The basis of meditation: concentration and enquiry

From an early age I had been concerned by the state of society, its competitiveness and lack of peace and harmony. Then I was struck by a passage in a

Buddhist text where the Buddha suggested that if you could not change yourself, you would not be able to change others. Thus, aged 18, I decided to transform my mind but did not succeed. I found that wishing it idealistically or trying to do this rationally did not seem to make any difference. I could say to myself repeatedly: Do not be egotistical! Do not be jealous! This had no effect on my feelings or behavior. Finally, at the age of 22, I decided to try meditation, becoming a nun in a Korean Seon (Zen) monastery and meditating ten hours a day for three months at a time. For the first three months I did not see immediate differences but after the second three months I started to become more self-aware of my thoughts in a beneficial way and to be more compassionate by thinking of others before myself. This happened while meditating using a questioning practice as taught in the Korean Seon tradition. After I left Korea and the monastic life, I encountered mindfulness practices and understood that the common basis of most Buddhist meditation practices was a combination of concentration and enquiry, also known in Pali (early Buddhist language in which ancient Buddhist texts were memorized and then written) terms as samatha and vipassana.

In Korean Seon questioning meditation one asks repeatedly “What is this?” Concentration is cultivated by returning to the question again and again, and enquiry by asking the question vividly. This means that as one sits in meditation, one asks the question “What is this?” in a questioning way (not like a mantra) as a means to developing a sensation of questioning in the whole body-mind complex (a full explanation of this practice is given in the section on “Meditative questioning”).

In analytical meditation in Tibetan Buddhism, the meditator can focus on a theme like death by returning to this subject throughout the length of the meditation, and enquires by reflecting experientially on two aspects of death—that death is certain and that the time of death is uncertain. Based upon these two facts, the meditator considers what are the most important things to do now?

In visualizing meditation, also found in the Tibetan tradition, concentration is developed by visualizing a three-dimensional image of a Buddha and enquiry by seeing oneself as having the quality of the Buddha residing in the center of that image. This can be seen as representing enquiry because if the meditator sees herself as having the same compassion as the Buddha, it leads her to question the way she feels when she is not loving or compassionate. The meditator challenges the assumption that her compassion is limited by opening her mind to the idea that she could have as much compassion as a Buddha.

In mindfulness practice the meditator takes as a focus an element of his or her own experience—either the breath, physical sensations, sounds, feeling tones, or thoughts. Enquiry is cultivated by looking deeply into the impermanent and conditioned nature of the breath, physical sensations, sounds, etc.

There are spectra of both concentration and enquiry in the meditative traditions. Some meditation techniques emphasize a narrow focus and others advocate no focus such as “sky gazing” in the Tibetan tradition or just sitting with no object of attention as in the Soto Zen tradition. With a narrow focus, tension can arise; with no focus the attention can become vague. A medium focus provides something in the foreground to anchor our attention (such as the breath, taking sounds as an object of attention, or the question “What is this?”) and enables a wide-open awareness in the background so that the mind is not constricted.

In relation to the enquiry component, the orientation depends on the philosophical position the technique is derived from. Is the practitioner looking for transcendence beyond conditions, as in trying to experience or return to primordial consciousness or original mind? Or does the meditator see herself as embedded in a network of conditions that she is trying to understand in order to determine their influence on her and how she could respond to these conditions differently? This chapter considers principally the second point of view, as it is more relevant to psychological well-being and has greater applicability to daily life.

If concentration and enquiry are common elements to many different Buddhist meditation practices, how do they work psychologically? What are their impacts on one’s state of mind? Before answering these questions, we need to widen the perspective and look at the Buddhist psychological frame of reference and associated definition of terms.

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