Reflections on the Noble Eightfold Path in Practice and Daily Life, Part 3 of 4

By Bruce Stewart | 4/24/2022

This third installment of my four-part essay on the Noble Eightfold Path explores the cluster of factors that fall under the umbrella of samādhi. Samādhi is commonly understood in this tradition as collecting and calming the mind so that it can be focused on the observation of reality for the purpose of cultivating wisdom/insight. However, it can more broadly be defined as the calm abiding of mind and body.

The Divisions of Samādhi: Right Awareness/Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Effort

Right Awareness/Mindfulness (Sammā Sati)

Two common translations of sati are “mindfulness” and “awareness.” Goenkaji usually uses the word “awareness,” but as we all know, “mindfulness” has become almost a household word in the past couple of decades.

The contemporary practice of secular mindfulness ~ what many people associate with “mindfulness” today ~ developed in the early 1980’s out of traditional mindfulness meditation practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBRS) is one important example.

As a whole, “secular mindfulness” separates mindfulness as a meditation technique from the cultural and religious trappings of the practice in Buddhist countries. We can understand how this appeals to a progressive, modern, Western perspective ~ prone to a skepticism of organized religion. However, this can also mean lifting it out of the fuller context of the Noble Eightfold Path, and taking refuge in Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha). From the point of view of a more traditional Dhamma practitioner in our lineage, it may not always be taught with the understanding of anicca (impermanence) that ultimately brings freedom from suffering and leads to full liberation, or nibbāna

But secular mindfulness does nest within the broader mindfulness movement, which includes traditional Buddhist teachings on mindfulness as taught both in Theravada countries in Asia and by western teachers, and is one of many branches on the contemporary mindfulness movement tree. This essay is in no way intended to evaluate any of them, including our own tradition, into some ranking of efficacy or purity.

Sati is clearly an important path factor that comes up repeatedly in the Buddha’s teaching. Of course, there is an entire sutta, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, devoted to developing sati. The Ānāpānasati Sutta and Kāyagatāsati Sutta are two other key suttas that emphasize the proper cultivation of sati.

Sati is supported by the other two Path factors under the category of samādhi, namely Right Concentration and Right Effort. Bare observation or awareness needs to be sustained, moment-by-moment. To enable this, the mind ideally needs to be collected, focused, calm, and unified (all common descriptors for samādhi), and this process needs to be fueled by effort, or viriya.

These three factors of samādhi are like a tripod, each leg supporting the others. If we remain mindful of these factors in practice, we can begin to detect whichever factor needs to be emphasized in any given moment.

On the other hand, over-thinking or constantly analyzing our practice is obviously problematic. To understand this delicate balance, consider how a professional musician might play in a jazz ensemble. They have spent many years studying the basics of music theory and practice, yet when playing at Carnegie Hall, there is no thought of music theory ~ that this note is a B flat, or a D seventh, etc. The musician intuitively plays from a place of deep knowing and experience, allowing the music to flow effortlessly. While there may be moments when intentional cognition steps in to direct or redirect, like if the tempo needs to be increased or the tone altered, it is a peripheral thought, one that is not cumbersome or intrusive. Meditation is much the same. In any given circumstance, we might provide an intention (or thought) to redirect, or fine-tune the practice with either effort, awareness or concentration.

Keeping the three factors of samādhi in mind and in balance is beneficial in both our daily practice and on retreat.

Awareness, or mindfulness, must be more than just observing the moment in a superficial or casual manner. It is observing every moment in a special, complete, or correct (sammā) way, one that tries to appreciate the characteristics of anicca, dukkha and anattā in every experience. Right View is the forerunner. When we are unaware (avijjā), we are easily overwhelmed by the persistent narrative that runs through our minds and shapes how we experience the world without and within. This narrative is fueled by our past conditioning or fabrications (saṇkhāra) of craving, aversion, and ignorance. As conditioning/fabrication proliferates, it elaborates on and solidifies that “made-up” world. According to the Buddha, this proliferation is based on craving (wanting what is absent), conceit (I am), and grasping (clinging).

So sati is bringing attention to simply “what is,” understood through the frame of anicca, dukkha, anattā. And we can only experience the “is” within the five aggregates: material form (rūpa), and the four parts of nāma, the mind, namely vedanā, saññā, saṇkhāra and viññāṇa. Skillful sati is stripped of all subjective commentary and projections.

As our practice gets established, we begin to understand that every sensation, feeling and thought is just coming and going ~ arising only to pass away. There is actually nothing solid, nothing to grasp. When developing a keen sense of curious investigation (dhamma-vicāra), the reality of flux and constant change is readily observable. And as noted above, for the purpose of liberation, sati has to be more than just observing each moment. It needs to be steeped in the understanding of impermanence (anicca-saññā), anattā and/or dukkha. Awareness and Right View are interconnected and cannot be separated.

The primary object of sati in the tradition of U Ba Khin and Goenkaji is vedanā. One could say that vedanā is the linchpin of our technique. However, I have found in my years of teaching that some students get confused about just what vedanā is. It is a nuanced concept that has no direct English equivalent, so confusion may partially result from the difficulty of translating vedanā into English. In 10-day courses for beginners, Goenka has chosen to define it in a way that was easy to communicate and understand. He typically defines vedanā as sensations that we feel on the body.

“Sensation” was the most common English translation for vedanā a half century ago when Vipassana was first disseminated outside Burma. In long course instructions, however, Goenka-ji refocuses us on the fact that vedanā is actually one of the nāmakhandhas, a factor of mind, the part of the mind which feels, or experiences, the object. Of course, this is also the Buddha’s teaching about vedanā. And although it seems self-evident, hearing Goenkaji say it so clearly helps me, personally, clarify the meaning of the subtle reality of vedanā in my own mind.

Contact with an outside object can be through any of the six sense doors, but body sense (touch) contact is the only sense door that registers directly as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral in the mind. In U Ba Khin’s article, “The Essentials of Buddha-Dhamma in Meditative Practice,” published in the Sayagyi U Ba Khin Journal: A collection commemorating the Teaching of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, he writes,

In practice, however, we have found that of all types of feeling, the feeling by contact of touch…is more evident than other types of feeling. Therefore, a beginner in Vipassana meditation can come to the understanding of anicca more easily through body feeling of the change of rūpa [e.g., the kalapa of the material body]…” (33). 

Contact at the body sense door is also something we can feel continually, which is not the case with intermittent sights, sounds, tastes, etc.

So circling back to the meaning of vedanā: being a factor of mind, it can’t actually be something on the body, which would make it materiality. As Sayagyi U Ba Khin says, body sense contact is merely the easiest and most tangible avenue available to us for experiencing anicca. In summary, the way I interpret the teaching is that the what of our experience in practice is the contact of materiality (some manifestation of temperature, solidity, movement or cohesiveness) at the body sense door, and the how of our experience is vedanā, its pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral “tone.” Thus, for us, vedanā is a key link between body and mind.

But whatever English term we decide to use for vedanā, the most important take-away is that we avoid getting sucked into reactivity, and perceive the changing nature of vedanā (anicca saññā).

 

Right Concentration (Sammā Samādhi)

As Goenkaji points out in describing samādhi, or concentration, it must be “Right.” He gives the examples of a cat sitting at the entrance to a mouse hole and the circus performer walking a tightrope. It’s certainly concentration, but not Right Concentration, which relates specifically to collecting the mind for the purpose of penetrating reality. To enable insight into anicca, dukkha and anattā, the base of samādhi must be wholesome (kusala). Samātha is another term often used synonymously with samādhi practice (though technically, samādhi has a more expansive meaning, since Right Concentration, Right Mindfulness and Right Effort all cluster under the broad heading of “Samādhi”).

The challenge with using the term “concentration” to define samādhi or samātha is that it can give the impression of some kind of “absolute state” that is unrealistic, or unachievable. This misunderstanding can leave students, new and old, with feelings of hopelessness and failure. Reasonable alternatives to “concentration” are collectedness of mind, or unification of mind.

There has to be some degree of focus to perform any task, of course. Similarly, some degree of heightened focus is especially needed in our meditation practice. Samādhi plays three interrelated roles here. First, it helps quiet down the chattering mind. Related to this, deepening samādhi suppresses, or keeps at bay, the five hindrances (craving, aversion, sloth-torpor, agitation, and doubt). The Hindrances are also called the “five curtains,” or veils, (nīvaraṇas) because they obstruct our ability to see clearly. Goenkaji also terms them our “enemies.” And finally, this calmed-down state leads to an increasingly unified mind that can penetrate deeply into the reality of our experience, which is the fruitful practice of Vipassana, or insight.

Jhānas are the culmination of samādhi, or samātha, meditation. The basic meaning of the Pāli word “jhāna” is simply “meditation,” but it appears to mean something quite specific in the early suttas: a series of mind states of increasingly refined and subtle awareness. In these early suttas, there is a palpable feeling of accessibility and joyfulness about the jhānas. In fact, the Buddha famously said that the sublime nature of the jhānas was “the one pleasure I will not deny myself.” It seems as though over time, however, jhānas came to represent very deep, “absorptions” that are very difficult to attain. Interestingly, this understanding of extremely deep absorptions seems to mirror the jhāna practices of pre-Buddhist India, which the Bodhisatta, himself, had become an expert in before turning to ascetic practices. When the Bodhisatta sat under the Bodhi tree on the night of his Enlightenment, his mind did not go back to those exalted and very deep states he had mastered, but rather to a day when he was very young and spontaneously entered what he called “the first jhāna,” which apparently, was a different quality of jhāna than the “eight jhānas”‘ he had mastered after leaving the palace. 

So there is a lot of room for interpretation about the precise meaning of jhānas in the suttas, and it remains an elusive and somewhat controversial topic. There can be no doubt as to the relative importance of the Buddha’s jhānas on the Path, though: a very common definition of Right Concentration is “first jhāna, second jhāna, third jhāna, fourth jhāna.” In the context of the early suttas of the Pāli Canon, the first four jhānas appear to be taught in conjunction with insight, as an integrated “Samātha-Vipassana” practice, such as through the sixteen steps of the Ānāpānasati Sutta. In this context, it might be helpful to think about different colored threads in a rope ~ they are distinct but not separable.

Interestingly, because the very deep absorptions of the later suttas and the influential 5th century meditation manual The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) were too difficult and time-consuming for most to attain, the technique of “dry” Vipassana appeared as an alternative practice. Dry Vipassana is Vipassana first, then samātha. And along with dry Vipassana, there is a samātha-first-then-Vipassana path, or “wet” Vipassana. Goenkaji’s approach is somewhere in-between ~ a kind of “damp Vipassana.” This approach certainly makes sense for busy lay practitioners.

While many students struggle to focus their minds on a 10-day course, some will find that their mind settles down and stays more often with the breath. An indicator that samādhi is deepening is when the breath becomes very shallow, soft and almost not detectable. Some students report internal visions, or lights (nimitta) at this point. As a meditator approaches, and enters, the first jhāna, very pleasant body sensations and deep happiness arise, followed by a smoothing out into deep tranquility and then profound equanimity in subsequent stages. None of these states can be forced. Rather, they appear naturally when the appropriate conditions ripen.

Like any other mode of practice, including our tradition’s practice of Vipassana, there lie hidden traps. When experiencing these very pleasant and tranquil states, there’s a possibility that a meditator can get sidetracked, and even mistake them for the final goal. In such cases, it might be helpful to remember that nibbāna is beyond the experience of the six senses. Yet ~ and this may seem ironic to some ~ in the case of the four jhānas, which are body-centric, the Buddha clearly encouraged “suffusing and drenching” the body in these non-worldly, pleasant experiences as the very basis for insight practice! Once again this is where “Right View,” or discerning wisdom, comes into play. With discriminating wisdom, the wise meditator learns to appreciate these sublime states and use them to facilitate increasingly deeper states of unification and calm, but not to cling to them or get stuck in them. Rather, one relinquishes each successive state in order to move towards yet subtler perceptions and experiences, and onward to liberating insight.

One of the biggest struggles students often complain about is the inability to concentrate. I have found that many meditators will initially go through stages of over-exertion, which inevitably creates tension, agitation, and frustration. Once a student gives up the idea that gaining perfection in concentration, or stopping thoughts altogether as the immediate goal, it is then that progress can be made.

Humans have the wonderful capacity to think. What we are learning in meditation practice is how to use this capacity skillfully without allowing thinking to get in our way. We can accept and allow thoughts to be there ~ we just don’t have to always believe in or indulge them ~ and in samādhi practice, we just let them come and go. In this less combative manner, attention becomes increasingly focused and collected on the breath. More and more subtle details of the breath emerge, changing from long to short, deep to shallow, gross to subtle.

It might be helpful to think about a child beginning to walk. The child stands up, takes a step or two, and falls down. The beginning stages of samādhi are similar. Like the persistent child who eventually will be strong enough to walk, run and possibly one day even race in the Olympics, samādhi smooths out and deepens with persistent effort over time.

Instead of being frustrated that the mind has wandered yet again, we can smile at the fact that we have caught it and for the moment, are not trapped in thought. Rather than another instance of failure, it’s another instance of success! Indeed, this catching of the mind wandering is the critical juncture, and the practice. From this point of “catching,” the skillful meditator self-corrects and gently pulls the mind back to the breath, until the mind once again takes flight, which it will inevitably do. With continued patient, gentle and kind persistence like this, the number of times the mind wanders become less, and the duration of attention’s absence from the breath becomes shorter. So again, as a reminder, samādhi supports sati and sati supports samādhi.

Right Effort (Sammā Vāyāma)

Students on a 10-day course might remember Goenkaji’s description of Right Effort being comprised of developing four mental processes:

  1. To prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states
  2. To abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen
  3. To encourage wholesome states that have not arisen
  4. To maintain the wholesome states that have arisen

These kinds of efforts, sometimes known as “the supreme efforts,” are very important to bear in mind. While insight is the “seeing” nature of a full Dhamma practice, the efforts to abandon unwholesome and develop wholesome states represent the “cultivating” aspect. In this case, cultivation provides the nurturing conditions that support seeing reality as it is. Cultivating and seeing go hand-in-hand.

Understanding what the Buddha refers to in the initial stages on the path as the “gradual training,” we can relax and let the path unfold and ripen according to our accumulation of merits (pāramī) and the degree of our effort (viriya). Viriya supports samādhi, which in turn supports sati. But effort can often be misapplied. When there is not enough effort, we will unlikely develop sufficient focus for successful progress. But if there is too much effort, or the wrong kind of effort, it actually diverts us from skillful practice, which actually requires “relaxed vigilance,” or we could say, “zestful ease.” When effort is propelled by striving and craving, it is certainly counterproductive. When forced or extreme, it produces tension, and little can be achieved. As a metaphor for Right Effort, we have all seen Olympic athletes line up before a race. On the one hand, they are intensely focused, yet on the other, they are loosening up, shaking their bodies and becoming relaxed.

It might be helpful to view Right Effort more like a dimmer switch that can be adjusted up and down according to need, rather than just an on-off switch. I also find it of interest that Goenkaji says that the real effort is to “do nothing!” There is effort involved to keep the mind on the object, of course, but it is a very subtle effort, a “bare awareness” that seems like doing nothing.

The Buddha frequently emphasized the value and importance of samādhi. Indeed, cultivating a “calm abiding” for our mind-body system has many benefits. The most important of these in our tradition is the development of wisdom, the final section of the Noble Eightfold Path left for us to explore, and the subject of the final installment in this series of articles.

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