Concentration and Awareness in Buddhist Meditation

While trying to make a point about omnicentric value paradox on facebook I did a Wikipedia search on Tientai Buddhism and came across a term I had never seen before.

Tiantai emphasizes śamatha and vipaśyanā meditation.

In fourteen years of studying Buddhism (and even more years of studying meditation if you include my childhood kung fu and chi kung experiences) I had never seen the term samatha. The wikipedia article is somewhat informative but it does’t really tell you how to do it. Searching the internet didn’t lead to many good results but it did lead to one.

This author basically says that samatha is concentration meditation where the practitioner focuses on a concept. In contrast he says that vipassana is an insight meditation where the practitioner focuses on present sensation (though he uses the term “ultimate reality”).

If you are counting your breath or thinking “in, out” as you breathe, then you are doing samatha because you are concentrating on concepts. If you instead focus on sensation such as the feeling of your nostrils as air passes through them, then you’re practicing vipassana. If you focus on the idea of air passing through your nostrils you’re back to samatha.

In my experience you normally begin zazen by concentrating on your breath or your koan. If you’re doing Soto and you reach a state of “just sitting” (shikantaza) then you’ve transitioned from samatha to vipassana. If you’re doing Rinzai and you’re concentrating on your koan then you’re doing samatha. As long as you’re doing samatha you will not pass your koan because the koan is an object that you are thinking about. That’s ok, it isn’t that doing samatha is bad or vipassana is good. One is a gateway to the other and they seem to flex different mediation muscles. But to pass the koan, it seems to me that you’ll need to transition the koan practice from samatha to vipassana.

If this topic has peaked your interest at all, then I suggest you read all of the links in this post but especially that one good one. Then you can help me to flesh out the following idea:

How does one practice koan as a process instead of a concept?

It seems to me that it can’t be the question “who am I?” but rather becoming aware of the process that is “who am I”.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry on koan I found this quote: the beginning a monk first thinks a kōan is an inert object upon which to focus attention; after a long period of consecutive repetition, one realizes that the kōan is also a dynamic activity, the very activity of seeking an answer to the kōan. The kōan is both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself.

OK, so there you have it. Concentration on the koan and awareness of the relentless seeking — koan practice as samatha meditation and as vipasyana meditation!

If you were using the “marking” technique in vipasyana then you’d say “seeking” every time you noticed that you were working on your koan 🙂

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7 Responses to Concentration and Awareness in Buddhist Meditation

  1. disco says:

    I don’t meditate much, but when I do I use the counting just as an aid to keep my mind from wandering. But I think I’m not focusing on the counting. I try to focus on visualizing negative/stale/used energy leaving my body and healthy/fresh energy flowing back in.

  2. lion says:

    That sounds similar to a loving kindness meditation or a chi kung meditation. In either case, if you were meditating on the concept of energy then it could be characterised as samatha and if you are concentrating on the actual energy then it would be vipassana. Though things like chi and mental processes are probably a grey area that would be hard to determine either way — at what point does the idea of energy end and actual energy begin?

  3. lion says:

    And yes, counting as an aid to keep the mind from wandering is exactly what counting / samatha is for.

  4. disco says:

    Its not thinking about energy, just visualizing my breath as sort of a colored light, with the exhale containing soiled, used up sort of yellow energy and the inhale having more of a white/blue revitalizing look to it. Like if you used some kind of spectrometer to see the O2 in and CO2 out..

  5. tomo says:

    To me, samatha is more or less samadhi, or concentration, especially absorption in concentration. I guess that zen doesn’t really teach a lot of the classical terminology unless you become a serious Buddhist scholar.

    I agree that shikantaza it’s vipassana because you’re not attempting to control the point of focus. I’m not sure if nose-focused breathing with or w/o counting is necessarily vipassana, rather than a concentration practice.

    About passing/failing koan in samadhi, I would guess the point of samadhi practice is to be continuously mindful of the koan rather than letting your mind wander and then watching where it wanders (vipassana).

  6. lion says:

    In my lineage, they refer to samadhi as a state of consciousness. Something like: “Tanoye was walking around in a state of samadhi when he almost got hit by a car, triggering his kensho”.

    Wikipedia says:

    It has been described as a non-dualistic state of consciousness in which the consciousness of the experiencing subject becomes one with the experienced object, and in which the mind becomes still, one-pointed or concentrated while the person remains conscious. In Buddhism, it can also refer to an abiding in which mind becomes very still but does not merge with the object of attention, and is thus able to observe and gain insight into the changing flow of experience.

    This definition sounds very much like what Ken Wilber calls The Witness.

    I think if you had been practicing koan, and you were in a state of samadhi when you entered the interview room, you would pass and be given a new koan to work on.

  7. tomo says:

    I wonder if it is necessarily a non-dualistic state of mind. I don’t know from experience anyways, but I think it can just mean a highly concentrated state of mind where it’s much easier to push away unfocused thoughts.

    So if you were just highly concentrated, it wouldn’t necessarily mean you were answering koans from the non-dualistic perspective. Just that you could contemplate on the koan non-stop for as long as you wanted without feeling bothered?

    But I believe this state of concentration is a necessary component of whatever state you must be in to ‘solve’ koans, or experience kensho.

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