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Right Meditation

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by Sangharakshita

The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path

Lecture 54: Samadhi, The Higher Consciousness: Right Meditation Venerable Sir and Friends, Eight weeks ago we all, or most of us at least, set out on a journey together, a journey on the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, and today we come to the end of that long journey. Today we come to the eighth and the last stage of that Noble Eightfold Path. And this last step or last stage is of course that of samyak samadhi, which is usually translated, not very adequately as we shall afterwards see, usually translated as Right Meditation. What it really means, what it really is meant to convey, will become clear, I hope, as this talk proceeds. But before we come on to the subject proper of this evening's talk, a very brief, a very rapid recapitulation of ground covered so far. We've learned - and I'm sure everybody who has been coming regularly knows this very well by now - we've learned that the Eightfold Path is divided into two principal sections. There's first of all the Path of Vision and secondly there is the Path of Transformation. The first of these, the Path of Vision, represents initial insight into or even experience of Ultimate Reality. While the second, that is to say the Path of Transformation represents the transformation, the transmutation, even the transfiguration of various levels, various aspects, of one's being and consciousness in accordance with the initial insight and experience. The second section of the Path, the Path of Transformation, is therefore much longer, much more complex, also much more difficult than the first. The first section of the path, that is to say the Path of Vision, corresponds to one stage of the Eightfold Path only, that is to say to Perfect Vision. But the second section, the Path of Transformation, corresponds to all the other stages from two right up to eight, up to, that is to say, and including Perfect samadhi with which we are particularly concerned this evening.

So the question at once arises - what is Perfect samadhi? What do we mean by this term? And this is the question that we now have to try to answer. But before trying to answer this question let me make just one relevant observation. I think we can say that as a general rule the more advanced the stage with which we are concerned, the more advanced the stage of spiritual life or spiritual experience with which we're concerned, the less there really is to say about it. I think we can say that this principle holds good throughout the whole spiritual life. If we look, for instance, at the Buddhist scriptures, especially at the Pali scriptures, we'll find that the Buddha had very much to say for instance about ethics, about morality, about how one should behave, how one should conduct oneself and so on. He went into all these questions in very considerable detail, but when it came to questions of, for instance, nirvana, the Ultimate Goal, then there was very little indeed which he said, in fact there was very little indeed for him to say. And we do find in fact as we search through the scriptures that though they're very extensive, though they're very elaborate, though they deal with many topics, on the whole they do tend to say very little about nirvana. The Buddha wasn't very communicative on this particular subject. Indeed we do sometimes find that at times when He was questioned about nirvana, about the nature of Enlightenment, about the experience of the Enlightened Person, He just remained perfectly silent.

I remember in particular there's one sutta, not a very well-known one, I think its in the Samyutta Nikaya - a whole series of questions of this sort is put to the Buddha and whoever compiled the sutta after each question says `The Enlightened one remained silent'. Then another question - `The Enlightened One remained silent', yet another question, `The Enlightened One remained silent'. And this is how it goes on. And it's very much the same, we may say, with regard to this same Noble Eightfold Path. There's quite a lot that one can say about Perfect Speech, there's quite a lot that one can say about Perfect Action, about Perfect Livelihood - under Perfect Livelihood you can go into the whole question of economics and spiritual life and that sort of thing. There's a very great deal of material. Now there's even quite a lot to be said about Perfect Effort and about Perfect Mindfulness. But when we come to today's topic - Perfect samadhi - there seems in comparison much less for one to say about it. Indeed when I started thinking over today's talk it did even occur to me at one point that we might not even have enough material, real material, on this subject of Perfect samadhi for a whole, for a full evening's talk. But let us see.

It may well be that having said something one might have to take refuge in silence. But if this does happen, if one finds that there's very little that can be said about samadhi, or if one discovers that one ought not perhaps to be saying anything about it at all, if one feels obliged rather to be silent, this should rather be taken as emphasizing the importance of the stage with which we are now concerned and not the opposite. In worldly life of course the more we have to say about something the more important we consider it. Tonight's papers, I believe are full of reports and information connected with the dollar and gold and things of that sort. So the papers being full of these two subjects people automatically think they must be very important because people are talking so much about them - and this is how things are in the world. But in the spiritual life, you may say, it's just exactly the other way round - the less you say about something, or the less you can say about something, the more truly important it is.

Now this word the term is the same, samadhi in both Pali and Sanskrit. And the word samadhi literally means the state of being firmly fixed or established. This is the primary signification of the term. But it can be understood in two rather distinct ways. In the first place it can be understood as representing the fixation of the mind on an object. You fix your mind on an object, you establish your mind on an object, this is samadhi, in other words samadhi in the sense of concentration. This is the first signification of the term.

The second, which goes rather further, is the fixation or establishment, not just of the mind but of the whole being, in a certain mode of awareness or a certain mode of consciousness, in other words Enlightenment. So we have these two meanings, samadhi as concentration and samadhi in the sense of being fixed and established in the state or experience of Enlightenment or Buddhahood. These two rather distinct meanings.

Now in the Theravada texts, in the texts of the Pali Canon, the word samadhi in Pali is usually understood in the first sense - it's usually understood as concentration, usually understood as one-pointedness of mind. But in the Mahayana sutras, in the Mahayana texts, the word samadhi is used in the second sense, the sense of being fixed or established in Ultimate Reality, not just in the sense of concentration, not even in the sense of concentration in meditation on Reality - but the state of being established or the establishment of one's own being in the state of Enlightenment, in, in other words, Buddhahood. And therefore in the Mahayana texts we often find that instead of using the word samadhi in the sense of concentration, they keep the word samadhi for the higher state, the higher experience, and concentration is usually known as samatha. We shall see the meaning of that a little later on.

Now this distinction between samadhi in the sense of concentration, concentration of mind as in meditation, and samadhi in the sense of fixation or establishment of one's total being in Enlightenment is very important indeed, in fact it's vitally important. If we interpret Perfect samadhi, the final, the culminating stage or phase of the Eightfold Path merely as concentration, merely as good concentration even, then the whole meaning of this stage and therewith the whole meaning and significance of the Path itself becomes distorted. But unfortunately this is what is very often done. Very often Perfect samadhi is translated or rendered as Right Concentration, so one has the impression as it were of the whole Path, the whole spiritual Path, the whole practical teaching of the Buddha, culminating simply in Right Concentration, the sort of thing you do, or at least can do in your meditation class, almost, I was going to say almost every evening but certainly almost every week. So the impression is produced that just Right Concentration, just one-pointedness of mind, is the culminating stage and phase of the whole Buddhist spiritual life, the whole Noble Eightfold Path of The Buddha.

And one may even go further than that and say that in modern times the whole of the Eightfold Path, each and every step or stage of the Noble Eightfold Path, is rather seriously, as it were, undervalued, if not actually minimized.

And one finds a very limited, a very narrow, a very cramped sort of interpretation given of each step, each stage.

And this is very unfortunate because it makes the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path appear something rather unattractive, or rather limited or rather conditioned, and sometimes, I do know, people wonder how the Eightfold Path can be considered as the central theme of the Buddha's whole teaching. But it's all a matter of correctly and properly understanding the significance of each and every step and stage of that path. And I certainly hope that in this present series of talks ...

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