How Did the Buddha Meditate?

Here’s an interesting question: how did the Buddha himself meditate? Did he meditate the same before and after enlightenment? Did he even bother to meditate after his enlightenment? It turns out to be not much a mystery at all. We pretty much know, and most of the story is given near the beginning of the SN 54.

Concentration by mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, is of great fruit and benefit…I too, monks, before my enlightenment, while I was still a bodhisatta, not yet fully enlightened, generally dwelt in this dwelling. While I generally dwelt in this dwelling, neither my body nor my eyes became fatigued and my mind, by not clinging, was liberated from the taints. Therefore, monks, if a monk wishes: “May neither my body nor my eyes become fatigued and may my mind, by not clinging, be liberated from the taints,” this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.

-SN 54.1.8 translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi

So the Buddha’s practice before his enlightenment was to hone his concentration (that is to say jhana practice) through mindfulness of breathing. What about after his enlightenment?

At some point long after his enlightenment when the sangha was firmly in place, he informed his monks that he would be spending his Vassa (rains retreat) completely alone in solitary meditation. He didn’t want to see anyone except people bringing him alms food. I imagine it as sort of a sabbatical to recharge his energy for the next seasons teaching. So what did he do for those 3 months? Did he use psychic powers to zip around the universe checking out planets? (Note: this would be high on my list.) Here’s what he said: “If followers of other teachers ask how I spent my rains retreat, just tell them he mostly spent his rains retreat in the concentration that comes from mindfulness of breathing.” (SN 54.2.1)

Before enlightenment, concentration practice through mindfulness of breathing, after enlightenment concentration practice through mindfulness of breathing. As they say, if it’s good enough for the Buddha…

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4 thoughts on “How Did the Buddha Meditate?

    1. Unfortunately, these suttas aren’t yet available online (as far as I could tell). I think they probably will be eventually on SuttaCentral. Until then, the BB print translation is just a treasure.

    2. Good luck. The buddha didn’t teach only meditation on the breath. This method is probably only mentioned maybe 8 times in all the Sutta’s. Jhana’s aren’t a level of concentration but rather a way of understanding. The Buddha himself having given up this method from his precious teachers went to sit alone to discover the path that lead to his enlightenment.

      1. “Good luck. ”
        Thanks! And I appreciate you comments.

        “The buddha didn’t teach only meditation on the breath. This method is probably only mentioned maybe 8 times in all the Sutta’s.”
        It’s true that the Buddha taught a number of methods, but this post specifically is about what the Buddha most did himself, and the evidence that he mostly did breath meditation. It is also the method that is by far the most carefully documented. The Buddha also “abided in Emptiness” as an arahant.

        “Jhana’s aren’t a level of concentration but rather a way of understanding.”
        I would partially agree. It’s true that Jhana can’t be reduced to just a level of concentration. But to then reduce it to just a way of understanding is only true in the sense that any experience is a way of understanding. The jhanas are altered states of consciousness achieved through deep mindfulness and letting go.

        “The Buddha himself having given up this method from his precious teachers went to sit alone to discover the path that lead to his enlightenment.”
        This is explicitly denied in the suttas. Indeed, when the Buddha “went to sit alone to discover the path”, he said he did so by returning to the jhanas after years of trying the path of fasting and other austerities.

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