The top 11 posts in this section describe the fundamentals of Buddhist meditation. The rest of the posts in this section are on possible meditation subjects and can be used to clarify unresolved questions, and to gain samādhi. The first 11 posts should be followed in that order, at least initially.
July 30, 2015: I have re-written the two posts #10 and #11 (previously titled, “10. Magga Phala and Ariya Jhanas via Cultivation of Saptha Bojjanga” and “11. How to Select and “Grow” Meditation Procedures for Magga Phala”) that were originally written some time back with different titles. Over the past two months, I have been able to clarify some subtle issues in both my own experience and also in the technical details. Revised August 5, 2017; September 19, 2018 (updated links).
- First the order of things: samādhi, magga phala, and then Ariya jhānās in that order; see, “Possible Outcomes of Meditation – Samadhi, Jhana, Magga Phala“.
- Thus jhānās (Ariya or anariya) are not necessary to attain the Sōtapanna stage; see the posts in the “Samādhi, Jhāna (Dhyāna), Magga Phala” section for details on this and many other aspects.
1. First, it would be very difficult to get to even a state of samādhi if one is not keeping up at least the “conventional” five precepts: abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and using drugs or getting intoxicated. Those things make the mind restless, and makes it hard for the mind to focus attention (the five hindrances “cover the mind”). It should also be noted that just strictly obeying the five precepts may not be effective if one’s mind is full of jealousy, extreme greed, hate, etc.; see, “The Five Precepts – What the Buddha Meant by Them“.
- Just like one cannot see the bottom of a well if it is highly contaminated, the mind (and the body) will not “feel anything” even in a formal meditation session if the mind is “highly contaminated”. And there is no point in trying to take out the “small defilements” (such as abstaining from taking a glass of wine) if one is engaged in immoral activities.
- When the “big defilements” are removed, one starts seeing a little bit further down the well; similarly, one’s mind will become lighter, with less stress, even when not in a formal meditation session. When one sits down in a quiet place, it will become easier to get to some kind of “samādhi”, or tranquility.
- The Buddha said that “kusala sila” leads to tranquility of the body and mind, which in turn leads to samādhi. The “kusala sila” accomplished via gaining Samma Ditthi (to some extent) is all that is needed to attain the upacara samādhi needed for the Sōtapanna magga/phala. All three samyōjanā that are removed at the Sōtapanna stage (sakkāya ditthi, vicikicca, silabbata parāmāsa) are associated with wrong vision or ditthi.
2. Many people have the idea that one needs to “get to samādhi” using a separate meditation technique such as the conventional breath meditation. Even though one could do that, it would be a waste of time. One can get to samādhi just by listening or reading attentively to CORRECT dhamma.
- There is not even a single reference in the Tipitaka, where the Buddha asked anyone to do a “samatha bhāvanā” first and then to “vipassana bhāvanā“. When one comprehends Dhamma, one’s mind get calm and through that samatha state, one can get to magga phala.
- After attaining the Sōtapanna stage, one can get to Ariya jhānās by focusing on that “state of cooling down” that one has already attained to some extent, to get to jhānās.
- One really needs formal meditation techniques to attain higher magga phala, i.e., above the Sōtapanna stage; the reason will become clear shortly. However, it is fine to do formal meditation even to attain the Sōtapanna stage. In the following, I will describe what I actually went through.
3. To get to samādhi, contemplating on Dhamma concepts will make it easier and faster. Also, one will be able to stay in “meditation” for a longer time. This is called by different names: insight meditation (vipassana), many forms of “anupassanā”, and cultivating the “dhamma vicaya” sabbojjanga. Concomitantly, one needs to do the correct version of “ānāpānasati” at all times.
- In principle, working towards the Sōtapanna stage does not require any formal meditation techniques even though meditation can help; there have been countless people who attained the Sōtapanna or even higher stages of Nibbāna just by listening to a Dhamma discourse.
- It is quite important to understand this point. Many people have one or more of the following misconceptions about reaching the Sōtapanna stage: (i) one needs to give up all worldly possessions, (ii) one needs to become a bhikkhu or live in seclusion, (iii) one needs to do various types of meditation techniques.
- In order to clarify this issue, let us examine what is actually involved in attaining the Sōtapanna stage.
4. Nibbāna is reached via removal of āsāvās (asavakkhaya); see, “Gathi (Character), Anusaya (Temptations), and Asava (Cravings)“.
- Out of the four āsāvās that we have, only one is removed at the Sōtapanna stage: ditthāsava or the craving for wrong worldviews. In the Sabbāsava Sutta, this is referred to as removal by clear vision (“dassanena pahātabbā”, where dassanena is vision and pahātabbā is removal).
- The other three āsāvās of kāmāsava (craving for sense pleasures), bhavāsava (craving to live somewhere in the 31 realms of this world), and avijjāsava (ignorance of anicca, dukkha, anatta) are removed in the higher stages of Nibbāna; see the above post.
5. The key point is that one does “apāyagāmi apunnābhisankhāra” (or strong immoral deeds that makes one eligible to be born in the lower four realms) only when one has wrong worldviews. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, one does not need to lose craving for sense pleasures to attain the Sōtapanna stage. Kāma āsava is reduced in stages in the Sōtapanna and Sakadāgāmi stages and is removed only at the Anāgāmi stage.
- This is why learning dhamma concepts and getting rid of “ditthis” or “wrong views” is key in attaining the Sōtapanna stage, as I emphasized in several posts; if you enter “ditthi” in the Search box on the top right, you will see many relevant posts.
- We all have many ditthis. These can be removed only via learning the true nature of this world, i.e., by learning Dhamma.
- One meaning of Sōtapanna (“sota” + “panna“) is “one who has cultivated wisdom by listening to Dhamma”; in the days of the Buddha that was how one learned Dhamma, by listening.
6. Even before meeting my teacher Theros, I had been thinking about dhamma concepts for 3-4 years and had been trying to get a consistent picture in my mind. Even at that time, I could easily get to samādhi because my mind was totally focused.
- When I “got stuck” trying to figure out what a certain concept means in relation to others, I would look through books and also listen to desanas (discourses) on the internet. It is at this stage that I realized that most of the explanations did not make sense, and of course were not consistent with other key concepts.
- To give an example, I had a hard time in explaining the rebirth stories by so many children. If “being born human” is so difficult as explained in many suttas (see, “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm“), then how can all those children remember their recent past lives? Furthermore, there were “gaps” from the time they died in the previous life to the time they were born in this life.
- Once I met my teacher Thero, I was able to clarify that issue along with numerous others: Birth is different from “human bhava“; see, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein“. Also, when one dies and has energy left in the “human bhava“, one becomes a gandhabba and has to wait until a suitable womb becomes available; see, “Mental Body – Gandhabba“.
- Thus rebirth in the human realm does not happen instantaneously; one could in the gandhabba state for years before a suitable womb is found. And one can be born in the human realm many times before the kammic energy for that “human bhava” is exhausted.
7. However, I was able to get to samādhi even before many of these issues were resolved. I was making steady progress with the concepts I could grasp. I would sit at the desk and contemplate and I could feel my body getting lighter and mind becoming calm. I realized that it was better than just wasting time doing the “breath meditation”.
- If I sat in a quiet place and meditated (contemplated about a Dhamma concept), my mind would “latch on to it” and I could get to possibly an anariya jhānic experience. That started about a year before I learned the true meanings of “anicca, dukkha, anatta”.
- It started with “tingling sensations inside my brain”; I just could feel things happening there. And then I could feel “needle pricks” all over the body and my body would start “freezing” mostly the upper body. These “symptoms” are not common to all.
- Learning Dhamma is a critical part of “kusala sila” especially for the Sōtapanna stage. Kusala sila automatically leads to samādhi as discussed in the Na Karaneeya Sutta.
8. After I heard the “true meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta”, I made progress very quickly. When I look back now, it is quite possible that I may have attained the Sōtapanna stage while listening to that very first desana; however, it took me some time to realize it and to convince myself. One needs to look back at the progress one has made, and see that one in now incapable of committing immoral deeds that would make one eligible for rebirth in the apayas.
- I was so overjoyed with being able to comprehend the “foundation of Buddha Dhamma”, i.e, the fact that it does not make sense to struggle to achieve happiness which is guaranteed to be a failure in the long run. I would call or e-mail my friends and tell them that they simply needed to listen to desanas by those Theros.
- It took me a little while to realize that most of them could not figure out what I was excited about. Now I realize that their minds were not ready. For me, who had been struggling seriously for a few years, it was a revelation, but most people who just spent a bit of their time reading, it did not “connect”. Reading Dhamma should not be done the same way that one reads a newspaper; one needs to be engaged.
- Anyway, after getting the true meaning of “anicca, dukkha, anatta”, I spent the next few months scouring internet for the desanas of those two Theros; after five months I made a trip to Sri Lanka and brought back more material to listen to. It was so fulfilling and exciting; I was learning at a very rapid pace. At that time I didn’t even think about jhānās, but I could feel “jhānic effects”, i.e, my samādhi was getting intense, even though I was not trying to cultivate them.
- September 19, 2018 update: For the past few years, I have been listening to only those desanas by Waharaka Thero. They are available only in Sinhala language at: “සදහම් දේශනා“; also see: “Parinibbāna of Waharaka Thēro”.
9. Even though I had an inkling about reaching the Sōtapanna stage soon after listening to that desana, I developed the jhānās some months later. However, those turned out not to be Ariya jhānās though, since they can be attained only by an Anāgāmi; see, “11. Magga Phala and Ariya Jhanas via Cultivation of Saptha Bojjanga“.
- These and other aspects of Ariya and anariya jhāna are discussed in the section: “Samādhi, Jhāna (Dhyāna), Magga Phala“.
- Once I finished investigating and “filling the gaps”, the jhānās came almost automatically. The meditation experience that I described in #7 became much stronger; I could just close my eyes and “feel the change in the head and the body” within minutes (and nowadays within seconds).
10. The above is what I mean when I say, “feel the results of meditation”. One can feel it in the body as well as in the mind. Let us first discuss the reasons for the “body effect” and then the “mind effect”.
- We have a very complex nervous system which the brain uses to control various body parts and also to communicate with the five physical senses. There is a “duplicate nervous system” associated with the manomaya kaya and as we grow up those two systems get somewhat displaced. The displacement becomes bigger when we start enhancing all types of bad habits; they go “out of sync”.
- When we start learning Dhamma and stay away from most egregious acts, the two nervous systems try to get to the ideal overlap positions and one could feel that. This becomes noticeable during meditation. Some people may feel aches and pains, sweating, etc. This is why I had said in other posts that things MAY look worse before getting better. In a way, such “body signals” are a good sign; it means the body is starting to respond.
11. Now to the “mind effect”. Many people tell me that they cannot keep the mind focused on even the breath for too long. That is a sansaric habit that we have; the mind does not like to stay in one place. It wants to “know” about everything that is happening not only in the vicinity, but it also randomly thinks about past events or future plans too.
- The only way to remove this “bad habit” is to slowly get into the habit of thinking about Dhamma concepts. And this cannot be forced either. Unless and until the mind sees the benefits of learning Dhamma, it can be a “chore” to some people. But once one gets some traction, one starts enjoying the “taste of Dhamma”, and then it is easy to stay focused.
- The key here is that when one learns Dhamma, “ditthasava” (or craving for wrong worldviews) start to dissolve, initially slowly, but picks up speed as one starts grasping concepts.
- The two key components of pancanivarana (kamachanda and vyapada) are reduced as ditthasava is reduced. That in turn lead to the reduction of the other three components of the pancanivarana as well. This process goes all the way to the Sōtapanna stage.
12. Of course I did not realize until after meeting my teacher Thero (online) that what I had been doing all along was a crude version of the Saptha Bojjanga bhāvanā, the key part of which is dhamma vicaya (contemplating on Dhamma concepts).
- That is how one cultivates the “anicca sanna” and that is the key: see, “What is the only Akusala Removed by a Sōtapanna?” and “How to Cultivate the Anicca Sanna“.
- The formal Saptha Bojjanga bhāvanā is discussed in the next post, “11. Magga Phala and Ariya Jhanas via Cultivation of Saptha Bojjanga“.
- It is also important to realize that even an Arahant will not lose the sense of taste; one increasingly will lose CRAVINGS for them; see, “Kāma Guna, Kāma, Kāma Rāga, Kāmaccanda“.
13. November 11, 2016: I get many questions on this topic, i.e., how to verify one is making progress towards the Sōtapanna stage. The new section, “Living Dhamma“, provides a systematic way to achieve that goal, in addition to providing guidelines on how to check one’s progress.