The Development of Concentration

Concentration can be developed through either of two methods — either as (1) the goal of a system of practice directed expressly towards the attainment of deep concentration at the level of absorption, or as (2) the incidental accompaniment of the path intended to generate insight. The former method is called the development of serenity (samatha-bhavana), the second the development of insight (vipassana-bhavana).

Both paths share certain preliminary requirements. For both, moral discipline must be purified, the various impediments must be severed, the meditator must seek out suitable instruction (preferrably from a personal teacher), and must resort to a dwelling conducive to practice. Once these preliminaries have been dispensed with, the meditator on the path of serenity has to obtain an object of meditation, something to be used as a focal point for developing concentration.

If the meditator has a qualified teacher, the teacher will probably assign him an object judged to be appropriate for his temperament. If he doesn’t have a teacher, he will have to select an object himself, perhaps after some experimentation. The meditation manuals collect the subjects of serenity meditation into a set of forty, called “places of work” (kammatthana) since they are the places where the meditator does the work of practice. The forty may be listed as follows:

Ten kasinas; ten unattractive objects (dasa asubha); ten recollections (dasa anussatiyo); four sublime states (cattaro brahmavihara); four immaterial states (cattaro aruppa); one perception (eka sañña); one analysis (eka vavatthana).

The kasinas are devices representing certain primordial qualities. Four represent the primary elements — the earth, water, fire, and air kasinas; four represent colors — the blue, yellow, red, and white kasinas; the other two are the light and the space kasinas. Each kasina is a concrete object representative of the universal quality it signifies. Thus an earth kasina would be a circular disk filled with clay. To develop concentration on the earth kasina, the meditator sets the disk in front of him, fixes his gaze on it, and contemplates “earth, earth.” A similar method is used for the other kasinas, with appropriate changes to fit the case.

The ten “unattractive objects” are corpses in different stages of decomposition. This subject appears similar to the contemplation of bodily decay in the mindfulness of the body, and in fact in olden times the cremation ground was recommended as the most appropriate place for both. But the two meditations differ in emphasis. (1) In the mindfulness exercise stress, falls on the application of reflective thought, the sight of the decaying corpse serving as a stimulus for consideration of one’s own eventual death and disintegration. (2) In the other meditation, the use of reflective thought is discouraged. The stress instead falls on one-pointed mental fixation on the object, the less thought the better.