Meditation practices are typically described under the headings of Samatha meditation or Vipassanā meditation, where samatha is usually translated as calm abiding or tranquility meditation, and vipassanā as insight meditation. In the 1960s, confusion was sown when the Burmese Vipassanā school of Mahasi Sayadaw taught that only a limited level of concentration – access concentration, rather than fully developed jhāna – was necessary for the complete development of insight and, ultimately, enlightenment. As a result, samatha and vipassanā for a while came to be mistakenly regarded as separate traditions, when in fact they are closely interrelated and interdependent.
Also, historically, and for centuries, the samatha component has always been taught creatively, and has been heavily influenced by the particular bent and skills of different teachers. There are also cultural differences to suit different temperaments, so that in Tibet visualisation is strongly emphasised; in Japan emptiness and the blank wall or koan is developed; while in the Yogāvacara traditions of SouthEast Asia and the Khmer Empire, syllablles, yantra, invocation and the “wax-taper practice” are characteristics. All these more esoteric features gave amunition to the so-called “Reform” movement that exploded in 1950s-60s in Thailand to the detriment of established samatha teaching in many temples.
The description that follows is of the core features of samatha-vipassanā, that should be familiar to practitioners no matter what different cultural traditions they may have trained in, although they are here described by someone trained in the Thai-Cambodian tradition.
Mindfulness of breathing, or ānāpānasati, was the main form of samatha meditation taught by the Buddha, and it is a core meditation practice found in all the main Buddhist traditions. In it, samatha is developed progressively to the four rūpa jhānas (form or fine-material absorptions), and to the four arūpa jhānas (formless absorptions), while Insight develops in a completely natural way alongside.
In the West, generally, samatha meditation is only relatively recently becoming better understood. Even in some Buddhist countries, a degree of wariness is often apparent around the “magical” side of Buddhist practice associated with the jhānas, which can lead to these practices being played down, or even restricted in being taught. This was aggravated during the “Reform” period of the 1950s-60s, described later, but samatha meditation has of course survived, and is again attracting renewed interest as the central heart of Buddhist meditation.
The term jhāna is central to samatha practice. Etymologically it has two roots: the first “to think or meditate”, and the second to “burn up” (opposing states, or the hindrances to insight) (see Glossary & Sources, Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga). Thus jhāna is not just still, it is a powerfully active state. Other forms of meditation to develop jhāna, used for specific character types, take different objects than the breath as the focus to develop attention. These include the kasinas, such as a disk of earth, a colour, water, or fire, or an opening onto space, among others. Visualisation of the Buddha is also a popular practice, as is metta, or loving-kindness practice.
While the full development of Ānāpānasati is sometimes seen as daunting, a simplified samatha practice known as Bu-ddho is popular in Southeast Asia. Bu-ddho is a very faith-based practice where the two syllables Bu and Ddho are mentally linked to the in and out breath. Concentration and jhāna develop relatively easily for some meditators using this practice, but often with only limited discrimination between the different jhāna stages. The full development of the jhānas in Ānāpānasati is described in great detail in texts such as the Visuddhimagga and the Vimuttimagga (see Glossary & Sources), and parallel Tibetan texts. However, the detail is sometimes off-putting, and in fact many in the past have believed that jhāna can only properly be developed in seclusion, ideally in a monastic setting.
Many people when they first take up meditation are discouraged to find how little control they have over their minds. Intrusive thoughts, distracting thoughts, sensory distractions, mental “chatter”, over-excitement, dullness, sleepiness etc. This is “normal”, and is the first stage in developing attention, by giving attention to a meditation object such as the breath. The achievement of jhāna may seem a long way away, but these first steps are the most important, and with patience and encouragement the meditation practice will steadily deepen towards more peaceful and concentrated states, leading to the jhānas.
Much of the development of samatha may be described as the development of attention, with an increasingly subtle awareness of feeling and perception. The obstacles to developing attention, such as those mentioned above, are described in the Buddhist texts as the “hindrances”. The language is Buddhist, but the principles behind the hindrances could equally be described in psychological terms, and related to everyday difficulties in maintaining attention, and “interest” in whatever tasks we may be doing. In psychological terms, a familiar example of a problem with attention is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children, characterised by a mix of overstimulation, a need for continued stimulation, and boredom.
The breath as an object of attention is unique, in being always with us. From the first breath when we come out of our mother’s womb, to the last, when we die. Mostly it goes on in the background, unconsciously, never ceasing, but it can be made the focus of conscious attention whenever we choose. It is also intimately linked to our emotional mental state, as is well known to anyone working in mental health. The inhibited breathing of someone deeply depressed is completely different to someone overcome by rage, or in a manic phase of bipolar disorder, or to someone in a delusional psychotic state, or to someone struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder.
Yet despite its central role in our lives, it is at first not a very exciting or interesting object to pay attention to in meditation. In fact it may seem dull and boring. Hence the ease with which our attention wanders, seeking something more interesting, that has more feeling; it is feeling that gives us a sense of continuity, a sense of self. Hence also the reason why other meditation objects such as a colour Kasina, or an image of the Buddha, are initially easier to grasp and to have interest in.
However, it is just this simplicity and neutrality of the breath that gives Ānāpānasati its potential to develop attention fully, through understanding and mastering the hindrances, and developing willpower. Those who persist with Ānāpānasati also find the breath becomes increasingly interesting, increasingly subtle, and even magical in bridging life and death, and is intricately linked to consciousness itself, and the sense of self.
To help the meditator link his/her attention to the breath, the preparatory stages typically progress from mentally counting during the in and out breaths, to following the breath continuously in and out without the need for numbers, to finally fixing the attention on the sensation of touch of the air at the nostril or upper lip. By this stage the meditator is better able to resist distraction, the meditation practice becomes more settled, and becomes more of an internal process of being content with oneself.
As the meditator continues to attend ever more peacefully to the sensation of touch of the air, the breath becomes more subtle, and the meditator’s attention becomes in turn more sensitive and subtle. At this stage the meditator will “sense” his attention deepening by certain “signs”, which is the usual translation of the pāli word nimitta. The nimitta is the mark or sign, for that particular meditator, that characterises his or her awareness and its intensity, or concentration. For example, in everyday life joy and happiness may be accompanied by a sense of lightness of body and mind, sometimes tears, and sometimes a prickling of the fine hairs on the arms or head. These are the signs of joy and happiness. In breathing mindfulness, the nimitta is the sign of a deepening attention to the breath, and of a turning away from dependence on outer sense objects. The sign may be tactile – such as a sense of touch across the face, or, even more subtly, simply a sense of the mind touching the experience itself. But it may also for some meditators be visual – like a diffuse light, a colour, sometimes a tiny point of light, or clear and bright like the full moon.
The arising of a nimitta is a significant stage for a meditator. Without giving attention to the details of the nimitta – i.e. resisting the urge to label or “re-cognise” it – the meditator settles his or her attention onto the nimitta in order to further deepen their meditation towards more complete absorption, i.e. jhāna. The nimitta acts as a guide (see also the nimitta and neurofeedback).
Attending to the nimitta and becoming more confident and “interested” in the experience, the meditator settles into progressively calmer mental states, as though guided by the nimitta as part of an instinctive process of becoming increasingly peaceful and absorbed.
In the 1st rūpa jhāna, the meditator refines two (of the 5) jhāna factors, vitakka and vicāra. Vitakka (application of attention) describes the meditator placing his/her attention onto the nimitta, and vicāra (sustained attention) as sustaining that attention. A simile in the Visuddhimagga is a Bell; the clear strike of the bell is vitakka, and the ongoing reverberation is vicāra. When the meditator masters vitakka and vicāra, it is as though the reverberation of the bell never completely ceases, even though inaudible; the meditator is able to rest in the balanced attentional state with confidence, with no urge to disturb that balance by seeking another object, or to reassure him/herself of contact with the nimitta by another act of vitakka.
After becoming familiar with how to prepare for and develop the 1st rūpa jhāna, the meditator considers that it is still relatively “coarse” in being prone to slipping back into discursive thought and awareness of external sense impressions. He/she then resolves to reestablish jhāna without dependence on vitakka and vicāra. The meditator’s practice now moves naturally into the 2nd rūpa jhāna, characterised by the three remaining jhāna factors, pīti (energetic interest), sukha (mental bliss), and ekagattā (one-pointedness of mind). This is now a more internal state, further removed from the external world. There is sufficient interest and pleasant feeling that attention can be held by that interest and feeling alone in a more effortless manner. Pīti is not a feeling, itself, although pleasant feeling develops as a consequence of the energetic interest. Pīti is experienced in the body and felt as an energisation, which can be mild such as prickling of the hairs on the arms, or head or elsewhere on the body, or stronger causing the body to vibrate or shake, or jump. Sukha however is purely a mental feeling, ranging from simple contentment through to deep bliss.
A simile for the 2nd rūpa jhāna is a clear, still Pool of Water, nothing needs to be added, and nothing leaks away. This is now a predominantly feeling state accompanied by an increasing sense of absorption, satisfaction and joy. After becoming familiar with how to prepare for and develop the 2nd rūpa jhāna, and as the meditator’s confidence grows with pīti and sukha permeating body and mind, the meditator considers that the 2nd rūpa jhāna is even so relatively “coarse” and prone to disturbance in the body through the energy of pīti. Like the still pool of water, the desire for excitement and stimulation fades, and the meditator reestablishes, this time the 3rd rūpa jhāna, characterised by just the two remaining factors, the purely mental satisfaction and bliss of sukha, and ekagattā, one-pointedness of mind. Any disturbance in the body has now faded, pīti has become tranquillised (not suppressed) into the absorption and any risk of falling back into cognitive processes of vitakka and vicāra is now remote.
The simile here is a Lotus Flower, pure and unsullied, risen clear above the still pool of water. The experience is of deep satisfaction and bliss, and of feeling for the first time fully conscious.
While the breath/nimitta and any sense of nāma-rūpa (subject-object) has become very subtle in the 3rd rūpa jhāna, the meditation can deepen still further into the perfectly balanced 4th rūpa jhāna. Indeed, as the meditator becomes more familiar with the 3rd rūpa jhāna, its tranquility and balance become as satisfying as the quality of sukha, already presaging the equanimity or upekkhā of the 4th rūpa jhāna. Pain has been let go in the first three jhānas, and now in the 4th jhāna any dependence on sukha or any need for satisfaction is also let go. The experience is of a pure and perfect balance, fully absorbed, characterised by equanimity.
The simile is of being completely covered by a fine White Cloth perfectly protected from any disturbance of pleasure or pain, experiencing the bliss of upekkhā. In the Vimuttimagga it is said that “the experiencing of the mind is the state of the fourth meditation jhāna”.
The equanimity of the 4th rūpa jhāna is closely linked to letting go of attachment to either pleasure or pain. Rather than being cut off from feeling, it may be more accurate to say it is a “neither-nor” state, in some respects similar to the neither-nor quality of the 3rd and particularly the 4th arūpa jhānas.
Despite the perfection of the 4th rūpa jhāna, it is still limited. There is still dependence on the nimitta as object, that is, as a rūpa, even though the depth of absorption is such that the nāma-rūpa split in perception is extremely subtle. Therefore the 4th rūpa jhāna is still part of the realm of form with a thread running directly back to the beginnings of mastering attention in developing the jhānas. If a meditator’s practice continues to develop, a stage may come when the meditator might wish to transcend this limitation, to become free of dependence on the realm of form.
The wish to be free or to transcend this dependence on form is intricately connected to the meditator’s sense of self, which in normal life depends on the “reflections” we receive and exchange with others living in the realm of form; beginning, in this life, with what we see after birth in our mother’s face. The wish to proceed further to develop the formless jhānas is increasingly a process of developing insight into the “Self”, or, in Buddhist terms, wisdom, and eventually enlightenment, nibbāna. Although insight necessarily develops as part of developing the rūpa jhānas - progression would be impossible without weakening attachment - the arūpa jhānas mark a development specifically into exploring the nature of self, and perception. Vipassanā proper. There are some who argue that the formless spheres are not strictly speaking jhānas, and that they can be experienced without mastering rūpa jhāna, and who prefer to refer to them as āyatanas, or formless spheres. Others regard them as extensions of the 4th rūpa jhāna. Ultimately it is up to the meditator to understand for themselves from direct experience For convenience, we continue to refer to them here as the formless jhānas.
Letting go of attachment to the nimitta, the meditator brings to mind the idea of limitless space, and develops the 1st arūpa jhāna, the Sphere of the Infinity of Space (in pāli, ākāsānañcāyatana). Perception becomes more subtle than in the previous form jhānas, and does not depend on comparison of detail or difference. Space is infinite, and so there is nothing to “recognise” through differences. The meditator does not seek to discriminate any object or rupa whatsoever, so the limitation of a finite rupa as object does not arise, leaving limitless “space”. The pāli word, ākāsa, is normally translated as “space”, yet it does not imply simply “nothing”. Nor can we say it is “something”, since that would imply it had become a limited object or rupa. Without the idea of space, we cannot imagine objects. Also, ākāsa derives from the root kas, which implies radiance, but in this case not light as an object; perhaps more as an alive potential. In some mystical traditions ākāsa is thought of as containing a record of everything that has ever happened, but also everything that will ever come to pass in the future. In 1969, Lama Anagarika Govinda wrote “In the moment in which a being becomes conscious of his consciousness, he becomes conscious of space. In the moment in which he becomes conscious of the infinity of space, he realises the infinity of consciousness” (Lama Anagarika Govinda (1969) The Foundation of Tibetan Mysticism).
A visual simile, such as those used in the rūpa jhānas, is not helpful since it would simply become an object, and part of the realm of form. How then does a meditator approach this meditation? The meditator may find it helpful to set a direction to his/her will by gazing at a cloudless sky for some moments outside of meditation, linking the experience to mentally sounding the word “Space… Space”, or “ākāsa… ākāsa”. In this way, briefly recollecting “Space… Space”, or “ākāsa… ākāsa” at the point of wishing to develop the 1st arūpa jhāna may serve as an impulse or “wish” that allows the meditator to let go of limits, to enter the experience of the sphere of limitless space. In the Yogāvacara tradition this is to use syllables as Invocation. Through not depending on form, the meditator experiences freedom from dependence on form and from the sense spheres in the 1st arūpa jhāna.
While dwelling on infinite space, the meditator’s perception necessarily implies consciousness of infinite space, although since the meditator is “within” that consciousness, the consciousness itself is not attended to. By the mental act of “adverting” to the consciousness of perceiving infinite space, the meditator enters the 2nd arūpa jhāna, the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness (viññānañcāyatana). As above, a meditator may use the words “Consciousness… Consciousness“, or “viññāna… viññāna” as the impulse to enter the 2nd arūpa jhāna directly. Describing the 2nd arūpa jhāna, the Vimuttimagga enigmatically states, “He attends to that consciousness as infinite with which space is filled”.
The first two arūpa jhānas may be considered an interdependent pair, in that the meditator moves between the opposite poles of the process of perception. Even having moved to the pole of infinite consciousness, the other pole, Space, is there in potential, since the 2nd arūpa jhāna arose from that base. Awareness of this interdependence, allows the meditator to move to a central position, identified with neither pole, although both are there in potential. The meditator holds a position of concentration where he/she is “in-between”, resisting any urge to identify with a self-consciousness as observer, nor of any awareness of something to perceive, until the in-between position itself becomes fixed and secure. This is the Sphere of Nothingness (ākiñcaññāyatana), the 3rd arūpa jhāna. The words “Nothing… Nothing” or “Empty… Empty” may be helpful.
At this stage one might wonder, what could be more subtle, what else is there to let go of? This approaches the question, “Who Perceives”? Even in the fine balance of the 3rd arūpa jhāna, any movement from that balance can result in a moment of consciousness, of the type we are familiar with where there is still a sense of ourselves, no matter how subtle. Is there any alternative? Is there any other kind of perception that does not depend on seeking an object, again no matter how subtle. This question goes to the heart of Buddhist practice, the idea that mundane states of consciousness are driven by a drive to sustain an ongoing sense of self, or in Buddhist terms, are rooted in ignorance or not-knowing.
The 4th arūpa jhāna, in pali is n’evasaññā-n’āsaññāyatana, the Sphere of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception. The Vimuttimagga, in attempting to describe this jhāna refers to a mental position without coarse perception (i.e. “Neither Perception”, n’evasaññā), but also without an absence of any perception at all (i.e. “Nor Non-Perception”, n’āsaññā). In this sense, coarse perception is that perception associated with the “near enemy” of mundane consciousness that serves to support our conventional ongoing sense of self. It seems that the 4th arūpa jhāna is “different” to the preceding jhānas, in being characterised by a different kind of “fine perception”, as in the description of the Vimuttimagga. The 4th arūpa jhāna therefore seems intricately linked to the Insight or Wisdom stages of Buddhist practice, namely the three “signs” of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anattā), and particularly the last of these. The words “Neither perception, nor non-perception” or the pāli, “n’evasaññā-n’asaññā” may be helpful as an invocation or prompt. (“a” in front of a word in pāli negates the word following, as in rūpa, form, and arūpa, formless; and as in saññā, perception, and asaññā, non-perception. In the Khmer mantra tradition of Southeast Asia “A" is regarded as a magical syllable, and particularly in this case of the 4th arūpa jhāna the use of the pāli words may be more potent than the English translations.)
Although the above is an attempt to convey something of the flavour of samatha-vipassanā meditation, most of us, if not all, need the help of a teacher to develop jhāna and avoid confusion. For example, some meditators as they develop concentration, without sufficient mindfulness, may drop into bhavanga - a state of stillness similar to deep sleep - and misinterpret this as jhāna, or even as enlightenment or cessation. It is also possible to “construct” the experience of jhāna without being fully integrated within it. In both cases a teacher may be needed to clarify what is experienced. As said in the Sutta Nipata of the Majjhima Nikāya, “Yena yena hi maññanti, tato naṁ hoti aññatha”, “In whatever way they conceive [think], it turns out to be otherwise”. Because of the subtleties involved, and the wide range of temperaments of meditators, teaching has historically been an oral tradition. What was written down was often brief and enigmatic, almost as aides memoire, and may have been for the benefit of a particular group rather than claimed as an absolute teaching applicable to all. This seems to be the case for some of the palm-leaf manuscripts mentioned earlier discovered in Cambodia and Thailand in recent years. The situation may be not unlike the proliferation of “tantras” found in Tibet. With this in mind, care is required in reading these texts, particularly to see them in the context of one’s own meditational experiences.
However, certain themes are common in the yogāvacara materials: for example, Invocation; Jhāna; Pīti; and the use of syllables and yantra. There is also a great deal of maternal symbolism; of a parallel to uterine development, and a reworking of the birth process, but into a different lineage.
Both the Yogāvacara’s Manual and The Path of Lanka (see Glossary & Sources) start with invocations to the lineage and goal of the teaching. This establishes a continuity and direction of practice, to link the aspirant into the wider lineage, and to set the direction of the practices to follow.
In the Yogāvacara’s Manual, this involves (in Pali or Sinhalese) taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and recollecting the qualities of each, followed by recitation of the Metta Sutta. Then follows a dedication of merit, to teachers, supporters, mother and father, and all beings, and an aspiration towards Nibbāna. In the Path of Lanka, the Invocation is a Khmer version of salutation to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and a request to the teacher to be given the two subjects of meditation (kammathana), samatha and vipassanā. There then follows a section taken directly from the Mahānikaya ordination ritual, to acknowledge to the teacher any faults, and be forgiven them, and for a transference of merit between teacher and aspirant.
Jhāna and Pīti
Unlike the view that gained ground in Burma and Thailand in the 1950-60s “Reform” period, that jhāna is not necessary to develop wisdom and enlightenment, in the pre-reform Yogāvacara material, jhāna and pīti are core factors. To develop and master jhāna is regarded as essential. The emphasis on understanding pīti however is very interesting, since it is given a role far beyond a simple mention as one of the five factors in rūpa jhāna. The meditator is given the goal of aspiring to experience 5 degrees of pīti, described differently in different manuscipts. In the Path of Lanka as: cool shivers; that permeate the body; waves that flood the body; of being raised and gliding; of the body emptying and inflating. And in the Yogāvacara’s Manual as: the lesser thrill; the momentary flash; the flooding rapture; the transporting rapture; the all-pervading rapture. And, further, to make the link between the experience of pīti and the experience of the mental image, the nimitta. The descriptions in the yogāvacara texts are enigmatic and confusing, and do not correspond clearly, for example, to the descriptions of pīti and the nimitta in other texts such as the Visuddhimagga.
In practice, the aspirant draws on the magical quality of the descriptions, given orally by his/her teacher, as an invocation to find his own understanding through direct experience. In fact, the importance of pīti is to ensure the body is fully involved in developing jhāna, that nothing is left out; and to follow the development of the Bojjangas, or Factors of Enlightenment, where pīti is followed by passadhi (tranquilisation), and then samādhi and uppekha, equanimity, the quality of the 4th rūpa jhāna and the arūpa jhānas.
Syllables and Yantra
The rūpa in rūpa jhāna is translated as “fine material”. This captures the increasing subtlety of objects of the mind in meditation, which become as much mind-made as conventional objects of the senses. The use of syllables and yantra, as sketched in an earlier section, helps soften the attachment we have to certainty. A yantra drawn with intent and in a single stroke, with concentration and mindfulness, and then adorned with syllables fitting the intent, is similar to creating a mind-made fine material body, that can become a container or aid for the meditator’s experience. And similarly if a syllable is intoned with concentration and mindfulness, and intent, then at the end of the sound the intended state may instantly arise. The meditator by intent, “just goes there, directly”.
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