Kammaṭṭhāna

Posted: July 11, 2018 by pathpress in Dhamma Article

by Ven. Ariyavaṃsa

The word kammaṭṭhāna is usually translated as “meditation object” and it plays a central role in the Visuddhimagga, Burmese-style meditation systems, the Thai Forest tradition, and in many people’s meditation practice. According to the Visuddhimagga, one should develop samādhi by focusing on a single object. Here is Venerable Ñāṇamoli’s translation of the relevant passage:

kenaṭṭhena samādhīti samādhānaṭṭhena samādhi. kimidaṃ samādhānaṃ nāma? ekārammaṇe cittacetasikānaṃ samaṃ sammā ca ādhānaṃ, ṭhapananti vuttaṃ hoti. tasmā yassa dhammassānubhāvena ekārammaṇe cittacetasikā samaṃ sammā ca avikkhipamānā avippakiṇṇā ca hutvā tiṭṭhanti, idaṃ samādhānanti veditabbaṃ.

In what sense is it “concentration”? It is concentration in the sense of concentrating. What is this thing called concentrating? It is centering consciousness and consciousness-concomitants evenly and rightly on a single object—placing, is what is meant. So it is the state, in virtue of which consciousness and its concomitants remain evenly and rightly on a single object undistracted and unscattered—that should be understood as “concentrating”.

Vsm (Ch. III, §3)

In order to do this, we are later told (Ch. III, § 28), we should approach a kalyāṇamitta, one who can give us a kammaṭṭhāna. With the right kammaṭṭhāna—the one, from a list of forty, which most suits our own particular temperament—we are then supposed to focus our mind on this, so as to become concentrated.

This is the traditional story that the majority of Buddhists subscribe to. But this is not what the word kammaṭṭhāna means in the Pali Canon. Indeed, the word is very rare and appears in only five suttas.

Here are those five:

katamā ca, byagghapajja, uṭṭhānasampadā? idha, byagghapajja, kulaputto yena kammaṭṭhānena jīvikaṃ kappeti—yadi kasiyā, yadi vaṇijjāya, yadi gorakkhena, yadi issatthena, yadi rājaporisena, yadi sippaññatarena—tattha dakkho hoti analaso, tatrupāyāya vīmaṃsāya samannāgato, alaṃ kātuṃ alaṃ saṃvidhātuṃ. ayaṃ vuccati, byagghapajja, uṭṭhānasampadā.

And which, Byagghapajja, is accomplishment in industry? Here, Byagghapajja, a man earns his living by some field-of-work—whether by farming, trade, cow-herding, archery, royal-service or some other craft—in this area he is dextrous, energetic, endowed with all kinds of resources, discriminations, to do what is appropriate, to arrange what is appropriate. This, Byagghapajja, is called accomplishment in industry.

AN 8:54 (=55; =76)

ekamantaṃ nisinno kho subho māṇavo todeyyaputto bhagavantaṃ etadavoca—“brāhmaṇā, bho gotama, evamāhaṃsu—‘gahaṭṭho ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusalaṃ, na pabbajito ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusala’nti. idha bhavaṃ gotamo kimāhā”ti?

vibhajjavādo kho ahamettha, māṇava; nāhamettha ekaṃsavādo. gihissa vāhaṃ, māṇava, pabbajitassa vā micchāpaṭipattiṃ na vaṇṇemi. gihī vā hi māṇava, pabbajito vā micchāpaṭipanno micchāpaṭipattādhikaraṇahetu na ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusalaṃ. gihissa vāhaṃ, māṇava, pabbajitassa vā sammāpaṭipattiṃ vaṇṇemi. gihī vā hi, māṇava, pabbajito vā sammāpaṭipanno sammāpaṭipattādhikaraṇahetu ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusala”nti.

brāhmaṇā, bho gotama, evamāhaṃsu—‘mahaṭṭhamidaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ gharāvāsakammaṭṭhānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hoti; appaṭṭhamidaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ pabbajjā kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaphalaṃ hotī’ti. idha bhavaṃ gotamo kimāhā”ti.

etthāpi kho ahaṃ, māṇava, vibhajjavādo; nāhamettha ekaṃsavādo. atthi, māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ mahaṭṭhaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ vipajjamānaṃ appaphalaṃ hoti; atthi, māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ mahaṭṭhaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ sampajjamānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hoti; atthi, māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaṭṭhaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ vipajjamānaṃ appaphalaṃ hoti; atthi, māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaṭṭhaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ sampajjamānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hoti. katamañca, māṇava , kammaṭṭhānaṃ mahaṭṭhaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ vipajjamānaṃ appaphalaṃ hoti? kasi kho, māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ mahaṭṭhaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ vipajjamānaṃ appaphalaṃ hoti. katamañca, māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ mahaṭṭhaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ sampajjamānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hoti? kasiyeva kho, māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ mahaṭṭhaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ sampajjamānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hoti. katamañca, māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaṭṭhaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ vipajjamānaṃ appaphalaṃ hoti? vaṇijjā kho, māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaṭṭhaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ vipajjamānaṃ appaphalaṃ hoti. katamañca māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaṭṭhaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ sampajjamānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hoti? vaṇijjāyeva kho, māṇava, kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaṭṭhaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ sampajjamānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hoti.

seyyathāpi, māṇava, kasi kammaṭṭhānaṃ mahaṭṭhaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ vipajjamānaṃ appaphalaṃ hoti; evameva kho, māṇava, gharāvāsakammaṭṭhānaṃ mahaṭṭhaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ vipajjamānaṃ appaphalaṃ hoti. seyyathāpi, māṇava, kasiyeva kammaṭṭhānaṃ mahaṭṭhaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ sampajjamānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hoti; evameva kho, māṇava, gharāvāsakammaṭṭhānaṃ mahaṭṭhaṃ mahākiccaṃ mahādhikaraṇaṃ mahāsamārambhaṃ sampajjamānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hoti. seyyathāpi, māṇava, vaṇijjā kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaṭṭhaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ vipajjamānaṃ appaphalaṃ hoti; evameva kho, māṇava, pabbajjā kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaṭṭhaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ vipajjamānaṃ appaphalaṃ hoti. seyyathāpi, māṇava, vaṇijjāyeva kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaṭṭhaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ sampajjamānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hoti; evameva kho , māṇava, pabbajjā kammaṭṭhānaṃ appaṭṭhaṃ appakiccaṃ appādhikaraṇaṃ appasamārambhaṃ sampajjamānaṃ mahapphalaṃ hotī”ti.

Sitting to one side, Subha the young brahmin, son of Todeyya said this to the Blessed One: “Master Gotama, the brahmins say this: ‘The layman is accomplished in the method of the wholesome Dhamma; one gone forth is not accomplished in the method of the wholesome Dhamma’. What does Master Gotama say here?”

Young brahmin, in this case I am one who speaks after having made some distinctions; in this case I am not one who speaks one-pointedly. Young brahmin, I do not praise the wrong practice of either the layman or one gone forth. For, young brahmin, either the layman or one gone forth who practises wrongly, on account of wrong practice, is not accomplished in the method of the wholesome Dhamma. Young brahmin, I praise the right practice of either the layman or one gone forth. For, young brahmin, either the layman or one gone forth who practises rightly, on account of right practice, is accomplished in the method of the wholesome Dhamma.”

Master Gotama, the brahmins say this: ‘Many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort—this situation of the household life is of great fruit; few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort—this situation of the one gone forth is of little fruit’. What does Master Gotama say here?”

Young brahmin, also in this case I am one who speaks after having discriminated; in this case I am not one who speaks one-pointedly. Young brahmin, there is the situation of many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort, which, when it is failing, is of little fruit; there is the situation of many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort, which, when it is succeeding, is of much fruit; there is the situation of few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort, which, when it is failing, is of little fruit; there is the situation of few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort, which, when it is succeeding, is of much fruit. And which, young brahmin, is the situation of many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort, which, when it is failing, is of little fruit? Agriculture, young brahmin, is a situation of many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort, which, when it is failing, is of little fruit. And which, young brahmin, is the situation of many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort, which, when it is succeeding, is of much fruit? This very same agriculture, young brahmin, is a situation of many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort, which, when it is succeeding, is of much fruit. And which, young brahmin, is the situation of few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort, which, when it is failing, is of little fruit? Trade, young brahmin, is a situation of few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort, which, when it is failing, is of little fruit. And which, young brahmin, is the situation of few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort, which, when it is succeeding, is of much fruit? This very same trade, young brahmin, is a situation of few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort, which, when it is succeeding, is of much fruit.

Young brahmin, just as agriculture is a situation of many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort, which, when it is failing, is of little fruit, in just this way, young brahmin, the household life is a situation of many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort, which, when it is failing, is of little fruit. Young brahmin, just as this very same agriculture is a situation of many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort, which, when it is succeeding, is of much fruit, in just this way, young brahmin, the household life is a situation of many matters, many duties, much organisation, much effort, which, when it is succeeding, is of much fruit. Young brahmin, just as trade is a situation of few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort, which, when it is failing, is of little fruit, in just this way, young brahmin, going forth is a situation of few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort, which, when it is failing, is of little fruit. Young brahmin, just as trade is a situation of few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort, which, when it is succeeding, is of much fruit, in just this way, young brahmin, going forth is a situation of few matters, few duties, little organisation, little effort, which, when it is succeeding, is of much fruit.”

MN 99

taṃ kiṃ maññatha, sakkā, idha puriso yena kenaci kammaṭṭhānena anāpajja akusalaṃ divasaṃ aḍḍhakahāpaṇaṃ nibbiseyya. dakkho puriso uṭṭhānasampannoti alaṃ vacanāyā”ti? “evaṃ, bhante”.

taṃ kiṃ maññatha, sakkā, idha puriso yena kenaci kammaṭṭhānena anāpajja akusalaṃ divasaṃ kahāpaṇaṃ nibbiseyya. dakkho puriso uṭṭhānasampannoti alaṃ vacanāyā”ti? “evaṃ, bhante”.

taṃ kiṃ, maññatha, sakkā, idha puriso yena kenaci kammaṭṭhānena anāpajja akusalaṃ divasaṃ dve kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya … tayo kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… cattāro kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… pañca kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… cha kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… satta kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… aṭṭha kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… nava kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… dasa kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… vīsa kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… tiṃsa kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… cattārīsaṃ kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… paññāsaṃ kahāpaṇe nibbiseyya… kahāpaṇasataṃ nibbiseyya. dakkho puriso uṭṭhānasampannoti alaṃ vacanāyā”ti? “evaṃ, bhante”.

What do you think, Sakyans: here a man by means of whatever field-of-work, without doing anything unwholesome, would earn half a kahāpaṇa in a day. Is it appropriate to call him: ‘a dextrous man accomplished in industry’?” “Yes, Bhante.”

What do you think, Sakyans: here a man by means of whatever field-of-work, without doing anything unwholesome, would earn a kahāpaṇa in a day. Is it appropriate to call him: ‘a dextrous man accomplished in industry’?” “Yes, Bhante.”

What do you think, Sakyans: here a man by means of whatever field-of-work, without doing anything unwholesome, would earn two kahāpaṇas… three kahāpaṇas… four kahāpaṇas… five kahāpaṇas… six kahāpaṇas… seven kahāpaṇas… eight kahāpaṇas… nine kahāpaṇas… ten kahāpaṇas… twenty kahāpaṇas… thirty kahāpaṇas… forty kahāpaṇas… fifty kahāpaṇas… a hundred kahāpaṇas in a day. Is it appropriate to call him: ‘a dextrous man accomplished in industry’?” “Yes, Bhante.”

AN 10:46

Literally, kammaṭṭhāna means “place (ṭhāna) of action (kamma)”. It is the place wherein one finds oneself acting in this or that way. Rather than referring to this or that particular thing that one might choose to focus one’s attention on—whether that be the breath, the nostrils, sensations in the body, a clay disc, or whatever else—kammaṭṭhāna is more like the wider situation within which these particular things have arisen so that they can be focused on and understood as being the things they are. It is the context of significance within which one finds oneself and the things one encounters.

A better translation for kammaṭṭhāna would be “situation”. Or perhaps “line of work”, “field-of-work”, “field-of-employment”, since the way the word is used in the suttas describes the “situation” that specifically pertains to one’s livelihood, one’s job, one’s daily work. People who work in a particular “field”, such as business, education or the theatre, find themselves operating in particular “worlds” associated with their own area of expertise. We talk of the “business world”, the “academic world”, the “acting world”. Each of these “worlds” are the contexts wherein certain kinds of roles, goals and equipment make sense. For instance, in the academic world there are teachers, lecturers, researchers, students, etc. People with different roles within this world have different goals: to create interesting and informative learning materials, to present classes in an engaging way, to pass the end-of-term test, to get a good job, to publish, to get tenure, etc. And there are various kinds of equipment that only make sense in this world: tests, lecture rooms, blackboards, overhead projectors, registers, etc. These roles, goals and equipment are only intelligible because there is a wider context which makes it possible for them to reveal themselves as the things they are. This background field-of-significance is what is being designated by the word kammaṭṭhāna in the suttas.

But perhaps we can follow the lead of the Visuddhimagga and take this word to point to something which you can attend to in meditation. To do this, the word kammaṭṭhāna will need to be understood in a radically different way from all of the standard commentaries. Attending to your kammaṭṭhāna has nothing whatsoever to do with staring at your nostrils, your abdomen or your big toe. Focusing your attention on these things will not help you in the slightest.1 Think, instead, of kammaṭṭhāna as being something a little more specific than your situation-of-employment—and yet more general than your big toe. Think of kammaṭṭhāna as the situation which you find yourself in right now.

What are you doing right now? What’s going on?

Maybe you’re sitting down.

nisinno vā ‘nisinnomhī’ti pajānāti

Or sitting down, one understands: “I am sitting down”

MN 10

Not only are you sitting down, but you simultaneously have an understanding that you are sitting down. ‘I am sitting down’ is not an ‘object’ to ‘focus’ on. Rather, sitting down is something that you are doing. For as long as you refrain from standing up or lying back, you continue to choose sitting down as your bodily posture. Sitting down is your situation, your place-of-action, your kammaṭṭhāna. It is the background context which, for as long as the active choice to remain seated endures, provides the setting which situates and makes intelligible this or that particular feeling, perception or intention that arises while you are sitting there. Take, for instance, this thought or that sound that you encounter while sitting down. It is only by seeing these particular things (the thoughts, the sounds) in the light of the broader context (namely, that you are sitting down) that they can be seen clearly as the things they are. This thought is something you are thinking while you are sitting there. That sound is something you hear while you are sitting there. Without seeing these particular things as being situated within a contextual framework, you will remain submerged in the immediacy of whatever it is you are thinking about, whatever it is that’s making that noise. However, by not forgetting this background of “while I am sitting down” you can maintain a reflexive (i.e. mindful) perspective on whatever else arises. With this mindfulness, any particular thing that is present will be understood in terms of (or through) the more general situation within which it has appeared. Once this mindfulness is established to the extent necessary, once you have become familiar with that because of which the particular things which are present right now are the things that they are and have the meanings that they have… right there is where the mind can be discerned.

nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, aññaṃ ekadhammampi samanupassāmi yaṃ evaṃ bhāvitaṃ pātubhūtaṃ mahato atthāya saṃvattati yathayidaṃ, bhikkhave, cittaṃ. cittaṃ, bhikkhave, bhāvitaṃ pātubhūtaṃ mahato atthāya saṃvattatī”ti.

Bhikkhus, I do not see one other thing which, when developed, when manifested in this way, leads to such great benefit as the mind. The mind, bhikkhus, when developed, when manifested, leads to great benefit.

AN 1:26

References from the Pali Canon

MN Majjhima Nikāya

AN Aṅguttara Nikāya

 

Other References

Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu (1980) trans. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) by Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa. Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre.

1 Although, admittedly, it might offer you some temporary respite from all of the problems that you are facing in your life at the moment—a respite which, understandably, will be felt as pleasant. But then so will watching a movie.

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Comments
  1. Joseph says:

    Thank you, Bhante, for your excellent essay. I agree fully with what you’ve written, but I wonder whether concentration might have another role to play towards enlightenment.

    It seems to me that it’s the margins of our thinking that usually define our situation. Such thoughts derive their intentional weight due to feeling, “yam vedeti, tam sanjanati”. The goal of samatha bhavana is to focus on our bodily activity, i.e. to live more concretely and less abstractly. Of course the margins of our thoughts will always be there in the background, but with greater concentration such thoughts are disregarded and our experience becomes simpler, and its structure more evident. So long as we’re riveted on the future our sense of “being” has the upper hand, cf. the analogy the Buddha gives of manosancetana of a man being physically drawn towards a pit of burning charcoal. Upekkha (indifference) has a role to play in overcoming this draw towards the horizontal, but concentration is also vital.

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