By Dr. Tin Htut, Sheffield, UK (Nov/98)

"Lovable, reverent and adorable,

A counsellor, a patient listener,

A speaker of deep discourses, and one

Who would not lead to a useless end"

(A. IV. 32; Vism. I. 98)*

A teacher among many others that we need in life, is necessary to guide us purify ourselves, for the first level of Jhana is not far off if we use the right subject to practise meditation.

Life is a short period full of ups and downs. We react to life's vicissitudes with mostly love and hate, and waste the precious time with ignorance (avijja). The lack of knowledge regarding the realities of the Four Noble Truth at the experiential level has led us to reborn life after life in the cycle of rebirths. We have taken countless numbers of rebirths in the planes of morbid suffering in the past and we don't know where we shall reborn next. Let's wake up from the delusion, from the ignorance to knowledge, from the uncertainty to certainty, let's walk the path of noble ones to a destiny which is more definitive and which is more pleasant. If we realise the importance of this issue, we will need to strive as soon as possible for life is very uncertain. Who knows when one will die ? We have been cheating ourselves that we would not die immediately, and that we would have time to practise meditation when we retire.

We need to prepare ourselves for the next rebirth if we believe in life after death, for leading a moral life by taking a few precepts (sila), and being generous (dana) may not be sufficient for a rebirth away from the states of deprivation (apaya). If we were to reborn in a life that was deprived of the facility to practise mediation (bhavana) to develop ourselves to enlightenment, we would lose the precious time of Buddha's Sasana, the period left by Gotama Buddha for His teaching to flourish. We have already spent half of it, so, let us start now as procrastination is the theft of time.

To purify ourselves for the liberation, we need to fulfil a few things first. We should take the five precepts as much as possible to strengthen our parami of sila which is a foundation for cleansing the mind and body. However, if you were unable to keep the five precepts in full, do not let this be a hindrance, to be put off or be an excuse for your start. For nobody is perfect by birth, we try to develop perfection gradually, step after step. If we start practising meditation and have fulfilled the five precepts even just for a few minutes a day, it is a progress for a substantial development in the future. We may do the meditation in a 'Do It Yourself' manner as there are abundant books on the practice of meditation in Burmese. However, the importance of a rudder to a boat in crossing the wide ocean can never be over-emphasized, as it is, for a suitable teacher in the practice of meditation to cross a much wider ocean for reaching the shores of Nibbana. The importance of a teacher for a student of meditation is illustrated in the following passage quoted from the Meghiya Sutta (A. IV. 354-358)*

The Elder Meghiya went to the village of Jantu after receiving the permission to go for alms. On his return he saw a pleasant mango-grove near the river, and asked the Buddha if he might go there to meditate. The Buddha told him to wait until he found another monk willing to go with him, but after he had insisted his request for three times, he was granted permission. Meghiya went and sat down under a mango-tree to meditate; but was surprised to find evil thoughts persistently arising in his mind. He then returned to the Buddha and informed Him of his failure. The Buddha explained the reason for his failure and expounded the five requirements in a person who has not been sufficiently trained to gain release.

1) A good friend (who would instruct him how to meditate)

2) An advanced state of moral purity

3) Proper discussion, tending to Nibbana

4) Establishment of the energy for the abandonment of evil thoughts

5) The acquisition of the knowledge leading to insight.

It was considered necessary for disciples to receive their subjects of meditation from a teacher who was able to determine their mentality and character, choose a suitable subject and explain it. During the life-time of the Buddha a subject of meditation received from the Teacher himself was the right method, and there would be no problem finding the suitable teacher. As this being no longer possible, the alternative is to obtain the method preferably from an Arahat who has attained the fourth and fifth Jhanas by means of the same subject that had led him to develop the insight. If such a person is not available, one should approach the following persons in the order of precedence; an Anagami, a Sakadagami, or a Sotapanna. When none of these are available, one should approach to a teacher who has attained the Jhana stages, or to a teacher who knows the three Pitakas, two or at least one Pitaka. Failing to find this, one should approach to a person who could recite one of the Nikayas together with its commentary, who is practising meditation and is worthy of respect to believe that the person is on the path of progress.

These are the guidelines set for searching a suitable teacher according to the text. The right teacher may not be easy to find in every individual case as people do vary in characters. The teacher may not be able to give the suitable method to every person for he may not have the experience of all the techniques. Nevertheless, the following descriptions on characters of individuals and the appropriate methods quoted from well respected sources should give a rough guidance to a seeker who is in search of the right subject of meditation.


According to the Vissuddhimagga** the characters of human beings (carita) can be categorised as

1) Lustful person, disposed or inclined to sensual pleasures (Raga)

2) Hateful, loathsome, detestable, repulsive person, disposed or tendency to hatred (Dosa)

3) Deluded, deceived or mislead person, disposed to delusion (Moha)

4) Person of faith, disposed to faith (Saddha)

5) Intellectual person, disposed to intellectuality (Buddhi)

6) Agitated, disturbed person, disposed to agitation (Vitakka)

It is said to be possible to judge one's character: firstly, by observing carefully how a person behaves, by his postures, movements and on how a person walks, stands, sits, sleeps etc.

Secondly, by observing the way in which a person performs physical tasks such as cleaning, sweeping, dressing etc.

Thirdly, by a person's choice of food, and the manner of eating it.

Fourthly, by a person's reaction to sense-stimuli.

Fifthly, by a person's mentality.

The commentaries explain that the character of a person is the expression of his mentality and is determined by his previous kamma, and by the condition of physic (four physical elements). Humans are also of different temperaments as determined by racial differences, geographical situation and climatic conditions. It is important to note which class a person belongs to in order to receive the right subject of meditation. The teacher usually decides this issue after examining the mentality and the character of the pupil. If the teacher is not in a position to read the thoughts of the pupils, he may ask directly to the pupil regarding to the character, proneness and the wish of the pupil. The following descriptions should enable one to express the vital statistics when asked upon by the teacher.

Lusty individual (raga)

A person who is of a lustful or sensuous nature will be graceful, charming and polite; sleeps in a composed manner, keeping the limbs still; does things artistically and carefully, skilful, polished, tidy and a circumspect worker; on viewing objects of admiration the person looks carefully, admires, get attracted and attached to it longer than others; eats slowly and enjoys soft, sweet food that is well prepared and served in sumptuous fashion; the persons nature will be deceitful, proud, pretentious, lusty, covetous and dissatisfied. The sole of lusty person has a deep hollow in the middle, creating a foot print that is divided in the middle.

Irascible, hot-tempered individual (dosa)

A person who is unfriendly and gets irritated easily walks in a jerky gait as if digging with the toes when walking bare footed. The foot print shows a trailing mark as though he dragged the foot in placing it; stands stiffly, sleeps with body stiff and un-relaxed, do things hastily, roughly, carelessly; prefers a sour, sharp and penetrating taste; unattracted to objects of art, and picky; short-tempered, malice, envy and mean.

Deluded individual (moha)

A mislead person walks in a shambling gait, pacing as though he were nervous; makes bed untidily, sleeps with the body sprawling, keeping the face downwards most of the time; do things awkwardly, unevenly and without order; has no particular taste for food, eats ungraceful; has no interest, no distinctive taste of his own for things, depends upon the opinion of others and acts accordingly. His mentality will be of sloth, torpor, distraction, remorse; obstinate and tenuous.

Person of faith (saddha)

The outward expression of a person of faith resembles lustfulness, but with distinctive characters for liberality, charity, desire to meet people who are engaged in religious practices, desire to listen to their doctrine, cheerfulness, frankness, honesty, faith and devotion on religious matters.

Intellectual individual (buddhi)

An intellectual person has similarities to that of a hot-tempered personality, but can be distinguished by gentleness, good friendship, moderation, mindfulness, self-possession and alertness; he feels deeply moved at the emptiness and sorrow of things, but wisely taking them as they are and makes the right effort for deliverance.

Agitated individual (vitakka)

A disturbed person has a character synonymous with that of a deluded individual except for being talkative, desire for company, lack of sustained moral application, unsteadiness in work, and lack of concentration. These are the general observations of that will help one to define the disposition of a person from his or her outward characteristics, but divergence should be expected owing to the great variety and complexity of the mind. If a person seems to fit in more than three groups of characteristics, he may be best classed as mixed character or Sabba carita.

The teacher who is able to determine the character of his disciple , either through the faculty of reading other's mind or by questioning and watching the individual's behaviour, should choose a suitable subject for that person among the forty meditation subjects (kammatthanas).


The forty subjects of meditation as described in Visuddhimagga** are classified from the ten point of views in which the subjects of Kammatthana should be understood: by ways of number, concentration, Jhana, transcending, extension, object, plane of existence, and by ways of taking, cause and of befitting character.

I. By Way of Number

The forty subjects of meditation are arranged in seven groups according to this classification.

A. Ten objects called Kasina: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Blue-green, Yellow, Red, White, Light and Space.

B. Ten objects of impurity or Asuba: a swollen corpse, discoloured corpse, festering corpse, fissured corpse, mangled corpse, dismembered corpse, bleeding corpse, worm-infested corpse, a skeleton.

C. Ten recollections or Anussati: the recollection of the virtue of the Buddha, of the Doctrine, of the Order, of morality, of liberality, of the Devas, the recollection of death, of the body, of the breath, and of peace.

D. Four excellent qualities of Brahma-vihara: friendliness or loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathy and joy over others' success (mudita), equanimity (upekkha).

E. Four formless spheres: the sphere of infinite space, of infinite consciousness, of nothingness, and the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception.

F. The perception of disgust or Loathsomeness of nutriment:

G. The analysis of the Four Elements: pathavi, tejo, vayo, apo.

II. By Way of Concentration (samadhi)

If one can focus the attention on one point the mind becomes concentrated and achieve one-pointedness or samadhi. The forty kammatthana are classified into two kinds regarding to the outcome of concentration: those which induce only access or accessory concentration (Upacara samadhi, literally means approaching near Jhana); and those which induce both Upacara samadhi and Appana samadhi, or the concentration which is associated with the Jhanic factors and systematically develops into the fourth Jhana.

Out of the forty subjects of meditation, ten Kammatthana can induce Upacara samadhi: Eight recollections (first eight), the perception of disgust or Loathsomeness of food, and the analysis of the Four Elements. However, when these meditation methods are associated with the more exalted forms, such as Buddha-nussati, etc., it is identical with Jhana. The other thirty can induce the concentration of Jhana (Appana). (Table 1)

III. By Way of Jhana

The word Jhana is commonly used in meditation, but it is often misinterpreted. It comes from the verb form Jhayati which means to think, to concentrate, but it also means to burn-out the opposed states of Jhana. It must be understood in a collective sense, a state of mind obtained by reasoning and investigation to reach a resolution. It is the progress of mind from its initial transition, from a lower to a higher state. It is the mental image, taken from the object of meditation which burns the defilement of the mind, whereby the meditator experiences super-normal consciousness in the intensity of samadhi.

Eight Jhanas can be usually identified: Four Rupa Jhanas that can result in a rebirth in the realms of Rupa Brahmas, and Four Arupa Jhanas that can reborn in the realms of Arupa Brahmas.

Eleven subjects of meditation out of the forty can induce all the Rupa Jhanas: recollection of breath (Anapana-nussati), and the ten objects (Kasina). Another eleven subjects of meditation can induce only the first Jhana: recollection of the body (Kaya-nussati), and the ten objects of impurity (Asuba). The first three of the Brahma-viharas, metta, karuna and mudita can induce the three Jhanas, and the Upekkha can induce the fourth Jhana. Whereas, the four formless spheres can induce the other four Jhanas of the Arupa respectively.

IV. By Way of Befitting Character (carita-nukula)

Eleven out of the forty subjects of meditation are suitable for a person with lust as a disposing factor: recollection of the body (Kaya-nupassana), and the ten objects of impurity (Asuba).

Eight subjects of meditation are appropriate with individuals who have hatred as the prominent character: the four Brahma-viharas, metta , karuna, mudita, upekkha, and the four colour-objects of meditation (Kasina).

Mindfulness of breathing (anapana-nussati) is the only suitable subject for the person with delusion as the main character.

The first Six recollections are suitable for individuals with faith: Buddha-nussati, Dhamma-nusati, Sangha-nussati, morality Sila-nussati, liberality Caga-nussati, and Devata-nussati.

The Four subjects of meditation are suitable for people with intellect as the prominent character: recollection of death, mindfulness of peace, perception of disgust for food, and the analysis of the four elements.

The remaining Ten subjects are common to all individuals: six Kasinas and four formless spheres are suitable for people with mixed characters. (Table 2) In this era of Vimutti (liberation), it is relatively easy to get oneself enrolled in a course of meditation. However, the subjects of meditation taught at organised courses were pre-determined and might not suit to an individual's need. A comprehensive knowledge of the subjects of Kammatthana may be essential if one wants to pursue the path of Samadhi meditation to gain enlightenment and emancipation. A person will acquire this essential knowledge by a thorough study of Kammatthana even if the person is unable to find a suitable and experienced teacher in this part of the world. A detailed exposition of the subjects of meditation can be found inVisuddhimagga, from which the following brief account is extracted.

The scope of this article allows only to touch a few classifications of the Kammatthana and those that are relevant to samadhi, jhana and of befitting character are dealt with in this compilation. When one has identified oneself to the group of character that one fitted most, and has checked with the most suitable subject of meditation, one should explore further into the method and its practicability in this part of the world.

A subject of meditation to be taken as a Kammatthana is two-fold:

1. Firstly, a subject which is universally beneficial (sabbatthaka kamatthana) is taken.

2. Secondly, a subject which is special (parihariya) to the individual character is taken.

A teacher who knows the character of his student of meditation either by intuition and mind reading or by judging the behaviour is a necessity if meditation is to be seriously pursued. In this meditation-conscious era, more and more people are taking up the subject either as a fashion or with a definitive objective. Quantity is no doubt good, but quality is better and we should aim for a quality objective. For this sort of outcome, a teacher of good quality is required to give us a sound and appropriate guidance. An Arahat would be the ideal teacher for the purpose, but Arahats might not be interested in Dhamma-duta mission in a foreign land.

A good start is extremely important to an enthusiast to pursue further and become a professional. A well chosen subject of meditation would not only lure the enthusiast, but would take him to a substantial outcome. Individuals do vary in their objectives. However, everybody likes pleasant things, abhors deprivation and dislikes suffering. A common objective can be attained by a proper method of meditation, a suitable subject to start with. It may not be easy to find a suitable teacher for everyone. Nevertheless, we hoped for the best to come our way and guide us through the maze of forty such meditation subjects and nurture our interests.


Upacara Samadhi (access concentration)

(Total 10 subjects)


Appana Samadhi (concentration associated with Jhana)

(Total 30 subjects)

1-6 Anussati *

Four Rupa Jhanas

1st Jhana (11 subjects)

  1. 10 Asuba
  2. Kayagatasati (contemplation of the body)
Marana-sati *

3rd Jhana (3 subjects)

  1. Metta
  2. Karuna
  3. Mudita
Upasama-nussati *

4th Jhana (12 subjects)

  1. 10 Kasina
  2. Anapanassati
  3. Upekkha
Ahare patikkula sanna (disgust of food) *

Four Arupa Jhana

(Four formless spheres) (4 subjects)

  1. Akasanancayatana
  2. Vinnanancayatana
  3. Akincannayatana
  4. Nevasannannayatana
Catudhatu-vavathana * *


Raga (lust) Dosa (hatred) Moha (deluded) Vitakka (disturbed) Saddha (faith) Buddhi (intellectual) Sabba carita (mixed)

10 Asuba


4 Kasina





4 Brahma -vihara



6 Anussati









Aharepatikkula sanna


6 Kasina







* * * * * * 4 Arupa
TOTAL 11 8 subjects 1 subject * 6 subjects 4 subjects 10 subjects


* 'Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice', (second Ed. 1975), By Paravahera Vajiranana Mahathera., Buddhist missionary Society, 123 Jalan Berhala, 50470 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

** The Path of Purity: A Translation of Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga, (1975 reprint), Pe Maung Tin, Pali Text Society, London.

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