Within the vipassana meditation community over the last decade, there has been a growing interest in both samadhi (concentration) and the practice of deep-absorption meditation states known as jhanas. There are now dedicated jhana retreats, and students attending vipassana retreats often ask to be instructed in jhana practice. A number of books have been published about samadhi, including The Path of Serenity and Insight by Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond by Ajahn Brahm, Focused and Fearless by Shaila Catherine, and a recently revised edition of Knowing and Seeing by Pa Auk Sayadaw.
However, much to the frustration of many practitioners, these books and the oral teachings vary significantly in their interpretations of what constitutes these altered states, how they are to be achieved, and how essential they are to the end of suffering. There is even disagreement as to which texts are to be consulted and how they are to be understood.
Richard Shankman’s new book, The Experience of Samadhi, is a response to this confusion. In the first part of the book, Shankman presents the Buddha’s suttas on meditation instruction, discussing in great detail the Satipatthana and Anapanasati Suttas. He then contrasts them with Buddhaghosa’s instructions in the Visuddhimagga, written 900 years after the Buddha’s death, which uses a different set of words and concepts in detailing how to achieve concentration states. Shankman carefully compares the similarities and the differences between these two sources and explains the role of the Buddhist psychological text, the Abhidhamma, in the debate.
If you already have a concentration practice and have been entangled in these questions, you will find Shankman’s clarity in this first part to be useful and stimulating. Of particular interest is the debate about the “dry” insight of vipassana practice that occurs without first achieving jhana, versus the “wet” insight practice that follows the achievement of jhana. There is also a discussion about the strong concentration states that arise for some people in the practice of vipassana even though the mind has not achieved one-pointedness. Do not expect Shankman to give you definitive answers as to what is correct, but do expect to find yourself far more comfortable with your own uncertainty.
In the second part of The Experience of Samadhi, Shankman presents in-depth interviews with eight teachers on the subject of samadhi, including Bhante Gunaratana and the Burmese samadhi master Pa Auk Sayadaw. To his credit, Shankman continually presses each teacher for specific responses. The result is an overview of how samadhi fits in meditation practice that might be of value to any vipassana student, even those not interested in absorption practices. These interviews alone make the book worth reading.
Despite the differing views about samadhi practice and its implications, Shankman finds widespread agreement in his interviews. For instance, absorption practice is to be contemplated and realized as “right Samadhi,” meaning that it must be developed and integrated as part of the Buddha’s eightfold path of practice. Also, there is general agreement that a relaxed mind is the key to the stability of mind that leads to jhana, and that all practitioners can cultivate more of this sense of well-being.
Included in The Experience of Samadhi is a discussion of the question, “Does it matter where you watch the breath?,” where Shankman lays out the varying arguments on yet another currently debated aspect of samadhi practice. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Shankman points to the wide variety of practices that can lead to an effective practice. In the end, it is the clarification of the terms of the disagreements as well as the assurance that being different does not mean being wrong that make The Experience of Samadhi such a valuable book.