The Way of Samadhi

Let us review where we have got to so far.

Life is an ongoing drama, a conflict and a dance, the antagonists and partners being unity and duality: unity that is duality; duality that is unity. Out of this drama comes the creativity and destruction, the love and hatred, the joy and suffering that we all know so well. From this too come our religions, each, in its own way, being an endeavor to find peace and security.

Dynamic unity powers the drama. A Tibetan Buddhist text of the rDzogs-chen tradition, calls dynamic Unity, gzhi, “That fundamental pervasive, unified, holistical process whose highly energized dynamics set up the variety of sub-processes and their associated structures.” Herbert Guenther, a Buddhist scholar, translated the Tibetan word gzhi as ground. Gzhi “is the ground and reason for everything.” That gzhi is creative is emphasized by the rDzogs-chen text when it says, “[gzhi is] thoroughly dynamic . . . [and] responsible for the variety of structures, things, and experiences that are said to make up Reality.” Guenther said that he would use the word Being instead of ground, but he added, “It is crucial to avoid associating the term Being . . . with any determinate, isolatable, static essence or thing.” [1] (My emphasis.) We must be just as careful in our understanding of the meaning of One, or dynamic unity, and not confuse it with the numerical one, nor with some unified substratum, or, worse still, confuse it with some kind of cosmic energy.

A primary creation of dynamic unity is the viewpoint, the Self. Dynamic unity is focused on a point from which to view. It is the center of all. With the viewpoint, a world comes into existence. In the above quotation Guenther says that gzhi is Being. He should also have said it is Knowing. Gzhi is One/knowing/being. We have seen knowing to be of two kinds: lantern and spotlight: awareness-as and awareness-of. The viewpoint is centered in lantern mind, and is the dynamic center of spotlight mind.

A secondary creation of dynamic unity is the Word, or language. The word fixes experience as ‘things,’ which then seem to endure and to have a life of their own. Language provides a stage on which the drama of life is acted out. Moreover, with appearance of things, it is possible to invest the viewpoint in a form called God, and later called “I.” The most common form of religion, the one that most people think of when the word ‘religion’ is uttered, has its origin in the investment of the dynamic Center in an idol. Originally, the viewpoint, the unoambus, is formless. It is pure subjectivity; it is that intimate sense of being oneself, yet it is both Self and other, me and you. It is pure vibrancy and life; it has no qualities or characteristics by which it can be separated, identified or defined.

In the last posting, I discussed the path of love, or the Fedeli d’amore, which is a quest for unity within the basic ambiguity, a quest that culminates in a kind of mystical marriage, as described by the poem of Al-Hallaj,

I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I.
We are two spirits dwelling in one body,
If thou seest me, thou seest Him;
And if thou seest Him, thou seest us both.

Another, different quest for transcendent unity, culminates in what some Eastern religions call samadhi. This is the quest to go beyond the basic ambiguity by intense concentration or one-pointedness. To go beyond the basic ambiguity is to go beyond me-as-center/me-as-periphery to me, or to the Self, alone. Samadhi arises when the sense of me separate from you, and me separate from the world, drops away. It is not an oceanic feeling or a trance, because of the intense clarity and sense of reality that accompanies it.

Patanjali, a Hindu who lived about 150-200 BCE, that is to say a hundred or so years after the teachings of Buddha, perfected a method of concentration that leads to one-pointedness, and formulated it in The Aphorisms of Patanjali. In reply to a question, “Yoga, what it is and what it is not,” the translator and editor of the Aphorisms, P. N. Mukerji, says,

The ability to stop at will the fluctuations or modifications of the mind which is acquired through constant practice in a spirit of renunciation is called Yoga…The stoppage of the fluctuations of the mind or its modifications implies the art of keeping only one thought before the mind’s eye and shutting out all other ideas or thoughts. In an advanced state of practice, it is possible to suspend all ideation.[2]

Those interested in the practice of Zen will know the results of the ‘fluctuations of the mind’ as the incessant thoughts that plague them while they are practicing zazen. These fluctuations and thoughts arise because of the alternation between me-as-center/me as periphery. This alternation is one way to get relief from the tension that builds up within the ambiguity. The switch from one perspective (me-as-center) to the other (me-as-periphery) leads to a loss of concentration that occurs and thoughts flood in. One can be fully involved in the practice one minute and completely at sea the next.

One can stop the alternation by arousing intense concentration by keeping one thought before the mind’s eye, while shutting out all other ideas or thoughts. For most of us, intention is passive and virtually indistinguishable from desire, and a distinction must be kept in mind between illusory self-will—so-called free will, which is simply the dominant desire—and active intention. Intention arouses us to action, and is closely connected to awareness-of. Normally, for most of us, intention is passive because it is aroused by an external situation or stimulus. We are aware-of something. This “something” could be a problem or dilemma, a threat, or interest in “something.” This “something” calls us into action. This is passive intention, or passive awareness-of.[3] Nevertheless, intention can be aroused even when no stimulus is present; this is called concentration.

I practiced the way of samadhi before encountering Zen Buddhism. A Hindu teacher who taught me the practice, told me that in the middle of my forehead was a square garden, and within this garden was a circular flower-bed. In the center of the flower-bed was a flower, and in the center of the flower was a tiny point through which I had to pass. Although at the beginning of yoga practice one thought is maintained, later in the practice this thought is transcended and pure intention alone remains.

Intention is awareness-of: directed awareness. With concentration, the intention eventually goes beyond form or content and becomes pure awareness-of, and so ambiguity is transcended. Me then becomes pure intention and samadhi occurs. With samadhi, me is no longer simply the emissary of dynamic unity, it no longer simply stands for dynamic unity, but is one with dynamic unity, beyond me-as-center/me-as-periphery. The dynamic center—me—and dynamic unity are one harmonious whole. The following is an account of samadhi:

There is that sphere wherein is neither earth nor water, fire nor air: it is not the infinity of space, nor the infinity of perception; it is not nothingness, nor is it neither idea nor non-idea; it is neither this world nor the next, nor is it both; it is neither the sun nor the moon.

It neither comes nor goes, it neither abides nor passes away; it is not caused, established, begun, supported; it is the end of suffering.[4]

Intention, in the practice of one-pointed concentration, becomes active because of the tension that develops, not only between me-as-center/me-as-periphery, but also between between me and I. I is the tiny point that my teacher told me resides at the center of the flower. The etymology of the word, ‘concentrate,’ is con, meaning with, and centrum that meant originally ‘a fixed point of the two points of a compass.’ The dynamic center is invested in the fixed point. Concentration cuts through the investments of the dynamic center to the dynamic center itself.

Mukerji says in this regard that to attain samadhi or pure I, an idea of pure I has to be formed first by thought. When the concentration deepens, it will lead to complete absorption in pure I.[5] ‘Pure I‘ would be the dynamic center divested of all that it is invested in. As this occurs beyond concepts and words, any description is purely provisional and quite inadequate.

As I have just mentioned, fluctuations of the mind that must be suppressed arise from the constant alternation of emphasis, first on me-as-center and then on me-as-periphery. Alternation is a natural way to escape from tension generated by the dilemma of ambiguity. Waves, cycles, and vibrations, which are all fluctuations between two conflicting poles, are endemic to the world and to the Self. This fluctuation becomes apparent when we are in a state of deep contemplation; we can then see clearly how the tensions in the mind arise and subside, and how, subsequently, random thoughts appear in an effort to dissipate the tension. The strength of the concentration, coming from the dynamism of dynamic unity, allows the yogi to go beyond these fluctuations so that, eventually, neither the tension nor the thoughts arise.

Another account of samadhi reads:

When I reached this state [samadhi,] the feeling was like the moon in water – transparent and penetrating. Impossible to disperse or obliterate by rolling surges, it was inspiring, alive and vivid all the time.[6]

The rolling surges are, obviously, the fluctuations.

Pain is sometimes used to help generate the intense concentration needed to reach a state of one-pointedness, and pilgrimages are a way to induce this kind of pain. Sometimes, the pilgrim will adopt extra difficulties on the way of his pilgrimage. Hsu Yun, a celebrated Zen Master, who died in 1959 after having been brutally treated by the Red Guard, lived for 119 years. At the age of forty-seven, he undertook a pilgrimage to Wu Tai Mountain, a well-known Buddhist pilgrimage site. He made the journey of a thousand miles by taking one step and then making three full prostrations. Going on this kind of journey, or doing what some Hindu fakirs do, seems to be quite pathological when judged by the current Western worldview. Generally speaking we have ignored active intention and the potential it has to generate a true encounter with reality. This ignorance is enhanced by our tendency to become spectators only, and no longer be active participants in life.

Practice that leads to deep samadhi normally requires one to retire from the world and its distractions. These distractions tend to mask the deeper fluctuations of the mind, and so make one-pointed concentration difficult, if not impossible, to attain. This need to retire from the world gave rise to monastic living. Communities of men or women, seeking the kind of consolation coming from deep samadhi, with its release from suffering, could then work together and support each other in this work. In some countries, monks do no work other than their spiritual work, and are supported by the community of lay people that live near the monastery. The monks live by a rigid set of precepts, which in turn is designed to ensure that the monks are not distracted by dilemmas, and so faced by the need to make decisions. They also tend to live a life of poverty and obedience, thus reducing the investments made by the dynamic center.

The quotation given earlier as an example of deep samadhi, “There is that sphere wherein is neither earth nor water, fire nor air …..” came, paradoxically enough, from an early Buddhist sutra; ‘paradoxically’ because Buddha repudiated the way of samadhi as a worthwhile way to end the suffering coming from the wound in the heart of our being. When he was 29 years old, after becoming aware of the inherent insecurity and vulnerability of the human condition, he left home and family to find a way beyond the human condition through transcendence. At the start of his struggle, he met a teacher, Arada, a sage, who was perfected in the way of samadhi. Arada explained the practice to him, showing him how one advances through levels of samadhi that have increasing subtlety until finally reaching the highest samadhi, described above by Buddha’s quote, and which Arada called, “That Supreme, Absolute, without attributes, everlasting and immutable, which learned men who know the principle called liberation.”[7]

Buddha was not satisfied and said, “I have listened to this doctrine of yours, which grows more subtle and auspicious in its successive stages, but I consider it not to lead to final beatitude, since the field-knower* is not abandoned. For I am of the opinion that the field-knower, although liberated from the primary and secondary constituents, still possesses the quality of giving birth and also of being a seed.”[8] Field-knower could be translated as ‘viewpoint.’

Two other ways of reaching samadhi are possible, one spurious and the other natural. The spurious samadhi could also be called an orgiastic unity. Spectators at soccer matches, of which sometimes as many 80-90,000 are in attendance, can be heard singing, chanting, and cheering in unison without restraint. They have their arms stretched out wide and are looking up to heaven in a parody of a revivalists meeting. They are temporarily released from the restraints and limitations of the center invested in I, and find unity by losing this I in the unity of the faceless crowd. Hitler exploited orgiastic unity for political purposes, which partly accounts for the reason that National Socialism was as much a religion as it was a political party. In the propaganda film, Triumph of Will, filmed at the1933 Nuremburg rally, the director, Leni Riefenstal, took shots of rank after rank after rank of men, all dressed uniformly, all moving in unison, all shouting Seig Heil in unison, until each is swept up into an ecstasy of oneness, urged on by Hitler yelling, “One Volk, One Reich, one Fuehrer.”

The second, and very common form of samadhi, comes from a regression back to awareness-as, or lantern awareness, that lies upstream of the viewpoint. It is quite common and at its lowest level is called “the joggers’ high.” This kind of samadhi is quite different from the one that I have referred to above. Whereas samadhi coming from very intense concentration culminates in pure awareness of, this passive samadhi culminates in pure awareness-as. In an account that I gave earlier, the writer said she was standing at the edge of a low cliff overlooking the sea where birds were swooping in the sky, when suddenly her mind switched gears. “I still saw the birds and everything around me but instead of standing looking at them, I was them and they were me. I was also the sea and the sound of the sea and the grass and the sky. Everything and I were the same, all one”[9]

The expression, ‘instead of standing looking at them, I was them’ ‘could be translated, using the terminology we have developed, as ‘instead of standing, aware-of awareness-as them, I was just aware-as them.’ ‘Awareness-of’ awareness-as the birds, sea and grass, was dimmed leaving simply ‘awareness-as’ them.

This kind of samadhi arises quite spontaneously. It is very common, although it can be very striking. It is often confused with awakening, and is one of the reasons that we should seek a competent teacher to confirm an awakening.

One other spiritual experience that must be mentioned, which is both the way of love and the way of samadhi, is “seeing the light.” This experience became well known after a doctor, Raymond Moody, published a best seller entitled Life after Life. This book purported to be a series of interviews Moody conducted with people who had an experience of light after they had been pronounced clinically dead. However, this experience occurs among people who are by no means dead, and indeed it can be a result aimed at by some spiritual practices such as Kundalini yoga. Some say this yoga is and amalgam of Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, Shakti yoga for power, and Raja yoga for mental strength. That others than those who have been clinically dead have this experience means that we should find a cause for ‘seeing the light’ other than a trip to the other side.

Rapt in Beethoven’s music, I closed my eyes and watched a silver glow which shaped itself into a circle with a central focus brighter than the rest. The circle became a tunnel of light proceeding from some distant sun in the heart of the Self. Swiftly and smoothly I was borne through the tunnel and as I went the light turned from silver to gold. There was an impression of drawing strength from a limitless sea of power and a sense of deepening peace. The light grew brighter but was never dazzling or alarming. I came to a point where time and motion ceased. In my recollection it took the shape of a flat-topped rock, surrounded by a summer sea, with a sandy pool at its foot. The dream scene vanished and I am absorbed in the Light of the Universe, in Reality glowing like fire with the knowledge of itself, without ceasing to be one and myself, merged like a drop of quicksilver in the Whole, yet still separate as a grain of sand in the desert. The peace that passes all understanding and the pulsating energy of creation are one in the center in the midst of conditions where all opposites are reconciled.[10]

I have underlined some of the more important phrases. The most important of them is “I am absorbed in the Light of the Universe, in Reality glowing like fire with the knowledge of itself, without ceasing to be one and myself, merged like a drop of quicksilver in the Whole, yet still separate as a grain of sand in the desert.” This a wonderful metaphor for me-as-center/me-as-periphery.

As we have seen, me-as-center/me-as-periphery can be seen to be awareness-of-awareness-of-awareness-of….in a swirling vortex that can culminate in either intense panic and horror on the one hand or ecstasy beyond description on the other. Why one rather than the other is the result depends upon the surrounding circumstances in which the experience arises.

With awareness-of awareness-of, the first awareness of is Subjective, the second is awareness as though seen from outside. This means that light is awareness ‘seen’ from outside. We must not be in any doubt that the experience is of intense light. “The light grew brighter but was never dazzling or alarming.” It is not imaginary but “Reality glowing like fire with the knowledge of itself.” Those who have had the experience say that it has a reality that makes what we normally consider to be reality but a pale shadow.

All authentic religions are suffused with light. Krishna revealed himself to Arjuna as a being of light, the Pistis Sophia, an account of Christ’s resurrection says, “Jesus descending in infinite light, more brilliant far than when He had ascended; the light was now of three degrees, glory transcending glory.” Moreover he revealed himself to Saul as light. I cannot help wondering whether the origin of Sun worshiping lies not in the physical sun but in this spiritual sun, an experience that could have been induced by drugs.

Light is awareness ‘seen’ from outside: awareness-of-awareness-of…. Subjectively awareness is knowing; Objectively it is light. I wonder…what we see as sunlight could it possibly be experienced subjectively by the sun as intense awareness and intelligence? Is it also possible that when plants absorb light that they are being blessed?

Dogen tells the story of an emperor who had had a pagoda built in which to house the holy relics. During the dedication ceremony the emperor experienced this wonderful light. He told his courtiers about it and they all congratulated him. A Buddhist, monk, standing by, refused to do so. The emperor asked him why he refused and the monk replied, “That light you saw was of your guardian angel, it was not the Buddha’s light.” The emperor asked, “Then what is the Buddha’s light?”

The monk walked away.


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Q: What is the awakened state?
A: If I showed you it, would you recognize it?
Q: Yes!
A: What more do you want?

What often brings people to the practice of Zen is a sense that something is missing from their lives, that there must more. By turning to Zen, they acknowledge that this “something” lies not in externals, but rather in seeing the self as it truly is and, by seeing, letting it go. The journey toward this awakening begins with questioning, and questions will be part of the path until awakening is attained.

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In addition, Low shares with his readers four teishos—talks that comment on a text or koan in order to enhance meditation practice—on zazen (seated meditation), on pain and suffering, and on the very nature of practice itself. Finally, in an article originally published in 1975, Low shares with readers an experience of satori, a glimpse into Buddha nature.

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1Guenther, Herbert V. (1984) Matrix of Mystery (Shambhala: Boulder and London), p. 5

2 Hariharananda, Aranya, (Translated by Mukerji P.N.) (1983) Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali (SUNY Press: New York) p. xviii.

3 When I am not aware-of what is happening around me, then I am aware-as it. These two ways of being passively aware are known by many spiritual traditions as being asleep, and most people spend most of their lives asleep.

4 Quote from Buddha Nibbana Sutta: Parinibbana 8

5 Hariharananda, (1981) p. 18.

6 Chang Chen -Chi The Practice of Zen (Rider and Co: London) p. 122.

7 Johnston, E. H. editor and translator (1972) The Buddacarita: Acts of the Buddha (Motilal Banarsidas: Delhi) p.177.

8 Ibid., p. 178.

9 Maxwell Meg Tschudin Verena, (1990) Seeing the Invisible (Arkana: London) p.26

10 Warner Allen, “The Timeless Moment,” quoted in F.C.Happold, Mysticism (New York: Penguin Books, Pelican, l970), p.133.

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10 Responses to The Way of Samadhi

  1. Albert your ‘thoughts along the way’ take me back to my own experience as a follower of the Satyananda yogic tradition.
    I had been reading a book by Stayananda based upon letters between himself and a devotee to whom he was giving instruction. Only the letters by the guru were published. This book had a profound impression on me; the text was so rich I could only read a page at one sitting. At the same time I was reading ‘Yoga Dashan’ 1993/98 by Paramahamsa Niranjananda, The idea of samadhi is discussed and 13 stages described. Sitting in meditation I felt as though I had Satyananda whispering to me in one ear and Niranjan whispering to me in the other. I remember feeling at one with all that is …then the light of a thousands suns burst through at the top of my head. All was bathed in light.
    Thanks for rekindling this experience.

  2. Randy H. says:

    To deliberately seek to stop the “fluctuations of the mind” as a form of spiritual practice seems a little like trying to stop a symphony midway. It must move on! In Chopin’s, “Raindrops,” there is a single note, mimicking the sound of the raindrop that is played again and again in every bar. The other music dances around it, now calm and placid, now wild and threatening, now calm again as the storm passes. The persistent raindrop seems the perfect metaphor for Zen contemplation which, rather than attempting to stop the mind, allows its ebb and flow while maintaining attention on the object of contemplation. Here is a link to a performance of Chopin’s masterpiece. The sound quality is less than perfect but the young pianist seems inspired.

  3. Low Albert says:

    You may think that “To deliberately seek to stop the ‘fluctuations of the mind’ as a form of spiritual practice seems a little like trying to stop a symphony midway,” but the person who follows Raja yoga or Patanjali’s yoga would not agree. You seem to be talking from the Zen perspective, but that is one perspective among many.

    • Randy H. says:

      Mr. Low, yes. The comments were not intended to be dismissive or disrespectful of other traditions but were, as you say, only this person’s perspective.

  4. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    Is life ‘’an ongoing drama’’? This dramatic aspect of life is confirmed by the necessity human beings had since the beginning to create and establish religions and believes. This inverted statement can also be explored: life is ‘’an ongoing drama’’ because of all those religions and believes human beings have created.

    All religions and each one is also unity that is duality, duality that is unity. (My own extrapolation). This is where ‘’The Way of Samadhi’’ in zen practice, (the way I understand the word ‘’Samadhi’’), can ‘’solve’’ this ongoing drama in the quest of that ‘’peace and security’’ possible to be reached in being the original Unity.

    Your book ‘’La pratique du zen’’ which I am reading is an helpful tool for my opening to a world and words that were strange to me a year ago. Formulating here some of my comments and questionings it is not intended to find package-deal answers neither to test my knowledge. I am rather looking at Who am I and Who are you, What is God, try redefine to myself and with others the words Religion and Love, restore their true meanings.

    I am grateful to you Mr Low and all your surrounding hands and eyes making your site – Thoughts Along the Way – go along since you initiated it last October and planned to pursue each month since then.

  5. janine says:

    In the paragraph where you say “Buddha was not satisfied with”…. (the doctrine of samadhi), he says: “…although liberated from the primary and secondary constituents, (the field knower) still possesses the quality of giving birth and also of being a seed.” What are the primary and secondary constituents? And what does it mean to “have the quality of giving birth and also of being a seed.”?

    • Albert Low says:

      I am not sure what Buddha actually meant, but in the words that I use one can liberate oneself from the tyranny of the spotlight, or ‘reasonable,’mind mind

  6. janine says:

    Subjectively, the emperor saw the monk walk away. But what about objectively?

  7. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    You say, Mr. Low, : ‘’With samadhi, me is no longer simply the emissary of dynamic unity, it no longer simply stands for dynamic unity, but is one with dynamic unity, beyond me-as-center/me-as-periphery. The dynamic center—me—and dynamic unity are one harmonious whole.’’

    Lady Nature, with her cycling sequences of four seasons, is permanent action, is dynamic unity. The Samadhi ‘’process’’ is out there, all ear around, it reflects this ‘’intention’’ of the true meaning of What is life, and Who we are. She is without words, but she smells, displays colors, makes sounds and gracious movements, and then sleeps under the stars. She is that miracle of life we are. She is one ‘’facette’’ among the most accessible for all humans of the ongoing drama of what is life.

    Cleaning windows or sitting outside early morning, at noon or twilight, being one with nature, being her, one with that miracle life, this is what zen can achieve with practice, I believe, in that quest of ‘’me and you be one with dynamic unity’’. There were my thoughts one morning when I saw all trees suddenly covered with their light pale vivid green color.

  8. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    Please, note that : ”all ear around” should be read ”all year around”, my reply of yerterday.

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