Dharma Notes‎ > ‎

Right Concentration

The practice of Right Concentration (samyak
samadhi) is to cultivate a mind that is one-pointed.
The Chinese character for concentration means,
literally, "maintaining evenness," neither too high
nor too low, neither too excited nor too dull.
Another Chinese term sometimes used for
concentration means "the abode of true mind."
There are two kinds of concentration, active and
selective. In active concentration, the mind dwells
on whatever is happening in the present moment,
even as it changes. This poem by a Buddhist
monk1 describes active concentration:

1 Poem by Vietnamese Dhyana Master Huong
Hai (Ocean of Fragrance),

The wind whistles in the bamboo
and the bamboo dances.
When the wind stops,
the bamboo grows still.

The wind comes and the bamboo welcomes it.
The wind goes, and the bamboo lets it go. The
poem continues:

A silver bird
flies over the autumn lake.
When it has passed,
the lake's surface does not try
to hold on to the image of the bird.

As the bird flies over the lake, its reflection is
lucid. After it is gone, the lake reflects the clouds
and the sky just as clearly. When we practice
active concentration, we welcome whatever comes
along. We don't think about or long for anything
else. We just dwell in the present moment with all
our being. Whatever comes, comes. When the
object of our concentration has passed, our mind
remains clear, like a calm lake.
When we practice "selective concentration," we
choose one object and hold onto it. During sitting
and walking meditation, whether alone or with
others, we practice. We know that the sky and the
birds are there, but our attention is focused on our
object. If the object of our concentration is a math
problem, we don't watch TV or talk on the phone.
We abandon everything else and focus on the
object. When we are driving, the lives of the
passengers in our car depend on our concentration.
We don't use concentration to run away from
our suffering. We concentrate to make ourselves
deeply present. When we walk, stand, or sit in
concentration, people can see our stability and
stillness. Living each moment deeply, sustained
concentration comes naturally, and that, in turn,
gives rise to insight.
Right Concentration leads to happiness, and it
also leads to Right Action. The higher our degree of
concentration, the greater the quality of our life.
Vietnamese girls are often told by their mothers
that if they concentrate, they will be more
beautiful. This is the kind of beauty that comes
from dwelling deeply in the present moment.
When a young lady moves inattentively, she does
not look as fresh or at ease. Her mother may not
use these words, but she is encouraging her
daughter to practice Right Concentration. It is a
pity she does not encourage her son to do the
same. Everyone needs concentration.
There are nine levels of meditative
concentration. The first four are the Four Dhyanas.
These are concentrations on the form realm. The
next five levels belong to the formless realm. When
practicing the first dhyana, you still think. At the
other eight levels, thinking gives way to other
en er gies . Formless concentrations are also
practiced in other traditions, but when they are
practiced outside of Buddhism, it is generally to
escape from suffering rather than to realize the
liberation that comes with insight into our
suffering. When you use concentration to run away
from yourself or your situation, it is wrong
concentration. Sometimes we need to escape our
problems for relief, but at some time we have to
return to face them. Worldly concentration seeks
to escape. Supra-mundane concentration aims at
complete liberation.
To practice samadhi is to live deeply each
moment that is given us to live. Samadhi means
concentration. In order to be concentrated, we
should be mindful, fully present and aware of what
is going on. Mindfulness brings about
concentration. When you are deeply concentrated,
you are absorbed in the moment. You become the
moment. That is why samadhi is sometimes
translated as "absorption." Right Mindfulness and
Right Concentration lift us above the realms of
sensual pleasures and craving, and we find
ourselves lighter and happier. Our world is no
longer gross and heavy, the realm of desires
(karma dhatu). It is the realm of fine materiality,
the realm of form (rupa dhatu).
In the form realm, there are four levels of
dhyana. Mindfulness, concentration, joy,
happiness, peace, and equanimity continue to grow
through these four levels. After the fourth dhyana,
the practitioner enters a deeper experience of
concentration — the four formless dhyanas —
where he or she can see deeply into reality. Here,
sensual desire and materiality reveal their illusory
nature and are no longer obstacles. You begin to see
the impermanent, nonself, and interbeing nature of
the phenomenal world. Earth, water, air, fire,
space, time, nothingness, and perceptions inter-are.
Nothing can be by itself alone.
The object of the fifth level of concentration is
limitless space. When we begin to practice this
concentration, everything seems to be space. But
as we practice more deeply, we see that space is
composed of and exists only in "non-space
elements," like earth, water, air, fire, and
consciousness. Because space is only one of the six
elements that make up all material things, we know
space does not have a separate, independent
existence. According to the teachings of the
Buddha, nothing has a separate self. So space and
everything else inter-are. Space inter-is with the
other five elements.
The object of the sixth level of concentration is
limitless consciousness. At first, we see only
consciousness, but then we see that consciousness
is also earth, water, air, fire, and space. What is
true of space is also true of consciousness.
The object of the seventh level of concentration
i s nothingness. With normal perception, we see
flowers, fruit, teapots, and tables, and we think
they exist separately of one another. But when we
look more deeply, we see that the fruit is in the
flower, and that the flower, the cloud, and the earth
are in the fruit. We go beyond outward
appearances or signs and come to "signlessness."
At first, we think that the members of our family
are separate from one another, but afterwards we
see that they contain each other. You are the way
you are because I am the way I am. We see the
intimate connection between people, and we go
beyond signs. We used to think that the universe
contains millions of separate entities. Now we
understand "the nonexistence of signs."
The eighth level of concentration is that of
neither perception nor non-perception. We
recognize that everything is produced by our
perceptions, which are, at least in part, erroneous.
Therefore, we see that we cannot rely on our old
way of perceiving, and we want to be in direct
touch with reality. We cannot stop perceiving
altogether, but at least now we know that
perception is perception of a sign. Since we no
longer believe in the reality of signs, our perception
becomes wisdom. We go beyond signs ("no
perception"), but we do not become perceptionless
("no non-perception").

The ninth level of concentration is called
cessation. "Cessation" here means the cessation of
ignorance in our feelings and perceptions, not the
cessation of feelings and perceptions. From this
concentration is born insight. The poet Nguyen Du
said, "As soon as we see with our eyes and hear
with our ears, we open ourselves to suffering." We
long to be in a state of concentration where we
cannot see or hear anything, in a world where there
is no perception. We wish to become a pine tree
with the wind singing in our branches, because we
believe that a pine tree does not suffer. The search
for a place of non-suffering is natural.

In the world of non-perception, the seventh
(manas) and the eighth (alaya) consciousnesses
continue to function as usual, and our ignorance
and internal formations remain intact in our store
consciousness, and they manifest in the seventh
consciousness. The seventh consciousness is the
energy of delusion that creates the belief in a self
and distinguishes self from other. Since the nonperception
concentration does not transform our
habit energies, when people emerge from that
concentration, their suffering is intact. But when
the meditator reaches the ninth level of
concentration, the stage of arhat, manas is
transformed and the internal formations in the
store consciousness are purified. The greatest
internal formation is ignorance of the reality of
impermanence and nonself. This ignorance gives
rise to greed, hatred, confusion, pride, doubt, and
views. Together, these afflictions produce a war of
consciousness called manas, which always
discriminates self from other.

When someone practices well, the ninth level of
concentration shines light on the reality of things
and transforms ignorance. The seeds that used to
cause you to be caught in self and nonself are
transformed, alaya is freed from the grip of manas,
and manas no longer has the function of making a
self. Manas becomes the Wisdom of Equality that
can see the interbeing and interpenetrating nature
of things. It can see that others' lives are as
precious as our own, because there is no longer
discrimination between self and other. When manas
loses its grip on store consciousness, store
consciousness becomes the Wisdom of the Great
Mirror that reflects everything in the universe.
When the sixth consciousness (manovijñana) is
transformed, it is called the Wisdom of Wonderful
Observation. Mind consciousness continues to
observe phenomena after it has been transformed
into wisdom, but it observes them in a different
way, because mind consciousness is aware of the
interbeing nature of all that it observes — seeing
the one in the many, all the manifestations of birth
and death, coming and going, and so on — without
being caught in ignorance. The first five
consciousnesses become the Wisdom of Wonderful
Realization. Our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body
that previously caused us to suffer become
miracles that bring us to the garden of suchness.
Thus, the transformation of all levels of
consciousness is realized as Four Wisdoms. Our
wrong consciousness and wrong perceptions are
transformed, thanks to the practice. At the ninth
level of concentration, all eight consciousnesses are
functioning. Perception and feeling are still there,
but they are different from before, because they are
free from ignorance.

The Buddha taught many concentration
practices. To practice the Concentration on
Impermanence, every time you look at your
beloved, see him as impermanent, and do your best
to make him happy today. If you think he is
permanent, you may believe that he will never
improve. The insight into impermanence keeps
you from getting caught in the suffering of craving,
attachment, and despair. See and listen to
everything with this insight.

To practice the Concentration on Nonself,
touch the nature of interbeing in everything you
contact. This will bring you a lot of peace and joy
and prevent you from suffering. The practice of
the Concentration on Nirvana helps you to touch
the ultimate dimension of reality and establish
yourself in the realms of no-birth and no-death.
The Concentrations on Impermanence, Nonself,
and Nirvana are enough for us to practice our
whole lives. In fact, the three are one. If you touch
the nature of impermanence deeply, you touch the
nature of nonself (interbeing) and nirvana. One
concentration contains all concentrations. You
don't need to do everything.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are hundreds of
other concentrations, such as the Shurangama
Samadhi (the Concentration of the Heroic March),
the Saddharmapundarika Samadhi, and the
Avatamsaka Samadhi. Each is wonderful and
important. According to the Lotus Sutra, we have
to live in the historical and ultimate dimensions of
reality at the same time. We have to live deeply
our life as a wave so we can touch the substance of
water in us. We walk, look, breathe, and eat in a
way that we touch the absolute dimension of
reality. We transcend birth and death and the fears
of being and nonbeing, one and many.
The Buddha is not found only on Gridhrakuta,
the Vulture Peak. If you were to hear on the radio
that the Buddha is going to reappear on
Gridhrakuta Mountain and the public is invited to
join him for walking meditation, all the seats on all
the airplanes to India would be booked, and you
might feel frustrated, because you want to go, also.
Even if you were lucky enough to get a seat on that
plane, it still might not be possible for you to
en jo y practicing walking meditation with the
Buddha. There would be so many people, most of
whom don't know how to practice breathing in and
out and dwelling in the present moment while
walking. What is the use of going there?
Look deeply at your intention. Do you want to
fly halfway around the world so that later you can
say you were with the Buddha? Many people
want to do just that. They arrive at a place of
pilgrimage, unable to be in the here and the now.
After a few minutes of seeing the place, they rush
to the next place. They take pictures to prove they
were there, and they are eager to return home to
show their friends. "I was there. I have proof. That
is me standing beside the Buddha." That would be
the desire of many of the people who would go
there. They are not able to walk with the Buddha.
They are not able to be in the here and the now.
They only want to say, "I was there, and this is
me standing beside the Buddha." But it is not true.
They were not there. And that is not the Buddha.
"Being there" is a concept, and the Buddha that
you see is a mere appearance. You cannot
photograph the real Buddha, even if you have a
very expensive camera.

If you don't have the opportunity to fly to
India, please practice walking at home, and you can
really hold the hand of the Buddha while you walk.
Just walk in peace and happiness, and the Buddha
is there with you. The one who flies to India and
returns with his photo taken with the Buddha has
not seen the real Buddha. You have the reality; he
has only a sign. Don't run around looking for photo
opportunities. Touch the real Buddha. He is
available. Take his hand and practice walking
meditation. When you can touch the ultimate
dimension, you walk with the Buddha. The wave
does not need to die to become water. She is
already water. This is the Concentration of the
Lotus Sutra. Live every moment of your life
deeply, and while walking, eating, drinking, and
looking at the morning star, you touch the ultimate
dimension.

From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Comments