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BUDDHIST MEDITATION

Anagarika Sugathananda

(Former Mr. Francis Story)

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Vol. VII, No. 4, 1960


          The mental exercise known as meditation is found in all religious systems. Prayer is a form of discursive meditation, and in Hinduism the reciting of slokas and mantras is employed to tranquillise the mind to a state of receptivity. In most of these systems the goal is identified with the particular psychic results that ensue, sometimes very quickly, and the visions that come in the semi-trance state, or the sounds that are heard, are considered to be the end-result of the exercise. This is not the case in the forms of meditation practised in Buddhism.

          There is still comparatively little known about the mind, its functions and its powers, and it is difficult for most people to distinguish between self-hypnosis, the development of mediumistic states, and the real process of mental clarification and direct perception which is the object of Buddhist mental concentration. The fact that mystics of every religion have induced in themselves states wherein they see visions and hear voices that are in accordance with their own religious beliefs indicates that their meditation has resulted only in bringing to the surface of the mind and objectifying the concepts already embedded in the deepest strata of their subconscious minds. The Christian sees and converses with the saints of whom he already knows; the Hindu visualises the gods of the Hindu pantheon, and so on. When Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the Bengali mystic, began to turn his thoughts towards Christianity, he saw visions of Jesus in his meditations, in place of the Hindu Avatars of his former visions. The practised hypnotic subject becomes more and more readily able to surrender himself to the suggestions made to him by the hypnotiser, and anyone who has studied this subject is bound to see a connection between the mental state of compliance he has reached and the facility with which the mystic can induce whatever kind of experiences he wills himself to undergo. There is still another possibility latent in the practice of meditation: the development of mediumistic faculties by which the subject can actually see and hear beings on different planes of existences, the Devalokas and the realm of the unhappy ghosts, for example. These worlds being nearest to our own are the more readily accessible, and this is the true explanation of the psychic phenomena of Western Spiritualism.

          The object of Buddhist meditation, however, is none of these things. They arise as side-products, but not only are they not its goal, but they are hindrances which have to be overcome. The Christian who has seen Jesus, or the Hindu who has conversed with Bhagavan Krishna may be quite satisfied that he has fulfilled the purpose of his religious life, but the Buddhist who sees a vision of the Buddha knows by that very fact that he has only succeeded in objectifying a concept in his own mind, for the Buddha after his Parinibbana is, in His own words, no longer visible to gods or men.

          There is an essential difference, then, between Buddhist meditation and concentration and that practised in other systems. The Buddhist embarking on a course of meditation does well to recognise this difference and to establish in his own conscious mind a clear idea of what it is he is trying to do.

          The root cause of rebirth and suffering is Avijja conjoined with and reacting upon Tanha . These two causes form a vicious circle: on the one hand, concepts, the result of ignorance, and desire arising from concepts. The world of phenomena has no meaning beyond the meaning given to it by our own interpretation. When that interpretation is conditioned by Avijja we are subject to the state known as Vipallasa, or hallucination. Sanna-vipallasa, hallucination of perception, Citta-vipalIasa, hallucination of consciousness, and Ditthi-vipaIlasa, hallucination of views, cause us to regard that which is impermanent (Anicca) as permanent; that which is painful (Dukkha) as a source of pleasure, and that which is unreal (Anatta), or literally, without any self-existence, as being a real, self-existing entity. Consequently, we place a false interpretation on all the sensory experiences we gain through the six channels of cognition, that is, the eye, ear, nose, tongue, sense of touch and mind (Cakkhu, Sota, Ghana, Jhivha, Kaya and Mano ayatanas). Physics, by showing that the realm of phenomena we know through these channels of cognition does not really correspond to the physical world known to science, has confirmed this Buddhist truth. We are deluded by our own senses. Pursuing what we imagine to be desirable, an object of pleasure, we are in reality only following a shadow, trying to grasp a mirage. It is Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta—impermanent, associated with suffering, and insubstantial. Being so, it can only be the cause of impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality, since like begets like; and we ourselves, who chase the illusion, are also impermanent, subject to suffering and without any persistent ego-principle. It is a case of a shadow pursuing a shadow.

          The purpose of Buddhist meditation, therefore, is to gain a more than intellectual understanding of this truth, to liberate ourselves from the delusion and thereby put an end both to Ignorance and Craving. If the meditation does not produce results tending to this consummation—results which are observable in the character and the whole attitude to life—it is clear that there is some thing wrong either with the system or with the method of employing it. It is not enough to see lights, to have visions or to experience ecstasy. These phenomena are too common to be impressive to the Buddhist who really understands the purpose of' Buddhist meditation. There are actual dangers in them which are apparent to one who is also a student of psycho-pathology.

          In the Buddha's great Discourse on the practice of mindfulness, the Maha-Satipatthana Sutta*, both the object and the means of attaining it are clearly set forth. Attentiveness to the movements of the body, to the ever-changing states of the mind, is to be cultivated in order that their real nature should be known. Instead of identifying these physical and mental phenomena with the false concept of "Self", we are to see the as they really are: movements of a physical body, an aggregate of the Four Mahabhutas**, subject to physical laws of causality on the one hand, and on the other a flux of successive phases of consciousness arising and passing away in response to external stimuli. They are to be viewed objectively, as though they were processes not associated with ourselves but belonging to another order of phenomena.

          From what can selfishness and egotism proceed if not from the concept of "Self" (Sakkayaditthi)? If the practice of any form of meditation leaves selfishness or egotism unabated, it has not been successful. A tree is judged by its fruits and a man by his actions; there is no other criterion. Particularly is this true in Buddhist psychology, because the man is his actions. In the truest sense they, or the continuity of Kamma and Vipaka which they represent, are the only claim he can make to any persistent identity, not only through the different phases of this life but also from one life to another. Attentiveness with regard to body and mind serves to break down the illusion of self, and not only that; it also cuts off craving and attachment to external objects, so that ultimately there is neither the "self" that craves nor any object of craving. It is a long and arduous discipline, and one that can only be undertaken in retirement from the world and its cares. Yet even a temporary retirement, a temporary course of this discipline, can bear good results in that it establishes an attitude of mind which can be applied to some degree in the ordinary situations of life. Detachment, objectivity, is an invaluable aid to clear thinking; it enables a man to sum up a given situation without bias, persona1 or otherwise, and to act in that situation with courage and discretion. Another gift it bestows is that of concentration—the ability to focus the mind and keep it steadily fixed on a single point (Ekagatta, or one-pointedness), and this is the great secret of success in any undertaking. The mind is hard to tame; it roams here and there restlessly as the wind, or like an untamed horse, but when it is fully under control it is the most powerful instrument in the whole universe. He who has mastered his own mind is indeed master of the Three Worlds.* * *

          In the first place he is without fear. Fear arises because we associate mind and body (Nama-Rupa) with 'Self', consequently any harm to either is considered to be harm done to oneself. But he who has broken down this illusion by realizing that the Five Khandha process is merely the manifestation of cause and effect, does not fear death or misfortune. He remains equable alike in success and failure, unaffected by praise or blame. The only thing he fears is demeritorious action, because he knows that no thing or person in the world can harm him except himself, and as his detachment increases he becomes less and less liable to demeritorious deeds. Unwholesome action comes of an unwholesome mind, and as the mind becomes purified, healed of its disorders, bad Kamma, ceases to accumulate. He comes to have a horror of wrong action and to take greater and greater delight in those deeds that are rooted in Alobha, Adosa and Amoha—generosity, benevolence and wisdom.

         One of the most universally-applicable methods of cultivating mental concentration is Anapanassati, attentiveness on the in-going and out-going breath. This, unlike the Yogic systems, does not call for any interference with the normal breathing, the breath being merely used as a point on which to fix the attention, either at the tip of the nostrils. The attention must not wander, even to follow the breath, but must be kept rigidly on the selected spot. In the initial stages it is advisable to mark the respiration by counting, but as soon as it is possible to keep the mind fixed without this artificial aid it should be discontinued, and only used when it is necessary to recall the attention. As the state of mental quiescence (Samatha) is approached the breath appears to become fainter and fainter, until it is hardly discernible. It is at this stage that certain psychic phenomena appear, which may at first be disconcerting. A stage is reached when the actual bodily Dukkha, the sensation of arising and passing away of the physical elements in the body, is felt. This is experienced as a disturbance, but it must be remembered that it is an agitation that is always present in the body but we are unaware of it until the mind becomes stabilised. It is the first direct experience of the Dukkha which is inherent in all phenomena—the realisation within oneself of the first of the Four Noble Truths, Dukkha Ariya Sacca. When that is passed there follows the sensation of Piti, rapturous joy associated with the physical body. The teacher of Vipassana, however, is careful never to describe to his pupil beforehand what he is likely to experience, for if he does so there is a strong possibility that the power of suggestion will produce a false reaction, particularly in those cases where the pupil is very suggestible and greatly under the influence of the teacher.

          In Kammatthana it is permissible to use certain devices, such as the earth and water Kasina, as focal points for the attention. A candle-flame, a hole in a wall, or some metal object can also be used, and the method of using them is found in the Pali Texts and the Visuddhi Magga. In the texts themselves it is to be noted that the Buddha gave objects of meditation to His Disciples in accordance with their individual characteristics, and His unerring knowledge of the right technique for each came from His insight into their previous births. Similarly with discursive meditation, a subject would be given which was easily comprehensible to the pupil, or which served to counteract some strong unwholesome tendency in his nature. Thus, to one attracted by sensual indulgence, the Buddha would recommend meditation on the impurity of the body, the "cemetery meditation". Here the object is to counterbalance attraction by repulsion, but it is only a "skilful means" to reach the final state, in which attraction and repulsion both cease to exist. In the Arahat there is neither liking nor disliking: he regards all things with perfect equanimity, as did the Thera Mahamoggallana when he accepted a handful of rice from a leper.

          The use of the rosary in Buddhism is often misunderstood. If it is used for the mechanical repetition of a set formula, the repeating of so many phrases as an act of piety, as in other religions, its value is negligible. When it is used as a means of holding the attention and purifying the mind, however, it can be a great help. One of the best ways of employing it, because it calls for undivided attention, is to repeat the Pali formula of the qualities of Buddha, Dhamma and Samgha, beginning "Iti piso Bhagava— "with the first bead, starting again with the second and continuing to the next quality: "Iti pi so Bhagava, Araham—" and so on until with the last bead the entire formula is repeated from beginning to end. This cannot be carried out successfully unless the mind is entirely concentrated on what is being done. At the same time the recalling of the noble qualities of Buddha, Dhamma and Samgha lifts the mind to a lofty plane, since the words carry with them a meaning that impresses itself on the pattern of the thought-moments as they arise and pass away. The value of this in terms of Abhidhamma psychology lies in the wholesome nature of the Cittakkhana, or "consciousness-moment" in its uppada ((arising), thiti (static) and bhanga (disappearing) phases. Each of these wholesome Cittakkhana contributes to the improvement of the Sankhara, or aggregate of tendencies; in other words, it directs the subsequent thought-moments into a higher realm and tends to establish the character on that level.

          Samatha bhavana, the development of mental tranquillity with concentration, is accompanied by three benefits: it gives happiness in the present life, a favourable rebirth, and the freedom from mental defilements which is a prerequisite for the attainment of insight. In Samatha the mind becomes like a still, clear pool completely free from disturbance and agitation, and ready to mirror on its surface the nature of things as they really are, the aspect of them which is hidden from ordinary knowledge by the restlessness of craving. It is the peace and fulfillment which is depicted on the features of the Buddha, investing His images with a significance that impresses even those who have no knowledge of what it means. Such an image of the Buddha can itself be a very suitable object of meditation, and is in fact the one that most Buddhists instinctively use. The very sight of the tranquil Buddha image can calm and pacify a mind distraught with worldly hopes and fears. It is the certain and visible assurance of Nibbana.

         Vipassana bhavana is realisation of the Three Signs of Being, Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta, by, direct insight. These three characteristics, Impermanence, Suffering and Non-self, can be grasped intellectually, as a scientific and philosophical truth, but this is not in itself sufficient to rid the mind of egoism and craving. The final objective lies on a higher level of awareness, the direct "intuitional" plane, where it is actually experienced as psychological fact. Until this personal confirmation is obtained the sphere of sense-perceptions (Ayatana) and sensory-responses remain stronger than the intellectual conviction: the two function side by side on different levels of consciousness, but it is usually the sphere dominated by Avijja which continues to determine the course of life by volitional action. The philospher who fails to live according to his philosophy is the most familiar example of this incompatibility between theory and practice. When the direct perception is obtained, however, what was at its highest intellectual level still merely a theory become actual knowledge, in precisely the same way that we "know" when we are hot or cold, hungry or thirsty. The mind that has attained it is established in the Dhamma, and panna, wisdom, has taken the place of delusion.

         Discursive meditation, such as that practised in Christian devotion, is entirely on the mental level, and can be undertaken by anyone at any time. It calls for no special, preparation or conditions. For the more advanced exercises of Samatha and Vipassana. however, the strictest observance of Sila becomes necessary. These techniques are best followed in seclusion, away from the impurities of worldly life and under the guidance of an accomplished master. Many people have done themselves psychic harm by embarking on them without due care in this respect. It is not advisable for anyone to experiment on his own; those who are unable to place themselves under a trust worthy teacher will do best to confine themselves to discursive meditation. It can not take them to Enlightenment but will benefit them morally and prepare them for the next stage.

          Metta bhavana is the most universally beneficial form of discursive meditation, and can be practised in any conditions. Thoughts of universal, undiscriminating benevolence like radio waves reaching out in all directions, sublimate the creative energy of the mind. With steady perseverance in Metta bhavana a point can be reached at which it becomes impossible even to harbour a thought of ill-will. True peace can only come to the world through minds that are at peace. If people everywhere in the world could be persuaded to devote half an hour daily to the practice of Metta bhavana we should see more real advance towards world peace and security than international agreements will ever bring us. It would be a good thing if, in this new era of the Buddha Sasana, people of all creeds could be invited to take part in a world-wide movement for the practice of Metta bhavana and pledge themselves to live in accordance with the highest tenets of their own religion, what ever it may be. In so doing they would be paying homage to the Supreme Buddha and to their own particular religious teacher as well, for on this level all the great religions of the world unite. If there is a common denominator to be found among them it is surely here, in the teaching of universal loving-kindness which transcends doctrinal differences and draws all beings together by the power of a timeless and all-embracing truth.


          * Suttanta Pitaka Digha Nikaya, Mahavagga Pali, 9. Mahasatipatthana Sutta, p. 231, 6th Syn. Edition.

          ** Four Great Primaries. .1. Element of extension 2. Element of cohesion or liquidity, 3. Element of kinetic energy, 4. Element of motion or support.

          *** 1. World of beings, 2. World of space, 3. World of kamma-activities.


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