Buddha's Teachings - The Eightfold Path: 8. Right Absorption (Samma samadhi)
by Royce Benda
Welcome to December. 2020 is coming to an end, and I feel very grateful and honoured to conclude the journey we made this year. In this month’s theme, we will be exploring ‘Right Samadhi’. Right samadhi is the fruition of the Eightfold Path that the Buddha offered us. It is the end of a pathless path.
Looking back on this year, we went on an inspiring journey by exploring the Eightfold Path month by month. At the same time, Corona entered our lives and so many things changed. This gives us a beautiful entry point to explore the deeper meaning of right samadhi. I will conclude this month’s theme with a simple practice that gives us a felt sense of right absorption. So that this final step of the path is not just theory or mental understanding, but something we really begin to bring into our experience.
Right samadhi is a tricky topic with many different interpretations that have led to even more discussions. As I took this teaching with me the last couple of weeks, I read The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In one chapter, Trungpa explores the eightfold path. This text opened something in me. It guided me to the experience of these teachings beyond the static meaning of the words. Therefore I choose this chapter as the foundation for today’s exploration.
Right Samadhi is often translated as ‘right concentration’. However, after having explored this teaching, I find this a narrow and limited translation. Therefore, I will follow Trungpa and Dr Vasant Lad in translating right samadhi as complete or total absorption into the ultimate reality.
What was this year all about?
At the beginning of this year, we started exploring the Buddha’s teachings. The starting point of the Buddhist path is suffering. We all experience suffering in one way or another, especially this year, as the coronavirus entered our world. Sometimes we were afraid or angry. The lockdown made us lonely and isolated. We have been sick and felt pain. And some of us had to say goodbye to loved ones. Suffering and discontent are more evident than ever. Which raises the question: how do we deal with suffering?
The Buddha’s teaching was very simple, very direct. He invited us to be exactly where we are. To refrain from fooling ourselves and the world around us. Trungpa Rinpoche writes, “Buddha saw the world as it is and that was his enlightenment. ‘Buddha’ means awake, being awake, completely awake-that seems to be his message to us.”
So to what do we awaken? We awaken to how it is, to the nature of reality. “[Buddha] offered us a path to being awake, a path with eight points, and he called it ‘the eightfold path’.” The teachings are tailored to our human condition and show us how we can live in harmony with ourselves, with each other, and with nature.
What is right?
We have explored the eightfold path and elaborated on right view, right mindfulness and many more. But what did the Buddha mean by ‘right’? Often the prefix ‘right’ gets interpreted as the opposite of wrong. But every time we position ourselves as right then we immediately create another position that is wrong. This interpretation of ‘right’ could never lead to true freedom since we are always bound to the dualistic rules of right and wrong. This is not what the Buddha is pointing to.
In order to see the Buddha’s teachings, we must first understand what he meant by right. Trungpa explains that ‘right’ translates the Sanskrit samyak, which means ‘complete’. Right samadhi would translate as complete samadhi or complete absorption.
Complete relates to a sense of wholeness that goes beyond relative comparison. It is a completeness of itself: it is self-sufficient. Samyak means to see life very straightforward, not mixed or altered. Trungpa says it’s like ordering a straight drink in a bar. Not diluted with club soda or water; you just have it straight. This completeness invites us to open ourselves. We are invited to live with a simple very direct openness to all life experiences.
Are we willing to meet the suffering inside ourselves?
Inviting ourselves to experience all situations fully is not as easy as it seems. I myself noticed that an interesting illusion exists in me these last couple of months. For example, during the lockdown, I would sometimes experience intense anger towards my partner. Right at the moment when hardly anything happened in my life, when she was just sitting or talking, these intense emotions came up. I noticed that my first response was to blame her for causing this anger in me.
But this is the illusion: that I believe that she is causing this anger. The Buddha would say that this is a lack of right view. When I started to feel into the suffering and started to work with it, I found that the suffering was already in me. Most of the time when I get stuck in anger, sadness, loneliness, or grief, I am actually re-experiencing emotional load from past experience that is ingrained in my consciousness.
My partner might have been a trigger for my suffering, but I cannot blame the messenger. This made me realize how important it is for us to learn how to work with ourselves, especially in a time where so much in us gets triggered. Do we have the willingness, the bravery to meet ourselves exactly where we are? Can we get completely involved in our lives without distance, without dualistic constructs to protect our vulnerability or our sense of individuality?
It might sound like an impossible task. As if we are asked to climb Mount Everest with no training. But the good news is; we are all equipped to be completely present in whatever occurs. We have a natural capacity to give space to everything that arises. Somehow this natural ability got concealed, like the blue sky gets concealed by a group of clouds. But the blue sky and the radiant sun are always there.
Likewise, our natural capacity, our awakened being, is already present. And we can practice keeping this realisation present and alive in our day-to-day awareness.
The complete absorption into our natural capacity of presence is what we could call Right Samadhi. This is the fruition of our practice and what the Buddha pointed out as the eighth aspect of the eightfold path.
Right absorption is being completely involved, thoroughly and fully, in a non-dualistic way. In sitting meditation the technique and you are one; in life situations the phenomenal world is also part of you. Therefore you do not have to meditate as such, as though you were a person distinct from the act of meditating and the object of meditation. If you are one with the living situation as it is, your meditation just automatically happens.
– Trungpa Rinpoche
Right Samadhi is being completely involved. Like the moment we recognize that the waves are the ocean. They appear to be different but are never separate. The waves are the beautiful play of the ocean. Likewise, life is not happening to us. Life is expressing itself not just around or through us. Life is expressing itself as us. Everything is the beautiful play of experience.
Double arrowed attention
That sounds beautiful and poetic. However, most of the time, we don’t want to be involved in life. To practice getting involved we can start with double arrowed attention. My Ayurvedic teacher and dear friend, Victoria Raven Hyndman, introduced me to this practice, which she inherited from her teacher Dr. Vasant Lad. The explanation is very clear and simple:
Life has two dimensions. We exist simultaneously in these two dimensions. One is the observer and the second is the observed. To become aware of these two dimensions, practice double-arrowed attention. This is when the observer is observing the observed. One arrow goes outside to look at the object and, at the same time, a second arrow of attention goes into the deepest recesses of the observer.
One arrow of attention goes outward to what we observe and one arrow of attention goes inward to the observer. When we relax into this practice we might start to feel a sense of space. We could discover that the observer and the observed are never separate. They have a simultaneous existence in openness. When we let go of the focus on observer and observed, we notice the space of awareness. The space that is primordial to the observer and the observed. That is the third dimension of life: the basic space in which everything takes place.
Through this practice, we can awaken to the nature of reality, the nature of our lives. Our natural awareness is ever-present, alive, and compassionate. So total absorption does not mean that we lose anything or have to give up our lives and belongings. It is the simple realisation that the world was never separate from us. That life is never separate from us and that love, openness, and joy are always right where we are.
It is my wish that this theme of the month will support you and inspire you to keep practising. If you would like to get in touch, I am open for any questions or further discussion - just email me here.
Stick to the practice because it is the only thing that shows us right samadhi.
Let’s play together in this beautiful dance of life!
With loving kindness,
1. The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Who am I? At a young age Royce knew his heart wish was to serve all beings. Struggling with how to implement this in every day life, he found that to truly help others, he first needed to listen to his own heart. Through experience Royce learned how easy it is to outrun yourself and ended up in a burnout in 2010.