On Translation: The Semantics of Samadhi

A neurologist and Zen practitioner charts the phases and meanings of samadhiJames H. Austin

On the other hand, some absorptions are the result of a deep inward turning. When the state becomes this internalized, the corresponding descriptive term would be internal absorption. The central features of a major internal absorption include (1) no spontaneous thought; (2) an intensified, fixed, internalized awareness; (3) an expansion of especially clear awareness into ambient space; (4) the disappearance of the bodily self; (5) a distinctive closing off of all sight and sound; (6) a deep, blissful serenity; and (7) a marked slowing or cessation of respiration.

It is a singular state, this sensate loss, combined with an awareness amplified to brilliant intensity. No such mixture is possible to imagine. A person must have been there and returned. In the interim, a pair of diagrams may assist in our discussion. Suppose we begin by adopting the following premise: that the boundary which separates our ordinary self from the outer world is a mental construct. In this case, our conscious mental field containing these self/other relationships will resemble that diagrammed in figure 1. Then, for contrast, the state of internal absorption with sensate loss can be represented schematically by the second diagram, figure 2.

Note how much stops during internal absorption. The person’s mental field lacks sensations of vision, hearing, and touch. Something stops them from entering from the outside world. Absent too are the subtler proprioceptive senses arising from the inside physical self. All that remains is clear awareness expanded to the nth degree throughout a vacuum plenum. The two bars in figure 2 indicate the possibility that synaptic transmission can be blocked in the brain at more than one site.

In the depths of internal absorption, not only does sensate input drop off, but no thoughts engage in any of their usual mental reflections. Later, as the person comes out of this internalized moment, sensate perceptions and affect seem to have been rinsed. “You find yourself full of peace and serenity, equipped with strong mental power and dignity,” wrote Katsuki Sekida in Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy. “You are intellectually alert and clear, emotionally pure and sensitive.”

translation feature image summer 1998Meditators usher in their everyday sitting with a prelude of bowing and other meditative rituals. These become semivoluntary preparations, part of their routine for enhancing concentration. But later, in an episode of absorption, what supervenes is an involuntary concentration. And the way that it takes over is quite extraordinary. Some authors have concluded that three meditative techniques make it easier to enter into samadhi: (1) becoming totally absorbed in “crawling along” inch by inch from one exhalation to the next; (2) focusing on the lower abdomen (the tanden); and (3) closing the eyes (unorthodox for Zen), so as to facilitate looking inward.

D. T. Suzuki describes what happened to him on the fifth day of one particular sesshin. At the time he had entered samadhi and had become totally absorbed in his koan, Mu. By then, he had lost every artificial separateness which had previously been implied by the phrase “Being conscious of” Mu. Instead, he was “in Mu.” United with his koan, he was in the union of “samadhi.”

Now comes the next phase, a rising up and out from samadhi. It is a sensitive interval, and it can prove critical. In this period of clarity, a sudden stimulus might trigger kensho or satori. To those same persons who, moments before, had been totally absorbed in their koan, being abruptly released from such a focused concentration could become an avenue for reaching the threshold of kensho. Indeed, further to illustrate this point, it is important to note what then happened in D. T. Suzuki’s own circumstance. For it was when a bell awakened him out of this particular samadhi that he went on to experience satori.

In this, and in numerous other examples, one finds a period of samadhi can be a prelude to kensho. Most often, it is a separate episode which precedes awakening by weeks, months, or years. But sometimes, it can precede it by seconds. One can then appreciate how, when these two states do evolve back to back, they could have great impact. A stunned novice might later describe the whole episode as one complex evolving event, oblivious to the fact that the two categories of events had merged as they had fallen one after the other in sequence.

The simpler episodes of samadhi blend themselves into daily life in other ways. As the more advanced meditators sink deeper, to enter and leave successively deeper periods of absorption, they retain for a longer period thereafter their residues of clear awareness and their light, brisk, fluid behaviors. These qualities will then diffuse out to reinforce that quiet awareness which goes on gratefully appreciating each of the wondrous events that make up the day.

James H. Austin, M.D., is Professor Emeritus of Neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. He is the author of Chase, Chance, and Creativity and the author or coauthor of more than one hundred and thirty publications in the fields of neurochemistry, neuropharmacology, and clinical neurology.

Excerpted from Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness (1998) by James H. Austin, M.D., reprinted with permission from The MIT Press. Images courtesy of James H. Austin.

Image 1: Ideogram for samadhi, from the Zen-inspired brush of the suthor's calligraphy teacher, Terayama Katsujo. 

Image 2: The ordinary mental field. Stimuli enter from the outside world and from internal proprioceptive events. The blend seems to contribute to a central thinking "self."

Image 3: The mental field of absorption with sensate loss. A major absorption vanishes the bodily self and effaces the ordinary physical boundaries of the I-ME-MINE. Here, the dotted lines serve only to indicate its former boundaries. What remains is a witnessed, silent, heightened clear ambient awareness. Note that the sensations are blocked.

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