This word shows up often in our literature, often defined by the phrase “unreasonable joy”. We see it all over, for example:
- We say the 8th step in the Noble Eightfold Path is “Liberating Samadhi”
- The result of training in “mu” is a merry and playful samadhi.
- In the Song of Zazen, we intone “How boundless the clear sky of samadhi!”
- This Samadhi allows us to be fully engaged in life while aware of our true nature
We even have a passage that places samadhi next to enlightenment:
When you finally realize that all of the joy and sorrow of your life is a sacred gift and that your ego is indeed just a temporary, value-weighting view, a figment of divine imagination, you will experience a new state of freedom, gratitude, compassion and enjoyment of conscious being. This new enjoyable way of understanding, feeling and being is traditionally called Samadhi, or Enlightenment.
Clearly, samadhi is an important term in Hollow Bones Zen. While much can be gleaned from meditating on the various passages where it is used, there is also value in exploring the term itself more explicitly.
Let’s start by breaking it down. Samadhi is a Sanskrit compound including sam + a + dha which means “collecting or bringing together.” This meaning includes a connotation to correctly apprehend that which is being brought together. In the earliest usages, it is the essential factor of Buddhist meditation; specifically, an absence of aversion, drowsiness, restlessness and doubt while remaining completely unified around a single meditation object.
Over time, the usage of the term evolved somewhat to take on the connotation of “absorption,” the merging with the object of meditation entirely. What better way to comprehend the meditation object than to become it? This “deeper” form of concentration allows for non-dual experiences and is the basis of the meditation practices of non-dual wisdom traditions (like Zen). In this usage, Samadhi is the culmination of one-pointed concentration applied to the investigation of some phenomena, yielding an insight into the phenomena.
The next step must be the question: “What meditation objects can we merge with to experience enlightenment?”
Certainly, we can enter into flow state (in our lineage it’s called “positive samadhi”) in many areas of life without becoming enlightened. Any hobbyist of significant ability will have moments of “flow” during their desired activity. We may have moments of total presence when playing, singing, dancing, making tea, working out, doing the dishes, making love, writing a blog post on samadhi, or any other number of things. Considering that this flow is essentially the same: an exclusive, unified concentration on something so profound that we “merge” with it as a seamless expression— why don’t we awaken?
This is where the term “absolute samadhi” becomes relevant. “Absolute samadhi” refers to single-pointed concentration and unification with an objectless meditation, or the immediate experience of awareness itself. It can be thought of as entering a flow state simply because one is alive. When this experience is entered into frequently, there may eventually be a time when it “shatters” and we emerge from samadhi with a twist. In merging with awareness itself, and then being aware of the experience of emerging from it, the previously in-the-dark space within which the sensory-cognitive-emotional experience occurs becomes illuminated. This is enlightening kensho.
We can practice concentration, but we can’t practice meditation. Concentration is an effort; meditation is effortless surrender. Samadhi is the experience that arises when a unified mind releases into pure being. However, for the mind to remain unified in effortless surrender, it must be sufficiently concentrated. This requires effort.
It’s also true that any one of us can experience the qualities of awakened mind right now, if we just look. It’s simply who we already are, and this awakening is often experienced as a sudden knowing. However, to stabilize and maintain this samadhi in the complexity of life requires disciplined practice and commitment. The results are totally worth it.
For it is this samadhi which results in unreasonable joy, which is merry and playful, boundless and clear, liberating us to be fully engaged in life while aware of our deeper nature. This samadhi which enables us to know the inevitability of pain and the choice of suffering, and fuels the capacity to respond instead of react. This samadhi which we come into integrity with to bring about a harmonious and loving world. This samadhi is refuge in awakened mind and reveals the truth that we are all this light. It is this samadhi that reveals the never-ending, never-failing manifestation of the mysterious unfolding of truth.