Seven Factors of Enlightenment: Samadhi

By Manu Rheaume

April 22, 2021

I’m honored to have been asked by the “Daily Dhamma Study Group - Buddhist Pali Canon (English & Other Languages)” group on Facebook to talk about Samadhi for their 3 weeks long Vesak this May. I want to start off by first addressing a critical point in understanding the Seven Factors of Enlightenment by asking what the word “enlightenment” really means. Sometimes the word Awakening is also used here instead of enlightenment, but it should be understood as more or less the same thing in this context.

I believe that The Seven Factors of Enlightenment (mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, Samadhi, equanimity) should be viewed as seven states that ultimately allow you to transcend states altogether, since enlightenment is beyond any state.  In Theravada Buddhism, enlightenment is more defined by what it is not than what it is.  The standard definition given is an enlightened being is one who is free of the defilements; greed (raga), hatred (dvesha), and delusion (moha).   While this definition does suffice in perhaps trying to give some form to what this ultimate goal could be, I really want to emphasize that to view enlightenment as a state is a mistake.

The other mistake that can be easily made here is that since these seven factors are scalable, meaning that they can be experienced to various degrees, it might be thought that enlightenment is also scalable. However, enlightenment is a placeholder for something which is beyond description and beyond words.  This also applies to the idea of Nibbana, which is seen as the “blowing out of a candle.” It is also of note that both Enlightenment and Nibbana are synonymous and used almost interchangeably in Theravada Buddhism.

With that said, I would like to ask, what is the point of developing different states if enlightenment is not a state? The answer is, the state arises, not because you develop a state, but because you are purifying the mind through the tools laid out in Buddhism.  To the degree which these seven factors reflect purification of the defilements of the mind, to that degree we are talking about True Samadhi, True Mindfulness, True Joy. All of these qualities are to be understood, not just in a mundane way where we think good thoughts or we are happy due to this or that external pleasure, but only to the extent that they have arisen due to the purification of a defilement.

In addition, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment are deeply connected and should be understood as impossible to fully develop individually, meaning that to master one of them is to master all of them. You could view this in much the same way that the Buddha says that to fully understand either the Four Noble Truths or The Eight Fold Path or Dependent Origination or The Great Elements or The Seven Factors of Enlightenment, is to understand them all fully.  Therefore, in approaching the discussion of all these seven factors, we must maintain great humility because these words and concepts are really here to point us to a point beyond the intellectual understanding of them.

Samadhi is by far the most all-encompassing of the seven factors and is mentioned in Buddhism in the following ways:

  1. The Seven Factors of Enlightenment obviously includes the word Samadhi, which traditionally would be seen as concentration. However, as this article goes on you'll see that I attempt to make the case that it reflects something closer to a high state of consciousness.
  2. Samadhi is also seen as a reinforcement of Bojjhanga (Seven Factors of Enlightenment).
  3. The last of the Eightfold path, which is usually translated as Right Concentration in English, is actually Right Samadhi.
  4. Samadhi is talked about as the peak of the Eightfold Path.(In the M.N. 117, Maha-cattarisaka Sutta, The Great Forty, the Buddha tells us, “…Now what, monks, is noble Right Samadhi with its supports & requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, & right mindfulness — is called noble Right Samadhi with its supports & requisite conditions.” )
  5. Samadhi is talked about as one of the Threefold Division of the Eightfold Path, known as Sila, Samadhi and Panna.
  6. Samadhi is talked about as being synonymous with the Jhanas (meditative states).
  7. Samadhi is sometimes defined as one-pointedness of mind.
  8. Samadhi is sometimes defined as collecting or bringing together.
  9. Samadhi is sometimes defined as a meditative absorption or union.
  10. In Early Buddhism, Samadhi was seen as the goal, while later insight (prajna) started to take greater importance.
  11. Samadhi is often talked about as being synonymous with Samatha, usually defined as calm abiding.

In addition, I think it’s worth noting that you also have the Hindu influence when trying to discover the meaning of Samadhi.  In the case of the Hindu tradition, or more specifically Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, you also have the following definitions

  1. Samadhi is the complete absorption in the divine or union.
  2. Samadhi is the final goal, i.e. Enlightenment.
  3. Samadhi leads to Samyama (the ability to directly perceive Truth). Samyama arises through the practice of concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana), and union (Samadhi).

Now if all this seems quite confusing, it’s because it is. The word Samadhi seems to be a general term, a practice, a categorization and used in trying to define other terms.  One example of this is how in the Three Divisions, the Samadhi aspect, is seen as including Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Samadhi.  Then on top of that, Samadhi is also seen as being the peak of the Eightfold path.

As someone who follows the early Theravada Buddhist view, I really see the Jhanas as being the primary focal point in trying to discover the truth about Samadhi. In the MN 141, Saccavibhanga Sutta, An Analysis of the Truths , we see the following:

“And what is right Samadhi? There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, 'Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.' With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called right concentration.”

Then in MN 36, Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka, the Buddha talks about how after reaching the 4th Jhana he experienced the following:

"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two...five, ten...fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion. 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.' Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes & details.”

"This was the first knowledge I attained in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, & resolute. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.”
"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away & reappearance of beings. I saw — by means of the divine eye, purified & surpassing the human — beings passing away & re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: 'These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, & mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell.”

“But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech & mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.' Thus — by means of the divine eye, purified & surpassing the human — I saw beings passing away & re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with their kamma.”

"This was the second knowledge I attained in the second watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, & resolute. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.”

"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations. I discerned, as it was actually present, that 'This is stress... This is the origination of stress... This is the cessation of stress... This is the way leading to the cessation of stress... These are fermentations... This is the origination of fermentations... This is the cessation of fermentations... This is the way leading to the cessation of fermentations.' My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, 'Released.' I discerned that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'”

"This was the third knowledge I attained in the third watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, & resolute. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.”

Now that we have some perspective on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, discussed the different definitions of Samadhi and heard what the Buddha has to make of all this, I would like to make a couple of final points that will hopefully wrap this topic up and allow you to take away something useful for your own practice.

It is my belief, since I fully recognize that I and everyone else does not speak for the Buddha, that the Buddha clearly saw:

  1. Samadhi as critical to reaching Enlightenment.
  2. Samadhi itself denotes states of consciousness which is why it can be used in reference to The Seven Factors of Enlightenment,  Jhanas, the Eightfold path, a Division within the Eightfold path and a goal (even though in Buddhism it is not the ultimate goal). The proof of this is mostly in that it’s development is dependent on the other seven parts of the Eightfold path needing to be developed.
  3. These higher state of consciousness allow for higher knowledge through direct perception, which in the Hindu system is called Samyama. I haven’t found the Pali word for this even though there may very well be one. However, I do believe that using a comparative religious approach does strengthen the argument rather than diminish it.

To say this another way, you must develop a deep state of Samadhi in order to investigate Dhamma, or the nature of reality itself. This investigative property in relation to Samadhi is ultimately aimed at Vipassana, since the idea here is that the combination of these two factors will lead to insight. I believe that in order to obtain enlightenment you must reach the 4th Jhana, which is denoted as being a place where the mind is ““concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady and attained to imperturbability” and that from there, you can then investigate reality directly, Samyama.  I would also like to note here that this 4th Jhana wouldn’t just be having a “clear mind” in the everyday understanding of these words, but rather something supermundane, hence the higher knowledge the Buddha talks about.

Now Samadhi in Buddhism, much like in Hinduism, has levels and one of the critical levels is called when Samyama is developed.  Samyama is seen as the ability to merge with a specific thing, thereby directly gain true knowledge of that thing.  Samyama is a scalable phenomenon and I believe functions very much the same way thought retrieval works - you direct your awareness to a specific topic and then certain information is presented to your awareness. Therefore, if someone was about to develop their mind to what is described as the 4th Jhana in Buddhism, I believe that with knowledge of Samyama, one is able to then direct one's awareness, merge with it, and ultimately know the Truth of it through direct experience.

In conclusion, Samadhi in the Seven Factors of Enlightenment is part of developing one's consciousness so that direct knowledge through the Jhanas can be obtained. Thank you for taking the time to hear my views on this. The reason I bring this up isn’t to convert anyone from one organized religion to another, but because I believe that through understanding other traditions, we also can begin to have a broader understanding.  I believe that both Buddhism and Hinduism have become corrupted over time, but by study and practice we can resist dogma and directly experience for ourselves what the Buddha talked about. I believe that most of the books, especially in the West, are written by academics and not by those who have glimpsed what the Buddha himself experienced.

May all beings be happy, peaceful and liberated.

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