Buddhist meditation—the theoretical framework (Paul Williams)

Buddhist meditation—the theoretical framework

Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe
Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition
Routledge London and N.Y. 2000

It is through working with and on the mind that Buddhists consider one can bring about the transformation in seeing required in order to bring to an end the forces generating suffering and rebirth, and thus attain liberation. Earlier I suggested that, for the Buddhist, meditation closes the gap between the way things appear to be and the way they actually are. How does meditation do this? The structure of Buddhist meditation in the oldest texts and throughout much if not all of the Buddhist tradition in India and elsewhere is to calm down and still the mind. One then uses that still, calm, mind to investigate how things really are. This is in order to see things free from the blocks and obscurations that normally hinder our vision. These blocks and obscurations entail our immersion in samsara. Calming the mind is called ‘calming (meditation)’ (Sanskrit: samatha). Discovering with a calm mind how things are really is called ‘insight (meditation)’ (Sanskrit: vipasyana). At least some degree of calming is considered necessary to insight. As we have seen, right concentration (samyak-samādhi / sammā-samādhi) is part of the Eightfold Path. Nevertheless depending on the abilities of the meditator it need not be necessary to follow through calming meditation to the actual attainment of the meditative absorptions (dhyanas/jhanas) before commencing insight meditation. When calming and insight are linked, the mind has the strength and orientation really to break through to a deep transformative understanding of how things truly are.

As one might expect, the Buddhist tradition has elaborated the stages and elements of the path of meditation in great detail. A certain amount of material can be found in early sources such as the suttas of the Pali Canon, particularly for example the Samaññaphala Sutta (the ‘Discourse on the Benefits of being a Drop-out (samana)’) and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (the ‘Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness’). But for the detailed elaboration of the path one must look to the authoritative scholastic compendiums such as the Visuddhimagga (‘Path of Purification’) of the Theravadin Buddhaghosa (fifth century CE), or the Abhidharmakosa (‘Treasury of Abhidharma’) of Vasubandhu, [who] wrote in the fourth or fifth century CE. These two sources were constructed independently of one another and were inheritors of different Buddhist traditions. They are far from agreeing in detail.

Calming meditation aims to still the mind. It presupposes that the meditator has faith in the teachings of the Buddha, has adopted the moral perspective required of a good Buddhist, and is otherwise involved in the religious activities expected of a practitioner who is seriously engaged in the path. In order to bring about the desired state of mental calm the meditator starts by learning to focus the mind, narrowing down its attention so that he or she becomes simply aware. In other words, he or she concentrates. Because concentration requires something to concentrate on, works such as the Visuddhimagga list forty different possible objects of concentration. These include concentrating on, for example, a blue disc. This is one of ten objects of concentration known in Pali as kasinas, and taking a coloured disc as an object is said (among others) to be particularly suitable for those whose personality is dominated by hatred among the three root poisons. Those who are dominated by greed might take as their object the skeleton. Those by delusion (or whose mind is inclined to instability) might start with mindfulness of breathing. This last has become well known in the modern world through being the very first meditation practice in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, a discourse particularly favoured by more recent Burmese meditation masters and there used for all meditators, perhaps because everyone’s mind is at first inclined to instability. Indeed the text describes itself as the sole way:

Herein, a monk having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down cross-legged, keeps his body erect and his mindfulness alert. Just mindful he breathes in and mindful he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows ‘I breath in a long breath’; breathing out a long breath, he knows ‘I breath out a long breath’; breathing in a short breath, he knows ‘I breath in a short breath’; breathing out a short breath, he knows ‘I breath out a short breath’.

(Mahasatipatthana Sutta trans. Nyanaponika Thera: 117–18)

Then there are the so-called ‘divine abidings’ (brahmaviharas), also known as the ‘four immeasurables’, again particularly recommended for those of a hate disposition, but originally thought of as a sufficient means for attaining enlightenment itself. These entail developing all-pervading loving-kindness (maitri / metta), with the pervasive wish, ‘May all sentient beings be well and happy’. One then develops all-pervading compassion (karuna) with the pervasive wish, ‘May all sentient beings be free of suffering’; followed by all-pervading sympathetic joy (mudita), with delight at the happiness of others; and finally, all-pervading equanimity (upeksa / upekkha). In such meditations one practises steadily and repeatedly, gently drawing the mind back to the object when it wanders.

The meditator is exhorted to overcome the five hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, tiredness and sleepiness, excitement and depression, and doubt. In abandoning the five hindrances, the Samaññaphala Sutta observes, the meditator ‘looks upon himself as freed from debt, rid of disease, out of jail, a free man, and secure’ (Samaññaphala Sutta, trans. Rhys-Davids 1899:84). And eventually he or she attains the first jhana (Sanskrit: dhyana). As we saw above, the first jhana is characterised by applied thought, examination, joy, happiness, and one-pointedness of mind. The second jhana has just joy, happiness, and one-pointedness of mind, since ability in meditation has here become so refined that consciously applied thought and examination are no longer needed in order to place the mind on the object. The third jhana lacks even joy, which can become a disturbance, and has only happiness and one-pointedness. The fourth jhana similarly lacks happiness, and possesses just one-pointedness and equanimity. From attaining the fourth jhana it becomes possible (it is said) to develop what might be called supernormal powers (Sanskrit: rddhis), or ‘super-knowledges’ (Sanskrit: abhijña). These include the ability to create ‘mind-made’ bodies, to walk through walls, fly through the air, hear distant sounds, know the minds of others, and to know the past lives of oneself and others.

The general view of the Buddhist tradition is that some considerable ability in calming meditation is necessary in order to develop very effectively insight meditation, although it is not necessary actually to attain the fourth dhyana before commencing insight meditation. Insight meditation involves bringing about a state of meditative absorption where the object of meditation is not one of the objects of calming meditation but rather is how things really are, understood in terms of suffering, impermanence, and not-self and their implications and ramifications. In so doing one attains wisdom (Sanskrit: prajña). As can be readily understood from what has gone before, seeing in this manner directly in the deepest way possible is held to cut completely the forces which lead to rebirth and suffering.

The model for the path of insight meditation employed in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (see Chapters 18–22) is that of the ‘seven purifications’. The first two purifications concern (i) engagement in proper moral conduct (sila), and (ii) developing calm (samatha). The third (iii) is ‘purification of view’, breaking down the sense of self through constant direct awareness (mindfulness) of experience in terms of one actually being a bundle of five aggregates, divided into mind and body in mutual dependence, and nothing more. The fourth (iv) purification is the ‘purification by overcoming doubt’. Just as the purification of view involves an awareness of the interdependence of mind and body at any one time, this fourth purification involves examining causal dependence as a continuum in time. Thus one comes to understand karman and to see directly how things are the result of an impersonal lawlike causality and nothing more. In overcoming doubt, Buddhaghosa observes (19:27), one becomes a ‘lesser stream-enterer’. The [fifth] purification (v) is that of ‘knowing and seeing what is the way [or ‘path’; magga] and what is not the way’. This involves taking various groups and classes of phenomena and seeing that they are all impermanent, suffering, and not Self. One then sees them as arising and falling in their constant change and impermanence. Thus the meditator comes to deconstruct the apparent stability of things, and to see directly the world as a process, a flow. Gethin draws attention to the images Buddhaghosa selects (from earlier Buddhist sources) for this stage of the meditator’s experience:

[T]he world is no longer experienced as consisting of things that are lasting and solid but rather as something that vanishes almost as soon as it appears—like dew drops at sunrise, like a bubble on water, like a line drawn on water, like a mustard-seed placed on the point of an awl, like a flash of lightning; things in themselves lack substance and always elude one’s grasp—like a mirage, a conjuring trick, a dream, the circle formed by a whirling firebrand, a fairy city, foam, or the trunk of a banana tree.

(Gethin 1998:190; ref. Visuddhimagga 20:104)

The mind of the meditator at this time is said to be close to absorption (dhyana), and there is a danger that the meditator might become complacent and attached (Visuddhimagga 20: sects 105 ff.). Tearing him- or herself away from this, the meditator attains the sixth (vi) purification, ‘purification through knowing and seeing the path [or ‘way’; patipada]’. At this stage the meditator returns to contemplating with renewed vigour and ever deepening awareness the rising and sinking of phenomena (dharma), and he or she attains a series of eight knowledges with, it is said, ‘knowledge in conformity to truth as the ninth’ (op. cit.: Ch. 21). Attaining the eight knowledges, in a state of deep equanimity and concentration, the meditator crosses over from worldly meditative absorption to transcendent or supramundane absorption. At this point the meditator ‘changes lineage’. He or she ceases to belong to the lineage (family) of ordinary people (Sanskrit: prthagjana) and joins the lineage of the Noble Ones (Sanskrit: arya). He or she is said now to take nirvana as the meditative object. Nevertheless the complete eradication of defilements may still take time. One is said to become a ‘stream-enterer’ through abandoning the first three of the ten fetters (samyojana), the ‘view of individuality’, doubt, and clinging to precepts and vows. In finally and deeply abandoning these one will be reborn at the most a further seven times before becoming enlightened. In becoming a stream-enterer (or any of the other three ‘noble fruits’) one is said to attain the seventh (vii) and final purification, the ‘purification by knowing and seeing’.

On also permanently weakening the next two fetters, sensual desire and aversion, one becomes a ‘once-returner’, who will be reborn as a human being no more than one further time. On completely abandoning all these five fetters one becomes a ‘never-returner’ and if one still does not attain full enlightenment, is on death reborn in one of the highest planes of the form realm. On completely and irrevocably eradicating all ten fetters (including in addition the five of desire for form, desire for the formless, pride, agitation, and ignorance) one becomes enlightened, an arhat. In one moment the meditator sees and understands the four Noble Truths, and all the factors leading to enlightenment are fulfilled. In subsequent moments the meditator is said to enjoy the ‘resultant’ (phala) meditative absorption. These four ‘noble fruits’ may be attained successively, over a long period of time. But there is also a view that their attainment may be in quick succession, or even that one might ‘leap’ as it were, directly to one or other of the fruits.


The Seven Purifications of Buddhaghosa’s Insight Meditation

  1. ‘purification through proper moral conduct’ (sila)
  2. ‘purification through developing calm’ (samatha)
  3. ‘purification of view’, breaking down the sense of self through constant direct awareness (mindfulness) that we are nothing more than skandha
  4. ‘purification by overcoming doubt’—examining causal dependence as a continuum in time; understanding karman
  5. ‘knowing and seeing what is the way and what is not the way’—taking various groups and classes of phenomena and seeing that they are all impermanent, suffering, and not Self
  6. ‘purification through knowing and seeing the path’
  7. ‘purification by knowing and seeing’

The Ten Fetters (Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga)

  1. The view of individuality
  2. Doubt
  3. Clinging to precepts and vows (when accomplished, one becomes a ‘stream-enterer’)
  4. Sensual desire
  5. Aversion (when accomplished, one becomes a ‘once-returner’ or a ‘never-returner’)
  6. Desire for form
  7. Desire for the formless
  8. Pride
  9. Agitation
  10. Ignorance (attainment of enlightenment)


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