Beware of Swarna's Buddhism
This is a reply to an e-mail titled "Swarna's Buddhism" which
included an article on "Buddhism, as Practiced Today". I immediately
recognized that there were several misconceptions, errors in Pali translations
and misinterpretations of Buddha Dhamma and requested a very senior Buddhist
monk Venerable Dr. Henepola Gunaratana Maha Thero, Chief Sangha Nayaka
of USA and Canada to write a reply. I append below the reply prepared
by this very senior monk who is also the President of the Bhavana Society,
West Virginia, USA and the author of several books that are recognized
throughout the world as standard books on meditation. In particular, I
would like to recommend the readers to consult the following three books:
Mindfulness in Plain English, (bestseller all over the world), Path of
Serenity and Insight, and Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness to gain a better
understanding of Buddhist Meditation.
I am very glad that, by rejecting the popular practice of rites and rituals
in the name of Buddhism, you are trying to preserve Buddhism in its pristine
purity as the Venerable Mahinda introduced it to Sri Lanka. Yes, the Buddha
himself rejected many rites and rituals that were prevalent in his time.
In trying to reject rites and rituals, you also are trying to throw the
baby along with the bath water.
In your article you said:
"Today the heart of Buddhism is meditation. During Prince Siddhartha's
time, meditation already prevailed in society and he went from teachers
to teacher studying meditation. If Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment
by meditation, he cannot be 'Samma Sambuddha' as a Samma Sambuddha is
one who finds the way to Nibbana, through his own wisdom and without any
assistance from any previous teaching. The ascetic Siddhartha, after learning
So, why are we practicing meditation to achieve Nibbana,
when the Buddha had abandoned it as pointless for this purpose?"
I would like to draw your attention to some of the things the Buddha rejected
and the things he practiced himself to attain enlightenment. He rejected
rites and rituals, extremes of self-mortification, self-indulgence, eternalism,
nihilism, all exists, and nothing exists. He rejected the caste system
and belief that one is holy by birth.
He attained the Perfect Enlightenment known as Samma Sambuddha by practicing
the Noble Eightfold Path, one third of which is meditation, known as effort,
mindfulness and concentration. These are the cardinal factors of the Noble
Eightfold Path. By rejecting meditation you reject the core teaching and
core practice of the Buddha.
Among the more educated circles in the West, more and more people-Christians,
Jews, and even Muslims become Buddhist today through the practice meditation.
Not one single Christian, Jew or Muslim become Buddhist through bribe,
intimidation, money, power, sex, but through understanding of the benefit
Most unfortunately in your conclusion, you say "Meditation existed
in the Indian society long before Prince Siddhartha was born. Many amazing
fetes were done, by mastering different methods and types of meditation,
like walking on water, flying through air etc. Meditation is also good
for one's health, to relieve stress and high blood pressure and it also
makes a person calm and improves concentration. However, all methods of
meditation are concentration on a thought and are for a continued and
Although there are so many misinterpretations in your article, in this
reply, I only wish to state something about meditation.
You said, "However, all methods of meditation are concentration on
a thought and are for a continued and happy existence." That is not
On the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha did not develop powerful
concentration and then ignore it; he put it to use. In one heavily charged,
powerful moment, the three realizations of impermanence, dis-satisfaction,
and selflessness all came together and the Buddha achieved his goal.
Putting the realizations of concentration to use is the key. It is said
that Alarakarama and Uddaka Ramaputta, two former teachers of Siddhattha
Gotama (the Buddha before his enlightenment), had attained full concentration.
However, they did not train themselves to focus their attention on form,
feelings, perceptions, volitional formations, and consciousness to see
their true nature. Rather, they became attached to the pleasantness of
concentration and thought that this pleasurable feeling was enlightenment.
Siddhattha Gotama said that his former teachers, like him, had faith,
energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Like him, their wisdom
had helped them understand the danger of the hindrances and the need to
overcome them. But unlike Siddhattha Gotama, the teachers did not see
that they were using states of concentration merely to suppress hindrances,
not vanquish them. And they did not discover the underlying fetters-the
forces that bind human beings to repeated rebirth. Siddhattha Gotama alone
had used his concentration to see clearly how the hindrances and fetters
What understanding did the Buddha reach? As you have learned, the five
hindrances-greed, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restless-ness and
worry, and doubt-get in the way of full concentration. And so, as you
work to develop concentration, you push them out of the way. However,
the fetters, from which the hindrances spring, continue to exist in your
subconscious mind. The ten fetters, as you recall, are belief in a permanent
self or soul, doubt, belief in the efficacy of rules and rituals, greed,
hatred, desire for rebirth in material form, desire for rebirth in immaterial
form, conceit, restlessness and worry, and ignorance. These unwholesome
mind habits remain dormant during your period of concentration. Since
the underlying fetters are still present in a dormant form, when you come
out of concentration, the hindrances return. When you wish to regain the
same level of concentration, you have to push the hindrances out of the
way again, though as you train your mind, it becomes easier to get past
It's a bit like sweeping dust from a hard dirt floor. Even though you
swept earlier, in a few days, the dust appears again. Bits of the floor's
surface continually break off, crumble underfoot, and become a thick dust.
To get rid of the dust you may sweep the whole building, or sprinkle the
floor with water, or pour buckets of water that turn the floor to mud.
Nevertheless, the dust will return. But if you dig down to bedrock and
remove all the dirt, then pour concrete, dust and dirt will no longer
be a problem. Digging up all the dust and dirt is like insight meditation
overcoming the hindrances and fetters. Pouring concrete represents entering
into enlightenment-making the mind firm, unmovable by worldly vicissitudes.
Once you have done that, nothing can shake the mind.
Siddhattha Gotama's teachers, Alarakarama and Uddaka Ramaputta, did have
wisdom. They knew of the dangers of sensual pleasure and the benefits
of full concentration, so they temporarily got rid of the hindrances and
attained full concentration. However, these attainments were not enough
to liberate them from the fetters that bound them to repeated rebirth.
Concentration alone cannot get rid of the fetters. To get rid of them,
you have to combine full concentration with mindfulness and attention.
Otherwise you may simply get attached to the pleasure of concentration,
as did Siddhattha Gotama's teachers, and get nowhere.
The Buddha's wisdom was very special. With this wisdom he not only saw
the dangers of sensual pleasure and the benefits of concentration, but
he used that wisdom to go beyond full concentration. He used his wisdom
to discover that the hindrances he had transcended in this concentrated
state were merely a symptom of a much deeper, stronger problem: the fetters.
He saw the way the fetters entangle and confuse the mind, creating a delusive
reality and propelling onward the suffering sense of self. In his purified
mindfulness in full concentration, he saw the way to transcend the fetters:
to see the impermanence, dissatisfaction, and selflessness of all conditioned
things. When you see these three characteristics in every aspect of your
existence, then your greed, hatred, and delusion, along with the fetters,
When we try to use the Buddha's method in our practice, we must be careful
not to fool ourselves. Some people report that when they enter deep concentration,
they do not feel anything, hear anything, or have any thoughts. They say
that they are absorbed so fully that they are not even aware that time
is passing. Often at our retreats I have seen such meditators rocking
back and forth like small trees swayed by the wind. Sudden descent into
a nonfeeling state is not called concentration. It is called sleep! Some
of them even snore. As soon as we ring the bell, these meditators come
out of their "deep concentration" and say, "I had very
wonderful meditation. I managed to attain the fourth stage of concentration
Don't fool yourself! This is pure delusion. If the meditator had reached
any of the stages of full concentration, sleepiness would be banished
and the mind would have all of the dynamic qualities mentioned above.
Full concentration is achieved deliberately. You notice clearly what steps
you took to get there. Thus you can repeat the steps again later. Full
concentration comes in stages, and only when it is combined with mindfulness
can it propel you along the path toward enlightenment.
Also, don't fool yourself into thinking that concentration is the same
as enlightenment. Enlightenment is not so quick and easy. You must go
through the process of suppressing hindrances, gaining concentration,
and combining that concentration with insight to destroy the hindrances
and fetters. No matter how long you sit in concentration-even in the most
powerful level of concentration-without destroying the fetters, you cannot
attain even the first stage of enlightenment.
Finally, don't fool yourself into thinking that mindfulness alone is sufficient
to take you to enlightenment. You cannot say, "I do not care for
concentration or morality. I simply want to practice mindfulness."
Mindfulness cannot be taken out of context or isolated from the other
steps of the Buddha's path. People who do not practice the rest of the
steps often find that they are unable to end their lust, hatred, and ignorance
and thus are not successful in their mindfulness practice.
Some days you may have better concentration and some days better mindfulness.
If you have gained full concentration in the past but did not practice
it every day, and did not fully master it, then you may sometimes have
difficulty when you try to achieve it again. It may even seem impossible,
if latent hindrances have become active, or if you have become involved
in unwholesome activities. On days when concentration is more difficult,
you should simply be mindful of your active state of mind without worrying
or verbalizing that you cannot concentrate. The mindful observation of
what is happening sharpens your penetrating wisdom into the reality of
your experience. So long as you keep practicing all the other steps of
the path and keep trying-without attachment-to gain concentration, you
can trust that Skillful Concentration will come eventually, and that by
using this powerful tool, you will achieve ultimate happiness
"The teaching of the Buddha is essentially a path leading to the
cessation of suffering. Central to this path is the practice of meditation.
Meditation may be considered the heart of applied Buddhism, to which all
the preliminary stages of the path lead and out of which the higher stages
flow. One of the most important aspects of Buddhist meditation encountered
repeatedly in the scriptural texts of early Buddhism is a set of attainments
called, in Pali, the jhanas. The jhanas were instrumental in the Buddha's
own achievement of enlightenment and recurrently enter into the course
of training he formulated for his disciples. They appear in the stage
of the path preparatory to the higher insights, again in immediate association
with the liberating wisdom, and still again in the end as a spiritual
endowment of the fully liberated man."
"In the discourses the Buddha says that just as in the great ocean
there is but one taste, the taste of salt, so in his doctrine and discipline
there is but one taste, the taste of freedom (vimutti-rasa). The taste
of freedom that flavors the Buddha's doctrine and discipline is the taste
of spiritual freedom, and it is to the full experience of this taste that
the entire teaching of the Buddha is directed. Spiritual freedom, from
the Buddhist perspective, means freedom from suffering. The problem of
suffering is the wellspring out of which the whole current of Buddhist
teaching arises; freedom from suffering is the end towards which it moves.
Thus the Buddha could say throughout his ministry: "Previously, monks,
as also now I make known only suffering and the cessation of suffering".
This focal concern with the issue of suffering is evident from the formula
of the Four Noble Truths in which the Buddha summed up his doctrine. The
formula of the Four Noble Truths deals entirely with the problem of suffering,
looked at from four different angles. The first truth exposes the forms
and the range of suffering. It shows suffering to be an inextricable ingredient
of life itself, tied on the physical side to the vital processes of birth,
ageing, sickness and death, cropping up on the psychological side as sorrow,
grief, dejection, and despair. Even more, in the Buddha 's picture of
the world the mass of suffering becomes multiplied to infinite proportions
due to the fact of rebirth. The cycle of pain and sorrow does not turn
only once; for all but the enlightened it turns over and over through
beginningless time in the form of samsara, the round of repeated becoming.
Having exposed the range and modes of suffering in the first Noble Truth,
in the remaining three the Buddha points out the cause of suffering, its
cessation, and the way to its cessation. The cause is craving, the insatiable
drive for enjoyment and existence that keeps the wheel of rebirths in
constant motion. The cessation of suffering is the reversal of this genetic
relation, the complete abandoning and destruction of craving. The way
to the end of suffering is the middle way of ethical and mental training
that avoids all extremes of conduct and views-the Noble Eightfold Path
made up of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right
livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Whereas the first three truths provide the doctrinal perspective of the
Buddha's teaching, the fourth truth, the truth of the path, prescribes
its practical regimen. This regimen focuses upon personal experience.
The Buddha does not come into our midst as a savior descended from on
high. He comes as an enlightened teacher, an extraordinary human being
who has found the way to the end of suffering and who points the way out
to others. The path itself every man must follow for himself. It is each
man's own delusions and defilements that chain him to the cycle of suffering,
and again each man's own efforts at inner purification that pave the road
to his deliverance. Since bondage ultimately springs from ignorance (avijja)
the key to liberation, the Buddha declares, is found in wisdom (panna),
a wisdom which must be generated inwardly as an immediate personal understanding
of the basic truths of existence. The Dhamma is paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi
"to be realized by the wise within themselves."
It is because personal realization of truth is needed to reach the end
of suffering that meditation assumes a position of such crucial importance
in the Buddhist formulation of the liberating path. Meditation, for Buddhism,
is the means of generating the inner understanding required for deliverance
from suffering. Its diversity of techniques stems from the differences
in the people to be taught, but its purpose and procedure is the same
for all: to produce that purity of mind and clarity of vision needed for
the liberating wisdom to arise.
The methods of meditation taught in the Pali Buddhist tradition are based
on the Buddha's own experience, forged by him in the course of his own
quest for enlightenment. They are designed to recreate in the disciple
who practices them the same essential discovery the Buddha himself made
when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree, the discovery of the Four Noble Truths.
The various subjects and methods of meditation expounded in the Pali scriptures
divide into two interrelated systems. One is called the development of
serenity (samathabhavana), the other the development of insight (vipassanabhavana)
.The former also goes under the name of the development of concentration
(samathabhavana) the latter under the name of the development of wisdom
(paññabhavana). The practice of serenity-meditation aims
at developing a calm, concentrated, unified state of consciousness as
a means of experiencing inner peace and generating wisdom.
The practice of insight meditation aims at gaining direct understanding
of the real nature of phenomena. Of the two, Buddhism regards the development
of insight as the essential key to liberation, the direct antidote to
the ignorance, which is the underlying bondage and suffering. Whereas
serenity meditation is recognized as common to both Buddhist and non-Buddhist
contemplative disciplines, insight meditation is held to be the unique
discovery of the Buddha and an unparalleled feature of his path. However,
because the growth of insight presupposes a certain degree of concentration
(samadhi), and serenity-meditation serves to secure this concentration,
the development of serenity claims an incontestable place in the Buddhist
Together the two types of meditation work to make the mind a fit instrument
for enlightenment. With his mind unified by means of the development of
serenity, made sharp and bright by the development of insight, the meditator
can proceed unobstructed to reach the end of suffering.
Focal to both systems of meditation, though belonging inherently to the
side of serenity, is a set of meditative attainments called the four jhanas.
The jhanas themselves are states of deep mental unification characterized
by a total immersion of the mind in its object. They result from the centering
of the mind upon a single object with such a degree of attention that
the discursive activity of thoughts slowed down and eventually stopped.
The members of the fourfold set of jhanas are named simply after their
numerical position in the series: the first jhana, the second jhana, the
third jhana, and the fourth jhana. The four appear repeatedly in the suttas
described by a stock formula showing their process of attainment:
Herein, monks, a monk, quite secluded from sense pleasures, secluded from
unwholesome states of mind, enters and dwells in the first jhana, which
is accompanied by applied thought and sustained thought with rapture and
happiness born of seclusion.
With the subsiding of applied thought and sustained thought he enters
and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification
of mind, is without applied thought and sustained thought, and is filled
with rapture and happiness born of concentration.
With the fading away of rapture, he dwells in equanimity, mindful and
discerning; and he experiences in his own person that happiness of which
the noble ones say: 'Happily lives he who is equanimous and mindful'-thus
he enters and dwells in the third jhana.
With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance
of joy and grief, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana: which has
neither-pain-nor-pleasure and has purity of mindfulness due to equanimity.
To attain the jhanas, as the passage shows, the meditator must begin by
eliminating the unwholesome mental states obstructing inner collectedness.
These are generally grouped together as the five hindrances (pancanivarana
: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry,
and doubt (In Pali: vitakka, vicara, piti, sukha, ekaggata).
The mind's absorption on its object is brought about by five opposing
mental states-applied thought, sustained thought, rapture, happiness and
one-pointedness called the jhana factors (jhanangani, in Pali: Vitakka,
vicara, piti, sukha, ekaggata) because they lift the mind to the level
of the first jhana and remain there as its defining components.
After reaching the first jhanas the ardent meditator can go on to reach
the higher jhanas . This is done by eliminating the coarser factors in
each jhana, those that remain being in each case the defining factors
of the successive jhanas. In this way the meditator can move from the
first jhana up to the fourth. Beyond the four jhanas lies another fourfold
set of higher meditative states which deepen the element of serenity developed
in the jhanas. These attainments, known as the immaterial states (arupa)
because they correspond ontologically to the immaterial realms of existence,
are the base of boundless space, the base of boundless consciousness,
the base of nothingness, and the base of neither perception nor non-perception.
In the Pali commentaries this set comes to be called the four immaterial
jhanas (arupajjhana), the four preceding stages being renamed, for the
sake of clarity, the four fine material jhanas (rupajjhana). Often the
two sets are joined together under the collective titles of the eight
jhanas or the eight attainments (atthasamapattiyo).
The four jhanas and four aruppas appear initially as mundane states of
deep serenity pertaining to the preliminary stage of the Buddhist path.
On this level they help provide the base of concentration needed for wisdom
to arise. But the four jhanas again reappear in a later stage in the development
of the path, arising in direct association with wisdom. They are then
designated the supramundane (lokuttara ) jhanas. These supramundane jhanas
are the levels of concentration pertaining to the four degrees of enlightenment-experience
called the supramundane paths (lokuttaramagga) and the stages of deliverance
resulting from them, the four fruits (phala). Finally, even after full
liberation is achieved, the mundane jhanas can still remain as attainments
available to the liberated person, part of his untrammeled contemplative
The Importance of Jhanas
The importance of the jhanas in the Buddhist path to deliverance can
readily be gauged from the frequency with which they are mentioned throughout
the suttas. The jhanas figure prominently both in the Buddha's own experience
and in his exhortation to disciples. In his childhood, while attending
an annual ploughing festival, the future Buddha spontaneously entered
the first jhana. It was the memory of this childhood incident, many years
later after his futile pursuit of austerities, that revealed to him the
way to enlightenment during his period of deepest despondency. After taking
his seat on the banks of the Neranjara, the Buddha entered the four jhanas
immediately before directing his mind to the threefold knowledge (rememberance
of former births, knowledge of vanishing and reappearing of beings, destruction
of cankers, in Pali: pubbenivasanussati, cutupapata, and asavakkhaya)
that issued in his enlightenment. Through out his active career the four
jhanas remained "his heavenly dwelling" (dibbavihara) to which
he resorted in order to live happily here and now. His understanding of
the corruption, purification and emergence in the jhanas and other meditative
attainments is one of his ten powers which enable him to turn the matchless
wheel of the Dhamma. Just before his passing away the Buddha entered the
eight attainments in direct and reverse order; the passing away itself
took place directly from the fourth jhana.
The Buddha is constantly seen in the suttas encouraging his disciples
to develop jhana. The four jhanas are invariably included in the complete
course of training laid down for disciples. They figure in the training
as the discipline of higher consciousness (adhicittasikkha), right concentration
(samma samadhi) of the Noble Eightfold Path, and the faculty and power
of concentration (samadhindriya, samadhibala). Though a vehicle of dry
insight can be found, indications are that this path is not an easy one,
lacking the aid of the powerful serenity available to the practitioner
of jhana. The way of the jhana attainer seems by comparison smoother and
more pleasurable. The Buddha points to the bliss of the jhanas as his
alternative to sense pleasures.
He says: There are, Cunda, four pursuits of pleasure which lead to ultimate
disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, peace, direct knowledge, enlightenment,
and nibbana. Which four? Here, Cunda, secluded from sense pleasures, a
monk enters and dwells in the first jhana...the second jhana...the third
jhana...the fourth jhana. His own disciples live devoted to these four
pursuits of pleasure and for them four fruits and benefits are to be expected,
namely; attainment of the four stages of deliverance-stream-entry, once-returning,
non-returning, and arahatship. Just as the river Ganges slopes, inclines,
and flows to the east, a bhikkhu who develops and cultivates the four
jhanas slopes, flows, and inclines to nibbana.
Henepola Gunaratana Nayaka Thero