Natural Concentration and Insight

Natural Concentration and Insight

By Desmond Yeoh SC

Ceramic Products Manufacturer in Malaysia

Ceramic Products

The old monk was seated in front of his disciples; consisting of monks and lay disciples. They were protected from the scorching afternoon sun by the shade of the surrounding Bodhi trees.  The disciples remain respectfully silent, awaiting the old monk’s spiritual discourse. The chirping of the birds and the sound of the nearby stream added to the sanctity of the moment.

The old monk is well known throughout the country as a wise enlightened being. Even though he is already in his nineties, he still talked with a strong voice and his eyes radiated intelligence. He looked around at his disciples as if trying to identify the most pressing topic to cover. After a few moments, he smiled and began his discourse, “Concentration can come about naturally on the one hand, and as a result of organised practice on the other. The end result is identical in two cases: the mind is concentrated and fit to be used for carrying out close introspection”.

“One thing must be noticed however: the intensity of concentration that comes about naturally is usually sufficient and appropriate for introspection and insight, whereas the concentration resulting from organised training is usually excessive, more than can be made use of. Furthermore, misguided satisfaction with that highly developed concentration may result[1]. While the mind is fully concentrated, it is likely to be experiencing such a satisfying kind of bliss and well-being that the meditator may become attached to it, or imagine it to be the Fruit of the Path”.

Ananda, one of the monks present, felt guilty when he heard this. He had always thought that these blissful states obtained during meditation are measures of one’s spiritual progress instead of what they truly are – potential obstacles to progress. When he turned his gaze again at the old monk he saw the old monk smiling compassionately at him.

The old monk continued, “Naturally occurring concentration, which is sufficient and suitable for use in introspection, is harmless, having none of the disadvantages inherent in concentration developed by means of intensive training. Natural concentration is liable to developed of its own accord while one is attempting to understand clearly some question, and that the resulting insight, as long as it is firmly established, will be quite intense and stable”.

“It happens naturally, automatically, in just the same way as the mind becomes concentrated the moment we set about doing arithmetic. Likewise in firing a gun, when we take aim, the mind automatically becomes concentrated and steady. This is how naturally occurring concentration comes about. We normally overlook it completely because it does not appear the least bit magical, miraculous, or awe inspiring. But through the power of just this naturally occurring concentration, most of us could actually attain liberation”.

“So don’t overlook this naturally occurring concentration. It is something most of us either already have, or can readily develop. We have to do everything we can to cultivate and develop it, to make it function perfectly and yield appropriate results”.

A lay disciple was intrigue by the concept. He asked, “How do we develop natural concentration?”

“The first stage is joy, mental happiness or spiritual well-being: Doing good in some way can be a source of joy. Higher up, at the level of morality, completely blameless conduct by way of word and action brings an increase in joy. We then discover that there is a definite kind of delight associated with this natural concentration”.

“This rapture has in itself the power to induce tranquillity. Normally the mind is quite unrestrained, continually falling slave to all sorts of thoughts and feelings associated with enticing things outside. It is normally restless, not calm. But as spiritual joy becomes established; calm and steadiness are bound to increase in proportion. When steadiness has been perfected, the result is full concentration. The mind becomes tranquil, steady, flexible, manageable, light and at ease; ready to be used for any desired purpose – in particular, for the elimination of confusion”.

“It is not a case of the mind’s being rendered silent, hard and rock-like. Nothing like that happens at all. The body feels normal; the mind is especially calm and suitable for use in thinking and introspection. It is perfectly clear, perfectly cool, perfectly still and restrained. In other words, it is fit for work, ready to know”.

“This is the degree of concentration to be aimed for; not the very deep concentration where one sits rigidly like a stone image, quite devoid of awareness. Sitting in deep concentration like that – one is in no position to investigate anything. A deeply concentrated mind cannot practice introspection at all. It is a state of unawareness and is of no use for insight/wisdom. Deep concentration is a major obstacle to insight practice”.

“To practice introspection, one must first return to the shallower levels of concentration; then one can make use of the power the mind has acquired. In developing insight by this natural method, we do not have to attain deep concentration and sit with the body rigid. Rather, we aim at a calm, steady mind; one so fit for work that when it is applied to insight practice, it gains right understanding with regard to the entire world. Insight so developed is natural wisdom; the kind that brings understanding. It does not involve ceremonial procedures or miracles”.

The old monk remained silent for a moment to allow time for questions. Ananda thought to himself, ‘concentration implies focusing on an object or subject. If there is no object or subject, there can be no concentration. Seeking to clarify this, he asked the old monk, “What can we discover with natural concentration”.

“With concentration, we can develop insight into the true nature of things – seeing impermanence, suffering and the illusory self or ego; seeing that nothing is worth getting, nothing is worth being; seeing that no object whatsoever should be grasped at and clung to as being a self or as belonging to a self; as good or bad; attractive or repulsive”.

“The term ’Being’ refers to the awareness of one’s status as husband, wife, rich man, poor man, winner, loser or human being, or even the awareness of being oneself. If we really look deeply at it, even being oneself is no fun, is wearisome, because it is a source of suffering. If one can give up clinging to the idea of being oneself, then being oneself will no longer be suffering. Being anything, no matter what, is bound to be suffering in a way appropriate to that particular state of being: A poor man has suffering appropriate to his state of being and a rich man has suffering appropriate to his state of being. Even beings in higher realms of existence have suffering appropriate to their state of being”.

“Any state of being, if it is to continue as such, has to be made to last, to endure. But nothing is permanent. All these point to the truth that there is no state of being such that to maintain it, will not involve struggle. The trouble and struggle necessary to maintain one’s state of being are simply the result of blind infatuation with things; of clinging to things”.

“The world and all things have the property of impermanence, of worthlessness and of not belonging to anyone. Any individual who grasps at and clings to anything will be hurt by it; in the very beginning when he first desires to get it or to be it, later while he is in the process of getting it or being it, and then again after he has got it or been it. All the time, before, during and after, when anyone grasps and clings with deaf ears and blind eyes, he will receive his full measure of suffering, just as can been seen happening to all deluded beings”.

As Annie listened to the words of the old monk, the truth struck her like a sledgehammer. Wherever she desired something, she never bothered to look at the negative aspect of the object desired; in fact, she refused to look at the negative aspects out of fear of losing her motivation. She remembered how she struggled to become the president of the Rotary Club. The funny thing is that she saw the struggle as exciting rather than what it actually was – suffering. Her mind called the struggle many things – passion, excitement, entrepreneurship etc. but refused to acknowledge it as suffering. Now that she is president, she had many responsibilities that she wished she did not have and she has to struggle to make sure that she gets re-elected next year. Yes, she is proud of being president but she is now questioning if it is all that worthwhile. The position helped her gain some business contacts but it also gained her quite a few enemies as well. The more she thought about it, the less attractive the position appears to her.

She is beginning to see everything like the flame of a candle. One can give the flame a name and title but it will never have a ‘self’. The flame exist due to causes and conditions; due to the wax and wick, the initial match that lit it etc. It also exists because of the absence of certain causes and conditions such as strong winds or rain. After considering the myriad causes and conditions that must exist for anything to exist, she could easily see how the effort to grasp at anything can lead to unnecessary suffering.  She remembered the words of another master – ‘everything that we gain contains within it the seed of a future loss’.

She vowed to herself that from now on, she will subject everything that she desired to this same scrutiny. She will recognise the impermanence of all things and the struggle that comes with maintaining them.




The ‘discourse’ by the old monk is extracts from the book, ‘Handbook for Mankind’ by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.

[1] I discussed about this problem in my previous article, ‘Meditative Absorption and Wisdom’.

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