The Dhyana-Samadhi Meditation Absorptions - Part 11


In explaining all these matters we have tended to rely on Buddhism as a guide, but you must understand that this particular book is not intended to venerate Buddhism or fixate upon Buddhism. It is simply that in trying to discuss the great topic of spiritual cultivation, we need to use the most scientific explanations possible that are found within Buddhism alone. This goal means we have had to rely on Buddhism--or the Tao school, or Indian yoga, or the Esoteric school and other schools whenever appropriate--because of the wonderfully organized, rational and scientific structures it provides for cultivation practitioners.

No cultivation school truly offers as much as Buddhism does in terms of elucidating the great transformational path to enlightenment, and revealing the robust internal logic of the path. But for some reason, people tend to confuse the main concerns of Buddhist science--the cultivation of samadhi, prajna wisdom, virtue, discipline and merit--with minor academic footnotes such as the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, which they mistakenly take as its main teachings.

Buddhism is actually the science of enlightenment, rather than some ordinary dogmatic religion. It is a central teaching school of human being science, the science of life. It tells of many self-cultivation practices, but asks you to prove everything yourself and accept nothing on faith which is why it does not fear attack on Buddhist teachings. As Shakyamuni Buddha said:

Do not believe on the strength of traditions even if they have been held in honor for many generations and in many places; do not believe anything because many people speak of it; do not believe on the strength of sagas of old times; do not believe that which you have imagined yourself, thinking a god has inspired you. Believe nothing that depends only on the authority of your masters or of priests. After investigation, believe that which you yourself have tested and found reasonable, and which is for your good and that of others.

Buddha also said:

Monks and scholars should examine my words,
In the way that a goldsmith tests gold by burning it, cutting it and rubbing it.
Only then should my words be accepted,
But not out of respect for me.

Therefore, do not be swayed when you see the word "Buddhism" in this text and take our words as the promotion of some ancient Asian religion. One should look past the religious aspect of the matter and simply regard "Buddhism" as an alternative term for "cultivation science" or "being human science." The way we use the term is in reference to an already existing, rationally organized, scientifically structured path for guiding spiritual cultivation practice.

Other people may have stamped the Buddhist body of knowledge with the title of "religion," but that is not how we are using the material. The true gist of Shakyamuni's teachings are absent of any religious overtones, and are more akin to science than anything else. In fact, the rational, scientific format that Shakyamuni constructed out of the practices of his time, and out of the teachings of other Buddhas, is the reason it is very appropriate for our modern world. Our modern times crave a body of logic and scientific approach behind the outcomes of spiritual cultivation and the stages of the spiritual path.

We have seen how Buddhism likes to say that there are 84,000 mental afflictions you can fall into, and so there are 84,000 "trouble samadhi" you can cultivate to counter these afflictions. But we should really call an experiential realm a samadhi only if it is the result of a refined practice that cultivates one to purification. For example, you can practice the visualization of the water element, and if you succeed, your body will disappear and the whole room where you are sitting will fill with water in its place. In the spiritual cultivation practice of fire visualization, when you succeed the room will be filled with a pillar of fire in place of your body, though sometimes you can still see the shadow of the person still sitting there.

Since both these cases are the results of a refined cultivation practice and the attainment of one-pointed concentration, we can properly say that this is attaining the water element samadhi or fire element samadhi, respectively. But to label ordinary afflictions as samadhi, even though it is quite accurate in one sense, is also misleading in another. During afflictions the mind is extremely scattered and chaotic, but even when we attain a very stable mental state, it still may not be true samadhi. To understand what samadhi is not, you have to go and study the Yogacarabhumi Sastra, which talks of the twelve realms that are not samadhi.

Of course, the fire samadhi attainment we speak of here is quite different than the kundalini fire. In addition, if you practice zazen sitting meditation and feel that a certain part of your body becomes hot, that is neither the fire samadhi nor kundalini either. Chinese medicine calls this phenomenon "steaming the bone" because it indicates a type of fever, infection or even friction inside the physical body, but it certainly is not the samadhi of the tumo fire.

In actual fact, kundalini is not hot, but is just a feeling of blissful warmth. What people normally mistake for kundalini are the initial frictional stages of clearing the chi mai, which Maitreya called the "Big Knife Wind," and this frictional stage is often why the Tibetans refer to kundalini as the "Fierce Woman" to denote the yin nature of this chi purification. So even when "samadhi" is a seemingly appropriate term, we still have to be careful of its usage.

As we previously covered, kundalini actually belongs to the "warming" stage of prayoga which occurs far before you can actually "see the path," and all eight samadhi and every level of attainment also have their own warming stages since they can all be partitioned into the four stages of prayoga. Thus, the eight basic samadhi are each like a soup containing many ingredients. You cannot say that the ingredients are the soup, but you cannot have the soup without all these ingredients. Basically, every samadhi and every stage of Bodhisattva attainment has the four prayoga within them.

The four dhyana and four formless absorptions also each have a stage of generation and completion which we can use to characterize these realms, or we can use the four prayoga. This is why the Bodhisattva Maitreya emphasized the importance of prayoga in an individual's cultivation practice; even in talking about samadhi, its development can be broken into stages.

Of the eight samadhi, the first four dhyana are heavily involved with the form and feeling skandhas, although of course the fourth dhyana is treading into the realm of the conception aggregate. The four formless samadhi have a more spiritual or nonmaterial focus even though they are still related to the physical nature. If you can attain these four formless samadhi absorptions, your chi and mai must already have been purified to a certain degree, but in the formless absorptions we do not talk much about this type of physical kung-fu anymore because you have attained to a formless realm.

For instance, when you are in the samadhi of nothingness, how can you possibly talk about the chi and mai anymore? What does the body have to do with the samadhi of nothingness or infinite space? We do not focus on our material body when we get to the four formless absorptions, but we know its cultivation must be a prerequisite to get to this stage.

As to Han Shan and the famous monk Hsu Yun, they are reported to have stayed in samadhi for ten or twenty days at a time, but when they came out of it they had forgotten everything for a short while. There are many Indian yogis who can remain in samadhi for extended periods as well, so we know it is an attainment that runs across all the various spiritual schools. Sometimes, when you immediately come out of this type of stage you cannot even recognize the people you know anymore. If samadhi entails remaining aware, how can we explain this?

To be exact, which may offend some people who feel these two are some of the spiritual giants of Buddhism, neither the case of the lesser Han Shan nor Hsu Yun can be categorized as a case of true samadhi. Rather, Han Shan's example of remaining in samadhi for several days, and then not remembering anything when coming out of it, is a combination of drowsiness and the samadhi of no-thought. But to be able to really understand this explanation, you must not only master the theory of the five skandhas in intricate detail, but must master the schools of Yogacara (the school of Mind-only), Madhyamika (the school of the Middle Way) and Prajnaparamita (the school of Prajna Great Transcendental Wisdom). Otherwise, you will not be able to comprehend these matters at all.

There is a great importance to studying these various schools, and it is not just because of academic purposes. Some people, for instance, think that Yogacara is just a type of academic or theoretical philosophy, but this is quite mistaken. Without understanding these schools and the five skandhas, you will not be able to distinguish between the various ranks of meditation accomplishment, nor will you be qualified to form your own analysis of someone's meditative achievements, either.

If we want to understand Master Han Shan's situation, we can turn to the story of the Iron Ox master Tieh Nieu, who was very diligent in his practice. One day, however, he fell asleep in the Zen meditation hall, which was against the temple rules. The master of the temple, Hseuh Yen Ching, knew this student had finally reached some stage of attainment and so the master said, "You know you have violated the discipline of the Zen hall by sleeping during practice, and therefore must be punished. What is your excuse?" The disciple's reply, from which he got his name, was this:

The iron ox has no strength and stops tilling the field.
He just lies down and sleeps in the snow with rope and plow.
The great earth is entirely covered with white silver in all directions.
Where can you hit me with your golden whip?

In Master Han Shan's case, we find the drowsiness element involved because he could not remember anything, he could not stay aware. But even if you still can remember everything after you remain seated in meditation for several days, does it automatically qualify as samadhi? The answer is also "no," because this result can simply come from concentration without samadhi. As you can see, unraveling these various quandaries is a complicated affair, and it is not something we can trust to nonpracticing scholars or the uninitiated.

Orthodox Buddhism has a relevant story about a king who once conducted an experiment on concentration. Shakyamuni Buddha had said, "If you are able to concentrate your mind and put it on one thing, there is nothing you will not be able to accomplish." To test this, the king selected a prisoner who was about to be executed and told him that they were going to put an oil wick lamp on top of his head. If the condemned man could keep it on his head for three days and nights without falling off, the king would pardon him of the death penalty for his crimes. With his life at stake, the man put all his effort into maintaining his attention and succeeded in the challenge, proving that Buddha was correct. But was this the samadhi of spiritual cultivation? Of course not!

In China's Qing dynasty, the Emperor Yongzheng, who had achieved a degree of Zen enlightenment, once ordered a talented monk to lock himself in a room and commit suicide if he did not attain enlightenment within seven days' time. Pressured by the threat of death, the monk finally put all his efforts into practice and succeeded in awakening. Here we have extreme concentration resulting in some form of spiritual breakthrough. Like the case of the condemned prisoner, we must attribute this accomplishment not just to the practitioner, but to the skillful and compassionate means of the Emperor. Only in this case the monk awakened, whereas in the other the prisoner simply cultivated concentration.

However interesting these stories may sound, they are not good examples of cultivation samadhi. For instance, the prisoner's case is the samadhi of ordinary concentration rather than the samadhi of prajna wisdom insight achieved through spiritual self-cultivation. It is a good example to illustrate the topic of kung-fu, such as the concentration states achieved by Olympic athletes, but these states do not qualify as prajna samadhi, either. In fact, anyone who tries hard enough and trains consistently can achieve this sort of concentration and the concordant resultant special kung-fu. The reason is because attaining kung-fu results from a simple equation:

Method + Practice Effort + Time + Experience = Kung-fu Results

This is the scientific process behind training professional athletes, solving complicated problems, discovering scientific breakthroughs, and cultivating any type of special skills at all. If you take ice skating or bicycle riding as an example, someone teaches you the basic method, you put in the practice efforts, you fall several times but keep trying, and with experience and time you finally master the skill. Therefore attaining kung-fu is not anything special, and the worldly concentration we can often achieve certainly is not in the same class as the prajna wisdom samadhi leading to enlightenment.

The contemporary Zen master Nan Huai-Chin once played with the "stupid emptiness" or "stubborn fool emptiness" samadhi in order to investigate it, for it is not the samadhi of no-thought nor the samadhi of infinite emptiness. When he left this particular realm three weeks later, he picked up a pen but could not remember how to write, but after about five days he gradually returned to normal again. Hence, from this example we can know that our memory is neither a permanent or impermanent thing.

Modern science says that your mind will atrophy if you do not or cannot use certain parts of it, just as not using your muscles will cause them to weaken. The Tibetan school has issued a similar warning in that practicing any samadhi which cultivates dullness means you will risk being reborn as an animal. But you should not be scared away from meditation because you fear you might fall into this type of samadhi, for if you could really achieve this state, people should bow down before you because that is how difficult it is to achieve.

People adopt all sorts of reasons to excuse themselves from cultivating or as the Hindus say, from "devoting some time to God." To refuse to start cultivating or refuse to finish your spiritual practice because you are afraid of achieving a very high, although incorrect practice, is foolishness indeed. The important point is to start upon the road of disciplined meditation practices that will lead to samadhi attainment, for they are the crux of spiritual achievement. They are one more way in which you can measure your stage of spiritual development.

Frankly speaking, meditation is the core of the spiritual path, regardless of the religion one follows, and without any sort of samadhi attainment, it is hard to say that someone has any stage of spiritual achievement at all.

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For more information on these various states of spiritual attainment, please see:

Working Toward Enlightenment
Huai-Chin Nan, trans. by J.C. Cleary
Samuel Weiser, York Beach: Maine, 1993.

To Realize Enlightenment
Huai-Chin Nan, trans. by J.C. Cleary
Samuel Weiser, York Beach: Maine, 1994.

Meditative States in Tibetan Buddhism: The Concentrations and Formless Absorptions
Lati & Locho Rinbochay, Zahler & Hopkins
Wisdom Publications, London, 1983.

The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation
Mahathera Henepola Gunaratana
Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka, 1988.



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