Right Concentration
Ajaan Suwat Suvaco
translated from the Thai by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

In general terms, Right Concentration means establishing the mind rightly. On one level, this can apply to all the factors of the path. You have to start out by setting the mind on Right View. In other words, you use your discernment to gather together all the Dhamma you've heard. Then when you set the mind on Right Resolve, that's also a way of establishing it rightly. Then you set it on Right Speech, speaking only things that are right. You set it on Right Action, examining your actions and then forcing yourself, watching over yourself, to keep your actions firmly in line with what's right. As for Right Livelihood, you set your mind on providing for your livelihood exclusively in a right way. You're firm in not making a livelihood in ways that are wrong, not acting in ways that are wrong, not speaking in ways that are corrupt and wrong. You won't make any effort in ways that go off the path, you won't be mindful in ways that lie outside the path. You'll keep being mindful in ways that stay on the path. You make this vow to yourself as a firm determination. This is one level of establishing the mind rightly.

But what I want to talk about today is Right Concentration in the area of meditation: in other words, Right Meditation, both in the area of tranquillity meditation and in the area of insight meditation. You use the techniques of tranquillity meditation to bring the mind to stillness. When you make the mind still, firm in skillful qualities, that's one aspect of Right Concentration. If the mind isn't firmly established in skillful qualities, it can't grow still. If unskillful qualities arise in the mind, it can't settle down and enter concentration. This is why, when the Buddha describes the mind entering concentration, he says, "Vivicceva kamehi": Quite secluded from sensual preoccupations. The mind isn't involved, doesn't incline itself toward sights that will give rise to infatuation and desire. It doesn't incline itself toward sounds that it likes, toward aromas, tastes, or tactile sensations for which it feels infatuation through the power of desire. At the same time, it doesn't incline itself toward desire for those things. Before the mind can settle into concentration, it has to let go of these five types of preoccupations. This is called vivicceva kamehi, quite secluded from sensual preoccupations.

Vivicca akusalehi dhammehi: quite secluded from the unskillful qualities called the five Hindrances. For example, the first Hindrance is sensual desire. When you sit in meditation and a defilement arises in the mind, when you think of something and feel desire for an internal or an external form, when you get infatuated with the things you've seen and known in the past, that's called sensual desire.

Or if you think of something that makes you dissatisfied to the point of feeling ill will for certain people or objects, that's the Hindrance of ill will. Things from the past that upset you suddenly arise again in the present, barge their way in to obstruct the stillness of your mind. When the mind gets upset in this way, that's an unskillful mental state acting as an obstacle to concentration.

Or sloth and torpor: a sense of laziness and inattentiveness when the mind isn't intent on its work and so lets go out of laziness and carelessness. It gets drowsy so that it can't be intent on its meditation. You sit here thinking buddho, buddho, but instead of focusing the mind to get it firmly established so that it can gain knowledge and understanding from its buddho, you throw buddho away to go play with something else. As awareness gets more refined, you get drowsy and fall asleep or else let delusion overcome the mind. This is an unskillful mental state called sloth and torpor.

Then there's restlessness and anxiety, when mindfulness isn't keeping control over things, and the mind follows its preoccupations as they shoot out to things you like and don't like. The normal state of people's minds is that, when mindfulness isn't in charge, the mind can't sit still. It's bound to keep thinking about 108 different kinds of things. So when you're practicing concentration you have to exercise restraint, you have to be careful that the mind doesn't get scattered about. You have to be mindful of the present and alert to the present, too. When you try to keep buddho in mind, you have to be alert at the same time to watch over your buddho. Or if you're going to be mindful of the parts of the body — like hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin — you should focus on only one part at a time, making sure that you're both mindful and alert to your mindfulness, to make sure you don't go being mindful of other things. That's how you can cut off restlessness and anxiety.

As you keep being mindful of the same thing for a long time, the body will gradually calm down and relax. The preoccupations of the mind will calm down, too, so that the mind can grow still. It grows still because you keep it under control. You weaken its unruliness — as when you pull fuel away from a burning fire. As you keep pulling away the fuel, the fire gradually grows weaker and weaker. And what's the fuel for the mind's unruliness? Forgetfulness. Inattentiveness. This inattentiveness is the fuel both for restlessness and anxiety and for sloth and torpor. When you keep mindfulness and alertness in charge, you cut away forgetfulness and inattentiveness. As these forms of delusion are subdued, they lose their power. They gradually disband, leaving nothing but awareness of buddho or whatever your meditation object is. As you keep looking after your meditation object firmly, without growing inattentive, restlessness will disappear. Drowsiness will disappear. The mind will get firmly established in Right Concentration.

This is how you enter Right Concentration. You have to depend on both mindfulness and alertness together. Right Concentration can't simply arise on its own. It needs supporting factors. The first seven factors of the path are the supporters for Right Concentration, or its requisites, the things it needs to depend on. It needs Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, and Right Mindfulness. As you keep developing the beginning factors of the path, concentration becomes more and more refined, step by step. When the mind is trained and suffused with these qualities, it's able to let go of sensual preoccupations, able to let go of unskillful mental qualities. Vivicceva kamehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi. When it's secluded from sensual preoccupations, secluded from unskillful qualities, it can enter concentration. It experiences stillness, rapture, pleasure, singleness of preoccupation. Both body and mind feel light.

In the first stage, the mind isn't totally refined because it still has directed thought and evaluation in the factors of its concentration. If your mindfulness is in good shape and can keep its object in mind without pulling away, if your effort is right and alertness keeps watching over things, the coarser parts of your concentration will drop away and the mind will grow more refined step by step. Directed thought and evaluation — the coarser parts — will drop away because they can't follow into that more refined stage. All that's left is rapture, pleasure, and singleness of preoccupation. As you keep on meditating without let-up, things keep growing more refined step by step. Rapture, which is coarser than pleasure, will drop away, leaving the pleasure. Pleasure is coarser than equanimity. As you keep contemplating while the mind grows more refined, the pleasure will disappear, leaving just equanimity. As long as there's still pleasure, equanimity can't arise. As long as the mind is still feeding off pleasure, it's still engaged with something coarse. But as you keep up your persistent effort until you see that this pleasure still comes under the Three Characteristics of inconstancy, stress, and not-self, that it's part of the aggregate of feeling, the mind will let go of that coarser aspect and settle down with equanimity. Even though equanimity, too, is part of the feeling aggregate, it's a feeling refined enough to cleanse the mind to the point where it can give rise to knowledge of refined levels of Dhamma.

When the mind reaches this level, it's firm and unwavering because it's totally neutral. It doesn't waver when the eye sees a form, the ear hears a sound, the nose smells an aroma, the tongue tastes a flavor, the body feels a tactile sensation, or an idea comes to the mind. None of these things can make the mind waver when it's in the factors of jhana. It maintains a high level of purity. This is Right Concentration.

We should all develop tranquillity meditation, which can give temporary respite from suffering and stress. But in a state like this, you simply have mindfulness in charge. Discernment is still too weak to uproot the most refined levels of defilement and latent tendencies (anusaya). Thus, for our Right Concentration to be complete, we're taught not to get carried away with the sense of pleasure it brings. When the mind has been still for an appropriate amount of time, we should then apply the mind to contemplating the five aggregates, for these aggregates are the basis for insight meditation. You can't develop insight meditation outside of the five aggregates — the aggregates of form, feeling, perception, thought-fabrications, and consciousness — for these aggregates lie right within us. They're right next to us, with us at all times.

So. How do you develop the aggregate of form as a basis for insight meditation? You have to see it clearly in line with its truth that form is inconstant. This is how you begin. As you develop insight meditation, you have to contemplate down to the details. What is form? Form covers hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, and all the four great elements that we can touch and see. As for subsidiary forms, they can't be seen with the eye, but they can be touched, and they depend on the four great elements. For example, sound is a type of form, a type of subsidiary form. Aromas, flavors, tactile sensations are subsidiary forms that depend on the four great elements. The sensory powers of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body are subsidiary forms — they're physical events, not mental events, you know. Then there are masculinity and femininity, which fashion the body to be male or female, and create differences in male and female voices, manners, and other characteristics. Then there's the heart, and then viññati-rupa, which allows for the body to move, for speech to be spoken.

So the Buddha taught that we should contemplate form in all its aspects so as to gain the insight enabling us to withdraw all our clinging assumptions that they're us or ours. How does this happen? When we contemplate, we'll see that yam kiñci rupam atitanagata-paccuppannam: all form — past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near — is inconstant, stressful, and not-self. It all lies under the Three Characteristics. When we remember this, that's called pariyatti-dhamma, the Dhamma of study. When we actually take things apart and contemplate them one by one to the point where we gain true knowledge and vision, that's called the practice of insight meditation, the discernment arising in line with the way things actually are.

This is a short explanation of insight meditation, focused just on the aggregate of form. As for feeling — the pleasures, pains, and feelings of neither pleasure nor pain within us — once we've truly seen form, we'll see that the same things apply to feeling. It's inconstant. When it's inconstant, it'll have to make us undergo suffering and stress because of that inconstancy. We'll be piling suffering on top of suffering. Actually, there's no reason why the mind should suffer from these things, but we still manage to make ourselves suffer because of them. Even though they're not-self, there's suffering because we don't know. There's inconstancy because we don't know. Unless we develop insight meditation to see clearly and know truly, we won't be able to destroy the subtle, latent tendency of ignorance, the latent tendency of becoming, the latent tendency of sensuality within ourselves.

But if we're able to develop insight meditation to the point where we see form clearly in terms of the Three Characteristics of inconstancy, stress, and not-self, then disenchantment will arise. When the latent tendencies of ignorance and becoming are destroyed, the latent tendency of sensuality will have no place to stand. There's nothing it can fabricate, for there's no delusion. When ignorance disbands, fabrications disband. When fabrications disband, all the suffering that depends on fabrication will have to disband as well.

This is why we should practice meditation in line with the factors of the noble eightfold path as set down by the Buddha. To condense it even further, there are three trainings: virtue, concentration, and discernment. Virtue — exercising restraint over our words and deeds — is part of the path. tranquillity meditation and insight meditation come under concentration. So virtue, concentration, and discernment cover the path. Or if you want to condense things even further, there are physical phenomena and mental phenomena — i.e., the body and mind. When we correctly understand the characteristics of the body, we'll see into the ways the body and mind are interrelated. Then we'll be able to separate them out. We'll see what's not-self and what isn't not-self. Things in and of themselves aren't not-self, for they each have an in-and-of-themselves. It's not the case that there's nothing there at all. If there were nothing there at all, how would there be contact? Think about it. Take the fire element: who could destroy it? Even though it's not-self, it's got an in-and-of-itself. The same holds true with the other elements. In other words, these things still exist, simply that there's no more clinging.

So I ask that you understand this and then put it correctly into practice so as to meet with happiness and progress.

That's enough explanation for now. Keep on meditating until the time is up.