Walpola Rahula
(Kelaniya University, Sri Lanka)
Melanges offerts a’ Mgr Etienne Lamotte


The expression “Buddhist meditation” brings to most people’s minds the figure of a person seated quietly like a statue, with legs crossed and eyes cast down, but almost never of a person talking, listening, or engaging in some physical activity. This indicates the extent to which “meditation” is misunderstood, limited and narrowed down.

We should understand that listening earnestly and attentively to an exposition of truth or some other religious subject could be a genuine, deep mediation. That is how many people have realized or “seen” the Ultimate Truth (Nirvana) while listening to the Buddha, as reported in innumerable places in Buddhist canonical texts. A profound religious or philosophical discussion may equally be a penetrating meditation which leads to the realization of the Ultimate Truth, as happened in the case of a bhikkhu named Khemakaand a group of monks. The Pali canonical text Samyutta-nikaya says that Khemaka and a group of monks became arahants during their own discussion or conversation on the question of ‘self’, what is ‘I am’. They were not sitting is silence like statues, but were talking and discussing. Although one might not like to think that they were meditating, they were engaged actually in genuine meditation.

The English term “meditation”, generally used for the Pali and Sanskrit word bhavana, is quite inadequate and incomprehensive to denote all aspects of that original expression in Buddhist texts. “Meditation” in English usually means “reflection”, “the act of contemplating” or a “devotional exercise of contemplation”. This is only one aspect of bhavana. Bhavana in its complete sense signifies the cultivation, development and fulfillment of all moral, spiritual and intellectual qualities. The verb bhaveti from the root bhu (which gives the noun bhavana) means to cultivate, to develop, to improve, to increase, to augment. The expression savaka  ariyam atthangikam maggam bhaventi means “the disciples cultivate, practise or follow the Noble Eightfold Path”, but it does not mean essentially that they “meditate” or “reflect” on it. Cittabhavana means “culture of the mind”, “development of the mind”, but not meditation, contemplation, reflection of the mind”. In another sense of meditation, observing the mind or observing and being aware of the different states of the mind or thought is called cittanupassana.

“Meditation” cannot be understood or undertaken in isolation, in fragmentation, because it involves the totality of the way of life. Hence for any kind of bhavana, “meditation”, ethical and moral conduct (sila), based on compassion and love, is the first step. This consists of discipline and restraint (samavara) in physical and verbal actions. This is necessary to bring about harmony and equilibrium not only within oneself, but also in relation to one’s society and environment. Any attempt to practise whatever form of meditation without this moral character and discipline will prove to be futile.

There are two forms of meditation: samatha-bhavana “concentration-meditation” and vipassana-bhavana “insight-meditation”. The aim of samatha-bhavana is to develop the concentration of mind to the highest and finest point psychologically possible and conceivable which is technically called “one-pointedness-of-mind (P. cittekaggata, Skt. cittaikagrata). In all our activities a certain degree of concentration is necessary. A sportsman in running or playing tennis or any other game must concentrate if he wishes to succeed in what he performs. In driving a car one must have a sort of concentration to avoid accidents and to arrive at one’s destination. A reader of a book must have a greater concentration than that of the driver to understand what he reads. A writer or an artist also must concentrate on what he is producing. A scientist becomes absorbed in concentration when he engages in scientific research. A doctor must have an undivided concentration when he performs an important surgical operation. All these people exercise concentration in various degrees and levels of intensity, but their mind moves from one point to another and does not remain all the time on one single point. In other words, their concentration is associated with thinking, a process of thought.

The samatha-bhavana (concentration-meditation) aims at contracting the concentration of the mind to one-pointedness (P. cittekaggata, Skt. cittaikagrata), without any kind of thinking, without any movement of thought. When the mind is fixed in this position for a period, it acquires an abundance of force and energy which can be directed, if desired, for various spiritual powers (P. iddhi, Skt. raddhi) such as clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought reading or remembering former existences.

According to Buddhist psychology there are five hindrances (nivarana) which obstruct and impede the attainment of concentration of this degree, and which consume and waste a great deal of our mental energy.

First: Sensuous-lust (kama-raga), desire for sense-pleasures. When the mind is under the power of sensuous lust, it becomes like water mixed with various colors. Just as water mixed with colors cannot reflect, even so the mind under the influence of sensuous lust cannot reflect clearly.

Second: Ill-will or hatred (vyapada). Under its influence, the mind becomes like boiling water. Just as boiling water cannot reflect, the mind also cannot reflect when it is boiling with ill-will or hatred.

Third: Languor and torpor (thinna-midda). When the mind is over-powered by this, it becomes like water covered with moss and leaves. Water covered with moss and leaves does not and cannot reflect. In the same way, the mind covered with languor and torpor does not and cannot reflect.

Fourth: Restlessness and remorse (worry about past omissions and commissions) (uddhacca-kukkucca). The mind possessed by these sentiments is like water agitated by wind. Just as water agitated by wind cannot reflect, even so the mind disturbed by restlessness and remorse cannot reflect.

Fifth: Sceptical doubt (vicikiccha). The mind in this state is like dirty, muddy water in the dark. Just as dirty, muddy water in the dark cannot reflect, the mind in sceptical doubt cannot reflect at all.

When the mind is free from these five hindrances, it is capable, if properly applied, of attaining high mystic or spiritual states of concentration which are called dhyanas (P. jhanas), “trances” or “recueillments’. In the first stage of dhyana, passionate desires and certain unwholesome thoughts like the five hindrances disappear, and feelings of joy and happiness remain along with some mental activities such as reasoning (vitakka) and reflection (vicara). This shows that in that stage there is still thinking, movement of thought. In the second stage, all intellectual activities are suppressed, tranquility and one-pointedness-of-mind developed, and the feelings of joy are still retained. This again indicates that there is till some mental activity, in a subtle way. In the third stage, the feeling of joy, which is active sensation, also disappears, while the disposition of happiness still remains in addition to mindful equanimity. In the fourth stage of dhyana, all sensations, whether of happiness or unhappiness, of joy or sorrow, disappear, only pure equanimity and awareness remaining. These four stages are called rupa-jhanas “Trances in the Realm ofForm”. Then this can bedeveloped further into arupa-jhanas “Trances in the Realm of No-Form”.  However refined, advanced and subtle these mystic states might be, the Buddha considered the first four (rupa-jhanas) as “happy living in this world (dittadhamma-sukhavihara) and the other four as “peaceful living” (santa-vihara), and nothing more than that. These do not constitute or represent the Ultimate Reality or Truth; they are all created psychologically; they are products of the mind, and are conditioned (samkhata).   Hence they are “impermanent, unsatisfactory and subject to change” (anicca dukkha viparinamadhamma). These mystic states, dhyanas or samadhis, are pre-Buddhist; there is nothing particularly Buddhist about them; they are not a sine qua non, not a must, for the realization of Nirvana, but they are not excluded from Buddhist practice as they have a certain spiritual value. Already before his Enlightenment, the Buddha had learnt, practised and attained these states under some teachers, notable under Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta; but these spiritual stated did not satisfy the Buddha because they did not lead to the Ultimate Truth, Nirvana. These dhyanas can be attained by an earnest and striving person of any religious tradition belief, even while that person holds an incorrect view regarding the Ultimate Truth or Reality. Buddhist meditation does not aim at living in a psychologically created, mind made state of tranquility which is impermanent and subject to change. But it aims at facing our existence as it is, life as it is, in all aspects, and seeing the Ultimate Truth, Reality directly, without fear or self-deception. This is called vipassana-bhavana ‘Insight-meditation”. This is the true Buddhist meditation. It is taught by the Buddha in many discourses, but the Satipattahana-sutta, “Discourse on the Presence of Mindfulness”, is undoubtedly the most complete and most important of them all.

Meditation taught in this discourse concerns the entire range of human life: our physical body and its various activities, our feelings, the movements of our thoughts and our moral, spiritual and philosophical ideas and subjects for our study and contemplation. Accordingly, the Satipatthana-sutta is divided into four sections. Very briefly they are as follows:
Section I deals with our body and activities. This section begins with the most popular and well-known experience of anapana-sati “mindfulness of breathing-in-and-out.”  It is only for this “meditation” that the sitting posture is prescribed in this sutta. Because it is given at the beginning of the discourse, many people mistake it to be a prescription for all subsequent forms of meditation. That it is not so will be seen later. Primarily anapana-sati aims at developing concentration, one-pointedness-of-mind. Through this, one may attain dhyanas. But psychologically the most important point is the value of concentration for penetration of the Truth. Concentration sharpens the mind and prepares it for penetration. It is like sharpening a knife. Sharpening itself is not cutting. A sharpened knife can indeed cut, but it must be applied for that purpose. In the same way concentration itself is not penetration, but it must be applied for penetration of the truth.

One of the important and interesting “meditation” forms with regard to the physical body is to be completely aware and mindful, to have a clear comprehension, of whatever we do – whether setting out or coming back, looking in front or looking around, bending or stretching out our limbs, putting on our clothes, eating or drinking, obeying the calls of nature, walking, standing, sitting, sleeping or being awake, talking or remaining silent, or any other activities. This is nothing but living in the action, living in the action of the present moment.

From the accounts given in the Commentaries we can see that in that in later times this meditation was further developed and practised with a vengeance, pushing it to a point almost senseless. The Commentaries call this discipline gata-pacccagata-vatta “observance of going and returning.” According to this, the meditator took a “vow” or made a decision never to take a step without being mindful of his kammatthana “topic of meditation.” If he walked a few steps without being mindful, then he returned to the point where he forgot his topic of meditation and walked forward again with mindfulness. It is difficult to understand what geographical space or distance has to do with mindfulness. If he had forgotten, that forgetfulness is gone and belongs to the past. It cannot be brought back in time. When the meditator became aware that he had walked a few steps without being mindful of his topic of meditation, it was quite right and quite enough that he became immediately mindful again from that moment, at that point, and continue his journey. But why should he walk back to the point where he had forgotten it? It is almost as if he went back to pick up his “topic of meditation’ dropped on the ground at that point. This is more of a ritual than a meditation.

Maha-Pussadeva Thera of Alindaka is mentioned in the Commentaries as one who practised gata-pacccagata-vatta for nineteen years and became an arahant in the twentieth year. Very often he used to walk some distance and come back and walk again. It is said that people who saw him doing this wondered whether he had lost his way or whether he was absent-minded.

Sometimes the gata-pacccagata-vatta was extended to the movements of other limbs as well. Thus, a certain Maha-Thera (Great Elder) whose name and residence is not mentioned, was one day taking with his pupils. Suddenly he bent his hand, and then stretched it and placed it where it was at first, and again bent it slowly.  His pupils were puzzled and inquired why. The Great Elder said from the day he began to practise kammatthana, he had never bent his hand forgetting his meditation. Now, while talking with his pupils he had bent his hand forgetfully. He had therefore put it back to its original position and bent it again. The case is the same as that of Maha-Pussadeva Thera mentioned above: It is punctilious ritual.

These venerable Maha-Theras of the past were undoubtedly earnest holy men who dedicated their lives for meditation. But with deep deference and reverence to them, it should be submitted humbly that these examples indicate that they were following a “ritualistic meditation” which appears to be strictly a technical mechanism. Instead of liberating one’s mind, one may unwittingly imprison or shut it up and “paralyze” it psychologically, in the name of meditation. The mind may be “obsessed” of something or some method or mental ritual which is mistaken to be true meditation. There is always this danger if the teachings of the Satipattahana-sutta are not correctly understood. Some believe that this error and this risk are not quite absent from many a modern centre of mediation as well.

Another form of meditation regarding the body is to reflect on it (body) anatomically from head to foot, to reflect on its component parts as they are, such as hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver and so on, thirty-two component parts in all. And still another form of meditation is to reflect on how the physical body is made up of four elements (dhatu): solidity (pathavi), fluidity (apo), heat (tejo) and motion (vayo). Finally the meditator sees the dead body and reflects on how it rots and decomposes, how it becomes devoid of flesh and blood, and how the bones are ultimately reduced to dust.

 Section II of the Satipatthana-sutta deals with our feelings. Whether physical or mental, whether material or spiritual, our feelings are either pleasant or unpleasant or neutral (i.e. neither pleasant nor unpleasant). When the meditator experiences any one of these feelings, he is aware of it and he knows how it arises and how it disappears. He is not touched, possessed, overpowered or influenced by it.

Section II deals with our mind, i.e. various states of our mind. When the meditator’s mind becomes lustful (saraga), he knows that it is lustful; or when it is free from lust (viraga), he knows that it is free from lust; when it is hateful (sadosa), he knows that it is hateful; or when it is free from hate (vitadosa), he knows that it is free from hate; and so on and so forth with regard to various states of mind. He knows clearly how they arise and how they disappear.

Section IV of the sutta treats of moral, spiritual and philosophical ideas and subjects for our study and contemplation. It gives a few concrete examples. First of all, it speaks of the five hindrances (nivarana) which we dealt with earlier in the discussion of dhyanas. Whenever one of those is present in the meditator’s mind, he knows that it is present in him or whenever it is absent from his mind, he knows that it is absent from his mind. He also knows how it arises, how it disappears, and how it will disappear never to rise again.

Further, the meditator examines and contemplates on the five aggregates of grasping (upadanakkhanda) of which man is composed: physical body (rupa), feelings (vedana), perceptions (sanna), mental activities (sankhara) and consciousness (vinnana). He contemplates and observes how they come into being and how they disappear.

In the same way, the meditator may contemplate and reflect on the six internal spheres (ajjhattika-ayatana) and the six external spheres (bahira-ayatana), of which he himself and the whole external world are constituted, namely eye (visual organ), ear (auditive organ), nose (olfactory organ), tongue (gustatory organ), body (tactile organ) and mind (mental organ), and their corresponding objects in the external world, i.e. visible forms, sounds, tastes, tangible things and mental objects (such as thoughts, ideas, emotions, conceptions). He also knows the fetters (samyojana) that arise depending on the contact of the internal organs with the external objects, how they arise and disappear and so on.

Again, the meditator may contemplate and reflect on the seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhanga): mindfulness (sati), investigation of the Teaching, the Law (dhamma-vicaya), energy (viriya), joy (piti), tranquility (passaddhi), concentration (samadhi) and equanimity (upekkha). He knows when these qualities are present in him or when they are not present in him; he knows also how they are developed and accomplished.

And he may also meditate on the Four Noble Truths: dukkha, its arising (samudaya), its cessation (nirodha) and the way leading to the cessation of dukkha (dukkha-nirodha-gamini-patipada). He comprehends them exactly as they are (yathabhutam).

According to this section (Section IV) of the Discourse, one may reasonably conclude that today even reading attentively a serious book dealing with moral, spiritual and philosophical teachings and doctrines, and contemplating and reflecting on those questions, or a discussion on such topics, certainly constitutes a genuine form of satipatthana.

This, very briefly, is the “insight-meditation” (vipassanabhavana) as taught in the Satipatthana-sutta. In this meditation the most essential thing is ‘mindfulness” or: awareness” (sati) of what is taking place, observing what happens. The meditator makes no value-judgment, no criticism. There is no attachment or repugnance, no liking or disliking. The meditator sees the nature of things, how they appear and disappear. He observes things dispassionately, objectively. His attitude is similar in many ways to that of a good scientist in his research work.

Throughout the Satipatthana-sutta, at the end of the description of each form of meditation, there occurs an extremely important phrase which contains the heart of “insight-meditation” (vipassana-bhavana): “… his mindfulness is present (or established) just for knowledge, just for awareness; and he lives independent (of desires, cravings, opinions, views, judgments) and does not grasp anything in the world (as self or pertaining to self)”. This is just seeing things as they are, without any mental projections. Elsewhere the Buddha has expressed the same idea very tersely by different words: “In the seeing, there will be only seeing…”. This is wisdom which sees Reality as it is.

There are three levels of knowledge or wisdom. At the most superficial level, a person acquires a sort of knowledge about the Truth, Reality, through the word, through learning. This technically is called “knowledge born of (produced by) learning: (P. sutamayi panna, Skt. srutamayi prajna). At this level the word, which is only a symbol, is the reality for him. He does not go beyond the word. A vast majority of people in the world are stuck in the word.

Then there is another kind or knowledge or wisdom which goes deeper than this. At this deeper level, a person thinks for himself, reflects for himself further on what he has learned and gets a sort of intellectual understanding of the Truth, Reality, still associated with the word, which only symbolizes the Truth. This is called “knowledge or wisdom born of (or acquired by) thinking” (P. cintamayi panna, Skt. cintamayi prajna). This thinker still cannot see Reality without a name, without a label. This knowledge also is within language, within learning, which is memory.

True wisdom sees the Truth, Reality, directly, not through learning, not through knowledge, not through a word, a name or label. This called “wisdom born of meditation” (P. bhavanamayi panna, Skt. bhavanamayi prajna). This wisdom goes beyond language and learning. Here there is no intellectual thinking, no speculation. It is just seeing the thing as it is.

The first two kinds of knowledge may be regarded as a sort of understanding, an intellectual grasping of the thing according to certain given data. This is technically called “knowing accordingly”, anubodha. This is not deep. The third type is the real deep wisdom which may be called pativedha ‘penetration’, seeing the thing in its true nature without language, without name or label.

When one sees the Truth directly, when one penetrates Reality, one sees with the “eye of wisdom” (this seeing is not just understanding verbally or intellectually) that the whole of existence is impermanent (anicca), subject to change (viparinamadhamma), conditioned, interdependent and relative (paticcasamuppanna), and that there is no substance, nothing in it which is not subject to change, nothing which is permanent, everlasting, unchanging or eternal, in other words, no self (anatta).  He sees that the whole of existence is void (sunnata) without any permanent, unchanging, eternal entity. With this vision, all latent or dormant tendencies, proclivities (anusaya), hidden formerly in the unconscious (alaya), now comes to the surface and become powerless and ineffective and die out along with all defilements (kilesa) which thrived on the false idea of self (atta). As he is free from that selfish desire and ignorance, now he becomes the embodiment of pure “wisdom-compassion” or “wisdom-love”. This is the greatest revolution, complete psychological internal revolution. This happens suddenly and unpredictably, at a moment most unexpected, as a “wonderment”. In the original Pali Canon this is called alaya-samugghata “uprooting of the base”, an expression used as a synonym for Nirvana. In Mahayana this is called asraya (= alaya paravritti “revolution of the base” or “basic revolution”, and it is regarded as the state of an arahant (arhad avastha).

Irrespective of such labels as Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim and what not, if a person earnestly follows the Right Path, this revolution may occur in him, he may realize the Ultimate Truth and attain this state of perfection. Then he is neither Buddhist, Hindu, Christian nor Muslim. He goes beyond all religious labels and barriers. In that Realm of Truth there are no such frontiers. In the Buddha’s own words, such a liberated, perfect being na upeti samkham “does not come into a category”, “cannot be defined”, “cannot be labeled or named”.

This shows how the spirit of Buddhism is universal, all-embracing, and not bigoted, parochial or sectarian. It is beautiful, kalyana dhamma.

However, some Buddhists may find it difficult to reconcile to the idea that even a non-Buddhist can attain perfection, this Enlightenment. But Buddhist literature itself gives evidence in support of the possibility of a non-Buddhist realizing the Ultimate Truth (Nirvana). Both Theravada and Mahayana agree that an ‘Individual Buddha’, is one who has realized the Ultimate Truth, Nirvana, by himself, without anybody’s help. But then he cannot be a ‘Buddhist’ according to the accepted theory and practice, because a Buddhist by tradition is one who takes in the Three Jewels (Tiratana): Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. At a time when there is no Buddha in the world, it is not possible for anyone take refuge in these Three Jewels. So there cannot be, at such a time, Buddhists in the traditional and popular sense, yet it is possible that there may be some people who realize Nirvana by themselves. It is necessary to emphasize here that Nirvana, Absolute or Ultimate Truth, has no label, and does not belong to, or is not a monopoly of, any particular religion such as Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim.

Here it is useful to mention that the Buddha in one place clearly states that there are some people in this world who are capable of entering into the Right Way or the ‘Path to Perfection’ (sammatta niyama) whether they get an opportunity to see a Tathagata (= Buddha) or not, whether they get an opportunity to listen to his teaching or not. Once a person enters the ‘Right Way’, he will ultimately attain the Enlightenment, complete Perfection, arahantship. The Buddha states elsewhere: If any person reflects on conditioned things (sankhara) as impermanent, and unsatisfactory (dukkha), and on all things (dhamma, both conditioned and unconditioned) as without self (anatta), it is possible that he will get a mental disposition conforming to that reflection (anulomika khanti); and when he gets such a mental disposition, it is possible that he will attain the states of ‘Stream-Entrant’ (sotapatti), ‘Once-Returner’ (sakadagami), Non-Returner (anagami) and Perfect One (arahant).

But it must be clearly admitted here that persons who can achieve this perfection alone by themselves are extremely rare. With these few exceptions, all other people need the Teaching of a Perfectly Enlightened One (Buddha) and the guidance of an experienced master.