On the authenticity of modern meditation methods

According to a book I’m reading, the author suggests that there are some indications respect the kinds of meditation that are not recommended for trainee under the Dhamma; for instance, we have Sandha Sutta:

They meditate dependent on earth, water, fire, and air. They meditate dependent on the dimension of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, or neither perception nor non-perception. They meditate dependent on this world or the other world. They meditate dependent on what is seen, heard, thought, known, attained, sought, or explored by the mind. That’s how a wild colt meditates.

Simplifying the analysis, one could say that if some method goes against this perspective, then it is not recommended as a proper meditation practice.
What exactly it is being said in this discourse? It is telling us that using objects coming from our senses is a form of wrong samadhi?

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I think it is the preceding sentence, to your quote, that is the crucial factor

“Harboring doubt within they meditate and concentrate and contemplate and ruminate”.

I interpret this that it is beneficial and skillful, to be like the thoroughbred - active choice of meditation object from a detached perspective, rather than a reactive one based on what comes in through the senses.

“They (throughbreds) don’t meditate dependent on what is seen, heard, thought, known, attained, sought, or explored by the mind. Yet they do meditate”.

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You’re probably right. It makes more sense if one takes it in its context.
One thing that strikes me as, at least, a curiosity, is the lack of instructions in most of the suttas I’ve read in respect of what to do (besides the classic stock phrases about the bodily posture, the halting of the nivaranas and the necessary seclusion) to enter the jhanas. Why it is not specified the role of meditation objects in the process towards the attainment of jhana (at least in the suttas I’ve read so far)?

I’ve seen some people say that anapanasati is a previous practice leading to jhana; I’ve seen other stating that both are two different things altogether, and not a sequence of practices, one leading to the other; I’ve seen some saying that “letting go” should be the object of meditation, and so on. But if we take the interpretation I gave to the above mentioned sutta, maybe the last recommended practice makes more sense.

At this point, I’m full of doubts and mixed (and sometimes incompatible) views on what method should I follow, and I cannot pick one specific practice.

What are your thoughts on this? (I’m asking about the sutta and its interpretation, gives the aditional info I gave, and not about the practical matters, considering the rules of the forum).

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Much appreciated. Thank you.

In this respect, the suttas are very similar to the manuals of surgery that I have studied. :rofl:
Surgical textbooks will usually give the indications, contraindications, pre requisites (anaesthesia, positioning etc), main steps, the main complications and what to do about them…and that’s it! No surgical textbook can teach a trainee how to operate. That is a skill that must be picked up by observing expert surgeons, performing surgery oneself under the guidance of a teacher, finding out the ‘trouble zones’ where one tends to get stuck, consulting with peers and senior surgeons about how to overcome difficulties…and relentless practice! Certainly, there are many times when one wonders how two surgeons can have such differing techniques for the same operation, yet have similar results! As time passes, skill increases, one learns which techniques suit one’s own temperament…and voila- the Trainee transforms into a Master!
:laughing:

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IMHO, this is due to Cognitive Bias of various sorts. Interestingly enough, its usually the trainees/ followers who insist that their Master’s way is the sole correct way… Enlightened Masters themselves are usually aware enough that there are other ways besides theirs! Of course, there is one particular way that suits their temperament, which they choose to follow… but they are usually open enough to suggest an alternative way when they see the Trainee struggling.
This can be well seen in the texts - both ancient and modern. For example, the Buddha’s usual meditation was on Emptiness. Some of the preparatory meditations that can lead to that being developed are the reflections on Death and the loathsomeness of the body. Yet, when the Buddha taught these to the monks, the meditation subjects were so unsuited to the temperament of some monks that they committed suicide. That led the Buddha to teach Anapanasati. Of course, as The True Master, he would be familiar with many different ways of practice… and the results thereof! A similar attitude can be seen in the practical advice given by Ajahn Chah to his various disciples (last para on pg 10).

So I contemplated this. “Oh, teachers meditate in line with the language of their own minds. They don’t go groping around in the formulations in the books the way we do. Their own formulations arise from reality.”
- Ajahn Chah

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I agree, at least for the most part. But I think we should be cautious when taking some method, for two main reasons (the second following the first one):

  1. There were some methods which were described as wrong samadhi, because they could be unwholesome and take us away from the path.
  2. There could be some texts describing techniques which could be influenced by outer and/or posterior sources (brahmanism, jainism, the vedas, the upanisads, yogic methods, etc.), which in part could be included to fill some conceptual voids and vagueness (and I hypotesize that that was one of the reasons underlying and motivating the formation of the corpus of texts and concepts of the abhidhamma); if monks/nuns couldn’t understand all the details of how to attain jhana, I don’t think is that to suppose the possibility of them taking ideas from the surrounding traditions.

So, having these two reasons in mind (or at least considering the chance of them being actual reasons), maybe it could be a good idea to try to have a criteria (and justifications for choosing that criteria) for picking some method over the other. In summary, by knowing the fact that the Buddha allowed a multiplicity of method should not necessarily led us to assume that all methods contribute to the eradication of the taints.

According to SN/SA suttas, e.g SN22.101 = SA 263, the ending of dukkha ‘suffering’ requires one knows (jaanaati) and sees (passati) the arising and cessation of dukkha, not by not knowing, not by not seeing. So, the ending of dukkha is not mainly by samadhi/jhana, according to SN/SA suttas. See pp. 34, 52-53 in Choong MK, the Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism.

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But it’s also good to keep in mind that methods and tools will always have only a limited value. What gives them their power is ultimately the theory / philosophy / soteriology behind them.

You probably know how it is in meditation groups. People have experiences and then get super passionate and convinced that they made substantial progress. In the end it doesn’t matter if they did anapanasati or corpse meditation right - dispassion, calm, patience, and knowing that this excitement will subside are in the end more important. So there is a nice dynamic between method and views/wisdom that is necessary.

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You might consider Analayo’s book “Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation” He extensively unpacks the Culasunnata sutta, which mirrors the Sandha sutta in content and language except here he’s giving Ananda a detailed description of how he personally meditates in emptiness. It’s a great book that helped me develop two distinctly different meditation options: Brahmaviharas and Emptiness (the perception of emptiness).

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Yes, I agree.
But, I would say that it’s not mere theory what liberates, but internalized knowledge, a kind of knowledge that becomes ingrained in our world-view, and which modifies our perception; it’s a knowledge that doesn’t requiere one remembering by force what constitutes right view, because one has convinced the mind beyond all doubts about the differences (and the logic behind those differences) between the wholesome and the unwholesome.

Another related problem which arises from taking into account this internalized knowledge is this:
Why us samadhi so important, to the point of being part of the Eightfold Path (a path which I assume is composed from the minimal necessary and sufficient factors to be cultivated in order to attain the goal)?
What is the role played by samadhi in the attainment of the internalized knowledge?
Or, in other words: why is constant study and reflexion not enough? Why is samadhi requiered?

Maybe these questions are answered in the suttas. I have a lot (most) of them to read, yet. So I apologize in advance if these come as obvious and common knowledge.

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I don’t think it’s mere theory either. My understanding is that before one fully awakens, one has a perception of emptiness, a glimpse of what sunnata is.

Regarding sunnata, this book may be useful:

Choong Mun-keat, The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism.

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Hey everyone, thanks for the interesting thread. I’ve written on these topics extensively, so I won’t bore you with rehashing my arguments. But let me comment briefly on a few points raised.

This is a complex area, and I appreciate the note of reserve you bring to it. A full appreciation of the teachings of forest masters such as Ajahn Chah is no easy matter, and bringing them into light of the suttas is another thing altogether. So far, my own personal belief is that no-one has really done this satisfactorily, as the analyses are too partial, too shallow, and too driven by personal assumptions. I made some efforts to reconcile the forest Ajahns and the suttas when I was younger, but as time went on I effectively gave up on the task, as I found all I needed in the suttas.

The basic problem is that the forest Ajahns teach in a way that is highly pragmatic and specific to context. With rare exceptions they did not write handbooks or create systems of practice, nor did they in any meaningful sense attempt to reconcile their ideas with the suttas.

What they did was to give pragmatic advice to the people in front of them. With understanding who those people were, what their concerns were, and how they were practicing, it is hard to draw specific conclusions about particular details.

Ajahn Chah, and other forest monks, disliked being recorded for this very reason. I remember visiting an old monk, Luang Poo Dun, and when he saw a tape recorder, he forbade it right away, saying “record it in your heart!” Many of the recorded talks of Ajahn Chah are 30 minutes long; the monks used to smuggle illicit tape recorders into talks, and they would reach the end of the C-60 tape with an awkward click as Ajahn Chah glared at the naughty monks!

Almost all of the teachings that we have from Ajahn Chah were given in the last years of his life, when he was a famous teacher, and his monastery was full of new students with stars in their eyes. Such students are often bedazzled by talk of high states of meditation or psychic abilities, and a teacher will want to redirect their energies in a more useful way. Ajahn Chah remarked one time that he has built many monasteries, but few monks.

There are a small number of recordings from earlier years where Ajahn Chah is speaking on deeper states of samadhi. As for his own practice, the word in the Sangha was that Ajahn Chah’s mastery of jhana was such that he did not have to wait for the out-breath: just breath in and he’s already in jhana. Whether that is so, I cannot say, but it is clear that within the Sangha there is, at least among certain monks, a great respect for samadhi.

Finally, it should also be borne in mind that many of his translations were made by monks who themselves did not have good meditation, or whose ideological bent was away from jhanas. I was told by monks of that generation that Ajahn Sumedho, for example, mainly learned Buddhism from the Zen teachings of DT Suzuki. Others were from a vipassana background. This obviously influenced both the selection and interpretation of material.

No, the word kasiṇa means “universal” or “totality”. In the suttas it is a term describing jhanas, similar to a term such as “measureless”.

The words for “mental image” in the suttas are either rūpa in a general sense, or light as obhāsa, paribhāsa etc.

Perhaps the issue here is that we are looking for the wrong thing. Modern interpreters often quietly deprecate the context within which jhana is taught—the whole gradual training—then complain that there is not enough detail. Perhaps, after all, the important details are the ones that the Buddha himself emphasized—renunciation, ethics, sense restraint, contentment—and these are the keys to jhana, not fancy methodologies.

Just to note that the word jhana itself means “illumination”, and other terms for light are found constantly throughout the suttas in this context. So “luminous jhana” is a tautology, which suggests that a better classification would be jhana and not-jhana. :man_shrugging:

What Ajahn Brahm is talking about here is a skilful means, which is adopted consciously by a meditator. It’s a way of playing with perception, and might be compared with the suttas where they say to see the beautiful as ugly and so on.

The actual problem is not this, it is conceit. When someone believes they have the real juice, they can then easily think they’re enlightened, teach followers the same thing, write books explaining why they’re wrong, and get further and further stuck in a mire of wrong view. Even not as a teacher, it is easy, and common, for meditators to simply get complacent. One meditator told me once that he was thinking of ordaining, but he was worried that he’d get bored just sitting in jhanas all day.

This is not jhana.

This quote from Leigh Brasington is a just-so story. There’s a difference between proposing a hypothesis, even a speculative one, to make sense of evidence, and inventing a story to justify your beliefs.

Sure, it wasn’t presented as history. But that isn’t good enough. You can’t just throw things out there and then protest innocence; words have meanings, and you have to be accountable.

History, to be sure, is not, and should not, be free of ideological bias and values. History works by assessing evidence and organizing it according to a meaningful narrative. Your beliefs and values should inform historical inquiry, shaping the kinds of questions asked and the kind of narrative that you’re interested in. A fertile ideological perspective enriches history by opening up unseen perspectives. Consider, for example, the new perspectives we have learned from feminist or Marxist or black or queer readings of history. A historian is aware of this and acts in good faith, not suppressing or hiding facts or opinions that don’t fit their narrative.

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@irene @ Erik
Erik is correct; VenAnalyo is critiquing Leigh Brasington’s idea and thinks it’s utterly unconvincing. The article will probably eventually be available under Ven Analayo’s list of publications here As to when, my understanding is it depends on the copyright restrictions of the publication it’s in.

@Ven Khemarato

I’m quite surprised that Bhikkhu Analayo seems to have missed this very basic point: that even the Visuddhimagga doesn’t believe absorption is the “deep” end of the path…

I don’t think that’s what Ven Analyo’s conclusion is. Perhaps things get a bit confusing using terminology like ‘samatha jhana’ and ‘vipassana jhana’ as these terms are basically meaningless as far as the suttas go–he was summarizing and critiquing the position taken by some teachers (such as Leigh B) who use those terms. Also it’s difficult to discuss the paper, and Ven Analayo’s position, since it’s not available to read in full and thus see the quotes in context. Ven Analyo would totally agree that insight leading to wisdom is the key.

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Yes, as would the Visuddhimagga.

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@Ceisiwr

Yes, as would the Visuddhimagga.

Yes!

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Thanks Gabriel. I am interested in how you conduct your statistical analysis. Could you please describe the steps ? Do you have a database of all the suttas in pali or English ? Does it make an output in excel, etc ?
Or is it simply through the search function of Sutta Central for example ?
Thank you

Thank your for your explanation. :pray: I understand your point and the dangers involved, particularly if they teach wrong view.

However, wouldn’t this depend more on the attitude and motivation of the meditator? What I mean is, if a meditator realizes that they still get angry for example, or perhaps (to refer to your example) feel pride and conceit about their meditation attainments, wouldn’t it become clear that they have not yet completed what needed to be done (to paraphrase a sentence I read in the suttas) and that they need more practice?

In other words, if one is sincerely devoted to practicing the eightfold path and their aim is having a peaceful life (as opposed to attaining some meditation state, in the same spirit as someone in a career wants to obtain a promotion), then what you call your attainments in meditation is perhaps not so important. And perhaps this danger

might not be so real. To take an example, Ayya Khema taught jhanas differently from Ajahn Brahmavamso. Wasn’t what she taught a much more light version of them? Yet many people find her inspiring. What do you think? Do you see a danger in her teachings?

We can even put it more drastically. The student becomes Dhamma:

“I am a son of the Blessed One, born of his breast, born of his mouth, born of the Dhamma, created by the Dhamma, an heir to the Dhamma” (SN 16.11, MN 111, DN 27)

As to this…

There might be some vague canonical answer, but if I tackle it psychologically I could argue that when we experience we usually don’t experience on ‘solid ground’ - 99% is fantasy, hopes, wishes, fears, predictions, plans, interpretations, projections. Maybe we can call these ignorance or asavas.

Now imagine that there are registers in the mind where we can experience something ‘real’, something that is baked in to the hardware of the mind if we direct our attention in a specific way. These treasure boxes would be extremely valuable because they would grant us access to something mentally solid which is not the ever-shifting normal mind. Samadhi could be such a register, but also anicca-sanna for example. Because they would let the mind experience itself, as if instead of being absorbed by the movie you’d go and investigate the screen. A ‘hack’ if you will…

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