Samadhi: The Practice of Mental Discipline and Concentration

National Headquarters  |  May 24, 2019
Photo Credit: Peter Lin

“To help ourselves become pure in mind and body, we must cultivate moral discipline, samadhi (deep concentration), and wisdom. Practicing moral discipline is like wearing protective armor – it keeps us from being easily influenced by outside circumstances and falling into traps. With moral discipline comes samadhi. With samadhi, our minds will be focused and clear and we won’t deviate from the right track. The third attribute, wisdom, will naturally arise within us when we have moral discipline and samadhi. When we possess these three characteristics, we’ll be able to walk a smooth, broad, long-lasting spiritual path.” (translated by Teresa Chang)

Dharma Master Cheng Yen

Mental discipline and concentration are central to the Buddhist path, following the example set by the Buddha who attained enlightenment while absorbed in a state of deep concentration achieved through meditation. The practice is referred to by the Sanskrit term samadhi, which is rooted in two words – sam-a-dha, meaning “to collect,” “place together” or “bring together.” It has also been translated as “to establish or make firm,” “unification of mind,” “absorption” or “concentration.”

Samadhi refers to a single-pointed concentration, with the mind fully focused on one thought, object, sensation or activity to the point of complete absorption. When deepest samadhi is attained, a non-dualistic state of consciousness emerges, one in which a sense of “self” and the distinction between subject and object are absent.

The practice of samadhi is part of the Noble Eightfold Path that the Buddha taught as the Path to the Cessation of Suffering (one of the Four Noble Truths ). Three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path pertain to samadhi (Mental Discipline in this case), these being Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

Samadhi is also among the Six Perfections (Sanskrit: pāramitās) that Buddhists cultivate along the spiritual path (the others being generosity, precepts, forbearance, diligence and wisdom). In this context, Samadhi is linked to dhyāna, a Sanskrit term meaning “contemplation,” “meditative concentration” or “meditation.”

In some traditions, three aspects of training in meditative concentration are described. First, one cultivates stable attention by calming or pacifying the mind through what is referred to as “calm-abiding” (Sanskrit: śamatha) meditation. Becoming aware of thoughts and emotions arising, one strives to rest in the present moment, free from mental and emotional afflictions (Sanskrit: kleshas) that delude and cause harm to oneself and others. The goal isn’t to render the mind blank, but to allow it to recognize itself and its movements, thereby helping to pacify it.

The next stage takes bodhicitta (awakening mind) further through the contemplation of questions, analytical observation and examination, and cultivation of mindfulness or awareness, so as to gain insight about the ways things are and how they appear – including the truth of impermanence (Sanskrit: anityatā), suffering (Sanskrit: dukkha), emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā) and non-existence of self (Sanskrit: anātman). This is referred to as “insight” (Sanskrit: vipaśyanā) meditation and it helps develop lucidity and transcend mental fixations, leading to an impartiality free from erroneous beliefs.

The third stage focuses on upholding the pure motivation to always benefit others, thereby cultivating loving-kindness (Sanskrit: maitrī) and compassion (Sanskrit: karuṇā) for all sentient beings without exception. Uniting the three aspects – calm-abiding, insight and right motivation – in practice is the perfection of full meditation.

In many traditions, mental discipline and concentration are developed in silent, seated meditation. Focused chanting is another method. In the Jing Si Dharma lineage of Tzu Chi, the bodhisattva path of putting compassion in action is the practice, and samadhi is cultivated while engaged in activities that benefit others. Master Cheng Yen explains:

In Tzu Chi, our practice is to enter into society with the spirit of selfless love that the Buddha teaches – the Four Immeasurable Minds of loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. But to work in the world, we will need to cultivate moral discipline, concentration and unshakable-ness of mind, and wisdom

The quality of concentration and unshakable-ness of mind – samadhi – is very important. As we engage in the world in the effort to work for the good of all beings and live out the Buddha’s spirit of wisdom and compassion, we’ll inevitably encounter difficult situations. If we haven’t developed an unshakable quality of mind and purpose that isn’t swayed by external conditions, how will we be able to do it? 

Everyone has their personality, habits, and personal ways of doing things, and this can make our work tough or frustrating. If we haven’t developed samadhi, our minds will easily be affected by the conditions around us. Because our minds are constantly reacting, our wisdom can’t arise. Only with samadhi and by developing the capacity to not be perturbed by circumstances can we develop wisdom and insight. 

Wisdom and insight are what allow us to continue on our path and not give up. In Tzu Chi, as we walk our path, we’re also continuing to pave the path for others, so that they may join us on our journey. This is important because we should not only care about our own enlightenment, but should vow to help all living beings reach enlightenment. Without wisdom and insight, it will be hard to continue with this.

This inner practice and cultivation of moral discipline, samadhi, and wisdom is hence essential as we walk on the Tzu Chi path. Only through such practice can we attain an inner state of great purity and silent tranquility, with vows vast as the endless void – vows that we hold on to, unwaveringly, for countless eons of time.

The sections in italics consist of edited excerpts of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks.

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