An Overview of Buddhist Mediation
-- by Kusala Bhikshu
from a talk given at Benedict's Dharma 2


Meditation is the second category of the Eight-Fold Path. The three category's are; Personal Discipline, Mental Perfection, and Wisdom.

Mental purification... There are three path factors in the second category of meditation: Right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Right effort in meditation doesn't have anything to do with the body. It's not about going to 24-hour fitness or Gold's gym. Right effort is to sit quietly and observe your thoughts as skillful or unskillful.

Skillful thoughts are thoughts of self limitation, generosity, compassion, and wisdom.

Unskillful thoughts are thoughts of lust, greed, hatred, and delusion.

There are four things you can do with these thoughts. You can abandon them, prevent them, develop them, or maintain them. You prevent or abandon the unskillful thoughts, and develop or maintain the skillful ones.

To share a personal example of how all this might work... I'm sitting in meditation, and in my mind... I find myself in a supermarket, but not standing in line this time.

I'm on the bakery aisle, and there in front of me is a stack of Entenmann's chocolate cakes. I say to myself, "I'd like to take two of those cakes with me, one for tonight and one for tomorrow." I see greed has arisen, because if it were generosity, I would take one for me and one for you.

I simply note whether the thought is skillful or unskillful, without any kind story attached to my discernment. I then let the thought go and move on. That in a nutshell, is right effort in Buddhist meditation.

The Buddha practiced two forms of meditation. One was taught to him. One he rediscovered.

The reason I use the word rediscovered is because, according to the early Buddhist tradition of Theravada, there were many Buddhas before Siddhartha Gautama. He was one in a line of Buddhas, and we already know who the next Buddha will be. His name is Maitreya Buddha.

The Buddha was taught Samatha (tranquility) meditation, and rediscovered Vipassana (insight) meditation. These are the two forms of Buddhist meditation, Samatha and vipassana -- tranquility and insight.

Tranquility meditation was taught to the Buddha by the yogis of India. Tranquility meditation is what I consider to be the meditation of enlightenment. Insight meditation is the meditation of Nirvana.

I make a distinction between enlightenment and nirvana. This is a distinction that came to me after much personal reflection and meditation. It helps me understand Buddhist meditation with more clarity. It's not something I found in a book, it came out of my practice.

I define enlightenment as the wisdom of emptiness, and Nirvana as the end of suffering.

I think, the Mahayana tradition focuses more on enlightenment and the wisdom of emptiness, in fact postponing Nirvana until all other sentient beings have achieved it.

The early school of Buddhism known as the Theravada seems to focus more on Nirvana, and uses insight meditation as its primary technology.

What is this Samatha meditation, and what are the characteristics?

There is something in tranquility (Samatha) meditation called the four jhanas, the four stages of tranquility.

The first jhana has five characteristics: Applied thought, sustained thought, happiness, bliss, and equanimity.

The second jhana has three characteristics: Bliss, happiness, and equanimity.

The third jhana has two characteristics: Happiness and equanimity.

The fourth jhana has one characteristic: Equanimity.

If you are doing Buddhist meditation and gaining anything, you're doing it wrong. The Buddhist path, is a path of renunciation. We are not doing it to gain generosity. We are doing it to get rid of greed. We are not doing it to gain compassion. We are doing it to get rid of anger and hatred. We are not doing it to gain wisdom. We are doing it to get rid of delusion and ignorance.

We already have as much generosity, compassion, and wisdom as we will ever need. The things that prevents us from attaining and realizing our innate perfection are greed, hatred, and delusion, the three poisons. Meditation is designed to get rid of the three poisons and wake us up.

What a positive message this is. We are already okay; we just haven't realized yet.

The first jhana has applied thought, sustained thought, happiness, bliss, and equanimity.

The mediator would sit on the floor quietly. He or she brings their attention to the tip of the nose and holds it there, applied thought, sustained thought. Applying attention and holding it at the tip of the nose. Just feeling breath go in and out. As the focus deepens, bliss and rapture rise in the body, happiness in the mind, and the first trace of equanimity.

This happens in any concentrated state to some extant. You can get the same thing in a theater, watching an exciting movie. I must admit, though, meditation on breath is not as exciting as a good movie. It takes a lot more intention to stay with the breath.

With more effort and understanding, the mediator go's from the first jhana into the second jhana, having left applied thought and sustained thought behind. The mind simply rests on the object of meditation. There is a greater sense of bliss and rapture, a greater sense of happiness and equanimity.

But there is a problem with this bliss and rapture of the body. Bliss and rapture distort the way we perceive the world. The meditator might say, "Gosh, if I could get rid of this rapture and bliss, I could perceive the world in a much more realistic way."

Imagine a pond in a forest, and it's a moonlit night, you throw a rock in the pond and create waves. The waves distort the reflection of the moon. In the same way bliss and rapture distort the way we perceive the world.

With a deeper understanding and even more effort, the mediator slips into the third jhana, with it's two characteristics: Happiness and equanimity. There is no longer bliss and rapture in the body.

After coming out of the third jhana, the mediator reflects on happiness, the subtle happiness of mind. It now becomes apparent, that even happiness can distort the world.

The mediator thinks, if I could rid myself of happiness, I could see the world exactly the way it is; not through the colored glasses of judgment and preference, attachment and repulsion. So, with greater understanding and a renewed effort, the mediator goes into the third jhana and then slips into the fourth jhana. Now the only characteristic left is equanimity: Perfect balance in mind.

There is no joy. There is no sorrow, no bliss or rapture, and no pain. The mediator is centered, focused, and clear. Mediators will not suffer or feel pain as long as they are in the fourth jhana. They have reached a profound level of acceptance with the way things are.

But, once the meditator gets off the cushion, leaves the zendo, gets into his or her car and go's on the freeway... Anger, hatred, and delusion will rise again. It's the same old story. If only there was a way to permanently get rid of greed, hatred and delusion? To realize perfect balance of mind, and have equanimity all the time.

That was the dilemma the Buddha faced Twenty-five hundred years ago. The answer for him was to rediscover insight meditation, which solved the puzzle and ended his suffering forever.

There are four kinds of insight meditation: Mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of the mind, and mindfulness of mental objects.

I'm going to talk a little bit about the mindfulness of sensations or feelings.

The mediator is sitting on the floor again, cross- legged. But rather than going into deeper and deeper states of tranquility, he goes to a place called access concentration, which is a kind of momentary concentration. The mediator scanning his body from the tip of his toes to the top of his head, begins looking for sensations.

The Buddha said there are three kinds of sensations. Pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations, and neutral sensations, they occur in both body and mind.

The mediator might start at the toes and work his way up, with the goal of being aware of any sensation. When one is found, he might think to himself pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. Then he would note what kind of sensation it was and let it go -- pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. Let go, and find the next one.

He might do this for 20 minutes, up and down, looking for sensations, noting, naming, and letting go -- pleasant, unpleasant, neutral.

After all this awareness of sensations, he would then go into deep state of reflection on the three aspects of Buddhist wisdom.

Which are: Impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self.

The first thing he might think is, "Are all sensations impermanent? Did any of them last the length of my meditation? Did any of them change in intensity, or were they always the same?"

Upon reflection, he would find all sensations whether in mind or body were impermanent. They would arise because of conditions, exist, and in some cases pass away, only to trouble him again later. Arising and passing away, with no permanence to be found.

He might think to himself, is everything in the world impermanent? Does anything exist forever? Is everything created out of conditions? When conditions change do all things grow or decay.

Impermanence is the first aspect of Buddhist wisdom.

The second aspect of Buddhist wisdom is unsatisfactoriness. Are all sensations unsatisfactory?

Now you might think, well, they weren't all unsatisfactory because some of them turned out to be pretty nice. I had these little blissful feelings, little energy flows. But then, when they ended, I was disappointed. Because of impermanence, every pleasant sensations became imperfect or unsatisfactory. The world is ultimately unsatisfactory, because all things change.

Now we come to the third aspect, 'Not Self.' Does any sensation have an essence or quality that exists independently? Does any sensation have an original unconditional substance?

Sensations seem to be conditional rather than unconditional. Sensations seem to be process, rather than an event.

There was a wonderful book published in the late '70s called "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." One of the dilemmas in the book, was to find quality. Where does the quality live in a object?

The main character in the book rode a Honda Super Hawk 400, and his buddy a BMW. His buddy always felt his BMW had more quality than the Honda.

I'm thinking, what would happen if both these guys went to a giant parking lot, and took their bikes apart into their 10,000 pieces.

Over here we have the Honda, over there we have the BMW. Now I'm thinking, we give each bike owner a magnifying glass, and we tell them, "Please, find the quality on your motorcycle. In what part does it reside?"

They would go to each part and look carefully for the essence of quality. Their conclusion might be, when all the pieces are put together to form an illusion of oneness, quality appears. When you take the one and make it many, the illusion of quality is lost in the parts.

If I were to look in my mind and body, where would I find my original essence? My soul.

The meditator seeing impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not self to be true, one day will be liberated from suffering... Because there is no 'One' to suffer, and no 'One' to cause suffering. The wisdom of Buddhism cuts through lust, greed, hatred, and delusion like a great sword, leaving behind, self limitation, generosity, compassion, and wisdom. The end of suffering, nirvana.

After the Buddha achieved nirvana through insight meditation, he never practiced it again. He had reached the end of the holy life, the perfection of the heart. There was no need for more insight. But, he continued to practice tranquility meditation until the end of his life.

Insight meditation ended his suffering. Tranquility meditation ended his pain. When he was sick or feeling discomfort from a bad back or just being old -- he died at the age of 80, you know-- he would simply go into deep states of jhana and neutralize the pain. When the Buddha passed away he was in the fourth jhana.

The two forms of Buddhist meditation are tranquility and insight. Some schools of Buddhism emphasize one, some the other, the Buddha did both.

Also by Rev. Kusala Bhishu

How I Became a Buddhist

Do Buddhists go to Heaven?

Do Buddhists Believe in God?

The Problem With Sex in Buddhism

Buddhist Enlightenment vs Nirvana