David's Book:The 40 Meditation Subjects
[By Dr.David N. Snyder]
The 40 Meditation Subjects and the Altar Furnishings at this Dhamma Center
This chapter is based on a Dhamma Talk I gave at the Vipassana Towers Meditation Hall on
May 22, 1997.
Tonight‘s Dhamma talk is about the 40 meditation subjects of the concentration and insight
techniques of vipassana. Traditionally the major subject for Buddhist meditators is that of the
breath. But there are actually 40 different subjects available. Tonight‘s talk consists of a brief
tour of the 40 subjects and also of the altar furnishings which have a close connection to the 40
meditation subjects. The 40 meditation subjects are traditionally considered the subjects of
samatha, or calm abiding, designed to strengthen concentration. But inside these 40 subjects we
can also find the four foundations of mindfulness, which covers the subjects of vipassana, or
Here at this Dhamma center we have an altar which is very nice looking and pleasant to view for
devotional purposes. But it is much more than that. An altar represents several things. It can be
seen for its devotional functions and it can also be seen for its value as meditation subjects.
Some might see an altar such as this one in totally sectarian terms, for example, Buddhist and
Buddhist only. But the altar can also be seen in non-sectarian terms as well. There are many of
the 40 meditation subjects right here on the altar.
(See chapter 20, for the full list of the 40 meditation subjects.)
The first ten meditation subjects are the ―kasinas‖ which are roughly translated as ―devices.
The meditator chooses a device to strengthen concentration. The device is the subject and the
meditator remains in the present moment with one-pointedness concentration on the device. The
rest of the world is not shut-off, no the meditator simply places the attention of the mind, the
concentration on the device, but not at the ―closing‖ off of the rest of the world. After building
good concentration on the device the eyes are closed with the intention of ―seeing the afterimage
of the device in the mind. Such kasina subjects are designed to build concentration
powers and can put the meditator into a meditative state of absorption or trance. These jhanic
experiences are not enlightenment experiences but are considered by many to be ―steppingstones‖
on the way to enlightenment.
We have a fountain on the altar which recirculates water through the pump. This can be seen as
representing the devotional aspect of discipline. It can also be used as the meditation subject of
the Water Kasina. It is the same water that is recirculating all the time. Or is it? As the Buddha
and also Greek philosophers stated, ―you can not step into the same river twice.‖ Every moment
everything is constantly changing. We know from modern science that the chemical
composition of water is always changing. And then there are the drain pipes on the ceiling
where water is coming down through the drains when a resident uses their kitchen sink or
flushes a toilet. There‘s something else to watch and focus attention, awareness on, as a
The Fire Kasina can be seen on the altar with the many candles that are lit on the altar. Fire
or light represents meditation or wisdom and it can also be seen in the devotional aspect as a
shrine to the Buddha and the teachings. Or it can be a totally non-sectarian meditation subject or
you can see it as being both a devotion and meditation subject.
In the Path of Purification and in the Path of Freedom, written by the Buddhist scholars,
Buddhaghosa in the fifth century and Upatissa in the first century, respectively, they instruct the
meditator in detail on the meditation subjects. A meditator using the Air or Wind Kasina is to go
to a place where a tree can be seen moving by the wind. Since wind is invisible the subject is to
be viewed by watching the wind on the limbs and leaves of a tree. Here on the altar we have
artificial trees which have leaves and limbs moving from the wind of the ventilation system
which brings outside air into the building. On the other corner of the altar we have a Buddha
statue with several artificial trees around it. This represents that the Buddha got enlightenment
under a tree.
Elements of the Earth Kasina can be seen in the incense which is most known for its devotional
purposes of offering to Buddha and also the food and the flowers. Food represents generosity,
incense represents patience, and flowers represent exertion or effort.
After the ten kasinas there are the ten cemetery contemplations. A total of ten of the 40 subjects
are on the contemplation of corpses in their different stages of decomposing. This is because we
tend to forget our mortality, always putting off spiritual concerns and development. It
is not a common meditation subject, except in some Southeast Asian countries, but it is a very
important one. By seeing a corpse, it wakes us to the urgency of our practice. We know that we
are of the same nature and will die one day. It becomes much more apparent when we see a
real dead body.
Viewing a corpse at a funeral home does not count, there the embalming process and make-up
hides the fact of the natural deterioration of the human body. Unfortunately my wife and I have
had the unpleasant task in our owner-management duties here at this apartment building of doing
the cemetery contemplations. When we first bought the building many of the tenants were
seniors and many died in their apartments. Some had no close friends or relatives in the city and
the corpse would decay quite a bit in the apartment before we would discover the body. Many
times it was the smell of the decay that would make us open the door to check on the tenant.
Some have receding skin, discoloration, blood all settling to the lowest point. The natural decay
of the body is much different from the embalming process and viewing that is done at funeral
homes. It wakes you to the reality of death and gives you a sense of urgency in regard to the
practice. Not all were elderly and we all hear in the news of very young people passing away.
Athletes have dropped dead in their twenties. Nearly everyone here today is over 30, thus, death
is imminent, inevitable.
At some Southeast Asian monasteries there is a room with a dead body in it for viewing. The
bodies are from people who died naturally and donated their bodies to assist others in their
practice. It is a rare practice, but we can still do this, by imagining the different stages of the
dead body. It might seem quite morbid, but death is a fact of life which we will not escape. This
meditation is simply to remind you of your mortal state, that there is no time like the present to
focus on your practice.
Another meditation subject is the Contemplation of the Buddha. Our main statue on the altar is
that of Buddha, the Shakyamuni Buddha, The Buddha. The red Buddha statue with the hand
forming two circles is the Amitabha Buddha or the Buddha of the Pure Land or Western
Paradise (a heavenly realm which Pure Land Buddhists hope to attain where once there
enlightenment will be easier). The statues in the ―Earth-Witness‖ position are that of the
Buddha. Earth witness is demonstrated with one hand reaching for the ground while the other is
in his lap. The statue of the ―laughing buddha‖ with the hands in the air and the large belly, is
actually a monk named Hotei. He was a Buddhist monk from China. Many people think that
this is the Buddha. But actually he was just a Chinese monk. He is sometimes seen with
children around him, in some statues. This is because he liked to give candy to children. Hotei
is the most common statue at Chinese restaurants, which is why so many people think that he
was the Buddha. The ―real‖ Buddha, from India did not have a large stomach and is almost
always shown in the seated meditation posture. Meditation on the Buddha is a typical subject for
devotional people. There are 40 different meditation subjects because people have different
temperaments and personalities.
The Amitabha Buddha and also the Kwan-Yin statue can be seen as different representations of
devas, another meditation subject. Kwan-Yin is the goddess of mercy or compassion. Angel is a
more appropriate term for devas since they are in a heavenly existence, but still subject to
samsara, the round of existences. Devas are impermanent angels who still face re-birth.
Four of the meditation subjects are the experiences of the form-less jhanas, that of the Spheres of
the Infinity of Space, Infinite Consciousness, Nothingness, and Neither Perception nor Non-
Perception. There are 31 planes of existence in the Buddhist cosmology. Fortunately most of
the planes are heavenly realms. I have a strong interest in the cosmology which begins with
faith, but the best part about this practice is that it can also be experienced. You do not have
to just believe in the cosmology. The heavenly realms can be experienced through the jhanas.
The most common meditation subjects are the awareness of breath, awareness of physical
sensations, contemplation of the mind, and contemplation on the Dhamma. These four subjects
are the focus of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Discourse by the Buddha. Awareness of
breath is the most common and for good reason as it helps to center our mind-body to the inner
calm. In my own practice I am currently working with contemplation of the Dhamma with
attention to the five aggregates and observing the universal characteristics of impermanence, no
permanent self, and suffering.
But this talk is to let you know that there are 40 subjects available and you do not have to focus
on only the breath all the time. Choose a subject that is fitting to your temperament or
personality and practice with patience.
*************to be continued**********