Nine Abiding Mind (九住心): Stages to Samadhi

-by Ven. JianHu

Zen-7 lectures on 12-28-2007 and 12-28-2008 by Ven. JianHu

     An ordinary, distracted mind goes through nine stages to reach samadhi – they are called the Nine Abiding Mind, or the Nine Abidances of the Mind.  The 1st stage is called inner abiding  (第一:內住), where you collect your mind inward instead of clinging to something outward.   In our everyday life, our minds are always clinging to something outside—sights, sounds, good stuff, bad stuff, making  judgments, letting our discriminations be our masters. This mental process is referred to as out-flow.  In meditation practice we need to turn the out-flow into in-flow. Inner abiding means you do not pay attention to what’s happening outside anymore; instead, you focus on something inward such as your own breathing.  But if you can only maintain inner abiding for one second, or two seconds, that will not help you much.  In the beginning of our meditation practice, the mind frequently wanders away and clings to irrelevant things, such as noises other people are making, the fragrance of some food, your job, or your children, etc.  That’s not inner abiding.  As soon as your mind thinks about those things, you are not meditating but daydreaming.  So you need to detect that, and bring your focus inward again.

       The 2nd stage is called continuous abiding  (第二:續住), continuous inner abiding. You focus inward, for example, on your own breath, for one minute, maintaining the focus for all 60 seconds, and continuing on to 300 seconds, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, focusing continuously without interruption.  Your mind is there, moment to moment, from breathing in to breathing out, when you are neither breathing in nor breathing out, from one breath to the next breath.  That is continuous abiding.  If you keep getting distracted, be patient.  You can do it; it just takes practice, even if you have to practice it 1000 times. Without continuous abiding, you cannot get to the next stage .

       The 3rd stage is called calm abiding  (第三:安住).  In the first two abidings the mind has not really settled. Before you attain calm abiding, you are still restless, you may think: meditation is not for me, I should go home; or, when you sit you’d like to walk, when you walk you’d like to sit, always thinking of something else that you prefer to do instead of the meditation.  That is not calm abiding.  But when you continue to practice, eventually your mind will calm down. Your mind still occasionally wanders away, but you can quickly bring it back. You now feel calm instead of restless.  You begin to think that sitting meditation is not too bad.  Some of you struggle with  pain and soreness in your legs and in different parts of your body; you wonder if you need to see a doctor, or get some acupuncture treatment. Usually that’s not necessary. You just have to endure it, or do gentle, slow prostrations during the break.  Everybody experiences these pains. Enduring the pain, the soreness, and discomfort is a struggle.  It’s like a war you are fighting with yourself.  But most people have to go through that, so it’s all right; just continue to focus inward.  If the pain becomes too much, you can put your legs down for a few minutes, relax, and then try again. Nothing in the world is easy.  Playing sports is not easy.  To becomegood at skiing, tennis, baseball, swimming, you have to work hard, and you have to endure the pain.  What’s the difference?  It’s the same. When you endure and become good at it, it becomes enjoyable. It’s exactly the same thing with meditation.  Once you get through to this stage and beyond, you will see how enjoyable meditation is.


       The 4th stage is called near abiding  (第四:近住).  You are getting closer to serenity.  Your mind doesn’t wander away much anymore.   As soon as a stirring thought arises, a desire to look at other people or things, you detect it, you bring your mind back.  So your mind never wanders very far.  External events and conditions do not bother you any more.  Both your mind and your body are settling comfortably.

       In the 5th stagewell adjusted abiding  (第五:調順), everything outside, whether it’s people making noises, snoring when you try to sleep,  natural sounds such as wind and rain, or feelings from your own body, they don’t bother you any more.  It’s as if there were a glass wall blocking you from the outside world even though you are still right here in the middle of everything.  You experience a serenity and clarity you haven’t had before; you now understand why meditation is so enjoyable, and that all the previous efforts and pain were worth it. You also gain great confidence in the practice and the Buddha’s teaching.  Now, some people mistake this as samadhi, but strictly speaking it is not samadhi yet. Why?  Because even though your mind no longer clings to crude things like: how do I look, what do people think of me, this person gets on my nerves – these crude attachments are behind you, there are still inner stirrings that upset your calmness.

       So in the 5th stage, your mind is more “refined”, you can start to fine tune your mind. You can do that now because the mind no longer clings to the outside world, and you begin to notice the fine-grained greed, anger, ignorance, doubt and arrogance that are deeper within yourself.  You did not notice them before, but they’ve always been there.  So you realize, to your surprise, that throughout  your life and in everything you’ve done, greed and anger have always played a part.  It can be quite shocking to you, like opening a can of worms, but every sincere and serious cultivator goes through this stage. You may now feel: I’m really worthless;  I never realized that even when I am doing good deeds, even when I’m being really sincere, there is subtle greed involved — the subtle competition and comparison with other people, and the subtle anger even when you’re doing good deeds.  You were able to suppress them below the surface of your consciousness, but now they are visible.  And you realize that Buddha was right – the ego, the greed, the ignorance, the anger is everywhere.  It’s so fundamentally entangled with our consciousness.  In fact, that’s what our consciousness consists of.

      This is not to say you don’t have good thoughts.  You have good thoughts, but they are always mixed with thoughts of subtle greed and anger.  But it’s all right; we are all like that.  You need to go beyond this.   Let your pure awareness, which is nonjudgmental, rise above your conscious judgments.  Don’t cling to them; rise above them; transcend those rights and wrongs, preferences and judgments.  Let your pure awareness be the master, not these deluded thoughts.  Eventually these thoughts will cease. These thoughts of subtle greed and anger are like bubbles rising up to the surface of the ocean, compared to the big waves of crude discriminations before.  Now the big waves are gone and you begin to notice the little bubbles.  Like bubbles, they pop; they go away.

      So in the 5th stage you should begin to fine tune your inner afflictions.  The best way to work on them is not to pay attention to them.  They are like little kids, the more attention you give them, the more they stick around.  They always want to play with you. But if you just ignore them, they will eventually  go away.  Like flames, when you don’t give them fuel by paying attention to them, these flames will languish and extinguish by themselves. Then your mind will become quieter, and you get to the 6th stage.

In the 6th stage, your mind attains stillness  (第六:寂靜) like never before; that means these inner thoughts do not surface very much anymore; your mind is like a pool of calm, still water.  Only occasionally, some bubbles emerge. You experience a greater peace than ever before, and you realize how restless your life had been up to this point.  This is not samadhi yet. You need to continue, do not cling even to this serenity.  If you do, it will hinder your further progress. However, you don’t need to reject this serene feeling either. It’s okay to feel good, just like it’s okay to feel bad.  You just continue to focus inward, and you will get to the 7th stage, deep stillness  (第七:最極寂靜). 

    Within stillness there are different levels. You immerge deeper into the stillness of the mind. The pain goes away completely. Nothing bothers you at all. The more still your mind is,the more peaceful you feel, the more enjoyable meditation becomes. But don’t stop there; continue to maintain the mindfulness because even in deep stillness, thoughts occasionally still bubble up to the surface.  Continue, and you will get to the the 8th stage called single-mindedness (第八:專注一趣) .

Single-mindedness means that your concentration is complete, 100%.  You can focus on whatever you want to focus on.  Whether you’re watching the breath,   walking, eating, or dressing, you can completely focus on it without any distraction.  There are no second thoughts, no random thoughts, no unwanted thoughts. It barely takes any effort to keep that focus.  It used to be that any little thing could distract you and now nothing outside or inside distracts you. That’s single-mindedness. You continue until you get to the 9th stagesamadhi  (第九:等持).

      Finally, the ninth stagesamadhi, is equanimity without any effort.  It is the fruition of your hard work; you attain samadhi and it doesn’t take any effort to maintain that samadhi.  Your mind is equally lucid and calm.  You are immersed in this deep, serene, peaceful joy.  It’s not excitement.  Your mind is very still and clear, clearer than ever before.  You move, but you know your mind is not moving.  Now you really understand why everybody should meditate.  Is this it?  Is it end of our practice?  No, that’s the difference between Buddhist practitioners and others. Others are content reaching this samadhi.  But for Buddhists, when we reach samadhi, this is the best state to contemplate, to see reality; this is when the Buddha developed his great penetration power to see the truth. So at this stage, you can contemplate on The Four Noble Truths, six paramitas, emptiness of the self, dependent origination; you run through the sutras you memorized, and whatever didn’t make sense before; all the tangled knots in your understanding, pop open one by one like firecrackers.  What is“form is emptiness, emptiness is form”?  Now, with the clarity achieved at samadhi, you may finally understand.  You see that the Dharma is true.

      So starting from the first step, inner abiding – you collect your mind inward, e.g., by focusing on the breath. You continue this effort in the second stage, continuous abiding. Whenever your mind wanders away, detect it as soon as possible and bring it back without any judgment.  Don’t think that I cannot do this, I’m no good, I’m lousy – they are useless thoughts.  You just bring your attention back to your breath.  Next is calm abiding, when your body and mind settles through your persistent effort.  The fourth is near abiding.  Any time wandering thoughts come up, within seconds, you can quickly bring your focus back and you settle into more and more peace and serenity.  The fifth is well-adjusted abiding, where meditation becomes truly a joy.  Together with the sixth and seventh abiding, stillness and deep stillness, you have overcome your restlessness and clinging to external things, and you detect and subdue inner afflictions.  As you work on them by not letting these thoughts be the master and maintain serenity and clarity, you reach single-mindedness where nothing can disturb you anymore.  Slight effort is still needed to maintain your single-mindedness, but eventually, you reach that strong, deep concentration called samadhi, where you don’t need to put in any effort at all.  You walk, you eat, you dress, you sit – you are in complete mindfulness naturally.  You have no distracted thoughts, and then you can examine – who is drinking the tea?