Buddhist Meditation and its Forty Subjects
Throughout the whole world there is now a widespread interest and keen enthusiasm in the practice of Buddhist Meditation, but the proper knowledge of its practice in accordance with the actual teaching of the Buddha is still lacking. The majority of the general intelligent public has only a vague idea of the real purpose of undertaking the practice of meditation, the correct method of practice, the benefits derived therefrom and other essential features.
For the sake of clear understanding and appreciation, and at the earnest request of the Union Buddha Sāsana Council, the Venerable Mahāsī Sayādaw, Bhadanta Sobhana Aggamahāpandita, has been kind enough to write a short treatise ‘Buddhist Meditation and its Forty Subjects’ giving concise information of the fundamentals.
It is translated into English as desired by the Mahāsī Sayādaw.
U Pe Thin (Translator)
Honour to the Exalted One, Arahant, Buddha Supreme
What is the purpose of carrying out the practice of meditation?
The practice of meditation is carried out for the purpose of realising nibbāna and thereby escaping from the ills of life:– old age, ill-health, death and so forth.
All living beings long to live harmlessly, peacefully, happily and prosperously without suffering old-age, ill-health, death and other ills of life; yet they always find these hopes to be vain. For in every life there is still to be found old age, ill-health, sorrow and lamentation due to many dangers and evils, physical sufferings and mental grief. Then after suffering dire pangs and agonies there follows death. Yet there is no end in death. Again there is birth because of attachment to becoming. In this new life too they are the victims of old age and the other ills. In this manner they go round the rebirth-cycle from life to life, suffering all kinds of vicissitudes and without any stop.
On searching for the root cause of this state of affairs it becomes evident that ‘because there is birth there follows the chain of old age, ill-health, death and the other ills of life.’ So it is essential to prevent birth if the ills of life in old age etc. are to be avoided.
Rebirth can only take place because of the attachment inherent in the present life. The new birth is nothing but the rising of a new consciousness which is the result of grasping a sense object in the dying moment of the previous life. Where there is no attachment there can be no new birth; so every endeavour must be made to free oneself from attachment if no new birth is desired.
This attachment to life can persist for two reasons, firstly because of not perceiving the ills of mind and body, and secondly by not realising that nibbāna is far superior. For example, it is like the case of a person living in a barren and desolate country which abounds with many dangers. He naturally thinks highly of his country and as a great attachment towards it since he has no real knowledge of the defects of his country and of the better condition of another place. If he comes to know the full facts, his country will no longer attract him and he will readily move to the new country. Similarly, it is essential to try to perceive the ill condition of the mind and body which constitutes this life and to personally realise the superiority of nibbāna with a view to removing totally the attachment to life. These knowledges can be acquired through the proper practice of meditation. Hence, everyone who is desirous of escaping from the ills of old age, death etc. and of personally realising nibbāna should carry out the practice of meditation.
There are two divisions of meditation:–
1. The practice of Samatha-kammatthāna will develop the mental states of eight lokiya-samāpatti (mundane attainments) consisting of the four rūpa-jhānas and four ārūpa-jhānas. Repeated exercise of these jhānic states will bring forth the following:–
a) Iddhividha-abhiññā ― Power to become manifold from being one, and from being manifold to become one again. Power to pass without obstruction through walls and mountains, just as if through the air. Power to walk on water without sinking, as if on the earth. Power to dive into the earth and rise up again, just as if in the water. Power to float cross-legged through the air, just as a winged bird. Power to touch the sun and moon with the hand.
b) Dibbasota-abhiññā ― Celestial ear, the power to hear sounds both heavenly and human, far and near.
c) Cetopariya-abhiññā ― Power to know the mind of others.
d) Pubbenivāsa-abhiññā ― Power to recollect the incidents of one's past existences.
e) Dibbacakkhu-abhiññā ― Celestial eye, the power to see all material forms and colours, whether far off or near, whether great or small.
Yet the possession of these attributes will not bring freedom from the ills of life:– old age, death etc. On death with the jhānic states remaining fully intact, a person may be born in the relative plane of Brahma world where the life-span lasts for one world-cycle or two, four, eight etc. as the case may be. At the end of his life-span he will die and be reborn either in the deva or human world, where he, just as others, suffers the ills of life of old age, death etc. Often owing to unfavourable circumstances he may be reborn in one of the four lower worlds and live in utmost suffering and misery. It is therefore evident that the practice of Samatha-kammatthāna alone will not be a guarantee of absolute freedom from the ills of life.
2. Through the practice of Vipassanā-kammatthāna one is able to realise nibbāna and thereby win absolute freedom from the ills of life.
Vipassanā-kammatthāna is again subdivided into (a) Samatha-yānika, one who takes up the basic exercise of samatha-kammatthāna for realising nibbāna, and (b) Suddha-Vipassanā-yānika, one who directly carries out the practice of Vipassanā without the basic exercise of Samatha-kammatthāna for realising nibbāna.
There are forty subjects of meditation, any one of which may be taken up as a basic exercise of samatha for carrying out the practice of Vipassanā.
The ten kasinas are as follows:–
The ten Asubhas are:–
The ten Anussatis are:–
The four Brahmavihāras are:–
“... one resides with a mind full of loving-kindness pervading first one direction, then a second one, then a third, then the fourth one; just so above, below and all around; and everywhere identifying himself with all, he pervades the whole world with mind full of loving-kindness, with mind wide, developed, unbounded, free from hate and ill-will ... with a mind full of compassion .. of altruistic joy ... and of equanimity...” (Jīvaka Sutta, Majjhimanikāya).
The four Ārupas are:–