The Buddha said:

And what is right meditation? It’s when a practitioner, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, enters and remains in the first [level of] concentration, which is accompanied by thought and investigation, which has the rapture and joy born of seclusion. As the thought and investigation are stilled, one enters and remains in the second [level of] concentration, which has the rapture and joy born of meditation, with internal confidence and unification of mind. And with the fading away of rapture, one enters and remains in the third [level of] concentration, where one abides in equanimity, being mindful and aware, experiencing the bodily joy of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one dwells in joy.’ Abandoning pleasure and pain, and with the passing away of the former joy and displeasure, one enters and remains in the fourth [level of] concentration, which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but is pure equanimity and mindfulness. This is called right meditation” (SN 45.8).

The word I am translating as “meditation” is the Pali word samādhi. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this as “right concentration.” This leaves him with the problem of how to translate the Pali word jhana, which I have translated as “concentration.” His solution is to not translate it.

Bhikkhu Sujato takes a different path. He translates jhana as “absorption.” Which is not too bad. It certainly is much better than F. L Woodward’s translation of jhana as “trance.” But I do not understand what Bhikkhu Sujato was thinking by translating samādhi as “immersion.” To any normal person, this means “the action of immersing someone or something in a liquid” (OED). This is not what the Buddha was talking about. It qualifies as one of the worst translation blunders I know.

Samādhi is Meditation

The Venerable Buddhadatta, in his The Concise Pali-English Dictionary, defines samādhi as “meditation; one-pointedness of the mind.” And doesn’t it makes sense that meditation would be part of the Noble Eightfold Path? What is Buddhism known for? Meditation. It is weird that most translators don’t notice the absence of this word from their translations.

Samādhi, according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “related to the ability to establish and maintain one-pointedness of mind on a specific object of concentration.” This is the definition of meditation. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary means “To train… the mind… by focusing on a single object.” Another example, meditation means “to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness” (Merriam-Webster.com).

Samādhi, explains Andrew Olendzki, is “unifying the mind and placing its awareness upon a particular object.” If this is not what Buddhist meditation is, I don’t know what it is. Again, A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen explains that samādhi is “collectedness of the mind on a single object through (gradual) calming of mental activity.” Again, this is what Buddhists mean by the word “meditation.”

Translating Samādhi as Meditation

First, let’s look at my translation of the Fourth Noble Truth:

Now this, practitioners, is the noble truth of the way leading to the ending of trouble: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right perspective, right motivation, right speech, right action, right employment, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation” (SN 57.11).

Now the crowning jewel of Buddhism is meditation. All eight factors are important, but many of them you can find in other religions. Meditation is Buddhism’s distinctive contribution.

Let’s look at my translation of the three trainings:

This is [the importance of] morality, this is [the importance of] meditation, and this is [the importance of] wisdom. Developing morality is very fruitful and beneficial to meditation. Developing meditation is very fruitful and beneficial to gaining wisdom. And by developing wisdom the mind is freed from the distortions, namely, the distortions of sensual pleasures, the distortions of the desire for continued existence, and the distortions of ignorance (DN 16.1.12).

Doesn’t this sound like what Buddhism is all about? Morality, meditation, and wisdom. This is also a summary of the Noble Eightfold Path. Morality covers right speech, right action, and right employment. Meditation covers right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. And wisdom covers right motivation and right perspective.

Wider and Narrower Meaning

From the above discourses, we can see that the word samādhi has a wider and narrower meaning. Henepola Gunaratana explains it so well I will quote him at length.

The word samadhi is used in the Pali literature on meditation with varying degrees of specificity of meaning. In the narrow sense, as defined by Buddhaghosa, it denotes the particular mental factor responsible for the concentrating of the mind, namely, one-pointedness. In a wider sense it can signify the states of unified consciousness that result from the strengthening of concentration, i.e. the meditative attainments of serenity and the stages leading up to them. And in a still wider sense the word samādhi can be applied to the method of practice used to produce and cultivate those refined states of concentration, here being equivalent to the development of serenity (samathabhāvanā) (10).

I attempt to use the word meditation in all three contexts, but it may be necessary to fall back to the word “focus” for “the particular mental factor responsible for the concentrating of the mind.” In all other cases, I believe that the word “meditation” will work perfectly.

Right Meditation

So right meditation is about practicing the four levels of concentration. Insight practice can be performed afterward, which seems to have been the Buddha’s own practice. “When one’s mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright, unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady and attained to imperturbability, one directs and inclines it to knowing and seeing” (DN 2.83 Brasington).

I also what to point out that you can practice mindfulness without meditating, but you cannot meditate without practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness (sati) is about being fully aware in the present moment. Meditation builds mindfulness and mindfulness is at the heart of meditation.

References

  • A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Franz-Karl Ehrhard, and Michael S. Diener. Translated by Michael H. Kohn. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2010.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
  • Brasington, Leigh. Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2015. (p. 68)
  • Buddhadatta, A. P. The Concise Pali-English Dictionary. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2014.
  • Gunaratana, Henepola. The Path of Serenity and Insight. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishing House, 2021.
  • Olendzki, Andrew. “What’s in a Word? Samādhi?” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Summer 2021.
  • The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Robert Boswell Jr and Donald S Lopez Jr., eds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.