulness“:
Many people tell us that the Buddha taught two different types of meditation — mindfulness meditation and concentration meditation. Mindfulness meditation, they say, is the direct path, while concentration practice is the scenic route that you take at your own risk because it’s very easy to get caught there and you may never get out. But when you actually look at what the Buddha taught, he never separates these two practices. They are both parts of a single whole. Every time he explains mindfulness and its place in the path, he makes it clear that the purpose of mindfulness practice is to lead the mind into a state of Right Concentration — to get the mind to settle down and to find a place where it can really feel stable, at home, where it can look at things steadily and see them for what they are.
Sati, whether you translate it with mindfulness, lucid awareness or conscious attention is thus an important part of the entire Buddhist path of morality, concentration and wisdom that leads to the release from desire, complete liberation.
The purpose and benefit of wholesome virtuous behavior is non-regret; the purpose and benefit of non-regret is joy; …of joy is rapture; …of rapture is tranquility; …of tranquility is pleasure; …of pleasure is concentration; …of concentration is the knowledge and vision of things as they really are; …of the knowledge and vision of things as they really are is disenchantment and dispassion; and the purpose and benefit of disenchantment and dispassion is the knowledge and vision of liberation.Buddha, AN 10:1
Samatha vs Vipassanā
Vipassanā means as much as ‘insight’ and is often translated as insight meditation. Sometimes this is seen as a separate form of Buddhist meditation.
Many people immediately want this insight in the assumption that this is what it is all about. They have heard that the direct practice of vipassanā without prior high concentration is the quickest way.
What perhaps not everyone realizes is that the form of vipassanā as practiced today is quite new.
It is almost always a derivative of the so-called “New Burmese Method” founded by Mahasi Sayadaw, a very prominent teacher of the 20th century.
Mahasi Sayadaw recognised the great importance of samatha meditation, but thought it would be too frustrating for many people to follow the path of concentration from the onset.
Therefore, he taught vipassanā, so that those for whom meditation would otherwise be too frustrating could start, in order to be able to develop concentration later on. In this way he made meditation more accessible.
If you look at the texts of Ledi Sayadaw, another ancestor of contemporary vipassanā, they emphasize (for example in his work Bodhipakkhiya Dipani) time and again in a very confronting tone the importance of concentration combined with insight and the inability of many contemporary people to sufficiently concentrate their mind for the development of insight.
Why is Vipassanā better known than Samatha?
That the vipassanā meditation method has become so well known as a stand-alone system that it has become almost synonymous with Buddhist meditation in the West, is not because it is a better meditation system than samatha meditation, but because of social and political circumstances.
Mahasi Sayadaw had well known and wealthy Burmese disciples who promoted vipassanā by setting up meditation centers. These centers were later allowed to continue by the military junta and were not seen as a threat, while the junta was afraid of the samatha meditation teachers.
The mental power and the pure mind of samatha teachers were a threat because they generally did not follow the course the junta had taken. There was therefore a ban on teaching samatha meditation and teachers who became known for their concentration were persecuted.
This was also the case with Ahba who finally had to flee Myanmar after more and more high government officials came to him for advice and the junta felt increasingly threatend.
Because of this it was vipassanā with which the first western practitioners came into contact when they first arrived in Myanmar to learn meditation. They in turn took the system with them to Europe and America.
Over the years, the original thought of Mahasi Sayadaw seems to have been forgotten, especially with regard to the importance of concentration, and nowedays vipassanā teachers sometimes speak with disdain about concentration.
Isn’t Vipassanā the Highest and Samatha Dangerous?
Nowadays it is often said that vipassanā is the highest and best, and samatha is not important or even should be avoided.
Sometimes people even state that concentration is dangerous because the pleasure of high concentration would be so great that it would lead to new and strong desire.
Often, in this context, reference is also made to the jhānas, states of extremely deep concentration in which the mind is fully absorbed with the object on which it is directed.
As for this possible danger as a reason for not developing concentration, it is best to turn to the Buddha himself.
The Buddha very often speaks of jhāna when he speaks of meditation and repeatedly encourages the monks to pursue it as a prerequisite for wisdom.
Nowhere in the ancient scriptures does he indicate that you should not develop concentration because it would be dangerous.
But even Ledi Sayadaw, one of the previously mentioned ancestors of the modern vipassana movement, is very clear about this:
Only the sages with great achievement can become mast of the jhāna and use them as a basis for insight. Nevertheless, all forms of kusala (wholesome) – of which samatha (concentration) is one of the highest – should be developed, for all kusala support insight.
Appart from this achieving high concentration, let alone jhāna, is all too easily thought of in the West nowedays. As if you immediately run the risk of getting attached to jhāna as soon as you start samatha meditation.
Just to nuance this: Ahba has indicated that today there is hardly anyone who can achieve jhāna because of the immense mental purity it requires.
Samatha: the Condition for Insight
Like the Buddha, Ahba also teaches concentration as a prerequisite for insight.
To emphasize the importance of developing concentration before developing insight, Ahba gives the example of a body:
If you have a dirty body, full of scabs, pustules, blood and deformities, and you hang jewels around it, for example a necklace and earrings, is it suddenly a beautiful body? No! If you have a clean body, completely clean, no spots or deformations, soft and supple, but without jewels, is this then a beautiful body? Yes! Suppose you hang hewels around this beautiful body, does it then become even more beautiful? Yes! It’s the same with concentration and insight. Without concentration, the mind is like a dirty body on which you try to hang jewels with vipassanā. The clean, clear, pure and workable concentrated mind is like the clean body, for which the jewels of insight are truely fitting.
At the teacher’s instruction, if the concentration is good, vipassanā (insight) can be practiced without difficulty. Because then the foundation is very good, vipassanā is easy and the acquisition of wisdom happens on it’s own.
Without concentration, the practice of vipassanā is meaningless.
Concentration works directly against desire. If the mind is concentrated then there is no desire, and it is desire that stands at the source of all our suffering.
The idea that a road is the “quickest” fits modern man. The development of the mind through meditation, however, has no quickest way.
The Buddha taught the way of morality, concentration and wisdom, and it is not possible to just skip the part of concentration because we think we no longer need it.
The development of the mind requires patience, dedication and effort, but every step is one.
Whomever wonders if Ahba is the only one who speaks out against the development of insight without concentration could for example read the texts by great meditation masters and teachers like Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Sao, Ajahn Thate, Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Sumedho or Pa-Auk Sayadaw.
Without morality no concentration, without concentration no wisdom, without wisdom no further development of morality and concentration.
There is no ‘quickest’ way.