The Noble Eightfold Path 8
This is the seventh and last blog on the Noble Eightfold Path that use notes from the 2017 ‘The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness’ course. Each session covers one (or two) aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path – here is the eighth:
8. Right Concentration – Skt. samyak-samādhi / Pali sammā-samādhi
“Practitioners, develop concentration. A practitioner who is concentrated understands things as they really are. And what does he understand … the arising and passing away of the all the components of the person."
Concentration is an essential requirement for any form of meditative accomplishment – even the accomplishment of letting go of meditative ambition! – and yet for those of us who live in a fast moving, highly stimulated culture, our concentration, particularly on a single object, is left pitifully weak. This brings us to the last aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path, ‘right concentration’.
This is perhaps the most complex or even alien part of the path. An easy image that captures its essence is holding a glass of clouded water. If we continue to agitate it it remains clouded with sediment. However if we calm it by intentionally letting it rest the water settles, becomes clear and we can see the sediment clearly at the bottom. In this way Buddhist meditation practice is a combination of calming our clouded mind which then gives insight into what has been clouding it and also its brilliantly clear, unclouded nature.
The word for concentration is the same in both Sanskrit and Pali – samādhi – and it refers to two related but different activities of the mind. The state of mind that is undistractedly one pointed and the progressively deeper states of meditative absorption called jhānas.
We can all concentrate naturally and when what we are concentrating on is changing and the length of concentration is short it seems quite effortless. However – as we know – concentrate on something like the breath for 30 minutes and we almost immediately discover that this type of concentration is extremely hard and may only be sustained at first for perhaps just several minutes at the most! Training our monkey mind to calm down and still is one aspect of the practice of meditation – or ‘mind training’, bhāvana, as it is called in Buddhism. To help us do this Buddhism describes two types of mind training designed to increase and strengthen concentration:
Single object concentration – there are forty traditional objects of concentration with the breath being the best known. It is this type a strong and prolonged concentration on just one thing that leads through calm, samatha, to the absorption states, the jhānas.
Changing objects concentration – here one pointedness rests on many changing objects moment to moment – for instance body sensations. Because this gradually reveals how things are is transient, without any unchanging or essential core and unsatisfactory, that is the three marks of existence, this type of concentration leads through calm to insight, vipassanā.
States of meditative absorption – jhānas.
A range of meditative states of concentration that are necessary for awakening from the Early and Theravada perspectives on Buddhism.
Jhāna – literally means meditation but in the early Buddhist context it specifically means the states of progressively deeper levels of meditative absorption that concentration, samādhi, can achieve if pursued with heroic commitment. For us this may seem a bit depressing but actually those weeks in the middle of the eight week mindfulness course where we simply practice mindfulness of the breath are intentionally beginning the journey of cultivating a calm mind which is the first step on the way to meditative absorption. And as we all know – a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step!
There is actually quite a lot of controversy about just how necessary a really deep experience of the jhānas are. Some say that awakening is not possible unless the mind has first been brought to a state of deep unshakable calm. Others say that we only need to calm the mind sufficiently to achieve insight into how things really are and it is this insight, not calm, that leads to awakening. In fact because the accomplishment of the jhānas is an act of intention – that is karmic – Buddhism does acknowledge that even the most profound levels of calm will only calm the mind as long as the karma that created them lasts and then it will revert back to the same old crazy monkey mind. Because of this it is only insight that ultimately counts because this leads to awakening, nirvāna, which is understood as the one thing out of the cause and effect loop, the one thing out of time. Awakening is the only thing that does not decay and lasts forever. Some scholars have gone as far as to suggest that the practice of the jhānas is not even truly Buddhist – that perhaps the Buddha imported it from his yogic practice pre-awakening having learnt it from other yogis. And of course other scholars say the opposite!
For a fuller discussion of this see:
In essence though just about all agree that some degree of meditative absorption – concentration – is necessary for insight to occur and once insight is occurring meditative stability, concentration, is necessary to maintain it. This is reflected in the Buddha’s teaching on: “The four developments of concentration”: First jhāna of ‘pleasant abiding’- showing how concentration helps. ‘Second, Knowledge and Joy’ – how concentration enables paranormal abilities. Third, how concentration uproots defilements and finally fourth, how concentration leads to insight and wisdom. The first two relate to cultivating the deep, unshakable calm of the jhānas. The second two to the cultivation of insight which is necessary for awakening.
A state of ‘blameless happiness’ resting in the here and now that is in fact the first level of jhāna. A happy, concentrated state that the Buddha recognised as something he had previously experienced whilst watching his Father ploughing from within the shade of an apple tree. It is free of the hinderances and is the basis for awakening.
Knowledge and Vision
This level of concentration begins to give access to all sorts of para-normal abilities. Buddhist stories about awakened teachers abound in these accounts – such as flying through the sky and walking through walls. Whilst clearly fun these are ultimately nothing more than a demonstration that the concentration is working.
Insight and Wisdom
Here concentration is used in the service of insight so that it may clearly see how things really are – transient, not-self and unsatisfactory. Having a deep experiential knowledge of this is wisdom and it is this wisdom that is both the path to awakening and the truth of awakening once realised. In practical terms we begin this realisation by beginning to step back from identification with the endless flow of thoughts and emotions and begin to see their fleeting and insubstantial nature. Or alternatively – according to later levels of teaching – when we look into our mind and find nobody there!
Deeply concentrated, beyond the defilments, the emotions and cognitions that obscure our awakened mind, we rest in the flow of how things really are. The concentration – samādhi – of liberation.
If you are interested in the levels of jhāna there is a very complete chart in the Rupert Gethin book, p.163. But beware it can be daunting reading that may lead to the unwholesome mind state of despair! That this later account is not from the historical Buddha is apparent from how it has been ‘worked up’ by later scholars. The last of the first four jhāna opens to a further four levels and there are included a further series of levels that represent levels of insight, the deepest being awaking itself. However in essence it remains the same. Calm the mind deeply – achieving samādhi – and this provides the platform for insight to arise which finally leads to awakening. In this sense all Buddhist practice is a union of calm and insight.
The jhāna states:
Calm abiding meditation leading to …
Access concentration leading to …
First jhāna – being experienced as one pointedness, happiness, joy, examination of applied thought.
Second jhāna – one pointedness, happiness and joy.
Third jhāna – one pointedness, happiness and equanimity.
Fourth jhāna – one pointedness and equanimity.
Which is the access point to the levels of insight concluding in awakening – nibbāna and also the foundation for four further levels of called those of the ‘formless realm’.
1 Sphere of infinite space.
2 Sphere of infinite consciousness.
3 Sphere of nothingness.
4 Sphere of nether cognition nor non-cognition.
Which is the access point to the ‘attainment of cessation’.