Psychology of Buddhist Meditation and “Modern Meditation”
Posted on December 26th, 2017

Professor S. Amaratunga DSc Kandy

Buddha’s reason for the renunciation of household life was his intention to go in search of the good and the peaceful and not in search of the truth as some Western commentators have interpreted.  He has clearly stated his goal thus; Being one who has left household life in pursuit of what is good and in search of the noble path of peace I met Alara Kalama….” (Majjima Nikaya). Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta were practicing a type of yogic meditation which was a Vedic  tradition.  Under Alara Kalama’s instruction Buddha is said to have attained the state of nothingness”. This state is described as an overcoming of one’s possible obsession with consciousness as a reality” (D.J.Kaluphana, 2008). Buddha was not satisfied with Kalama’s method as it did not help him to reach his goal; goodness and peace. He went to Uddaka Ramaputta under whose tutorship he attained the state of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasannanasannayatanaya) which is probably an ineffable ultimate reality. This experience however, lasted only for the duration that the yogi was in that state and did not occur afterwards.

Buddha, before he attained Nirvana, had realized that the traditional Indian meditation methods did not lead to what he was searching for; a knowledge of a permanent and eternal ultimate reality of goodness and peace ”. Before he had gone to the  above mentioned yogis Buddha, with five ascetics, had practiced for eight years self-mortification hoping it would lead him to his goal. After all these experiments he had decided to develop his own method of attaining freedom. He had realized that the main human predicament was suffering. He wanted to find a method of ridding oneself of suffering. He knew suffering was a mental phenomenon and therefore wanted to concentrate on the mind, delve deep into it and find the cause of suffering. He knew he had to purify his mind first before he could achieve an insight into it. He made radical and revolutionary alterations to the traditional yogic contemplation. Instead of the four stages of contemplation that was in practice at that time he developed four other preliminary stages which prepared the mind to achieve the higher forms of mental states. Before embarking on this path one has to practice the basic virtues (seela), restrain the faculties, be possessed of mindfulness and awareness and be contented. Further, one has to overcome yearning for pleasure sense, ill-will, sloth and torpor, worry and doubt, and wavering. Only then could the seeker of nirvana settle down to serious meditation that Buddha had taught.

How does Buddhist meditation differ from the traditions that preceded it? As mentioned above the contemplative has to be grounded in morality to begin with. That is why seela is practiced as a prerequisite and also several other preparatory steps have to be achieved prior to settling down to meditation. The first four contemplations are also totally different from what were in practice before Buddha preached his methods. These first four jjhana are called rupajjhana as they are intended to provide an understanding of the physical world. In perception of the world the contemplative is restrained and prevented from going to metaphysical extremes such as absolute origin and the end.  Further the emotive element in perception such as happiness and sorrow also has to be restrained. Also one need to be practicing upekha”, mindfulness and abiding in happiness. Thus in the fourth contemplation one achieves purification of ‘upekha’ and mindfulness. In this state one would be without emotion and prejudice and will be able to perceive the material world with a flexible mind. Thus the mind has been purified, made flexible, tender, workable, steady and not disturbed by any worldly happening. Now the contemplative would be ready to proceed to achieve higher knowledge (nirvana).

Buddha’s main concern was human suffering. Hence the goal of Buddhist Meditation is the cessation of suffering by eradicating the cause of suffering which are the three defilements, loba,dvesha,moha” or greed, hatred and ignorance. Buddha, by his own method of insight meditation, had gained a thorough understanding of the psychology of these three defilement and how they cause suffering. Buddha has described how these defilement reside in the mind first in a latent or dormant level, then when stimulated grow to reach an awakened level and finally with further growth come out into the open in the active level as vocal or physical action. In the final level they may cause suffering to the individual and society. He has described what causes the dormant state to grow into the awakened state and then into the active harmful state. We are not conscious of their presence in the dormant state. However, we may be made conscious of them when they are in the awakened state. If they grow further we may act according to their compulsion. Thus these three defilement may be present in three states or levels; (1) dormant level (anusaya”) (2) awakened level (”pariyutthana”) and (3) active level (vitikkama”) (see -Visuddhimagga”, Y.Karunadasa, 2013).

A craving for acquisition of material wealth for instance, may be present in the mind in a dormant level unknown to the person. When the person observes acquisition of material wealth in the society around him the dormant craving would grow into the awakened level due to temptation and if it gains further in strength and grow into the active level the person may take action to acquire material wealth. This desire could become insatiable, with no limit to the craving for more and more material wealth. This person has developed an attachment to material wealth. Material wealth is characterized by impermanence and therefore could cause suffering. Buddhist Meditation attempts to eradicate the insatiable craving for material wealth or any other such craving in all their three levels of existence including the dormant level.

How could Buddhist Meditation eradicate the craving for material wealth in all its three levels of existence? Buddha has shown how it could be done by the practice of moral life in three stages; Seela, Samadhi, Prangna” or virtue, concentration, and wisdom. First it attempts to control the physical manifestation (the third level) of the desire for material wealth by Seela”. The practice of Seela” would enable the person to put a stop to the physical acquisition of material wealth, give it away as alms (dhana) and thus control the attachment to it. Next the awakened state (the second level) of this desire and the feeling of attachment to material wealth which exists in the mind is controlled by the practice of Samadhi”. Then the attempt is made to eradicate the dormant state (the first level) of this desire harboured in the mind by achieving Prangna”. This method, though consists of three steps, is not practiced in sequential stages but in concurrence. Yet it must be said that one cannot start Samadhi” without practicing Seela” and similarly Prangna” cannot be attempted in isolation without performing the other two practices. Further unless the dormant level of a defilement which resides in the mind is rooted out the process is not complete and it could recur. This could be done only by insight meditation. How it could be done is described in the Sathipattana-sutta” which according to Ven. Nayanaponika is the Heart of Buddhist Meditation. All three defilements; loba, dvesha, moha” in their various forms could be got rid of by this method.

Let us now look briefly at other forms of meditation which were in practice before and during Buddha’s time. The Vedic tradition does not recognize life as consisting of suffering and the fact that its cause is loba, dvesha, moha”. Therefore, Vedic meditation does not attempt to eradicate suffering by getting rid of these three defilements. Yoga is not interested in the three defilements that may reside in the mind in a dormant state. Instead what it is interested in is the Self that resides in the mind. Yoga attempts to look deeply into the mind and realize or discover that Self is God. This is the goal of Yoga and the essence of Hinduism.

Jain meditation known as Samayika” also has its goal in the realization of the Self which it achieves by deep insight into the mind. But it differs from Hinduism in that there is no God in the ultimate goal. However, it could be seen that both Hinduism and Jainism have a metaphysical Self in the final salvation, whereas in Buddhism there is no Self, God or any other metaphysical phenomenon that it attempts to discover by looking into the mind. What Buddhism does is to seek and remove the roots of defilements harboured in the mind by insight meditation while eliminating their external manifestations by the practice of virtue. There are no metaphysical beliefs or phenomena involved in Buddhist Meditation as the defilements it attempts to remove are an empirical reality. Buddha who in the main was an empiricist turned away from Vedic Yoga as he did not believe in metaphysical concepts such as Self, God, etc. and by this means he made Buddhism a unique religion and Buddhist Meditation a unique path of salvation.

Let us now examine the type of meditation practiced in meditation centres which have sprouted everywhere including large work places and factories in the Western countries. Meditation is becoming popular due to the fact that life is now stressful and the meditation employed to solve this problem very often may not be the same as Buddhist meditation. However, this viewpoint can be made clearer by considering carefully the cause of the stress that people are subjected to in their present day life.

The cause of this stress from a Buddhist point of view obviously is excessive greed and the resultant rat race that people are engaged in to get what they desperately want. In the USA people came out in their thousands and occupied Wall Street to demonstrate against this trend as they realized that the cause of all their ills is greed. The Vipassana meditation centers, Yoga centers and other such centers do not teach how to control or get rid of this greed. They teach how to control the stress which is the symptom and not the cause. This is because most of these meditation practices are based on the Vedic tradition which does not consider greed as the cause of suffering. In fact life according to the Vedic tradition was Nithya, Sukha,Athma” i.e. permanent, joyful and has a self. In most of these centres the prerequisite purification and training of the mind to perceive the world without emotion and prejudice that Buddha preached are not practiced. These centres may practice anapanasati” (concentrating on breathing) which is common to all types of meditation that were in practice during Buddha’s time and even before that. Therefore such practices cannot be called Buddhist meditation though most of the centres call themselves Buddhist meditation centres mainly because these places do not attempt to control greed which is the cause of suffering. Instead they try to control the stress, blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol etc.

Buddha saw that life was impermanent, sorrowful and has no self i.e. Anithya, Dukkha,Anathma”. What is significant here is that Buddha had preached the exact opposite of what the Vedic life philosophy stated. Moreover, he saw that greed, hatred and ignorance were the cause of suffering and his Arya Astangika Marga” was aimed at ridding the mind of these defilements. Though Buddha has given the freedom to examine his Dhamma as mentioned in the Kalama sutta and even the nature of the Thathgatha as mentioned in the Vimamsaka sutta before accepting them it is wrong to modify, interpret or combine Buddha’s Dhamma with other theories that Buddha had rejected, according to one’s convenience, whim and fancy so as to accommodate greed.



7 Responses to “Psychology of Buddhist Meditation and “Modern Meditation””

  1. Charles Says:

    This is an exposition of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation according to Professor Amaratunga. He emphasises on Lobha, Dosa and Moha but does not explain where it comes from or they result from what. For that he has to go on to explain the Patichcha Samuppada and the creation of a self, and what insight meditartion leads to understand.

  2. Dilrook Says:

    The last paragraph says it all.

    However, material wealth seeking and excessive greed have made a comeback. Why? Apart from a very few who genuinely seek ‘Nirvana’ almost all humans seek material gratification. Towards that end, they make up their own belief system that suits them.

    Greed driven Vedic beliefs are extremely popular in Sri Lanka and getting more popular. People need a belief system that supports their goals and objectives. Otherwise they reject it. Just the human condition.

  3. Senerath Says:

    Thus in the fourth contemplation one achieves purification of ‘upekha’ and mindfulness. In this state one would be without emotion and prejudice and will be able to perceive the material world with a flexible mind. Thus the mind has been purified, made flexible, tender, workable, steady and not disturbed by any worldly happening. Now the contemplative would be ready to proceed to achieve higher knowledge (nirvana).

    In Indriya Bhavana Sutta, Buddha teaches when a practitioner ( not englightened at any stage) notices “Manapa”, “Amanapa” (liking and disliking) arising in his mind to practice it by reminding oneself that such arising is “Sankathang”(conditioned(by one’s mind)), ‘Olarikang”(gross) and “Paticca Samuppannag” (dependently arisen). When it is conteplated that way, equanimity airises and the mind become peaceful and saintly. Actually, in my view, this can be decribed as “liberation”(not nibbana). At such stage, worldly desires are supressed but not eradicated.

    Elsewhere Buddha says ‘ the mind takes recourse in mindfulness. Mindfulness takes recourse in liberation. Liberation takes recourse in Nibbana” (SN 48:42).

    Most other beleif systems stop at “liberation” and most people think it is enlightenment. This is why without Buddhas world is in the dark.

    It is wrong to say Vedic belifs are based on “greed” or ‘Nityaka, ‘Suka’, Athma’ just becuase they used those words. (For example Satyam, Sivam, Sundaram is a beautiful way to describe liberation). Even Buddha used the word Sukha ( hapiness). Upanishads clearly indicate getting rid of desires. Alarakalama for example was able to reach maximum possible liberation by aquiring highest Jhana. He had not “greed” while in such a high stage of tranquality.

    Who seek Nibbana ? Those who have enjoyed worldly high pleasures ( Aaswaada) and later understood the limits and dangers of it (Aadeenava) and seek to go away ( Nissarana). The beleif systems which supports Aaswada(pleasure) only are plentiful ( even Christianity doesn’t support it)- only foolish people go after worldly pleasures, like our popular idiotic politicians. That deosn’t bring hapiness to masses. This is very visible here and now.

  4. Christie Says:

    The so called Vedic (Indian in modern terms) Yoga and Meditation evolved with the Brahmnic society. The Bramans were not involved in manual work and so the Yoga developed to keep them physically fit. Meditation developed to keep them mentally active.

  5. Charles Says:


    Venerable Udaeeriyagama Dhammajeeva thero of Miththirigala Senasana , stresses on mindfulness and after preliminary samatha attaining Samadhi to go onto insight watching the begining and ene dof breath without Jhana. Venerable Udadumbara Kasyapa thero says to go on to insight after samadhi without jhana is possible but he prefers cimplete smatha before going onto insight. What is your experience ?

  6. Senerath Says:

    Ven. Dhammajiva is known to us in Brisbane since 2002 as he holds retreats regularly here. He is extrelemy energetic and as all the doing a great service. He has very high regards here and there a group of constant followers.
    I like Ven. Kasypa’s teaching and found no conflicts whatsoever so far ( I haven’t listened to much).

    Personally I have never attained higher Jhanas but lower Jhanas possible for short periods of time. So I cannot comment on both venerable monk’s instructions. I can’t even get the mind to onepointedness ( Ekaggatha) except for a very short time. Who am I to comment on venerable monk’s instructions ?

    Nevertheless I have come to a conclusion that we can identify ‘true dhamma’ comparing to what Buddha said, from Suttas. Thinking back, I had no trouble getting confused with other beleif systems, sermons of our own monks who have thousands of followers but seems to be not expounding in ‘true dhamma’.
    I think even for a very short period of time one may be able to acess first jahana, which is good enough to gain deep insight. Once you are 100% sure of 4 noble truths, you have reached 100% confidence in three jewels, you have no doubts on anicca , dhukka , anaththa. This can be a good begining.
    I find a lot of people get lost in so called Bhavana, because they do it with the intention of achieving something, not with the intention of realising 4 noble truths.
    Please read

    and also read Bikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the same, which is slightly differet.

    Doesn’t it explains everything of this Samasara ?
    This is all we need to know. So simple.

  7. Charles Says:

    It is alright Senerath, I thout reading your comment that you are perhaps in Sri Lanka and has practical meditation experience. That is why I asked for that information. I go to Sri Lanka time to time and meditate at Pallekelle Samatha Vipassana meditation Centre I had been doing that since 1995. I have read some of Venerable Dhammajeeva thero’s sermons made in Australia. Venerable Kassyapa also visits Australia from what I see in the internet.

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