- Buddhist Meditation
- Francis Story
(The Anagarika Sugatananda)
- Buddhist Publication Society
Bodhi Leaves BL 15
- Copyright © 1986 Buddhist Publication Society
The mental exercise known as meditation is found in all religious systems. Prayer is a
form of discursive meditation, and in Hinduism the reciting of slokas and mantras is
employed to tranquilize the mind to a state of receptivity. In most of these systems the
goal is identified with the particular psychic results that ensue, sometimes very quickly;
and the visions that come in the semi-trance state, or the sounds that are heard, are
considered to be the end-result of the exercise. This is not the case in the forms of
meditation practiced in Buddhism.
There is still comparatively little known about the mind, its functions and its powers,
and it is difficult for most people to distinguish between self-hypnosis, the development
of mediumistic states, and the real process of mental clarification and direct perception
which is the object of Buddhist mental concentration. The fact that mystics of every
religion have induced on themselves states wherein they see visions and hear voices that
are in accordance with their own religious beliefs indicates that their meditation has
resulted only in bringing to the surface of the mind and objectifying the concepts already
embedded in the deepest strata of their subconscious minds. The Christian sees and
converses with the saints of whom he already knows; the Hindu visualizes the gods of the
Hindu pantheon, and so on. When Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the Bengali mystic, began to
turn his thoughts towards Christianity, he saw visions of Jesus in his meditations, in
place of his former eidetic images of the Hindu Avatars.
The practiced hypnotic subject becomes more and more readily able to surrender himself
to the suggestions made to him by the hypnotiser, and anyone who has studied this subject
is bound to see a connection between the mental state of compliance he has reached and the
facility with which the mystic can induce whatever kind of experiences he wills himself to
undergo. There is still another possibility latent in the practice of meditation; the
development of mediumistic faculties by which the subject can actually see and hear beings
on different planes of existence, the Devalokas and the realm of the unhappy ghosts, for
example. These worlds being nearest to our own are the more readily accessible, and this
is the true explanation of the psychic phenomena of Western Spiritualism.
The object of Buddhist meditation, however, is none of these things. They arise as
side-products, but not only are they not its goal, but they are hindrances which have to
be overcome. The Christian who has seen Jesus, or the Hindu who has conversed with
Bhagavan Krishna may be quite satisfied that he has fulfilled the purpose of his religious
life, but the Buddhist who sees a vision of the Buddha knows by that very fact that he has
only succeeded in objectifying a concept in his own mind, for the Buddha after his
Parinibbana is, in his own words, no longer visible to gods or men.
There is an essential difference, then, between Buddhist meditation and concentration
and that practiced in other systems. The Buddhist embarking on a course of meditation does
well to recognize this difference and to establish in his own conscious mind a clear idea
of what it is he is trying to do.
The root-cause of rebirth and suffering is avijja conjoined with and reacting
upon tanha. These two causes form a vicious circle; on the one hand, concepts, the
result of ignorance, and on the other hand, desire arising from concepts. The world of
phenomena has no meaning beyond the meaning given to it by our own interpretation.
When that interpretation is conditioned by avijja, we are subject to the state
known as vipallasa, or hallucination. Sañña-vipallasa, hallucination of
perception; citta-vipallasa, hallucination of consciousness, and ditthi-vipallasa,
hallucination of views, cause us to regard that which is impermanent (anicca) as
permanent, that which is painful (dukkha) as a source of pleasure, and that which
is unreal (anatta), or literally without any self existence, as being a real,
self-existing entity. Consequently, we place a false interpretation on all the sensory
experiences we gain through the six channels of cognition, that is, the eye, ear, nose,
tongue, sense of touch and mind cakkhu, sota, ghana, jivha, kaya and mano
(ayatana). Physics, by showing that the realm of phenomena we know through these
channels of cognition does not really correspond to the physical world known to science,
has confirmed this Buddhist truth. We are deluded by our own senses. Pursuing what we
imagine to be desirable, an object of pleasure, we are in reality only following a shadow,
trying to grasp a mirage. It is anicca, dukkha, anatta -- impermanent, associated
with suffering, an insubstantial. Being so, it can only be the cause of impermanence,
suffering and insubstantiality, since like begets like; and we ourselves, who chase the
illusion, are also impermanent, subject to suffering and without any persistent
ego-principle. It is a case of a shadow pursuing a shadow.
The purpose of Buddhist meditation, therefore, is to gain more than an intellectual
understanding of this truth, to liberate ourselves from the delusion and thereby put an
end to both ignorance and craving. If the meditation does not produce results tending to
this consummation -- results which are observable in the character and the whole attitude
to life -- it is clear that there is something wrong either with the system or with the
method of employing it. It is not enough to see lights, to have visions or to experience
ecstasy. These phenomena are too common to be impressive to the Buddhist who really
understands the purpose of Buddhist meditation. There are actual dangers in them which are
apparent to one who is also a student of psychopathology.
In the Buddha's great discourse on the practice of mindfulness, the Maha-Satipatthana
Sutta, both the object and the means of attaining it are clearly set forth. Attentiveness
to the movements of the body, to the ever-changing states of the mind, is to be cultivated
in order that their real nature should be known. Instead of identifying these physical and
mental phenomena with the false concept of "self," we are to see them as they
really are: movements of a physical body, an aggregate of the four elements, (mahabhutas)
subject to physical laws of causality on the one hand, and on the other, a flux of
successive phases of consciousness arising and passing away in response to external
stimuli. They are to be viewed objectively, as though they were processes not associated
with ourselves but belonging to another order of phenomena.
From what can selfishness and egotism proceed if not from the concept of
"self" (sakkayaditthi)? If the practice of any form of meditation leaves
selfishness or egotism unabated, it has not been successful. A tree is judged by its
fruits and a man by his actions; there is no other criterion. Particularly is this true in
Buddhist psychology, because the man is his actions. In the truest sense they, or
the continuity of kamma and vipaka which they represent, are the only claim he can
make to any persistent identity, not only through the different phases of this life but
also from one life to another. Attentiveness with regard to body and mind serves to break
down the illusion of self; and not only that, it also cuts off craving and attachment to
external objects, so that ultimately there is neither the "self" that craves nor
any object of craving. It is a long and arduous discipline, and one that can only be
undertaken in retirement from the world and its cares.
Yet even a temporary retirement, a temporary course of this discipline, can bear good
results in that it establishes an attitude of mind which can be applied to some degree in
the ordinary situations of life. Detachment, objectivity, is an invaluable aid to clear
thinking; it enables a man to sum up a given situation without bias, personal or
otherwise, and to act in that situation with courage and discretion. Another gift it
bestows is that of concentration -- the ability to focus the mind and keep it steadily
fixed on a single point (ekaggata, or one-pointedness), and this is the great
secret of success in any undertaking. The mind is hard to tame; it roams here and there
restlessly as the wind, or like an untamed horse, but when it is fully under control, it
is the most powerful instrument in the whole universe. He who has mastered his own mind is
indeed master of the Three Worlds.
In the first place he is without fear. Fear arises because we associate mind and body (nama-rupa)
with "self"; consequently any harm to either is considered to be harm done to
oneself. But he who has broken down this illusion by realizing that the five khandha
process is merely the manifestation of cause and effect, does not fear death or
misfortune. He remains equable alike in success and failure, unaffected by praise or
blame. The only thing he fears is demeritorious action, because he knows that no thing or
person in the world can harm him except himself, and as his detachment increases, he
becomes less and less liable to demeritorious deeds. Unwholesome action comes of an
unwholesome mind, and as the mind becomes purified, healed of its disorders, bad kamma
ceases to accumulate. He comes to have a horror of wrong action and to take greater and
greater delight in those deeds that are rooted in alobha, adosa, and amoha
-- generosity, benevolence and wisdom.
One of the most universally-applicable methods of cultivating mental concentration is anapanasati,
attentiveness on the in-going and out-going breath. This, unlike the Yogic systems, does
not call for any interference with the normal breathing, the breath being merely used as a
point on which to fix the attention, at the tip of the nostrils. The attention must not
wander, even to follow the breath, but must be kept rigidly on the selected spot. In the
initial stages it is advisable to mark the respiration by counting, but as soon as it is
possible to keep the mind fixed without this artificial aid, it should be discontinued and
only used when it is necessary to recall the attention.
As the state of mental quiescence (samatha) is approached, the breath appears to
become fainter and fainter, until it is hardly discernible. It is at this stage that
certain psychic phenomena appear, which may at first be disconcerting. A stage is reached
when the actual bodily dukkha, the sensation of arising and passing away of the
physical elements in the body, is felt. This is experienced as a disturbance, but it must
be remembered that it is an agitation that is always present in the body but we are
unaware of it until the mind becomes stabilized. It is the first direct experience of the dukkha
(suffering) which is inherent in all phenomena -- the realization within oneself of the
first of the Four Noble Truths, Dukkha Ariya Sacca. When that is passed there
follows the sensation of piti, rapturous joy associated with the physical body. The
teacher of vipassana, however, is careful never to describe to his pupil beforehand
what he is likely to experience, for if he does so, there is a strong possibility that the
power of suggestion will produce a false reaction, particularly in those cases where the
pupil is very suggestible and greatly under the influence of the teacher.
Devices in Meditation
In kammattana, it is permissible to use certain devices, such as the earth or
colour kasina, as focal points for the attention. A candle flame, a hole in the
wall, or some metal object can also be used, and the method of using them is found in the
Pali texts and the Visuddhi-magga. In the texts themselves it is to be noted that
the Buddha gave objects of meditation to disciples in accordance with their individual
characteristics, and his unerring knowledge of the right technique for each came from his
insight into their previous births. Similarly with recursive meditation, a subject would
be given which was easily comprehensible to the pupil, or which served to counteract some
strong, unwholesome tendency in his nature. Thus, to one attracted by sensual indulgence,
the Buddha would recommend meditation on the impurity of the body, or the "cemetery
meditation." Here the object is to counterbalance attraction by repulsion, but it is
only a "skillful means" to reach the final state, in which attraction and
repulsion both cease to exist. In the Arahant there is neither liking nor disliking: he
regards all things with perfect equanimity, as did Thera Maha Moggallana when he accepted
a handful of rice from a leper.
The use of the rosary in Buddhism is often misunderstood. If it is used for the mechanical
repetition of a set formula, the repeating of so many phrases as an act of piety, as in
other religions, its value is negligible. When it is used as means of holding the
attention and purifying the mind, however, it can be a great help. One of the best ways of
employing it, because it calls for undivided attention, is to repeat the Pali formula of
the qualities of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, beginning "Iti'pi so Bhagava -- "
with the first bead, starting again with the second and continuing to the next quality: "Iti'pi
so Bhagava, Arahan -- " and so on until with the last bead the entire formula is
repeated from beginning to end. This cannot be carried out successfully unless the mind is
entirely concentrated on what is being done. At the same time the recalling of the noble
qualities of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha lifts the mind to a lofty plane, since the words
carry with them a meaning the impresses itself on the pattern of the thought-moments as
they arise and pass away. The value of this in terms of Abhidhamma psychology lies in the
wholesome nature of the cittakkhana, or "consciousness-moment" in its uppada
(arising), thiti (static) and bhanga (disappearing) phases. Each of these
wholesome cittakkhana contributes to the improvement of the sankhara; or
aggregate of tendencies; in other words, it directs the subsequent thought-moments into a
higher realm and tends to establish the character on that level.
Samatha bhavana, the development of mental tranquillity with concentration, is
accompanied by three benefits; it gives happiness in the present life, a favorable
rebirth, and the freedom from mental defilements which is a prerequisite for attainment of
insight. In samatha the mind becomes like a still, clear pool completely free from
disturbance and agitation, and ready to mirror on its surface the nature of things as they
really are, the aspect of them which is hidden from ordinary knowledge by the restlessness
of craving. It is the peace and fulfillment which is depicted on the features of the
Buddha, investing his images with a significance that impresses even those who have no
knowledge of what it means. Such an image of the Buddha can itself be a very suitable
object of meditation, and is, in fact, the one that most Buddhists instinctively use. The
very sight of the tranquil image can calm and pacify a mind distraught with worldly hopes
and fears. It is the certain and visible assurance of Nibbana.
Vipassana bhavana is realization of the three signs of being, anicca, dukkha,
and anatta, by direct insight. These three characteristics, impermanence, suffering
and non-self, can be grasped intellectually, as scientific and philosophical truth, but
this is not in itself sufficient to rid the mind of egoism and craving. The final
objective lies on a higher level of awareness, the direct "intuitional" plane,
where it is actually experienced as psychological fact. Until this personal confirmation
is obtained, the sphere of sense perception (ayatana) and sensory-responses remain
stronger than the intellectual conviction; the two function side by side on different
levels of consciousness, but it is usually the sphere dominated by avijja which
continues to determine the course of life by volitional action. The philosopher who fails
to live according to his philosophy is the most familiar example of this incompatibility
between theory and practice. When the direct perception is obtained, however, what was at
its highest intellectual level still merely a theory becomes actual knowledge, in
precisely the same way that we "know" when we are hot or cold hungry or thirsty.
The mind that has attained it is established in the Dhamma, and pañña, wisdom,
has taken the place of delusion.
Discursive meditation, such as that practiced in Christian devotion, is entirely on the
mental level, and can be undertaken by anyone at any time. It calls for no special
preparation or conditions. For the more advanced exercises of samatha and vipassana,
however, the strictest observance of sila, the basic moral rules, becomes
necessary. These techniques are best followed in seclusion, away from the impurities of
worldly life and under the guidance of an accomplished master. Many people have done
themselves psychic harm by embarking on them without due care in this respect. It is not
advisable for anyone to experiment on his own; those who are unable to place themselves
under a trustworthy teacher will do best to confine themselves to discursive meditation.
It cannot take them to enlightenment but will benefit them morally and prepare them for
the next stage.
The Practice of Metta Bhavana
Metta bhavana is the most universally beneficial form of discursive meditation, and
can be practiced in any conditions. Thoughts of universal, undiscriminating benevolence,
like radio waves reaching out in all directions, sublimate the creative energy of the
mind. With steady perseverance in metta bhavana a point can be reached at which it
becomes impossible even to harbor a thought of ill-will. True peace can only come to the
world through minds that are at peace, If people everywhere in the world could be
persuaded to devote half an hour daily to the practice of metta bhavana, we should
see more real advance towards world peace and security than international agreements will
ever bring us. It would be a good thing if, in this new era of the Buddha Sasana, people
of all creeds could be invited to take part in a world-wide movement for the practice of metta
bhavana and pledge themselves to live in accordance with the highest tenets of their
own religion, whatever it may be. In so doing they would be paying homage to the Supreme
Buddha and to their own particular religious teacher as well, for on this level all the
great religions of the world unite. If there is a common denominator to be found among
them, it is surely here, in the teaching of universal loving-kindness which transcends
doctrinal differences and draws all being together by the power of a timeless and
The classic formulation of metta as an attitude of mind to be developed by
meditation is found in the Karaniya Metta Sutta (Sutta Nipata, Khuddaka-patha) [See
appendix]. It is recommended that this sutta be recited before beginning meditation, and
again at its close, a practice which is invariably followed in the Buddhist countries. The
verses of the sutta embody the highest concept to which the thought of loving-kindness can
reach, and it serves both as a means of self-protection against unwholesome mental states
and as a subject of contemplation (kammatthana).
It is taught in Buddhism that the cultivation of benevolence must begin with oneself.
There is a profound psychological truth in this, for no one who hates or despises himself
consciously or unconsciously can feel true loving-kindness for others. To each of us the
self is the nearest object; if one's attitude towards oneself is not a wholesome one, the
spring of love is poisoned at its source. This does not mean that we should build up an
idealized picture of ourselves as an object of admiration, but that, while being fully
aware of our faults and deficiencies, we should not condemn but resolve to improve
ourselves and cherish confidence in our ability to do so.
Metta bhavana, therefore, begins with the thought: "May I be free from
enmity; may I be free from ill-will; may I be rid of suffering; may I be happy."
This thought having been developed, the next stage is to apply it in exactly the same
form and to the same degree, to someone for whom one has naturally a feeling of
In so doing, two points must be observed: the object should be a living person, and
should not be one of the opposite sex. The second prohibition is to guard against the
feeling of metta turning into its "near enemy," sensuality. Those whose
sensual leanings have a different orientation must vary the rule to suit their own needs.
When the thought of metta has been developed towards a friend, the next object
should be someone towards whom one has no marked feelings of like or dislike. Lastly, the
though of metta is to be turned towards someone who is hostile. It is here that
difficulties arise. They are to be expected, and the meditator must be prepared to meet
and wrestle with them. To this end, several techniques are described in the Visuddhimagga
and elsewhere. The first is to think of the hostile personality in terms of anatta
-- impersonality. The meditator is advised to analyze the hostile personality into its
impersonal components -- the body, the feelings, the perceptions, the volitional
formations and the consciousness. The body, to begin with, consists of purely material
items: hair of the head, hair of the body, skin, nails, teeth and so on. There can be no
basis for enmity against these. The feelings, perceptions, volitional formations and
consciousness are all transitory phenomena, interdependent, conditioned and bound up with
suffering. They are anicca, dukkha and anatta, impermanent, fraught
with suffering and void of selfhood. There is no more individual personality in them than
there is in the physical body itself. So towards them, likewise, there can be no real
ground for enmity.
If this approach should prove to be not altogether effective, there are others in which
emotionally counteractive states of mind are brought into play, as for example regarding
the hostile person with compassion. The meditator should reflect: "As he (or she) is,
so am I. As I am, so is he. We are both bound to the inexorable Wheel of Life by ignorance
and craving. Both of us are subject to the law of cause and effect, and whatever evil we
do, for that we must suffer. Why then should I blame or call anyone my enemy? Rather
should I purify my mind and wish that he may do the same, so that both of us may be freed
If this thought is dwelt upon and fully comprehended, feelings of hostility will be
cast out. When the thought of loving-kindness is exactly the same, in quality and degree,
for all these four objects -- oneself, one's friend, the person toward whom one is
neutral, and the enemy -- the meditation has been successful.
The next stage is to widen and extend it. This process is a threefold one: suffusing metta
without limitation, suffusing it with limitation, and suffusing it in all of the ten
directions, east, west, north, south, the intermediate points, above and below.
In suffusing metta without limitation (anodhiso-pharana), the meditator
thinks of the objects of loving-kindness under five heads: all sentient beings; all things
that have life; all beings that have come into existence; all that have personality; all
that have assumed individual being. For each of these groups separately he formulates the
thought: "May they be free from enmity; may they be free from enmity; may they be
free from ill will; may they be rid of suffering; may they be happy. For each object he
specifies the particular group which he is suffusing with metta: "May all
sentient beings be free from enmity, etc... May all things that have life be free from
enmity, etc." This meditation embraces all without particular reference to locality,
and so is called "suffusing without limitation."
In suffusing metta with limitation (odhiso-pharana), there are seven
groups which form the objects of the meditation. They are: all females; all males; all
Noble Ones (those who have attained any one of the states of Sainthood); all imperfect
ones; all Devas; all human beings; all beings in states of woe. Each of the groups should
be meditated upon as described above: "May all females be free from enmity,
etc." This method is called "suffusing metta with limitation"
because it defines the groups according to their nature and condition.
Suffusing with metta all beings in the ten directions is carried out in the same
way. Directing his mind towards the east, the meditator concentrates on the thought:
"May all beings in the east be free from enmity; may they be free from ill will; may
they be rid of suffering; may they be happy!" And so with the beings in the west, the
north, the south, the north-east, south-west, north-west, south-east, above and below.
Lastly, each of the twelve groups belonging to the unlimited and limited suffusions of metta
can be dealt with separately for each of the ten directions, using the appropriate
It is taught that each of these twenty-two modes of practicing metta bhavana is
capable of being developed up to the stage of a appana-samadhi, that is, the
concentration which leads to jhana, or mental absorption. For this reason it is described
as the method for attaining release of the mind through metta (metta
cetovimutti). It is the first of the Four Brahma Viharas, the sublime states of which
the Karaniya Metta Sutta: "Brahmam etam viharam idhamahu" -- "Here
is declared the Highest Life."
Metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha: [see Nyanaponika Thera, The Four Sublime
States, Wheel 6.] loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and detachment, these
four states of mind represent the highest levels of mundane consciousness. One who has
attained to them and dwells in them is impervious to the ills of life. Like a god he moves
and acts in undisturbed serenity, armored against the blows of fate and the uncertainty of
worldly conditions. And the first of them to be cultivated is metta, because it is
through boundless love that the mind gains its first taste of liberation.
Lovingkindness as a Contemplation
From the Sutta Nipata, verses 143-52 (Spoken by the Buddha)
What should be done by one skillful in good
So as to gain the State of Peace is this:
Let him be able, and upright, and straight.
Easy to speak to, gentle, and not proud,
Contented, too, supported easily.
With few tasks, and living very lightly,
His faculties serene, prudent, and modest,
Unswayed by the emotions of the clans;
And let him never do the slightest thing
That other wise men might hold blamable.
(And let him think:) "In safety and in bliss
May creatures all be of a blissful heart.
Whatever breathing beings there may be,
No matter whether they are frail or firm,
With none excepted, be they long or big
Or middle sized, or be they short or small
Or thick, as well as those seen or unseen,
Or whether they are dwelling far or near,
Existing or yet seeking to exist,
May creatures all be of a blissful heart.
Let no one work another one's undoing
Or even slight him at all anywhere;
And never let them wish each other ill
Through provocation or resentful thought."
And just as might a mother with her life
Protect the son that was her only child,
So let him then for every living thing
Maintain unbounded consciousness in being,
And let him too with love for all the world
Maintain unbounded consciousness in being
Above, below, and all round in between,
Untroubled, with no enemy or foe.
And while he stands or walks or while he sits
Or while he lies down, free from drowsiness,
Let him resolve upon this mindfulness
This is Divine Abiding here, they say.
But when he has no trafficking with views,
Is virtuous, and has perfected seeing,
And purges greed for sensual desires.
He surely comes no more to any womb.