Chapter 5



All the stream that's roaring by

Came out of a needle's eye;

Things unborn, things that are gone,

From needle's eye still goad it on.

W.B. Yeats, Supernatural Songs

Therefore, Ananda, be ye an island unto yourselves, a refuge unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Teaching as your island, the Teaching your refuge, seek no other refuge.

The Buddha, The Mahaparinibbana Sutta

A nother discipline for the training of contemplatives may be found in the teachings of the Sakyamuni Buddha recorded in the Pali Canon of the Theravadin, or southern school of Buddhism. This discipline is known as the Satipatthana, or the "Foundations of Mindfulness," and very likely represents the oldest recorded system for producing mature contemplatives. This system of training presents striking parallels to Husserl's transcendental phenomenology, while at the same time shedding some light on some of the limits and inadequacies of Husserl's methods.

A Husserlian intentional analysis seems to me quite similar to the Buddhist insight meditation practice (vipassana bhavana) leading to the realization of the nature of the proliferation of cognitive associations about the object of consciousness (prapanca sanna sankha ; see Nanananda 1976). This intentional proliferation follows lawfully from consciousness grasping and holding focus upon any object of perception. One learns from insight practice that investing energy in attending any object results inevitably in recognition (note the advised use of the word " re-cognition"), and, following recognition, the relevation of a web of associations intending the object, like iron filings drawn to a magnet.

In either intentional analysis, or insight meditation, the principles inherent in constituting consciousness come to be distinctly "seen" (apprehended) via a combined operation of intentional concentration and intuitive comprehension (Husserl's "creative, or eidetic intuition" and the Buddhist vipassana). This is an operation that effectively transforms the very consciousness doing the studying and the intuiting. What is intuited in either case is not merely the particularistic aspects of perception, but also the universal structures of mind (Husserl's eidos or essences, Buddhism's dharmas or laws of consciousness). Please remember again that I am not speaking here of logical inference, but rather of the capacity of the mind to directly apprehend the universal principles upon which it operates, and of which its operations are particular instances. In biogenetic structural theory this is the conscious brain apprehending patterns of activity of its own neurognostic structures (d'Aquili et al. 1979: 22).


Despite the obvious methodological similarities between transcendental phenomenology and Buddhist Satipatthana, one is struck during the course of comparing the methods with a possible answer to a curious question. The question is: Why did Husserl experience such difficulty in transmitting his method to his students and others?

Husserl was undeniably disappointed by the inability of his disciples to realize the epoche (see e.g., Dreyfus 1982: 313). As numerous commentators have noted, a great deal of the blame must rest upon the style of discourse selected by Husserl himself. As I noted in the last chapter, Husserl left us no clear recipe for cooking-up the epoche, and as anyone who has taught meditation well knows, the first thing students want to know is proper procedure: the correct posture, the proper pronunciation of the mantra, the exact point in the body upon which to focus attention, etc. Moreover, there is a marked tendency for western meditation students -- especially those who code themselves as intellectuals -- to slip off into rational thought as their principal strategy for knowing. So it has been with many of Husserl's students. There has been a well known reluctance on the part of some of his disciples to embrace the apparent (but not actual!) idealism in his views (see Kwant in Kockelmans 1967: 387). Some cannot appreciate the necessity of the transcendental reduction for fear of falling into the sin of solipsism -- the belief that all that exists is myself. At least this is a commonly expressed rationale for not following in the master's footsteps. Of course, Husserl never advocated a solipsistic philosophy, as any serious study of his Crisis (1970) will easily show. Rather, he claimed that a mature science of any sort must be grounded upon a firm comprehension of the role of the mind in producing the phenomenal scope of that science.

Missing the Mark

Yet for all the verbosity, vagueness, and even pomposity of his writings, Husserl was pointing to a crucial discipline required for the progress of science, a self-discipline of mind that is as difficult to realize as it is to describe in intellectually satisfying rhetoric. My suspicion is that many of his followers opted-out of the discipline in favor of more comfortable intellectual explorations; tangents actually developmentally perpendicular to the course of the reduction -- questions such as the role of the unconscious in structuring perception (e.g., Merleau-Ponty), the condition of fear and alienation in existence (e.g., Heidegger and Sartre), the relations of symbols and experience (e.g., Ricoeur), the merger of gestalt psychology and the phenomenology of perception (e.g., Gurwitsch), or the social forces influencing the construction of reality (e.g., Schutz). One gets the distinct impression -- an impression by the way shared with Husserl -- that all of these worthies seemed somehow to miss the mark (see Fink in McKenna, Harlan and Winters 1981 for a disciple that did not miss the mark). Without putting too fine a point on the matter, I sense their avoidance of the pain, terror, strenuous effort, loss of clear ego identity, sacrifice of alternative endeavours, and tortuous self-evaluation and self-transformation that are the inevitable costs of completely embracing any serious path of spiritual awakening. It is not possible to follow the course of the transcendental reduction without in-so-doing radically transforming consciousness (see Eugen Fink in McKenna et al. 1981: 24). Without a significant commitment to a radical self-awareness, realization of the transcendental nature of consciousness by an empirical ego-bound being is impossible. In actual practice, the reduction is a process that the empirical ego will go to any lengths to avoid, especially if it is energized, as is often the case with intellectuals, by unconscious conflicting emotion.

Dry Path vs. Wet Path

A major difficulty with Husserl's project is, I suspect, that it represents what in Buddhist psychology might be called a "dry path" as opposed to a "wet path." A dry path is one of pure intuitive insight, or contemplation, which has not been preceded by training in a discipline of progressive relaxation, increased centering of psychic energies in the body, and enhanced intentional concentration. A wet path is one in which initiates learn first to calm and concentrate the mind before taking-up the task of contemplation. They learn to enter metanoic phases of consciousness before carrying out explorations that might transform the mind. It is called a wet path because the initiate learns how to produce and bask in blissfully flowing mind states (metanoia) and how to concentrate the awareness so keenly that he becomes totally absorbed in whatever object he chooses to contemplate. The practitioner learns during the course of training that the mind is capable of far greater calm and concentration than the undisciplined mind ordinarily exhibits. He also comes to learn why very few individuals can successfully practice insight work without a grounding in techniques of attaining blissful calm and single-minded concentration.

Among the essential principles of consciousness that Husserl apparently failed to intuit was precisely the lawful relation between depth of tranquillity and depth of insight, a principle considered indispensable to most eastern approaches to reduction. (1) Had Husserl realized that with deeper calm comes the potential for deeper, more intense and detailed "seeing" (using Husserl's sense of "seeing" here), he would perhaps have known to direct many of his disciples to a regimen of "wet" work before taxing them so unproductively with intellect-tempting "dry" work. It is a curious irony that this "secret" to producing a mature contemplative is implied by the very definition of the word "epoche" (see Footnote 4, Chapter 4). It is this lawful relation between calm and contemplation as taught in traditional Buddhism that I wish to explore in the remainder of the chapter. I will first describe the relation in Buddhist terms, and then suggest a biogenetic structural account of its lawful nature.


Contemplation is difficult for most individuals to carry out because the intentional processes of their minds are normally flitting from one object to another -- attracted by this object, avoiding that object, turning toward this object and away from that object. Intentionality and perception are conditioned by both biology and society to track interesting objects which become the nexus of cognitions within a background frame provided by the cognized environment. Concentration upon a single object to the exclusion of competing objects is an activity antithetical to this natural attitude, and yet is a skill required by the demands of mature concentration.

This is why Buddhist psychology makes a clear distinction between the techniques by which calm and concentration are developed ( samathabhavana , or samadhibhavana ; bhavana meaning "development"), and techniques by which insight and wisdom are developed ( vipassanabhavana , or pannabhavana ). The techniques of the former kind are geared to producing inner peace-of-mind and one-pointed concentration, and the techniques of the latter kind are directed at utilizing that peace-of-mind and concentration for a systematic study of the essential structures of consciousness. The former techniques are used to counter patterns of conditioning that operate to thwart calm and concentration, and the latter techniques are applied to the attainment of liberation. If the patterns that comprise the natural attitude continue to reign uncountered, application of insight techniques will prove fruitless. It is instructive that the Vissudhimagga (Buddhaghosa 1976) -- perhaps the most complete manual on contemplation ever penned -- consists of two volumes in its modern incarnation. The first volume gives instructions on how to live a lifestyle conducive to contemplation and how to calm and concentrate the mind, both of which must be mastered before attempting insight work, the topic of the second volume.

Sila (Virtuous Lifestyle)

I like to think of the various factors leading to the maturation of self-knowledge as being like a three-legged milking stool. In order to sit comfortably upon a milking stool, all three legs must be well grounded and all the same length. The three legs represent appropriate lifestyle ( sila ), calming techniques ( samathabhavana ) and the unfolding of intuitive insight ( vipassanabhavana ). The way it works is like this: If I am living a distressful lifestyle, I am not going to be able to calm my mind very effectively. Distress places sever limits on how calm one can become and how concentrated the mind may be disciplined. If I am not able to calm myself, then the unfolding of insights about myself is hindered.

But if I am a serious meditator, then I will take the insights that manage to arise, or receive them vicariously from my teacher or guide, and apply them to changing my lifestyle. Perhaps I now live a more peaceful lifestyle. The calming techniques I practice are now more effective, and as a consequence my concentration becomes more acute. Insight into the processes of mind comes more readily and perhaps leads to further changes in lifestyle, and so on.

If I try to calm myself without realizing I have to change my lifestyle -- perhaps change my job or the company I keep -- then it is like trying to sit on a stool with one leg too short. The stool will not hold me, and my lifestyle will not support my desire for wisdom. But if I apply what wisdom I receive to changing my lifestyle and deepening my calm, then the application will in turn accelerate the maturation of wisdom. Thus lifestyle, calming and insight are conceived as being three aspects of the same process that eventually leads to liberation from the cause of suffering.

Many of the Buddha's moral teachings were directed at householders. He taught them how to live wholesome lifestyles conducive to calm and the maturation of wisdom. But many more and stricter teachings were directed at the monastic order, the members of which had "gone forth" into the life of the wandering mendicant. The subsequent history of contemplative training among the various Buddhist schools has usually centered upon the monastic life where the problem of establishing a lifestyle conducive to meditation is usually easier to solve.

The Jhanas

Traditional Buddhist training in most schools emphasize the importance of calming the mind by also developing the jhanas . (2) The word jhana is variously translated in the English literature, but I will stick with the most common rendering, "absorption." Jhana refers to a state of mind in which the faculties are totally absorbed in the task-at-hand. We experience this kind of mind-state when we are totally engrossed ("absorbed") in a book, knitting, making love, driving, or whatever. The absorbed mind is relatively hard to distract and is very centered upon the object, be that object a book, pattern of wool, the road ahead, etc. We become "one with" the object; that is, the empirical ego-sense is lost. There is awareness only of the object; the object as it were completely fills consciousness. All competing objects are abandoned for the duration of the absorption-state.

The difference is that in meditation the initial object is some object like the breath, the rise and fall of the abdomen, a crystal, a flower, a painting of a deity, etc. One thing that makes these objects different is that the course of meditation can unfold through a series of progressively more subtle objects and experiences in a way that the more normal experiences of absorption cannot do because of the practical implications of the task. In reading a book one cannot "go into" the patterns of light-dark contrast of the print without losing track of the meaning of the words. Driving a car one cannot become absorbed in the vanishing-point of the highway on the horizon, or the back-and-forth movement of the windshield wipers, without risking an accident.

In traditional Buddhist psychology, the jhanas are said to arise in the absence of what are termed "the five hindrances" ( pancanivarana ). These five, loosely translated, are:

1. Desire to experience pleasant phenomena (kamachanda) . In the natural attitude the mind is conditioned to seek pleasant experiences. We want to experience tasty foods, sexual intercourse, bright sunny days at the beach, our favorite TV shows, etc. We inherit this adaptationally useful facility from our basic animal neurobiology which is organized to find food to sustain us. The energy behind desire can range from mild attraction to powerful lust cathected upon pleasant objects. Ordinarily our mind is leaping from one phenomenon to another in an endless series of new attentions. Some individuals experience so much anxiety behind this attentional meandering that they cannot concentrate on any object for more than a few moments (we often refer to such individuals as "being scattered").

2. Desire to avoid the experience of unpleasant phenomena (byapada) . This is the polar opposite to the first hindrance. In the natural attitude the mind is also conditioned to avoid unpleasant experiences. We wish to avoid foul tastes, painful injuries, inclimate weather, obnoxious persons, etc. This facility also comes to us via our neurobiological organization which is designed to avoid being poisoned, or becoming food ourselves. This negative desire may range in energy from mild aversion to powerful hatred cathected upon unpleasant objects. When an activity is uninteresting, we experience boredom and the mind is conditioned to seek out alternative objects. For example, when we get bored washing dishes, we listen to music, watch TV or have a conversation. Our body becomes like an automaton which can wash the dishes while "we" are mentally elsewhere.

3. Low energy mind-states (thina-middha) . This refers to the low energy states in the body-mind. This includes mind states that are characterized by dullness, drowsiness, inertia, sleepiness, low energy, etc. The mind is not loose and flowing and the energies are not available to feed concentration.

4. Overly excited and anxious mind-states (uddhacca-kukkucca) . This refers to overly excited, agitated, disquieted and anxious states of mind. The disquietude is signalling, however indistinctly, that something is wrong and that there is something to worry about. The anxiety may be generalized and totally diffuse and may be directed at no particular object, or it may be cathected to a specific object to which the mind repeatedly returns.

5. Uncertainty and doubt about the value of the meditation path (vicikicca) . This is a negative attitude toward the goal, methods and guidance of one's teacher. It does not refer to the healthy, "show me," critical attitude essential to any productive empirical exploration. It is the failure to "suspend disbelief" long enough for the methods to prove themselves one way or the other. This hindrance is reflected in the anti-introspectionism found in the writings of many contemporary psychologists (e.g., Edelman 1989: Chapter 2).

The five hindrances are considered to be the polar opposites of the "five jhana factors" ( jhanangani ); that is, the qualities of consciousness that characterize the jhana -state. You will have noticed that I speak of the jhanas in the plural. This is because different jhana states, or states of absorption, are recognized depending upon the number of jhana factors present in the state. This is a technicality we need not get into. It is more important that we get the sense of the aspects of mind involved in producing these states:

1. Single-minded concentration upon the object of meditation (ekaggata) . Instead of the mind leaping about like a wild monkey, as it were grabbing at first this object and that object of desire, the mind is completely concentrated upon a single object of meditation to the exclusion of all other competing objects. The intensity of this "one-pointed" concentration is sufficient to eliminate any distracting stimuli from awareness. Thus it is lawfully opposed to the desire to experience pleasant objects that predominates more scattered mind-states.

2. Bliss, joy or rapture (piti) . This quality refers to the light, flowing feeling that accompanies enhanced relaxation. The feeling of flow may be mild enjoyment of the meditation, or many intensify as bliss and peak in ecstasy. It is the feeling-state that produces joyful smiling. As a consequence, joy is the lawful opposite of the feeling we experience when we have an aversive reaction to an unpleasant object. Yogic techniques designed to evoke this factor can produce such an intense state of joy that for a period of time feelings like hatred, loathing, revulsion, dislike, etc. cannot arise, even in the presence of objects to which they were previously cathected.

3. Happiness (sukha) . This quality, closely associated with the above rapture, is the feeling of pleasure that comes from the project at hand. It is simply "having a good time" or "having fun" with the object. Happiness is the feeling incentive behind continuing the effort of concentration. It is the quality that accompanies and signals the playful, metanoic aspect of meditation, and is often the one that is missing for a meditator suffering from an anxiety neurosis.

4. Establishing intentionality upon the object (vitakka) . This quality is commonly translated as "applied thought" and refers to the turning of the mind to its object. This is not merely attention, but is the "paying attention," to use a modern idiom. It is the "paying" that defines this factor -- the actual movement or redirection of the mental faculties from the previous object to the new object. As we mentioned in Chapter 1, this movement may be evoked by the object, or the object may be sought in fulfillment of intentionality. In either case, as we found out in our attention exercise, the turning of the mind to the object requires effort, expends energy.

5. Maintaining intentionality upon the object (vicara) . This quality is usually translated as "sustained thought" and is paired with the above "applied thought" as two phases of a single process. This refers to maintenance of continuous attention to the object. And with continuous attention to the object comes the proliferation of cognitive associations that complete the intentionality of the object. To maintain attention the mind must find the object interesting in some sense. Interest in turn leads to the exploration of and the deepening of concentration upon the object.

Lest this typically Buddhist analysis of the jhana qualities lead to the mistaken notion that they are rare and esoteric, let me give a less formal account of states of absorption. What is happening is that my mind finds an object interesting and concentrates its faculties upon the object. In order to follow my interest, I must turn my mind to the object and open the object up to exploration. The more interested I become in the object, the less likely competitive objects will intrude upon my concentration, and the more single-minded I become relative to the object of choice. And the more concentrated I become on the object, the more fun I will have with it. This process is not wholly esoteric, but is rather commonplace. It happens every time we get engrossed in a good book, movie, or making love. We lose track of what else is happening around us while we become single-mindedly interested in the object of our entertainment.

It is easy to understand how the truly absorbed mind-state is opposite to those mind-states characterized by the hindrances described above. If the object is interesting and leads to absorption, then it is not being experienced as unpleasant or boring, and there is lots of pleasurable energy available for the exploration of the object.

What is different about absorption in meditation is that the mind learns to deepen the concentration upon the object to an extraordinary extent, so much so that the feeling of happiness grades into rapture, alternative objects become effortlessly ignored, and concentration becomes unusually wilful and intense. And because there is a lawful relationship between intensity of concentration and tranquillity, the two feed off of one another: The more concentrated my mind becomes, the calmer and more centered I become, and the calmer and more centered I become, the greater is my concentration upon the object. This deepening of experience is aided by the fact that the meditator is instructed to shift his or her attention from an initial object "outside" to its complementary internal eidetic image (called the uggahanimitta ). The shift produces the conditions for an all-important shift to intentionality directed at the essential qualities of internal processing. This shift effectively removes the limits imposed upon perception by the patterned energies comprising the sensed, external noumenon. The process becomes even more effective when the meditator shifts attention to an image that spontaneously arises (called the patibhaganimitta ) in response to concentration upon the internal image. I will have more to say about the use of images in contemplation in Chapter 8, but the point to be made here is that the extraordinary calm and concentration required for the full range of explorations carried out in mature contemplation require disciplined training of intentional and metabolic processes already present and operating in the mental life of normal human beings.

The Jhanas and Contemplation

The process of meditation training in the Buddhist tradition, just as that for transcendental phenomenology, is directed at attaining knowledge about the essential principles of consciousness. Development (3) of the jhana qualities is never to be considered an end in itself. In fact, over-indulgence in the jhana-states is considered a major hindrance to awakening in Buddhist psychology. To seek the bliss-filled jhana states for mere pleasure is tantamount to making the jhana practice into an extraordinary version of the first hindrance, the desire for pleasurable experiences, or kamachanda . It is possible for one to learn how to wilfully produce rapturous, absorbed mind-states without gaining even a modicum of self-awareness. From the Buddhist perspective, yogis who spend a lot of time cultivating the jhanas to the exclusion of insight meditation are nothing better than "bliss-junkies."

In the main, the ability to enter an absorption-state performs three functions relative to contemplation. First, the jhana states disengage the mind from the adaptational press of the operational environment. This disengagement is tantamount to performing Husserl's first phenomenological epoche -- suspending concern about the existence or non-existence of phenomena. There is, as we have seen, a movement of the attentional faculties toward wholly internally generated objects (i.e., images, feelings, qualities, factors of mind, etc.) and away from the force of detectable energy patterns impinging from outside the being. This removal of environmental press effectively suspends life-long patterns of conditioned cognitive and behavioral responses to events in the external world, and allows the mind to enter more playful, metanoic states more conducive to growth and transformation of models.

Second, the absorption states center and free the intentional faculties from conditioned scanning activities and premature closure of models. Absorption allows the consciousness to wilfully concentrate upon one object to the exclusion of alternative and competitive objects. This sets the stage for the maximum reorganization of intentionality, including intuitive faculties, relative to the chosen object. Maximum reorganization requires that models not be allowed to prematurely complete their organization, as they do when environmental press requires closure and adaptive response. Sustained concentration has the effect of keeping the models open to developmental processes, thus maximizing the maturational effects of intelligent and intuitive exploration of the object.

Third, absorption states generate and free the "psychic energy" requisite to contemplation. In fact, Buddhist insight meditators are trained to enter absorption states, both to counter the hindrances, and to access and make available enormous reserves of energy which can sustain protracted periods of insight work. It is not uncommon for a mature contemplative to move back and forth between jhana meditations and insight work in order to maintain the tranquillity and concentration upon which the latter depends for fruition.

Intuition and Mature Contemplation in the Buddhist Tradition

Through control of the jhana qualities, the Buddhist meditator learns to enter and maintain a state of consciousness characterized as spacious, peaceful, chatter-free, non-reactive, and totally tranquil. In this state, the meditator may choose to enter either an absorption state (pursue the jhana path), or a state of active exploration of the principles of mind (pursue the insight path). This state is considered to be the optimal one for contemplation and is called variously "access concentration" ( upacarasamadhi ) in the Theravadin tradition and "the Great Sign" or "the Great Movement" ( mahamudra ) in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. Most meditative traditions of which I am aware recognize this state of mind. It is the state suggested by the literal meaning of "contemplation" in the western Christian tradition -- the word meaning to enter a temple-like space. (4) It is also the state described as Beauty ( Tipareth ) in the Qabbalistic Tree of Life teaching.

While in the state of access concentration, any course of insight practice will unfold at an optimal, often rapid rate. As we noted in Chapter 3, intuitive insights are hard to attain under conditions of negative stress. The optimal conditions for accessing creative intuition are precisely those characterizing access concentration -- total calm, active attention, and active interest in some scope of inquiry without any adaptational demands or discursive thought being present to consciousness. Whether interest is directed at the hidden meanings of the four elements, as in the case of Theravadin Buddhist, Qabbalistic and other cosmological meditations, at the hidden answers to paradoxical questions ( koans ) that confound the rational faculties, as in the Zen tradition, or at the structure of apparent chaos, as in modern physics, intuitive insights readily inform the meditator to the extent that one is grounded in access concentration and one's interest is both single-minded and real.

Buddhist contemplation is distinct, however, in that all of its meditations are ultimately directed toward uncovering the causes of suffering ( dukkha ). The solution to the problem of suffering is understood to be desire ( tanha ; e.g., desire for pleasure, for the end of pain, for health, for sensual experience, for existence, etc.) and is realized in the experience of enlightenment ( nirvana ; literally the "blowing out of the flame of desire" for these things). The realization of enlightenment can only arise as a consequence of a chain of insights leading to the direct apprehension of the essence of mind, which is the impermanence ( anicca ) of all phenomena, including the self ( anatta ). This chain of intuitive insights ( ditthivisuddhi ), which is conceived as a path consisting of the purification of ones point of view about the causes of suffering, will optimally unfold for the contemplative only when the mind is "purified" ( cittavisuddhi ) through living a virtuous lifestyle and mastery of the jhanas. Moreover, the chain of insights is conceived as a series of developmental stages culminating in intuitive apprehension of the goal of all the previous insights (see Mahasi 1978, Buddhaghosa 1964) -- that being the intuitive realization of emptiness ( sunyata ). Emptiness may be realized with absorption into the dissolution of the sensorial particles ("dots;" see next chapter) that comprise all phenomena.


1. But not all schools of Buddhism emphasized "wet path" discipline equally. For example, Nagarjuna and his Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism de-emphasized meditation in favor of a direct, dialectical method of encountering wisdom.

2. See e.g., the Culahatthipadopana and Samannaphala Suttas in the Theravadin tradition.

3. There is a complex psychology of the development of the jhana factors in Buddhism that I will not touch upon here.

4. The term comes from the Greek com plus templum , meaning a space marked out for concentration upon divination or portends, upon the meaning of events -- temples being spacious holy buildings.