In Asoka’s Footsteps

by Nina Van Gorkom | 1999 | 27,079 words

Ashoka (or Aśoka, asoka) was an Indian emporeor reigning the Maurya dynasty from 268 to 232 BCE. In Asoka’s Footsteps; Dhamma in India; October 1999; by Nina Van Gorkom...

Chapter 6 - Samatha And Vipassana

In Pokkhara we watched in the evening a performance of Nepali dances and afterwards we had a Dhamma discussion. We discussed the lobha, attachment, which arose while we were enjoying ourselves and laughing. We hear about the disadvantages of lobha, but there is no self who can eradicate it, only panna. Khun Sujin remarked that it may be lobha which conditions our wish to eradicate defilements, but that the only way leading to its eradication is the development of panna which knows the characteristic of lobha as non-self. The clinging to self is deeply accumulated and it is bound to arise even when one tries to develop panna, when one wants to know the truth. Khun Sujin often reminded us that we should be truthful as to the realities which arise. We listen to the Dhamma and consider what we hear so that right understanding can grow and can begin to know characteristics of nama and rupa. When we watch a dancing performance, for example, there is sound of music, sound of people, sound of birds. Sound is just sound, its  characteristic can be known when it appears through earsense. Thinking about the quality or the origin of the sound is another reality, different from hearing. Khun Sujin said that while we watch a performance we can see the amount of lobha we have, and that this is more useful than being ignorant of lobha. As panna develops it can understand any kind of reality which arises, wherever we are and at any time. We should not try to be a different person, someone who has a great deal of kusala, before we develop satipatthana. We should not try to have purity of sila and purity of concentration before developing panna. Someone remarked that “access concentration” (upacara samadhi) arising shortly before jhana, and absorption concentration (appana samadhi) arising with the jhana-citta are the proximate cause of panna. Khun Sujin answered that this is the case only for those who understand the development of satipatthana. The aim of the Dhamma is detachment through right understanding of realities. Someone who attains jhana without right understanding of nama and rupa will not reach the goal, he will continue to take the jhanacitta for self.

Before we can understand what it means that concentration, samadhi, is the proximate cause of panna, we should know what samatha, tranquil meditation, is and what vipassana, the development of insight is. They each have a different aim and a different way of development. But for both ways of development right understanding is indispensable. Some people believe that they can develop calm merely by sitting in a quiet place and concentrating on one object; they believe that if one just concentrates on something there will be calm. Or they want to concentrate with the desire to become relaxed. Then their efforts are motivated by lobha, and this is wrong concentration, miccha samadhi. As Khun Sujin often stressed, we have to return to the paramattha dhammas in order to know what calm is and what concentration is. We have to know their different functions and we have to know when they arise, otherwise we shall only have a vague knowledge about tranquil meditation. Calm and concentration are different cetasikas, they arise because of the appropriate conditions and are non-self. There are two cetasikas which are calm: kaya passaddhi, calm of “body”, and citta passadhi, calm of citta. The word “body” stands here for the mental body, namely cetasikas. Calm of citta conditions calm of the citta it accompanies, and calm of body conditions calm of the accompanying cetasikas. The cetasikas which are “calm” accompany each sobhana (beautiful) citta. Whenever we perform dana or observe sila these two cetasikas accompany the kusala citta, but we may not notice the characteristic of calm, because the kusala citta falls away very rapidly. Concentration or samadhi is ekaggata cetasika, a cetasika arising with each citta. Its function is to cause citta to focus on one object. For example, when we see, hear or think ekaggata cetasika causes citta to focus on the object. It accompanies kusala citta, akusala citta or citta which is neither kusala nor akusala. Thus, not any kind of concentration is kusala.

In samatha calm is developed by means of a suitable meditation subject. The  “Visuddhimagga” (in chapters IV-XII) describes forty meditation subjects which can be the means to develop calm. Not just any other meditation  subject can be used to this aim. For the development of calm sati and panna (sati sampajanna) are indispensable. There must be right understanding of true calm, which is freedom from defilements. Panna must be very keen to know when akusala citta arises and when kusala citta. This is very difficult because cittas arise and fall away very rapidly. We may easily take for kusala what is akusala, especially when akusala is very subtle. If there is the desire to cause the growth of calm and concentration, one will not reach the aim. Among the meditation subjects are the recollection of the Buddha’s preeminent qualities, metta, loving kindness, or mindfulness of breathing. We may, in daily life, recollect subjects such as the Buddha’s pre-eminent qualities or we may develop metta. These subjects may condition some moments of calm with kusala citta, but that is not the development of tranquil meditation. In tranquil meditation panna knows how calm can increase with a meditation subject, and as calm increases, also concentration grows. If one has accumulated inclination and skill for the development of calm, one may attain jhana, absorption concentration. However, panna must be very keen and many conditions have to be fulfilled. There are different stages of jhana, and at each subsequent stage there is a higher degree of calm. At the moments of jhanacitta there are no sense impressions and defilements are temporarily subdued, but they are not eradicated. There are stages of rupajhana, material jhana, where the meditation subjects are still dependent on materiality, and there are stages of arupa-jhana, immaterial jhana, where the meditation subject is no longer dependent on materiality. Arupa-jhana is more refined than rupa-jhana. One should acquire “mastery” (vasi), great skill in jhana, if one wants to develop higher stages of jhana. We read in the “Visuddhimagga” (IV, 131) that one should have “mastery” in adverting to the jhana, in entering it, in determining its duration, in emerging from it and in reviewing it. Even before the Buddha’s time people developed tranquil meditation to the stages of rupa-jhana and arupa-jhana in order to temporarily subdue defilements, but these could not be eradicated. The Buddha found the Path leading to the complete eradication of defilements, and this is the development of satipatthana. The objects of satipatthana are paramattha dhammas, they are any nama or rupa which is appearing at the present moment; one does not select any special object. The aim of the development of satipatthana is eradication of clinging to the self and eventually of all defilements.

Some people wonder whether it is necessary first to develop samatha and after that vipassana. The Buddha did not set any rules with regard to samatha as a requirement for the development of insight. Individual inclinations are different. It depends on one’s accumulated inclinations whether one applies oneself to tranquil meditation or not. Some people developed both samatha and vipassana, but for the attainment of enlightenment they still had to develop right understanding of all namas and rupas. They had to acquire the “masteries”, so that they at any time could enter jhana or emerge from it, and after having emerged from jhana they could be mindful of realities,  including the jhanacitta and accompanying jhana-factors which are cetasikas. Otherwise they would take the jhanacitta for self. If people had great skill in jhana and could be aware of the jhanacitta, jhana was a foundation for the development of insight.

Some people wonder why, in the “Satipatthana Sutta” (Middle Length Sayings I, no. 10) “Mindfulness of Breathing” is included under the section “Mindfulness of the Body”. Does this imply that it is necessary for the development of vipassana to be mindful of breathing? It is an object of samatha and an object of vipassana. As an object of samatha it is one of the most difficult meditation subjects. If one tries to concentrate on breath without right understanding of this subject there will be clinging instead of calm. Breath is a rupa conditioned by citta, and it can appear where it touches the nose tip or the upperlip. Breath is very subtle and the “Visuddhimagga” explains (VIII, 211):

... But this mindfulness of breathing is difficult, difficult to develop, a field in which only the minds of Buddhas, “Silent Buddhas” (Silent Buddhas or Pacceka Buddhas have found the Path all by themselves, but they do not have accumulated the wisdom to the extent that they can teach the Path to others.) and Buddha’s sons are at home...

Buddha’s sons are disciples who were endowed with great wisdom and special qualities (maha-purisas, or “great men”). Thus, mindfulness of breathing as a meditation subject of samatha is not suitable for everybody. Khun Santi explains in his lexicon the difference between mindfulness of breathing as a subject of samatha and as an object of vipassana. We read about mindfulness of breathing as an object of vipassana:

“The paramattha dhamma which is breath is the object. In the ‘Maha-
Satipatthana Sutta’ the subject of breath has been shown under the section of ‘Mindfulness of Body’, because it regards the body, it is a reality which is a condition for the body. We used to take breath as mine, to think that it is ‘I’ who is breathing. However, when satipatthana arises it knows the characteristic of what is appearing, the Element of Earth, the Element of Fire or the Element of Wind, which impinges on the body. They are the characteristics of softness, heat or motion, which may appear at the nose tip or upperlip, just any of those characteristics. We may begin to know, we may gradually understand that it is only a reality which has this or that characteristic, that it is a rupa element which does not know an object. In this way the wrong understanding that it is me who is breathing or my breath can be eliminated. When sati arises one does not pay attention to the place where breath contacts, one only knows the reality which is appearing. Sati which accompanies right understanding arises because of the appropriate conditions, namely, listening until there is right understanding. There is no need for a special preparation, no need to fix one’s attention beforehand, and there should not be the desire that sati must arise. Sati only arises now and then. If there is right understanding, satipatthana will be aware of different objects appearing through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense and mind-door, until it can be aware of whatever object appears. Thus, one will not just fix one’s attention on breath which appears through the bodysense. Gradually the truth of anatta will be penetrated and there will be a clearer understanding of realities as they are, so that panna can become more accomplished. Then the stages of insight knowledge can be reached and eventually the pathconsciousness and fruition-consciousness will arise when enlightenment is attained. However, this takes a long time, not just one life. Panna must be developed on and on by listening, considering and investigation, but we should not have any expectation of result. Expectation is clinging, tanha, which together with conceit, mana, and wrong view, ditthi, are factors which slow down the development of panna.”

From this quotation we see that the method and aim of vipassana is different from the method and aim of samatha. In vipassana no preparation is needed, there is awareness of whatever reality appears, be it kusala, akusala, pleasant or unpleasant. From the beginning we should remember that there is no self who can do anything to have more awareness and understanding. We should not try to change our character and become a better person with the aim to develop right understanding. It is right understanding itself which has the function to eradicate akusala.

We should not try to be aware of breath, because it is very subtle. It is tangible object, conditioned by citta, but it is already very difficult to be aware of other kinds of tangible objects such as hardness of the different objects we touch, and therefore, why should we try to be aware of breath which is so subtle?

People in the Buddha’s time who were highly gifted, who could become arahats with special distinctive qualities (maha-purisas), could develop mindfulness of breath as a subject of samatha and vipassana. We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (V, Maha-vagga, Book X, Kindred Sayings about  inbreathing and Out-breathing, Ch I, § 8, The Lamp) that the Buddha, while he was at Savatthi said to the monks: ”Monks, intent concentration on inbreathing and out-breathing, if cultivated and made much of, is of great fruit, of great profit.” He then explained how to be aware of breath and to attain calm by means of this meditation subject (See the “Visuddhimagga” VIII, 145- 245, which gives a detailed explanation). The person who develops this subject can attain all stages of rupa-jhana and arupa-jhana, and also “extinction” (nirodha). This is temporary extinction of consciousness, which can only be attained by non-returners and arahats who have developed all stages of rupa-jhana and arupa-jhana.

The Commentary to this sutta , the “Saratthappakasini” explains about the benefits of “Mindfulness of Breath”. We read: 

“The monk who needs to have superpowers which are of the ariyan, the four stages of rupa-jhana, the four stages of arupa-jhana and the attainment of “extinction”, must be interested in thorough concentration on the the subject of breath... ”

The commentary explains that when this subject has been developed in all ways, all these benefits will occur to the meditator. 

All arahats have eradicated the defilements, but they have different abilities, different talents. Some had superpowers which are “worldly” (lokiya, not lokuttara) and lokuttara (supramundane) (Abhinna, including magical powers such as walking on water, divine ear, penetration of other people’s minds, divine eye, remembrance of former lives, eradication of all defilements.). Thus, we see that great benefits of “Mindfulness of Breath” occur to very special persons, to arahats who are highly gifted and have distinctive qualities. In our time the teachings are declining and there are in the human world no more arahats. The sutta and the commentary which I mentioned can remind us that “Mindfulness of Breath” cannot be properly developed by ordinary people.

In the Buddha’s time people who had accumulated great skill for jhana developed samatha to the degree of jhana, and also developed vipassana, so that they could attain enlightenment. However, there were also many people who only developed vipassana and then attained enlightenment. They are called people who developed “dry insight”, sukkha vipassana. In the “Designation of Human Types” (Puggalapannatti, the fourth Book of the Abhidhamma) individuals with different inclinations have been described. We read in the “Table of Contents” about the “Grouping of Human Types by One”, about “one who is emancipated at times (samayavimutto)” and “one who is emancipated not (only) at times (asamayavimutto)”. The Commentary, the “Pancappakaraùatthakata” explains that “emancipated at times” applies to those who have attained to the three lower stages of enlightenment. They have not attained the full emancipation of arahatship. The Commentary states that “emancipated not at times” (the opposite of “at times”) applies to arahats who are “sukkhavipassaka”, who only practised dry insight, and did not develop jhana. We read in chapter I about those who are “emancipated not (only) at times”: ”Indeed, all persons who are ariyans (noble or elect) are so emancipated in matters of the higher emancipation.” One can become enlightened, even to the stage of the arahat without having developed jhana.

We also read about someone who is of “perturbable nature” (kuppadhammo) and someone who is of “imperturbable nature” (akuppadhammo). The person of “perturbable nature” is not steadfast, he has dhammas which can decline. Among this group are those who have attained the different stages of jhana, but who have no masteries (vasis). They can attain jhana with difficulty, they cannot enter or emerge as they wish. Their skill in jhana can decline. Those who are of “imperturbable nature” are anagamis and arahats who have mastery in jhana, and moreover, all ariyans are “imperturbable in matters of ariyan emancipation”. Thus, the ariyans of the four stages of enlightenment are included, no matter they have “mastery” in jhana or not. The ariyan freedom cannot decline, the defilements which have been eradicated cannot return. This reminds us of what is really 

We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (III, Khandha-vagga, Kindred Sayings on Elements, Middle Fifty, Ch 4, § 88, Assaji) about a monk who was too sick to develop Mindfulness of Breathing and attain jhana. Khun Buth Sawong from Cambodia, who can recite many suttas by heart, drew our attention to this sutta which shows that it is not necessary to develop jhana in order to be able to attain enlightenment. We read that when the Buddha was staying near Rajagaha, he visited the venerable Assaji who was sick. They had the following conversation:

... “Formerly, lord, I kept trying to calm down my sickness, but I am still much troubled by my breathing. I cannot win balance of mind. But though I cannot win balance of mind, I say to myself:- ‘Yet I do not fall away.’” 

“Those recluses and brahmins, Assaji, who deem balance of mind as all in all, they who reverence balance of mind, -when they cannot win that balance of mind, say to themselves: ‘May we not fall away!’

Now as to this, what do you think, Assaji? Is body permanent or

“Impermanent, lord.”

“So it is with the other factors, and consciousness...
Wherefore he who sees this... knows:’... for life in these conditions there is no hereafter.’

If one feels a pleasant feeling... a painful feeling... a neutral feeling, he knows it is impermanent, he knows it as not clung to, he knows it has no lure for him.

If he feels a pleasant feeling... a painful feeling... a neutral feeling, he feels unattached. If he feels a feeling that his bodily powers have reached their end, he knows that he so feels. If he feels a feeling that life has reached its end, he knows that he so feels. He knows that when body breaks up, henceforth, when life has run its course, all that he has felt, all that had a lure for him will grow cold.”

Through the development of right understanding of the five khandhas, that is, of all nama and rupa within and around ourselves, enlightenment can be attained and eventually arahatship can be reached. There can be awareness of seeing, visible object, feeling or thinking right now, why should we strive to reach jhana first?

Samma-samadhi, right concentration is one of the factors of the eightfold Path. It performs its function of focussing on the nama or rupa which is the object of right understanding, samma-ditthi. At the same time samma-sati is mindful of that object, right thinking, samma-sankappa, “touches” the object so that samma-ditthi can understand it, and right effort, samma-vayama, is the effort or energy for right understanding. These five cetasikas among the eight factors perform their functions when right understanding is being developed. The three factors of right speech, samma-vaca, right action, samma-kammanta, and right livelihood, samma-ajiva pertain to the sila of  he eightfold Path. There is no self who can try to concentrate on nama and rupa, right concentration is ekkaggata cetasika performing its function. We should remember that the factors of the eightfold Path are cetasika paramattha dhamma, non-self.

The “Visuddhimagga” (XI, 121) explains that one of the benefits of the development of concentration is serving as the proximate cause for insight. When one reads this one may believe that everybody should develop jhana as a condition for insight, but, as we have seen, it depends on one’s accumulated inclination whether one will develop jhana or not. Moreover, also when one does not develop jhana, samma-samadhi is the proximate cause of panna, since it performs its function while it accompanies panna. As right understanding develops samma-samadhi develops as well, and when lokuttara citta arises at the moment of enlightenment, samma-samadhi has the degree of appana-samadhi, absorption concentration. Its strength can be compared with absorption concentration which accompanies the jhanacitta of the first stage of jhana. However, its object is not a meditation subject of samatha, but it is nibbana. It has this strength of concentration because of the right conditions, namely the development of vipassana to the degree that enlightenment can be attained. Samadhi which accompanies jhanacitta in samatha is not the proximate cause of panna of the eightfold Path. It is right concentration, but not right concentration of the eightfold Path. The aim of samatha is not seeing nama and rupa as impermanent, dukkha and non-self.

We should consider what the goal is in our life: the understanding of this moment of seeing, hearing, thinking, visible object, sound or any other paramattha dhamma which appears now.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: