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:

..in 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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