Right Concentration

The practice of Right Concentration (samyak samadhi) is to cultivate a mind that is one-pointed. The Chinese character for concentration means, literally, "maintaining evenness," neither too high nor too low, neither too excited nor too dull. Another Chinese term sometimes used for concentration means "the abode of true mind." There are two kinds of concentration, active and selective. In active concentration, the mind dwells on whatever is happening in the present moment, even as it changes. This poem by a Buddhist monk describes active concentration:

Poem by Vietnamese Dhyana Master Huong Hai (Ocean of Fragrance),

The wind whistles in the bamboo
and the bamboo dances.
When the wind stops,
the bamboo grows still.

The wind comes and the bamboo welcomes it. The wind goes, and the bamboo lets it go. The poem continues:

A silver bird
flies over the autumn lake.
When it has passed,
the lake's surface does not try
to hold on to the image of the bird.

As the bird flies over the lake, its reflection is lucid. After it is gone, the lake reflects the clouds and the sky just as clearly. When we practice active concentration, we welcome whatever comes along. We don't think about or long for anything else. We just dwell in the present moment with all our being. Whatever comes, comes. When the object of our concentration has passed, our mind remains clear, like a calm lake. When we practice "selective concentration," we choose one object and hold onto it. During sitting and walking meditation, whether alone or with others, we practice. We know that the sky and the birds are there, but our attention is focused on our object. If the object of our concentration is a math problem, we don't watch TV or talk on the phone. We abandon everything else and focus on the object. When we are driving, the lives of the passengers in our car depend on our concentration. We don't use concentration to run away from our suffering. We concentrate to make ourselves deeply present. When we walk, stand, or sit in concentration, people can see our stability and stillness. Living each moment deeply, sustained concentration comes naturally, and that, in turn, gives rise to insight.

Right Concentration leads to happiness, and it also leads to Right Action. The higher our degree of concentration, the greater the quality of our life. Vietnamese girls are often told by their mothers that if they concentrate, they will be more beautiful. This is the kind of beauty that comes from dwelling deeply in the present moment. When a young lady moves inattentively, she does not look as fresh or at ease. Her mother may not use these words, but she is encouraging her daughter to practice Right Concentration. It is a pity she does not encourage her son to do the same. Everyone needs concentration.

There are nine levels of meditative concentration.  The first four are the Four Dhyanas. These are concentrations on the form realm. The next five levels belong to the formless realm. When practicing the first dhyana, you still think. At the other eight levels, thinking gives way to other energies . Formless concentrations are also
practiced in other traditions, but when they are practiced outside of Buddhism, it is generally to escape from suffering rather than to realize the liberation that comes with insight into our suffering. When you use concentration to run away from yourself or your situation, it is wrong concentration. Sometimes we need to escape our problems for relief, but at some time we have to return to face them. Worldly concentration seeks to escape. Supra-mundane concentration aims at complete liberation.

To practice samadhi is to live deeply each moment that is given us to live. Samadhi means concentration. In order to be concentrated, we should be mindful, fully present and aware of what is going on. Mindfulness brings about concentration. When you are deeply concentrated, you are absorbed in the moment. You become the moment. That is why samadhi is sometimes translated as "absorption." Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration lift us above the realms of sensual pleasures and craving, and we find ourselves lighter and happier. Our world is no longer gross and heavy, the realm of desires (karma dhatu). It is the realm of fine materiality, the realm of form (rupa dhatu).

In the form realm, there are four levels of dhyana. Mindfulness, concentration, joy, happiness, peace, and equanimity continue to grow through these four levels. After the fourth dhyana, the practitioner enters a deeper experience of concentration — the four formless dhyanas — where he or she can see deeply into reality. Here, sensual desire and materiality reveal their illusory nature and are no longer obstacles. You begin to see the impermanent, nonself, and interbeing nature of the phenomenal world. Earth, water, air, fire, space, time, nothingness, and perceptions inter-are. Nothing can be by itself alone.

The object of the fifth level of concentration is limitless space. When we begin to practice this concentration, everything seems to be space. But as we practice more deeply, we see that space is composed of and exists only in "non-space elements," like earth, water, air, fire, and consciousness. Because space is only one of the six elements that make up all material things, we know space does not have a separate, independent existence. According to the teachings of the Buddha, nothing has a separate self. So space and everything else inter-are. Space inter-is with the other five elements. The object of the sixth level of concentration is limitless consciousness. At first, we see only consciousness, but then we see that consciousness is also earth, water, air, fire, and space. What is true of space is also true of consciousness. The object of the seventh level of concentration is nothingness. With normal perception, we see flowers, fruit, teapots, and tables, and we think they exist separately of one another. But when we look more deeply, we see that the fruit is in the flower, and that the flower, the cloud, and the earth are in the fruit. We go beyond outward appearances or signs and come to "signlessness."

At first, we think that the members of our family are separate from one another, but afterwards we see that they contain each other. You are the way you are because I am the way I am. We see the intimate connection between people, and we go beyond signs. We used to think that the universe contains millions of separate entities. Now we understand "the nonexistence of signs."

The eighth level of concentration is that of neither perception nor non-perception. We recognize that everything is produced by our perceptions, which are, at least in part, erroneous. Therefore, we see that we cannot rely on our old way of perceiving, and we want to be in direct touch with reality. We cannot stop perceiving altogether, but at least now we know that perception is perception of a sign. Since we no longer believe in the reality of signs, our perception becomes wisdom. We go beyond signs ("no perception"), but we do not become perceptionless ("no non-perception").

The ninth level of concentration is called cessation. "Cessation" here means the cessation of ignorance in our feelings and perceptions, not the cessation of feelings and perceptions. From this concentration is born insight. The poet Nguyen Du said, "As soon as we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, we open ourselves to suffering." We long to be in a state of concentration where we cannot see or hear anything, in a world where there is no perception. We wish to become a pine tree with the wind singing in our branches, because we believe that a pine tree does not suffer. The search for a place of non-suffering is natural.

In the world of non-perception, the seventh (manas) and the eighth (alaya) consciousnesses continue to function as usual, and our ignorance and internal formations remain intact in our store consciousness, and they manifest in the seventh consciousness. The seventh consciousness is the energy of delusion that creates the belief in a self and distinguishes self from other. Since the nonperception concentration does not transform our habit energies, when people emerge from that concentration, their suffering is intact. But when the meditator reaches the ninth level of concentration, the stage of arhat, manas is transformed and the internal formations in the store consciousness are purified. The greatest internal formation is ignorance of the reality of impermanence and nonself. This ignorance gives rise to greed, hatred, confusion, pride, doubt, and views. Together, these afflictions produce a war of consciousness called manas, which always discriminates self from other.

When someone practices well, the ninth level of concentration shines light on the reality of things and transforms ignorance. The seeds that used to cause you to be caught in self and nonself are transformed, alaya is freed from the grip of manas, and manas no longer has the function of making a self. Manas becomes the Wisdom of Equality that can see the interbeing and interpenetrating nature of things. It can see that others' lives are as precious as our own, because there is no longer discrimination between self and other. When manas loses its grip on store consciousness, store consciousness becomes the Wisdom of the Great Mirror that reflects everything in the universe. When the sixth consciousness (manovijñana) is transformed, it is called the Wisdom of Wonderful Observation. Mind consciousness continues to observe phenomena after it has been transformed into wisdom, but it observes them in a different way, because mind consciousness is aware of the interbeing nature of all that it observes — seeing the one in the many, all the manifestations of birth and death, coming and going, and so on — without being caught in ignorance. The first five consciousnesses become the Wisdom of Wonderful Realization. Our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body that previously caused us to suffer become miracles that bring us to the garden of suchness. Thus, the transformation of all levels of consciousness is realized as Four Wisdoms. Our wrong consciousness and wrong perceptions are transformed, thanks to the practice. At the ninth level of concentration, all eight consciousnesses are functioning. Perception and feeling are still there, but they are different from before, because they are free from ignorance.

The Buddha taught many concentration practices. To practice the Concentration on Impermanence, every time you look at your beloved, see him as impermanent, and do your best to make him happy today. If you think he is permanent, you may believe that he will never improve. The insight into impermanence keeps you from getting caught in the suffering of craving, attachment, and despair. See and listen to everything with this insight.

To practice the Concentration on Nonself, touch the nature of interbeing in everything you contact. This will bring you a lot of peace and joy and prevent you from suffering. The practice of the Concentration on Nirvana helps you to touch the ultimate dimension of reality and establish yourself in the realms of no-birth and no-death. The Concentrations on Impermanence, Nonself, and Nirvana are enough for us to practice our whole lives. In fact, the three are one. If you touch the nature of impermanence deeply, you touch the nature of nonself (interbeing) and nirvana. One concentration contains all concentrations. You don't need to do everything.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are hundreds of other concentrations, such as the Shurangama Samadhi (the Concentration of the Heroic March), the Saddharmapundarika Samadhi, and the Avatamsaka Samadhi. Each is wonderful and important. According to the Lotus Sutra, we have to live in the historical and ultimate dimensions of
reality at the same time. We have to live deeply our life as a wave so we can touch the substance of water in us. We walk, look, breathe, and eat in a way that we touch the absolute dimension of reality. We transcend birth and death and the fears of being and nonbeing, one and many. The Buddha is not found only on Gridhrakuta, the Vulture Peak. If you were to hear on the radio that the Buddha is going to reappear on Gridhrakuta Mountain and the public is invited to join him for walking meditation, all the seats on all the airplanes to India would be booked, and you might feel frustrated, because you want to go, also. Even if you were lucky enough to get a seat on that plane, it still might not be possible for you to enjoy practicing walking meditation with the Buddha. There would be so many people, most of whom don't know how to practice breathing in and out and dwelling in the present moment while walking. What is the use of going there? Look deeply at your intention. Do you want to fly halfway around the world so that later you can say you were with the Buddha? Many people want to do just that. They arrive at a place of pilgrimage, unable to be in the here and the now. After a few minutes of seeing the place, they rush to the next place. They take pictures to prove they were there, and they are eager to return home to show their friends. "I was there. I have proof. That is me standing beside the Buddha." That would be the desire of many of the people who would go there. They are not able to walk with the Buddha. They are not able to be in the here and the now. They only want to say, "I was there, and this is me standing beside the Buddha." But it is not true. They were not there. And that is not the Buddha. "Being there" is a concept, and the Buddha that you see is a mere appearance. You cannot photograph the real Buddha, even if you have a very expensive camera.

If you don't have the opportunity to fly to India, please practice walking at home, and you canreally hold the hand of the Buddha while you walk. Just walk in peace and happiness, and the Buddha is there with you. The one who flies to India and returns with his photo taken with the Buddha has not seen the real Buddha. You have the reality; he has only a sign. Don't run around looking for photo opportunities. Touch the real Buddha. He is available. Take his hand and practice walking meditation. When you can touch the ultimate dimension, you walk with the Buddha. The wave does not need to die to become water. She is already water. This is the Concentration of the Lotus Sutra. Live every moment of your life deeply, and while walking, eating, drinking, and looking at the morning star, you touch the ultimate dimension.

From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh