Everything you wanted to know about karma but were afraid to ask
– Thanissaro Bhikkhu
10. Other people’s actions are experienced through the senses, which are shaped by your old karma. But you say that people have freedom to choose their actions in the present. Isn’t there a conflict here? Like you, other people are free to choose their intentions in the present, but you don’t directly experience their intentions. You experience actions inspired by their intentions, and how you experience those actions will be filtered by your past and present karma. Your good seeds may sprout in time to help you not to suffer from someone’s bad intentions toward you, or your bad seeds may be sprouting in a way that interferes with their efforts to help you.
Lotus Bud. Courtesy of Hiroshi Wantanabe/Gallerystock.
Courtesy of Hiroshi Wantanabe/Gallerystock.
11. Can the Buddha’s teachings on karma be divorced from his teachings on rebirth? Not really. If there were no life before birth, karma would have no role in explaining pleasure and pain early in life. And as the Buddha said, many people are rewarded in this lifetime for doing unskillful things—he cited people who kill the enemies of a king, or who steal from an enemy of a king, or tell a lie that entertains a king—and you can probably think of similar examples in modern politics. Sometimes the results don’t even show in the next lifetime— because the causal principle underlying karma is so complex.
12. But karma and rebirth are metaphysical issues. Didn’t the Buddha avoid metaphysical issues? There’s no word for “metaphysics” in ancient Indian languages. The Buddha avoided two sorts of issues that we would call metaphysical—the size of the cosmos and the identity of the self—because they were distractions on the path. But because he taught a path of action to put an end to suffering, he had to explain the metaphysics of action: whether it’s real, whether it gives results, what determines those results, and how far action goes in causing suffering in the first place. If he hadn’t taken a stand on these matters, he wouldn’t have been able to explain how action had the power to bring suffering to an end.
13. If there’s no self, what gets reborn? The Buddha never said that there is no self. He also never said that there was a self. The whole question of whether or not the self exists was one he put aside. There’s a common misconception that the Buddha started with the idea of there being no self and, in the context of no self, taught the doctrine of karma, which makes no sense: If there’s no self, nobody does the karma and nobody receives the results, so actions wouldn’t matter. But that’s putting the context backward. Actually, the Buddha started with the reality of karma and then viewed ideas of “self” and “not-self ” as types of karma within that context. In other words, he focused on seeing the way we define our sense of self as an action. Then the question becomes this: When is the activity of identifying things as your self skillful, and when is it not? When is the activity of identifying things as not-self skillful, and when is it not? Similarly with rebirth: He avoided talking about what gets reborn—which, however you defined it, wouldn’t be anything you were responsible for anyway—and instead focused on how it happens, as a process. Because the process is a type of karma, this is something you are responsible for, and it’s also a skill you can master: either with relative skill, reaching a comfortable rebirth, or with consummate skill, learning how not to be reborn at all.
The Buddha was very clear on the point that some of his teachings couldn’t be proven until you had put them into practice.
14. Didn’t the Buddha teach people to believe only things they can see for themselves? How can people see karma and rebirth for themselves? The Buddha was very clear on the point that some of his teachings couldn’t be proven until you had put them into practice. This means that they have to be adopted as working hypotheses. A discourse on this topic (MN 60) includes teachings on topics like these: karma, the results of karma, fatalism, the experience of formlessness, and the reality of nirvana. In each case, you have to take a position on these issues if you want to put an end to suffering, so you choose whichever side seems most conducive to following a path toward that end. Similarly, when the Buddha was teaching the Kalamas to test views for themselves (AN 3.65), the test was this: When this view is adopted, does it lead to skillful or unskillful actions? So the same principle applies to the teaching on karma and rebirth: If you adopted these views as a working hypothesis, would they lead you to be more careful or less careful about your actions? A good experiment would be to devote a year to living as if you really believed in karma and rebirth, and to see how that affected the way you lived your life.
15. Didn’t the Buddha simply pick up his ideas on karma and rebirth from the culture around him? It’s true that the word karma already existed in his culture, but the questions of whether karma was real, whether it bore results, and whether you had any control over your karma were all hotly debated. Similarly with rebirth: Some people believed in it, others didn’t, and even those who did believe in it didn’t agree as to whether karma had any impact on it. So given that there was no general agreement on these topics, we can’t say that the Buddha simply absorbed his teachings on them unthinkingly from his environment. Instead, he saw on the night of his awakening that people’s intentional actions did have an impact on their rebirth, and that if they didn’t believe in karma and rebirth, they tended to create bad karma that led to the suffering of bad rebirths. That’s why he taught karma and rebirth as the major points of basic right view.
The Buddha: On Craving and Rebirth
This sutta begins with an account of birth, noting that the birth of a human being requires not only that the parents have intercourse but also that a “gandhabba” is present. Usually in the Canon, the term gandhabba means a being on the lowest level of the celestial devas. However, the Commentary notes that gandhabba in this context means a being whose kamma enables it to take birth on that occasion, an interpretation supported by a discussion in MN 93.
Excerpt from Sutta: — SN 23.2
By introducing a “being” into the discussion, the Buddha might be suspected of introducing a “what” into his discussion of birth. However, on the level of dependent co-arising, the Buddha did not treat the concept of a “being” as a “what.” His definition of a “being” shows that he recommended that it, too, be regarded as a process:
As he was sitting there, Ven. Rādha said to the Blessed One: “ ’A being,’ it’s said. To what extent is one said to be ‘a being’?”
“Any clinging, obsession, or craving for form Rādha: When one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be ‘a being.’
“Any clinging, obsession, or craving for existence, feeling… perception… fabrications…
When one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be ‘a being.’
Everything you wanted to know about karma but were afraid to ask
– Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Karma and rebirth are often treated as Buddhism’s cultural baggage: a set of Indian beliefs that—either because the Buddha wasn’t thinking carefully, or because his early followers didn’t stay true to his teachings—got mixed up with the dharma even though they don’t fit in with the rest of what he taught. Now that the dharma has come to the West, it’s time, we believe, to leave all this unnecessary baggage unclaimed on the carousel so we can focus on the Buddha’s true message in a way that will speak directly to our own cultural needs. However, the real problem with karma and rebirth is that we tend to misunderstand what these teachings have to say. This is because Buddhism came to the West at the same time as other Indian religions, and its luggage got mixed up with theirs in transit. When we sort out which luggage really belongs to the tradition, we find that the bags marked “Karma” and “Rebirth” actually contain valuables. And to help show how valuable they are, here are my answers to some frequently asked questions on these topics.
1. What is karma? The word karma has two meanings, depending on context. Primarily, it means intentional actions in thought, word, and deed; secondarily, it refers to the results of intentional actions, past or present—results that are shaped by the quality of the intention behind those actions.
2. How do actions determine results? Skillful intentions tend toward pleasant results, and unskillful intentions toward painful results. It’s important to stress the word tend here, since there’s no ironclad, tit-for-tat deterministic connection between an intentional act and its results. The causal principle underlying actions and results is actually very complex. Your present experience is shaped by three karmic factors: the results of past intentions—and this includes all your sense spheres; present intentions; and the results of your present intentions. Past intentions provide you with the raw material or potentials for your present experience, but your present intentions are what shape those raw potentials into your actual experiences. Because the results of many past actions could be offering all sorts of raw materials at any point in time, and because you’re potentially free to create any type of new karma at all, these conditions can interact in many complex ways. In fact, in your experience of the present, your current intention arises prior to your awareness of the senses. Without present intentions, you’d have no experience of space and time. You’d be free from their limitations. On the ultimate level, this fact is what makes awakening possible. On the immediate level, it means that even though you may have bad “karma seeds” from past unskillful intentions ripening in your “karma field,” you have some freedom in how you treat the ripening seeds so that you don’t have to suffer from them. You can be proactive in preventing suffering. This is why we meditate: to sensitize ourselves to our present intentions, some of which are very subtle. This sensitivity enables us to expand the range of our freedom in the present, training the mind in the skills it needs to create positive present karma, to deal positively with the raw material from past negative karma, and eventually to go beyond the karma of intentions entirely.
3. If your intentions influence the quality of the result, does this mean that every action done with good intentions will tend toward a good result? For an intention to give good results, it has to be free of greed, aversion, and delusion. Now, it’s possible for an intention to be well-meaning but based on delusion, in which case it would lead to bad results: believing, for instance, that there are times when the compassionate course of action would be to kill or to tell a lie, or for a teacher to have sex with a student. To give good results, an action has to be not only good but also skillful. This is why the Buddha taught his son, Rahula, to develop three qualities in his actions: wisdom—acting for longterm happiness; compassion—intending not to harm anyone with his actions; and purity—checking the actual results of his actions, and learning from his mistakes so as not to be fooled by an intention that seems wise and compassionate but really isn’t. This is how good intentions are trained to be skillful. Beyond that, there are two main levels of skill: the skillful actions that lead to a good rebirth, and those that lead beyond rebirth entirely, to the deathless.
4. Is it possible to burn off old karma? No. In the Buddha’s times, the Jains believed that they could burn off old karma by not reacting to the pain of their austerities, and the Buddha reserved some of his sharpest ridicule for that belief. As he said, they should have noticed that the pain experienced during their austerities ended when they stopped the austerities, which meant that the pain was the result not of old karma being burned off, but of their present karma in doing the austerities. Still, it is possible to minimize the results of bad past karma. The Buddha compared past bad karma to a big lump of salt (Anguttara Nikaya 3.101). If you put the salt into a small glass of water, you can’t drink the water because it’s too salty. But if you toss it into a large, clean river, it doesn’t make the water of the river too salty to drink. The river stands for a mind that has developed infinite goodwill and equanimity, grown mature in virtue and discernment, and has trained itself not to be overcome by pleasure or pain.
5. Does karma shape everything you experience? The Buddha used the teaching on karma to explain only three things: (1) your experience of pleasure and pain; (2) the level of rebirth you take after death, in terms of such things as your wisdom or lack of wisdom, wealth or lack of wealth, and the length of your life span; and (3) what to do to get out of the cycle of rebirth. The noble eightfold path is this last type of karma: the karma that puts an end to karma. Beyond that, he said that if you tried to work out all the implications of the results of karma, you’d go crazy. Because his teaching deals simply with suffering and the end of suffering, that’s as far as he took the issue.
6. Is it true that “if you want to see a person’s past actions, look at his present condition; if you want to see his future condition, look at his present actions”? That’s much too simplistic. It implies that you have a single karma account, like a bank account, with your present situation showing the running balance. Remember that karma is like seeds in a field. You’re planting karma seeds in your field with every intention, and those seeds mature at different rates. So you’ve got lots of karma accounts at different stages of development. All you can see at any one moment are the seeds that are currently sprouting. As for the other seeds that haven’t yet sprouted, good or bad, you can’t see those at all.
7. Doesn’t the teaching on karma teach people to be callous toward the sufferings of others? Since you have both good and bad seeds in your field that haven’t yet matured, the teaching on karma teaches you to ask this question instead: what’s the wisest way to view other people whose bad seeds are currently sprouting? And the answer is: with compassion. Is your compassion so rarified that you give it only to people who have never done anything wrong? If it were, you wouldn’t find anyone to receive it. So when you see someone suffering, you don’t say, “They deserve it,” and leave them to their suffering. Actions yield results, but nobody “deserves” to suffer. The path is for putting an end to suffering, “deserved” or not. You look for the potential good seeds in other people’s fields that are about to mature, and try to give them whatever aid you can that will help them not to suffer from the bad seeds. After all, that’s how you would like them to treat you when your bad seeds start to mature.
8. But can’t karma be used to justify social injustices? Only by people who don’t really believe in karma. If someone has the karma that tends to poverty or a painful death, there are plenty of natural causes or accidents that will provide an opportunity for that karma to bear fruit. But if you decide to oppress that person economically or bring about his painful death, that bad karma now becomes yours.
9. Don’t people believe in karma just because they want the universe to seem just? If they do, they’re in for a disappointment. When you sow seeds in your karma field, you get the same kind of plant whose seed you sow, but the size of your harvest will vary in line with many other factors—for example, other actions you do before or after, or your state of mind when the seed ripens. This means that a minor action might yield huge results, or a major action, small results. One discourse (Majjhima Nikaya 86) tells of Angulimala, who murdered many people but then had a total change of heart and became an arahant. The only karmic result of all those murders was that people threw things at him when he was on his alms round. The relatives of those he killed probably didn’t think that justice was served, but that was how karma worked in that case. And we’re fortunate that karma isn’t always just. As the Buddha said, if we had to pay back all the bad karma we’ve done in the past before reaching awakening, no one would ever awaken.
To Be Continued Next Week
A Commentary on
Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research
Author: Bhikkhu Analayo
Review: Guy Armstrong
5 . 29 . 18
What happens when we die?
This question has vexed us humans for as long as we’ve been able to conceive of a future. Opinions abound. The materialist believes nothing happens; everything simply ends. The eternalist believes we will all have everlasting existence in either eternal joy or misery. The agnostic says we can’t know, so it’s not worth thinking about. Some Buddhists believe we will be reborn, and that the circumstances of one’s rebirth are influenced by past actions. These stances are often strongly held even though, if pressed, those who hold them will admit they don’t actually know.
In Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research, Bhikkhu Analayo, author of the highly regarded book Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization, approaches this question from multiple perspectives, examining the tenet of rebirth through early discourses of the Buddha, historical debates, accounts of near-death experiences, and modern research. Although Analayo is a deeply committed practitioner and scholar in the tradition of early Buddhism, this is no polemical tract. He writes early on that, while he is sympathetic to the idea of rebirth, “for me personally rebirth is not a crucial issue.”
Analayo’s goal is not to persuade but rather to understand “things as they really are.” As such, he writes in the balanced, dispassionate style of an academic who expects to be challenged on any statement not supported by facts. Yet Analayo does not shy away from controversy, taking up an array of viewpoints on the issue and thoughtfully considering each. This alone makes the book a refreshing approach to a topic often muddied by polarizing opinions.
Rebirth in the Buddha’s Teachings
In Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, the idea of rebirth is almost universally accepted. But in the West, practitioners are more apt to question tradition and approach foundational teachings with skepticism. Today many Buddhist teachers deny that the Buddha even taught rebirth, arguing that the numerous references to the concept in the early discourses were a later addition. Others claim the Buddha taught rebirth only to conform to the pervasive cultural belief of his day. Analayo begins his investigation by examining these ideas in light of the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth as found in the Pali Nikayas and Chinese Agamas, his sourcebooks for early Buddhism. In so doing, he contends that teachings on rebirth are integrated so fully into the early discourses that they could not have been interpolated later. The Buddha spoke of his recollection of past lives not as a speculative theory but as a truth he realized on the night of his awakening and as an insight available to anyone who trains in the required meditative discipline.
Rebirth was so central to the Buddha’s message that it was part of the standard formula for right view.
Analayo begins by analyzing the role of rebirth in the chain of causal links of dependent arising (paticca samupada), which describes in detail the genesis of suffering. He focuses especially on the link between consciousness and name-and-form. Here “consciousness” refers to the mind’s capacity to have any experience at all, while “name” is the mental capacity for naming elements of sense experience, and “form” refers to the physical body. In one discourse the Buddha asks Ananda, “If consciousness did not enter the mother’s womb, would there be name-and-form?” And Ananda replies, “No.” In other words, the Buddha taught that consciousness, continuing from the previous life, meets with a newly forming embryo in order to make possible the body (form) and cognitive process (name) of the new being.
In the materialist view, a rebirth doctrine would imply a mind-body dualism, which would be unacceptable. As Analayo shows, however, the Buddha’s understanding of the mind-body relationship is more nuanced than either a strictly unitary or strictly dualistic view would permit. The Buddha spoke of the mutual dependency between consciousness and name-and-form, comparing them to two sheaves of reeds leaning against one another. Consciousness, a fundamental aspect of mind, may be somewhat separate from body, but the cognitive process (name) is so closely tied to the body (form) as to be described as just one factor. The Tibetan Wheel of Life painting illustrates this link as two people sharing one boat.
In examining the relationship between consciousness and name-and-form, Analayo in effect refutes the materialist view, widely held in the West, which asserts that mind is simply a byproduct of the functioning of the body that ends completely at death. This belief was also common at the time of the Buddha, who in a list of wrong views in the Brahmajala Sutta called it “annihilationist.” The fact that the Buddha felt compelled to address the annihilationist view refutes the notion that rebirth was universally accepted in ancient India.
Analayo also rejects the assertion that teachings on rebirth were merely acquiescence to a popular cultural belief of the time, pointing out that it was so central to the Buddha’s message that it was part of the standard formula for right view, the first factor of the eightfold path. The Buddha told his disciples that he taught only what he considered essential to awakening: a “handful of leaves” rather than the entire forest he had come to know. If the concept of rebirth were not essential in some way, why would it have been such a prominent part of that handful? Analayo points to its centrality in the Buddha’s description of samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death, with all its attendant suffering. This has provided a compelling motivation for generations of practitioners to dedicate themselves to the goal of full awakening.
Children Who Remember Past Lives
A particularly intriguing section of the book details numerous stories of young children who recounted what they described as memories of previous lives. Such recollections often include precise, verifiable details the children could have no possible way of knowing. Researchers, including Dr. Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia, have collected thousands of accounts and, when possible, investigated them to assess their accuracy.
A proponent of rebirth might even argue that these stories represent more evidence than materialists have been able to gather in support of their view.
A three-year-old boy in Lebanon recalled having been killed in battle in his former life. He accurately reported how much money the person he had been had in his pockets at the time of his death and identified various personal articles when taken to that person’s home. A two-year-old boy in Turkey claimed he had frozen to death after an airplane crash in his previous life. The person’s family believed the man had died instantly in the crash, but when consulted, a Turkish Airlines official confirmed the man had indeed died from freezing. A two-year-old girl in Thailand remembered living in a monastery in her previous life. When taken there, she knew her way around, recognized a number of monastics, and even detailed what had changed about the buildings in the time since she had lived there. In many such cases, the location of a birthmark on the child’s body is said to correlate with an injury sustained at the time of death in a prior life.
Analayo concludes that “fraud as an explanation for all of them can be safely discarded,” adding that “the body of evidence collected … offers considerable support for the assumption that at least some of these cases do reflect genuine memories of the past.” A proponent of rebirth might even argue that these stories represent more evidence than materialists have been able to gather in support of their view.
The most compelling of the children’s stories is that of Dhammaruwan, a Sri Lankan boy born in 1968. At the age of two, he spontaneously began to sit in meditation and chant for long stretches of time. Eventually someone realized he was chanting Buddhist discourses in Pali, but in a melody and meter more akin to devotional kirtan than to the monotone cadences favored today. The boy explained he had learned the chants in a previous life in India when he served as a reciter monk, one who memorizes sections of the Pali Canon. He said he studied under the renowned monk Buddhaghosa in the fifth century and moved with him to Sri Lanka, where the elder carried out his work of compiling and translating many commentaries, including the Visuddhimagga.
Dhammaruwan’s chants were recorded and circulated, making him famous in Sri Lanka, uncomfortably so for a shy child. By adulthood he had lost the memories of the chants but was still able to recall his impressions of Buddhaghosa, whom he described as a scholar but not a meditator. While the fifth century may be too distant to verify Dhammaruwan’s recollections, Analayo goes to great lengths to analyze the chants themselves to determine whether the child could have learned them by overhearing them in this life. The book includes an exhaustive comparison of the discourses chanted by the child with four different editions of the Pali texts (from Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and London), establishing that Dhammaruwan’s versions of the texts are not found in any modern source. Therefore, Analyo concludes, the boy had no way of learning them in his current lifetime.
Dhammaruwan is now living as a monk in Sri Lanka under the name Samadhikusala. He was ordained by Bhante Gunaratana.
Buddhism has gained a foothold in the West amid a set of cultural assumptions strongly influenced by both science and Christianity, so it is only natural that the notion of rebirth would not immediately resonate for many practitioners. Yet the doctrine is such an integral part of the Buddha’s teachings that, in the spirit of open-minded inquiry that is a hallmark of the scientific approach, it deserves serious consideration. The rational presentation in Bhikkhu Anālayo’s book is well-suited to this task.
Do You Only Live Once? The Evidence for Rebirth, a profile of reincarnation researcher Jim Tucker
The Tibetan Buddhist View of Death and Rebirth, a teaching by Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman
The Buddhist Teachings on Rebirth, a collection of wisdom from ten Buddhist teachers
Reincarnation: Modern Research and Traditional Buddhist Teachings, a comparison
The Rebirth and Reincarnation archives on LionsRoar.com
Directed and Undirected Meditation
Sutta: The Buddha
Commentary: Andrew Olendzki
The venerable Ananda arose early one morning, and taking up his robe and bowl approached a certain settlement of nuns, where he sat down on a seat that had been prepared. A number of nuns approached the venerable Ananda, and after greeting him, sat down to one side. So seated, these nuns said this to the venerable Ananda: “There are here, Ananda sir, a number of female pracitioners who abide with minds well established in the four foundations of mindfulness. Their understanding is becoming ever greater and more excellent.”
“So it is, Sisters, so it is!” replied Ananda. “Indeed for anybody who abides with a mind well established in the four foundations of mindfulness — it is to be expected that their understanding becomes ever greater and more excellent.”
[Ananda later relates this exchange to the Buddha, who approves of his response and then elaborates:]
Here, Ananda, one abides contemplating body as body[*] — ardent, fully aware, mindful — leading away the unhappiness that comes from obsessing for the things of the world. And for one who is abiding contemplating body as body,[*] a thought regarding the body arises, or bodily distress arise, or mental sluggishness arises and this unfocuses one’s mind sending it here and there. Then one should direct ones’s mind to some satisfactory image. When the mind is directed to some satisfactory image, happiness is born. From this happiness, joy is then born. With a joyful mind, the body relaxes. A relaxed body feels content, and the mind of one content becomes concentrated. One then reflects: “The purpose for which I directed my my mind has been accomplished. So now I shall withdraw directed attention from the satisfactory image that has created within myself contentment and concentration.” One withdraws, and no longer thinks upon or thinks about the image. One understands: “I am not thinking upon or thinking about anything. Inwardly concentrated, I am content.” This is directed meditation.
And what is undirected meditation? Not directing one’s mind outward, one understands: “My mind is not directed outward.” One understands: “Not focused on before or after; free; undirected.” And one understands: “I abide observing body as body — ardent, fully aware, mindful — I am content.” This is undirected meditation.
And so, Ananda, I have taught directed meditation; and I have taught undirected meditation. Whatever is to be done by a teacher with compassion for the welfare of students, that has been done by me out of compassion for you. Here are the roots of trees. Here are empty places. Get down and meditate. Don’t be lazy. Don’t become one who is later remorseful. This is my instruction to you.
* These passages are repeated for the other three foundations of mindfulness:
feelings as feelings;
mind as mind;
mental states as mental states.
This text is interesting for a number of reasons, though it seems not to be particularly well known or often referred to.
The framing story shows clearly that women were diligent and successful practitioners of insight meditation in the Buddha’s time, and that they were well-supported in this pursuit. Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and life-long assistant, was a great champion of the women’s causes and would often visit communities of women to encourage their dhamma practice. The Buddha seems to take the opportunity of Ananda’s report to expound on some of the details of mindfulness technique.
What he says here about directed and undirected meditation is particularly interesting in light of the modern integration of metta practice with vipassana practice. The Buddha seems to acknowledge that mindful awareness is sometimes difficult to come by, and that there are times when one’s “mind becomes scattered” by the arising of challenging mind states (has this ever happened to you?).
His response here is not the warrior’s tone sometimes found elsewhere in the texts, whereby the practitioner should just overcome the unwholesome thoughts and rouse up sufficient heroic energy to re-establish mindfulness. Nor is it the gentler response we often hear in the dhamma hall, to just be aware of what is arising, without judgment of any kind, gently returning our attention to the breath or other primary object of meditation. Rather the Buddha’s suggestion is a deliberate re-direction of our attention to a “satisfactory image.”
The pali words (referring to image) here are pasadaniya nimitta. A nimitta is an image or manifestation that appears in the mind — something akin to a sign, a vision or an appearance of an object in the “mind’s eye.” It is the term used in visualization meditations, and has a connotation of recollecting something in the mind.
The adjective pasadaniya is translated by Woodward elsewhere as “pleasurable,” but this sort of term is too easily misconstrued in Buddhist contexts. I don’t think the Buddha is suggesting here that we seek something pleasant in order to avoid the arising discomfort, but is rather suggesting a short term strategy for the practical disarming of the mind’s defense mechanisms.
The commentator Buddhaghosa suggest that the image of the Buddha might be an example of a satisfactory image, but probably anything wholesome and not productive of strong craving (of attachment or aversion) will do. The idea is just to re-direct the mind to a pleasant state that allows relaxation, contement and then concentration.
The practical effect of this re-direction of attention is the natural calming of the mind and relaxation of the body. Only from tranquillity can true alertness arise — otherwise the mind’s attentiveness is just busy or restless.
But as the sutta confirms, this excursion into the deliberate cultivation of a specific satisfactory inspiring image, directly effect the body in a relaxing way that then lead back to concentration. The image can be naturally released as the restoration of concentration has been fulfilled.
-Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel