fuelling the fire
from earth to body
all being’s last life
to embrace eternal dust
ride the flow
Sati is a Pāli word (Skt smṛti) and is generally translated as 'mindfulness'. While translators vary in approach sati can mean 'memory' and it can mean 'consciousness' 'awareness, or 'knowledge'. In the context of Buddhist meditation a useful expanded definition of sati might be 'a highly focused examination of the present contents of experience' (Shulman 2010, p. 395). Meditative 'cultivation' (bhāvanā) in Buddhism is the tool that allows a practitioner to gain an understanding of the Buddha’s Four Truths and following the Eightfold Path to ultimately reach liberation. However, differences across Buddhist traditions as they evolved led to variations and modifications in the basic practice formulas laid out in key doctrinal and exegetical texts.
Mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati) is a widely practiced form of Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Buddhist texts tell of the importance of ānāpānasati and give detailed instructions on methods of practice in both samatha (calm or tranquility) and vipassanā (insight) methods. In Buddha’s time breath (pāna) was considered the most general criterion for determining what is alive. The first of a monk’s precepts (sila) involves not harming that which has breath (pānatipata). Breath is liminal in the consciousness, being sometimes conscious or unconscious. Breath is thus a fundamental part of life and an object that one can readily observe and practice one’s mental control upon. The breath was considered as the ‘root’ (mūla) meditation object (Shaw 2012, p. 379). Ānāpānasati is a basic practice in both samatha and vipassanā meditation. Buddhist tradition reportedly asserts: 'Mindfulness of breathing takes the first place among the various subjects of meditation (kammaṭṭhāna)' (Nyanaponika 1992, p. 69).
Samatha involves calming the mind (citta) and mental formations (saṅkhāra) so that it is 'an island of calm, imbued with self-control, self-contained' (Harvey 1995 p.55). Samatha can be used to promote wholesome mental factors such as the four Buddhist virtues (brahmavihāras) including loving kindness (metta). It can work to suppress the defilements of greed and aversion in advanced practice (Harvey 2013, pp. 332-334). Samatha is used as a preparatory approach to both concentration and mindfulness meditation practices by encouraging a state of calmness and awareness. Also, samatha has come to be very closely associated with practices directed towards the development of a state of one-pointed concentration on a specific object. Samatha, as a preparatory stage, allows the meditator to enter into a series of progressively more refined mental concentration states referred to as jhānas. Such jhānic mental states and samatha meditation was common across a number of philosophical and religious traditions, including pre-dating the Buddha in brahmanical yogic traditions (Wynne 2007, pp. 30-33).
Vipassanā means insight. This form of meditation is said to be a unique discovery of the Buddha. Insight refers to the objective of vipassanā meditation, which is to develop insight into the true nature of things. Such insight involves a awareness and understanding of the three marks of existence, that all is suffering (dukkha), impermanent (anicca) and non-self (anattā). All phenomena are seen as arising according to nurturing conditions and then eventually passing away. Such insights are the basis for the development of paññā (wisdom) by cutting through spiritual ignorance, attachment and aversion to achieve awakening/enlightenment (nibbāna) (Harvey 2013, p. 318).
Thus two broad strands of meditation practice are samatha or 'concentration' and vipassanā or 'insight'. While it is possible to practice each strand as a separate path, in most Buddhist practices the two strands are combined. Samatha 'stabilizes our attention, while vipassanā (experiential inquiry) helps us to see things more clearly. The cultivation of the two together enables us to develop a mindfulness that is characterized by calmness and clarity' (Batchelor M, pp. 164-5). The relationship between samatha and insight meditation is expressed in the Pāli canon is also one of synergy, with samatha serving to suppress defilements, and insight serving to help eliminate them to achieve nibbāna. For example, the Vijja-bhagiya sutta (A Share in Clear Knowing) (AN 2.30) states:
'These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquillity (samatha) & insight (vipassanā). When tranquillity is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned.
When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned.
Defiled by passion, the mind is not released. Defiled by ignorance, discernment does not develop. Thus from the fading of passion is there awareness-release. From the fading of ignorance is there discernment-release.'
Another important aspect of Buddhist meditation practice is overcoming the five hindrances (nivāraṇa) of: sensual desire (kāmacchanda), ill-will (byāpāda), sloth and torpor (thīna-middha), restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca), sceptical doubt (vicikicchā). Elimination of such hindrances allows meditation practice to be undertaken in state of engaged openness free from thought processes that might hinder an active experiential inquiry.
Insight and breathing
Early Indian Buddhist conceptions of insight or mindfulness meditation are detailed in the Pāli canon by the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta 'Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (MN 10), the Mahā-satipaṭṭhāna sutta (DN 22) and the Ānāpānasati sutta 'Mindfulness of Breathing' (MN 118). These suttas are key documents showing that in the early context mindfulness explored all mind/body aggregates and their temporal changes.
The Satipaṭṭhāna sutta is broad in scope but places breath as the first object of mindfulness. The Buddha states 'this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realization of nibbāna, namely the four satipaṭṭhānas.' (Anālayo 2006, p. 3). The Satipaṭṭhāna sutta provides four foundations of mindfulness: the body (kāyā), feelings (vedanā), mind (cittā), mental objects (dhammās). The Satipaṭṭhāna sutta has an emphasis on 'right mindfulness' (sammā-sati), as expressed in the Noble Eightfold Path. That is, it expresses mindfulness in the context of four simultaneous mind qualities, so, in relation to the body: 'a monk abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world' (Anālayo 2006, p. 3). The first section of the sutta addresses ānāpānasati. The first instruction is to establish mindfulness 'in front of him' (which is taken to mean the nostril area) and to breath in and out. The meditator then observes and 'knows' their long and short breaths. Mindfulness of the breath then turns to 'experiencing the whole body', then to 'calming the bodily formation' (Anālayo 2006, p. 4). The 'whole body' may mean the whole physical body or it may mean the whole 'breath-body', or full awareness of the beginning, middle and end stages of each breath (Anālayo 2006, p. 126). Viewed from the perspective of knowledge and culture in ancient India, breath was also a direct awareness with the ever moving air/wind element, allowing the meditator to know the body’s dependence on a flux of breath. This emphasizes breath as a tool to develop a strong awareness of anicca or impermanence.
The Ānāpānasati sutta was addressed to a group of devout practicing monks with a range of progress in eliminating the ten fetters of becoming, up to and including Arahants. It has been suggested that that Ānāpānasati sutta may have been 'to demonstrate to a group of monks, who were already using the breath as a meditation object how to develop it as a satipaṭṭhāna'. Thus broadening the 'scope of mindfulness of breathing … to awareness of feeling, mind and dhammas … as a means to gain insight' (Anālayo 2006, p. 130). In the sutta Buddha praises ānāpānasati and states that when developed and pursued the practice leads to the culmination of the four foundations (or frames of reference) of mindfulness, and then the culmination of the seven factors of awakening, and then to clear knowing and release. The starting point recommended in the sutta is to be in seclusion, say under a tree in the wilderness, and in a seated but erect posture. Then focusing in front, being mindful of in and out breathing. The subsequent processes detailed in the sutta commence with a samatha calming followed by training exercises in breathing while focusing on various aspects of mind. These aspects of breathing mindfulness cover focusing the whole mind/body (including the four foundations of mindfulness found in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta). The further objects leading to 'cessation' and release are examined in a on-going state of mindfulness. These include being mindful of the seven factors of awakening: mindfulness (sati) itself, investigation of dhammas, determination, rapture not-of-the-flesh, calm, concentration (samādhi) and equanimity); and, clear knowing and final release. This sutta places mindfulness of breathing and mindfulness at the centre of the Buddha’s path the awakening.
Ānāpānasati is also the subject of a major commentary in Buddhaghosa’s 'Path of Purification' (Visuddhimagga). In the second part of this treatise Buddhaghosa details samatha practice and lists forty objects for meditation. Ānāpānasati is the twenty-ninth object and one of ten 'recollections' (anussati). In what we would now term a psychological overlay, different objects of meditation were considered more or less suitable for certain personality types. Mindfulness of breathing was suitable for all personality types, but particularly for those described as 'delusion' and 'discursive' types (Harvey 2013, p. 326). Ānāpānasati also brings about an awareness of the impersonal nature of the body and allows an inner alienation from it (Nyanaponika 1992, p. 71). This alienation is the starting point for giving up our attachment to the body, the self and all things. The Satipaṭṭhāna and Ānāpānasati suttas suggest that ānāpānasati, by itself, is effective in developing the factors of awakening and leading the meditator through the process of liberation. This important of mindfulness of breathing meditation has continued in Buddhist traditions to the present day. It is a key aspect in modern vipassanā techniques developed in Burma. For example, Mahasi Sayadow’s 'pure insight' method and the U Ba Khin (Goenka) method use breath as an initial object of meditation (Ditrich 2016, p.4). Therefore, an initial focus on breathing is seen to place the meditator in a mental and physical condition to access further meditative development and progress along Buddha’s path to awakening.
Concentration and jhānas
The other main stream of meditation is 'concentration', which also uses samatha meditation as a preparatory stage. Subsequent stages are directed towards achieving one-pointedness of mind (ekaggatā) and sustaining it a state of meditative absorption referred to as samādhi. Importantly, 'right concentration' (sammā-samādhi) is a factor in the Noble Eightfold Path, and is concentration associated with wholesome states of mind. The Pāli abhidhamma, has three levels of concentration in samatha meditation: preparatory concentration (parikamma-samādhi), access concentration (upacara-samādhi) when a mental sign (nimitta) appears; and, attainment or full concentration (appana-samādhi) that arises when entering and abiding in a meditative absorption. The process of moving from preparatory concentration to hight meditative absorptions (jhānas) in described by Nyanaponika (1992, p. 123) in terms continued calming to 'make the breath still more fine and subtle and its flow smoother'. By not paying any particular attention to it and floating along with the breath, then access absorption is heralded by the appearance of a simple uncomplicated nimitta. Once that sign has arisen, it then becomes to focus of attention in order to stabilize it. At a certain point, as concentration is deepened, the meditator reaches the first jhāna. It is said that the first jhāna has five components: applied thought, sustained thought, rapture, happiness and one-pointedness (Gunarantana 1998, p. 14).
Buddhists commonly recognize eight jhāna states: four material absorptions (rūpa jhānas) and four immaterial or formless absorptions (arūpa jhānas). The jhāna absorptions pre-date Gotama Buddha and certainly were part of Brahmanic traditions. Those traditions had a different conceptual framework to Buddhism, especially that there was Ātman - a self or soul. For those pursuing higher jhāna states an aim may have been to simulate a reverse cosmogony and thereby prepare for re-unification with Brahman at death (Wynne 2007, p.36). In this model jhānas might be seen as progressively becoming more undifferentiated states where one is finally not aware of objects. As told in the Ariyapariyesana sutta (MN 26), (probably one of the earliest biographical accounts in the early Buddhist literature) the jhāna states were learned by the Buddha in the period after his renunciation. Then he followed two teachers who practiced the two highest jhānas, the seventh (sphere of nothingness) and eighth (neither perception nor non-perception). The Buddha did not find them sufficient in themselves to lead to liberation, however, they were incorporated into his own system (Shaw 2006, p. 1). For example, in the Mahasacckaka-Sutta (MN 36) the Buddha says that 'the path to awakening' lay in the first jhāna he experienced as a child under a rose-apple tree. Jhānas are described as being beneficial for mental development in a number of suttas. However, while being useful and necessary the Buddha indicated the meditative adept 'should apply his concentrative state to the practice of mindfulness, and work towards the attainment of insight' (Wynne 2007 p.105).
As a consequence of the diversity and evolution of Buddhist thought and practice over the centuries a meditator’s understanding of their practice has varied over time, and with cultural context, school or sect. The philosophical distinctions of the Mahāyāna tradition placed meditation practices in new contexts. In Indian Buddhism meditation was used to develop the mind to a state where re-birth would not take place. Whereas later time in China, Japan and elsewhere, translated suttas and the new Sutras written were influenced by the prevailing cultures and changed their focus. For example, doctrinal elements that influenced meditative practices include the Bodhisattva path to becoming and notions of emptiness (Skt śūnyatā) leading to an equivalence of saṃsāra and nibbāna. In this light meditation was directed at developing skillful mind-sets to alter (rather than end) the chain of dependent origination. Rather than seeking liberation directly, re-birth might be aimed at a particular Buddha realm or 'Pure Land' heaven, or at self-realization on Earth as part of the Bodhisattva path - with its focus on compassion for sentient beings. In the case of Ch'an and Zen Buddhism in particular, the concept of Tathāgatagarbha (the embryonic Buddha within) may have been important in modifying meditation practice. The inherent hidden internal Buddha-nature was to be discovered, and that could be done suddenly through appropriate practices. Bodhidharma was the 5th or 6th century Buddhist monk traditionally credited as the transmitter of Ch'an Buddhism to China. The following verse attributed to Bodhidharma, but formulated in the T’ang period, encapsulates Ch'an thought (Harvey 2013, p. 218):
A special transmission outside the scriptures;
Without depending on words and letters;
Pointing directly to the human mind;
Seeing the innate nature, one becomes a Buddha.
Importantly this conception placed emphasis on the practice of meditation and not textual analysis. It involves a master-student relationship in contrast to the trusted friend (kalyāṇa-mitta) model in Theravāda. But it has the same emphasis on experiential inquiry leading to direct knowledge. There are differences in the Master-student models used with a range from dialectic to more didactic approaches. Also, in this context group meditation arrangements would be appropriate - solitude was no longer required. The Mahāyāna tradition embodied in Ch'an and Zen thus retained much of the original content of the Pāli canon as background, but the foreground was meditation practice re-interpreted and re-oriented in a new context. Examples of this shift in focus can be found in the conduct and objectives of meditative states as Buddhism spread across Northern Asia. In contrast to the Pāli canon the Mahāyāna sūtras have a wide variety of profound meditative experiences are described as samādhis and attainments of a Bodhisattva as he ascends through the ten stages of awakening (bhūmis). The Tibetan Mahāvyutpatti lists 118 different samādhis that are speciﬁed by name in the Prajñāpāramitā sutras (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 743).
The Pāli word jhāna, via its Sanskirt form dhyāna, became transcribed to zuochan ('seated meditation') shortened to Ch'an in China and then in Japan to zazen (the Japanese pronunciation of zuochan) and thereby Zen. The achievement of concentration states was assisted in many new ways such as developing visualisations or other devices such as mandalas and repeated mantras. Such practices are based on the older knowledge bases such as those found in translated suttas and commentaries such as the Visuddhimagga. The Visuddhimagga suggests the states of consciousness embodied in the jhānas are characteristic of what are called 'the ‘Brahma realms,’ the ‘planes of illumination’ and the ‘pure abodes.’' (Coleman 2008, p. 13). The practitioner would be born into one of these planes depending on their jhānic achievements. This concept may have been very compatible with having faith in many cosmic Buddha realms, and hence re-birth in them. An example of such new interpretations is the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, which indicates four types of meditation (Dhyānas) for polemical purposes. First is the Dhyāna of the 'ignorant' is that of early Indian Buddhism (sāvakas and paccekabuddhas). Second is the Dhyāna examining meaning and the egolessness of things and the stages of Bodhisattvahood. Third is Dhyāna with Tathāgata for its object where the non-dual reality of such-ness (yatha-bhuta) is realised. Fourth is the Dhyāna of the Tathāgata, when self-realization is reached. The higher states are characterised by 'imagelessness where Mind-only is' (Suzuki 1935, p.40). The Śūraṅgama Sūtra, also places an emphasis on samatha meditation, but in combination with vipassanā. In this case the emphasis of insight is into exploring the possibilities of Tathāgatagarbha (Suzuki 1935, p.45). Vipassanā meditation used the general Satipaṭṭhāna sutta formula, but it too was modified. For example, the Pratyutpannabuddhasammukhāvaṣṭhitasamādhi Sūtra emphasizes the value of compassion in the contemplation of internal and external feelings; the Bodhisattva path, and distinctive views on the non-existence of dhammas (Sujato 2012, p. 358-359). Also, in a manner similar to the Satipaṭṭhāna corpse meditation process, the Sūtra asks a meditator to use Buddhas as objects of mediation (Sujato 2012, p. 361).
Ch'an and Zen Buddhism
In terms of specific practices and the role of ānāpānasati, Ch'an and Zen Buddhism provide some useful comparisons. Chinese Ch'an and Japanese Zen meditation is aimed at developing high states of awareness and koan meditation. The Cao Dong (Ts’ao-tung) / Sōtō school emphasized concentration and the Lin Ji (Lin Chi) / Rinzai school emphasized kōans (public documents) or conundrums that can become the subjects of meditation. Both practices are undertaken with guidance from a Master (roshi) in line with mind-to-mind transmission. Sōtō is akin to Theravāda samatha then vipassanā, whereas the Rinzai method 'yokes samatha and vipassanā together' (Harvey 2013, p. 361). Zazen, or 'sitting meditation' is used for both awareness and koan meditation. In the Sōtō form bodily posture is very important and specific instructions are given. It might been seen as a 'whole-body mudrā' manifesting Buddha-nature (Harvey 2013, p. 363). Initially breathing is done at a natural pace with no attempt at control. Then the breath is regulated by, for example, 'belly breathing' using the lower abdomen and the breathing rate is slowed down. This slowing can be aided by counting techniques called susokukan, which has several variations. Through this practice the meditator builds up concentration (joriki) in their mind. This process like samatha meditation however in Zen mindfulness of breathing is not used to reach the stage of developing a mental image (nimitta) - as for those seeking the first jhāna - and they are to be dismissed. At this point the practitioner moves to one of two main methods of zazen: the Sōtō 'just sitting' (shikantaza) or Rinzai’s koan meditation (Harvey 2013, p. 362). Shikantaza may be described as sitting quietly in open awareness, reflecting directly the reality of life - neither trying to think, nor not trying to think. Arising thoughts are passed without comment, with the mind returning to 'just sitting'. This is unlike returning to the breath in Theravāda samatha, but nonetheless breath remains the key object. Dōgen, the founder of the Sōtō school considered that in the practice one should not think of becoming a Buddha, but see it as polishing a brick until it becomes a mirror. That is that the training and awakening are one. It is reported that shikantaza can lead to states of samādhi not unlike the first or second jhānas, suggesting a kinship with Theravāda samatha-yāna (Harvey 2013, p. 364). In the case of Rinzai kōan meditation, the meditator concentrates on the internally vocalised 'topic' of the kōan, harmonizing this with focus on the breath at the abdomen. The breaking of thinking in the framework of conventional reality brought about can contribute to a sudden awakening and to jhāna states. The yoking of samatha and vipassanā comes from seeking an answer to the kōan, requiring insight to be developed, then followed by a deeper calm (Harvey 2013, p. 367).
Ānāpānasati is of central importance across Buddhist traditions. In the Theravāda tradition ānāpānasati is practiced in both the two major strands of meditation practice samatha and vipassanā. In samatha the breath is the primary object and the objective is developing calmness of mind and one-pointed concentration to reach jhāna states of absorption. In vipassanā ānāpānasati is a key foundation for mindfulness. By developing mindfulness of breathing and other foundations the meditator develops wisdom and insight into the true nature of reality. While being set in different cultural and historical contexts ānāpānasati is also important in the Ch'an and Zen traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In those Schools a combination of samatha and vipassanā techniques, along with various objects and methods, are used to facilitate a practitioner’s exploration of their Buddha-nature. Thus across Buddhist traditions ānāpānasati is part of the path to achieve final liberation, nibbāna. For modern people the practice of such types of meditation (with or without a buddhist orientation) opens up one’s awareness of the doors of perception. This can lead to a dissolution of our often selfish “ego”; and a greater understanding of the inter-connected nature of things. The boundaries of self and other are diminished, leading to a greater appreciation of what a miracle it is to be alive.
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... being aphorismic?
along the path
blinded by sights
deaf from words
numb to blows
delusions in thought
pause and turn
breathe and observe
seeing, no eyes no sight
hearing, no ears no sound
touching, no skin no touch
smelling, no nose no smell
tasting, no tongue no taste
thinking, no mind no thought
along the path
persistence and change