Right concentration is the eighth and last step in the attainment of Nirvana according to Buddha. Concentration is the key to progress in any field of life. Concentration does not give us anything new but unlocks all potentialities, removes obstructions and reveals truth. According to Swami Vivekananda concentration is the key to all knowledge and is the very essence of education. He says: “Concentration is the essence of all knowledge, nothing can be done without it. Success in life mostly depends on the power of concentration. Clear thinking and intellectual understanding are very easy for a concentrated mind. The difference in their power of concentration also constitutes the difference between man and man. The end and aim of Yoga is to realize God.”
Concentration is the act of focussing and keeping the mind steady unwaveringly for a period of time. The mind untrained in concentration moves in a scattered manner which the Buddha compares to the flapping about of a fish taken from the water and thrown on to dry land. It cannot stay fixed but rushes from idea to idea, from thought to thought, without any control. According to Him a distracted mind is also a deluded mind.
Samadhi is another name used for right concentration. Right concentration in the eightfold path means wholesome concentration, i. e. concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions. The concentration of a thief in the act of stealing or of a murderer in the act of murder cannot be called right concentration. Concentration means focussing the mind only on thoughts that lead to Nirvana. According to Buddha that is right concentration.
Right concentration without purity is impossible. For the attainment of concentration moral discipline must be practised and the various impediments must be severed. After that the meditator must seek out suitable instruction from a qualified teacher. The teacher, after studying the mind of the student, instructs him in various suitable subjects to meditate upon. Both Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize the necessity of a teacher. After that the meditator on the path of Nirvana strives for developing right concentration on the object given by his teacher.
Buddhistic meditation manuals classify the subjects of meditation into a set of forty, called “places of work” (kammatthana.) These forty may be listed as follows: ten primordial qualities (dasa kasinas); ten unattractive objects (dasa asubha); ten recollections (dasa anussatiyo); four sublime states (cattaro brahmavihara); four immaterial states (cattaro aruppa); one perception (eka sanna); one analysis (eka vavatthana).
Of the ten primordial qualities four represent the elements "the earth, water, fire, and air;” four represent colours "the blue, yellow, red, and white;” the other two are “the light and the space."
The ten “unattractive objects” are corpses in various stages of decomposition. Here the object of the meditator is to develop dispassion so that he or she may not be deluded by passions like lust, anger, jealousy, hatred etc.
Of the ten recollections the first three are devotional meditations on the qualities of the Triple Gem - the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. The next three meditations are on morality, generosity, and the divine qualities in oneself. Then one is advised to focus on death, contemplation of the unattractive nature of the body, mindfulness of breathing, and lastly, the recollection of peace.
We live in a world where we come into contact with men and women of diverse natures. Accordingly we need to develop a strategy to interact differently. In general all human beings can be divided into four categories: the good, the miserable, the happy and down right wicked. Hence we need to develop four types of spiritual attitudes towards these four types of human beings.
These four sublime states, also called the four Brahmaviharas, are “friendliness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.” These four should be developed and extended until they envelop all living beings. Meditation on loving kindness counters anger and ill will; mindfulness on various bodily parts reduces lust, and the recollection of the Buddha to inspire faith and devotion; and meditation on death to arouse a sense of yearning for Nirvana.
Then there are the four immaterial states of meditation. These can be practised only by an advanced meditator. These are: “infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither-perception-nor-non-perception.”
These last four meditations become possible only to those who practised the previous seven steps and advanced much in concentration.
The Stages of Concentration
Control of the mind is a most difficult task. Concentration is not attained all at once, but develops in slow stages. Restlessness is a common problem faced by all beginners. Buddhism generally encourages a beginner to start focussing on breathing, bodily movements and finally on thoughts, ideas and feelings arising in the mind. At the beginning there would be enthusiasm and excitement. However, once the initial excitement subsides and the aspirant begins to settle into the practice, five hindrances are likely to arise. They are desire, anger and resentment, laziness, agitation, and doubts. These five hindrances pose a formidable barrier, but with patience and practice they can be overcome. But as the aspirant goes on striving along the path of concentration, his exertion activates five mental factors which come to his aid. These five are: initial application of mind, sustained application of mind, rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness of the mind.
With sustained practice these five factors counteract the five hindrances. Each absorption factor opposes a particular hindrance. Initial application of mind, through its work of lifting the mind up to the object, counters dullness and drowsiness. Sustained application, by anchoring the mind on the object, drives away doubt. Rapture shuts out ill will, happiness excludes restlessness and worry, and one-pointedness counters sensual desire, the most alluring inducement to distraction.
The Four Dhyanas (or jnanas)
Then comes meditation on the four Dhyanas. The Four Dhyanas or Absorptions are the means to experience directly the wisdom of the Buddha's teachings. In particular, through Right
Concentration one can attain Nirvana. In the first dhyana, passions, desires and unwholesome thoughts (akusala) are released. A person dwelling in the first dhyana feels rapture and a deep sense of
well-being. In the second dhyana, intellectual activity fades and is replaced by tranquility and one-pointedness of mind. The rapture and sense of well-being of the first dhyana are still present. In
the third dhyana, the rapture fades and is replaced by equanimity (upekkha) and great clarity. In the fourth dhyana, all sensation ceases and only mindful equanimity remains.
In some schools of Buddhism, the fourth dhyana is described as pure experience with no “experiencer." Through this direct experience, one perceives the individual self or “ego” to be an illusion.
The Four Immaterial States
According to Theravada after the Four Dhyanas comes meditation on the Four Immaterial States. This practice is understood as going beyond mental discipline. In the four Immaterial States, one first refines infinite space, then infinite consciousness, then non-materiality, then neither perception-nor-not-perception. The meditation at this level is subtle and difficult.
At the end of all these meditations the disciple emerges as an arahat, one who in this very life has been liberated from all bonds. The arahat has walked the Noble Eightfold Path to its end and lives in the Bliss of Nirvana, “Destroyed is birth; the holy life has been lived; what had to be done has been done; after this there is no rebirth, no coming back to any state of being."