Samadhi and Zen

Samadhi and Zen December 23, 2023

Hakuin Ekaku meditating
Eisei Bunko Museum






A student of the intimate asked the master Huguo, “What about when every drop of water has become ice?” The master replied, “It will be shameful once the sun has arisen.”

Book of Serenity

The heart of Zen meditation, what makes it go, is samadhi.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, samadhi is a slippery term. But, slippery or not, it’s important to have a sense of what it is. The word samadhi comes from the Sanskrit and is most commonly translated as concentration. In a bottom-line sense samadhi is a word for different states of openness. It is a field of consciousness, a place of preparedness and willingness.

Samadhi is a term common to all the Dharmic traditions. And with that there are nuances of meaning that differ among the schools. In Hinduism as presented in the spiritual classic the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, samadhi is the culmination state found at the end of many mental steps. Some scholars see a rough analogy in Patanjali’s samadhi states to Pali Buddhism’s several Dhyana states of absorption. It’s worth noting the Chinese pronunciation of dhyana is Chan, while in Japanese its rendered Zen.

In one sense samadhi is found through the investigation of bodily sensations and mental actions, which naturally allows the meditator to let go of unhealthy mental states. What remains is a field of consciousness marked by equanimity and bliss. And this is samadhi as the word is generally used in Zen.

While something of a gross simplification of an often mysterious place to rest the human heart, a pointer. But even here the what and the how of samadhi has multiple facets.

For instance, the 12th century founder of Soto Zen in Japan, Eihei Dogen, in his “Bendowa” fascicle described a “samadhi of self-fulfillment.” Which is perhaps best unpacked in another fascicle, the Genjokoan. Here’s the place the various disciplines of meditation take us to. And specifically shows the approach of Zen meditation.

“To study the buddha way is to study the Self; to study the Self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be enlightened by myriad dharmas; to be enlightened by myriad dharmas is to drop off the body and mind of self and others.” In other translations myriad dharmas is rendered the ten thousand things. The many expressions of this wildly emerging, presenting, and dying world.

And, this is important, samadhi isn’t the point of it all. Rather it is a place we can find in human consciousness where the universe, the real, can present viscerally. A common term for this is unmediated. Bit as everything is mediated, we experience the world through our six senses, and then create stories to understand what we experience. Samadhi is a place where the stories don’t grab us by the throat. It is a place where the stories can shatter. And deeper truths can be discerned.

So, it’s important. Samadhi is like the John the Baptist of spiritual encounter. It is not Jesus, as an ultimate. Rather samadhi sets the stage. Samadhi is not awakening. Using this analogy samadhi foretells the wonder that is possible. It foreshadows. Basically, it prepares the place where wonders might birth. In a sense samadhi is a way of seeing the world that prepares us for the intimate experiences, the fundamental shifting of perspective that is awakening.

Much of Zen practice as a technique opens the mind in important ways. The contemporary Rinzai teacher Meido Moore describes samadhi “generally as a relaxed, sustained stability within which the mind functions freely without fixation or distraction.” Our habitual dualisms are loosened within samadhi. This allows what is, to come to us. And critically, it predisposes us to those illuminating moments in which the world and our hearts can shift. These encounters, awakenings, what in Zen are usually called kensho, are our seeing into the nature of things in a way that shifts the ground, making who we are new.

And arriving at this place of preparedness, of openness, is the goal of samadhi. Zen is about awakening. The shattering of our delusive perspective on what is. Samadhi is our allowing ourselves, gifting ourselves, preparing ourselves for our encounters with awakening.

Now it’s also important to note how both samadhi and awakening can be deep or shallow. With many possible problems. Among them it’s possible to mistake samadhi for awakening. Samadhi states feel good, and sometimes people get attached to samadhi. There’s a term of art, “samadhi junky.” I find myself thinking of one of the people who are thought to have more meditation experience than almost anyone else. He could and often did slip directly in samadhi. And stay there. But his ordinary life was a disaster. His need to experience samadhi left him unable to function in any other way. An extreme example of missing the point. But a real one.

And, it’s also a common mistake for us is to take a small glimmer and think it’s the enlightenment of the Buddha witnessing the rising morning star. Well. In a sense any awakening is that, is the Buddha’s awakening. As they say a drop of water and the ocean are both water. And there are slight glimmers and oceans. But this is part of why the Zen teacher Joko Beck was extremely reluctant to call these disruptions of our heart’s perspectives as kensho, but rather universally she used the term “small intimation.”

So, it’s wise to approach all this with some humility. It’s also a good idea to have a guide or guides along this way. To help find our way into samadhi and to discern what happens there. A competent guide helps us sort out our experiences, and in the Zen way, tests them.

Sometimes I prefer the term field of possibility instead of samadhi. For several reasons. One because these states of openness, of non-clinging, are not necessarily found within formal meditation. Now, this is important. We’re probably more likely to have our awakenings, the disruptions or shattering of our misconceptions within samadhi, or closely associated with samadhi. And so a great deal of the Zen project is focused on cultivating this mind of possibility.

And at the same time those possibilities are there as part of our natural human inheritance. People wake up when and how people wake up. From the first ancestor possibly near the Olduvai Gorge, looking up into the sky and seeing the morning star kiss the moon people have been waking up. So, field of possibility implies at the very least other fields.

One example from the Abhidharma, that early attempt at systematizing the teachings of the Buddha of history is the samadhi of the eight-fold path. So, simply embracing the path of meditation and wisdom and the ethical container of harmony is itself a field of awakening.

Another is the moment-by-moment samadhi. In the traditional literature we find khanika samadhi, which is the samadhi or everyday life. In our Zen life I suggest this is where we most commonly encounter those disruptions of our habitual ways of seeing the world and ourselves.

There’s the wonderful story about Chinyo. She was a thirteenth century Japanese lay monastic, really a servant in a convent. With only the rudiments of instruction she applied the principles to her regular life, her moment-by-moment life.

Then one day she was carrying a bucket of water. It was night but the moon was full, and she walked along with that illumination. She could see the moon reflected in the water within the bucket. The bucket was old and the bamboo strips that held it together were beginning to pull apart. She may or may not have been aware of how fragile it was. Then all of a sudden, in a moment faster than a breath, the whole thing fell apart, The water splashed everywhere.

And. Well. A small intimation.

As she was illiterate, she had to ask someone else to record her description of that moment. She recited.

With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together,
And then the bottom fell out.
Where water does not collect,
The moon does not dwell.

Similarly, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther is said to have had his great awakening into God’s overwhelming grace while sitting on a toilet.

Awakening is when the ordinary and the miraculous are not two.

I have little doubt that a strong practice opens us to these possible moments. And moment by moment the moment is presenting. Waiting. Sometimes. Calling us. Often. Maybe always. And if we give ourselves to the project, if we allow ourselves to be present, then both traditional meditation on the pillow with all the disciplines associated, and these moment by moment samadhis we experience when we pause and pay attention, each can and do reveal the mystery.

Wandering around the spiritual bazaar that was the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s, and reading what was available, through a combination of good luck and mysterious karma, I stumbled on a book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps.

The book, or more precisely the section called “Centering” offered me my first practical instruction on what moment by moment samadhi might look like. At least it provided instructions that made some sense to me. It was simply a list of 112 pointers for meditation.

In his Foreword to the book, Reps said this section was from a living practice in parts of India, but that it could have been as much as four thousand years old. He also claimed it could be the root of Zen. It was actually the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, a chapter from the Rudrayamala Tantra. It’s framed as a dialogue between Shiva and his consort Shakti, where Shiva offers those 112 pointers. It probably was composed between the 7th and 8th centuries of our common era in Kashmir. Today there are several translations available in English.

Maybe not a source for Zen, but definitely from the same deep root. When I was first learning the arts of meditation, they were useful to me. Especially those early pointers connected to the breath. Later, I realized they each pointed to samadhi moments. They were invitations into fields of possibility, moments pregnant with our awakening. They showed where and how a moment by moment samadhi can be encountered.

Among the things I really found useful about them was their emphasis on ordinary moments in our lives, a couple even addressing sexual acts. At the moment I read it, this was tantalizing. Today it speaks of the wonders of our ordinary lives.

Here I offer 10 of the 112 pointers, framed out of my own experiences.

1. (1) At the moment the breath turns, inhalation and exhalation: notice.

2. (10) As your lover touches you, be only the touch.

3. (20) When driving, be one with the rhythms of motion.

4. (32) When looking at some ordinary object, experience it as if for the first time.

5. (33) Look up at the blue sky.

6. (39) Repeat a word. Om. Mu. Jesus. Enter the sound.

7. (51) When meeting an old friend, enter the joy.

8. (52) When eating or drinking, become one with it, be filled by it.

9. (62) When you notice your mind wandering, this moment is it.

10 (89) At any moment bring your mind and body and breath to it.

Moment by moment, the deep silences, the field of possibility.



About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a Zen teacher and writer. His next book, the Intimate Way of Zen: Effort, Surrender, and Awakening on the Spiritual Journey will be released by Shambhala Publications in July, 2024. It is currently available for pre-order at Amazon. You can read more about the author here.
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