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Modern Koans – Why Right Concentration?

By Andrew Furst @a_furst

The Eightfold Path Series

This is the one of several posts I will be offering titled the Eightfold Path Series. As I've reflected on my experience, I've come to see the Path as both the practice and the fruition. As we inch closer to realization of our true nature, we discover that the wisdom, ethics, and mindfulness prescribed by the Buddha are the most natural expression of our being.

John Daido Loori Roshi's book Invoking Reality was transformational for me. In it Roshi turns the path on it's head in a way that uncovers it's challenge to us. The path and the precepts are not rules and regulations that lead to punishment by the karmic cosmos, but a way for us to see our true selves by looking through the prism of these personal dimensions. I see the path  and the precepts as questions, not rules.  Let's explore them.

Why Right Concentration?

To me, on the surface, concentration and effort have all the appeal of doing your taxes.  If any part of the path is like a checklist, it’s these two.  As I mentioned in the Oxherd Series, there is work to do, but it’s different from the kind of work that we’re accustom to. The context of these prescriptions are important to understand.


The doing that we're doing feels more like undoing. We're not producing anything, we're cleaning house.
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In the Samma Samadhi Sutra, concentration is taught as a series of attainments or Jnanas.  These are insights or knowledge gained from the experience of meditation.

Notably you’ll find the use of the term rapture several times in this translation.  So while there seems to be some bean counting here, it sounds inviting!

The Four Jnanas:

  1. Withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.
  2. With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance.
  3. With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’
  4. With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain.

This is called right concentration.”

samma samadhi *

Concentration?

When I think of concentration, it brings to mind a dogged attention to a task or a diligent focus of the mind. When we concentrate, we exert control over our mental faculties to achieve an end.  But if we read the qualities of the jnanas, it seems we’re moving in the opposite direction. First we draw inward, letting go of our sensory perceptions and then our thoughts. In the second jnana we let go of introspection and self evaluation.  Then we let go of the obstructions preventing us from experiencing the sensations of the body and finally we let go of pleasure and pain.  Sounds like we’re tossing ballasts off the side of the balloon.

The doing that we’re doing feels more like undoing. We’re not producing anything, we’re cleaning house.


On the surface, right concentration and effort have all the appeal of doing your taxes.
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Isn’t that what we would expect by now on this unusual little trip the Buddha laid out for us. Less is the new more.  Free is the new rich.  Being present is the new present.

The stage of right concentration is never ending.  It nourishes everything else.  I’ve found in my years of meditation, this is where the learning starts and it never ends. Right concentration feeds right view.  It informs right effort. It guides the ethical application of body, speech, and mind. It clarifies intentions and reinforces mindfulness. Right concentration puts us right where we belong, at the feet of the Buddha.


“Right Concentration: samma samadhi”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-samadhi/index.html .

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Modern Koans is an ongoing series that recognizes that good questions are often more important then their answers.

The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. ― G.K. Chesterton

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The post Modern Koans – Why Right Concentration? written by Andrew Furst appeared on Andrew Furst.


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