Right Concentration in Systems Design
This article is the last piece in the first series of my Mindful Technology column in which I explore correlations between the Eight Precepts defined in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta and the design of technology systems and other engineering practices.
Future articles will continue along this line of thought since much is happening in the field of technology and ethics, highlighting the importance of correlating Dharma principles to scientific and technical fields of knowledge.
The topic of this article is “Right Concentration” (Pali: samma samadhi), the last of the Eight Precepts defined in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. It points to “unification of the mind,” also expressed as “one-pointedness of mind” (Pali: ekodibhava).
In the sutras, Right Concentration is described as an optimal state of mind where one surrenders all mental and physical resources to various stages of concentration, resulting in deeper insight and, eventually, a climax of the human experience as fulfilment of all aspirations—an experience also identified as the “enlightened state.”
To achieve Right Concentration, practitioners go through a series of stages called the jhanhas (Skt: dhyana), cultivated states of mind that can lead to a “state of perfect equanimity and awareness (Pali: upekkhii-sati-piirisuddhl).” (Vetter 1988, 5)
The jhanas are stages of meditation that can be translated as “states of absorption” or even “trance,” and find correspondence in other spiritual traditions. The nine levels of jhana are described as:
- • Delightful sensations
- • Joy
- • Contentment
- • Utter peacefulness
- • Infinity of space
- • Infinity of consciousness
- • No-thingness
- • Neither perception nor non-perception
- • Cessation
(From Anguttara Nikaya 9.36)
These levels of concentration were known and practiced by the ancient schools of wisdom and yoga before the Buddha experienced and taught them.
The jhanhas are considered “antidotes” to different types of obscurations and defilements, also called ”fabrications,” and can be divided into verbal, bodily, and mental.* In particular it is said that verbal fabrications silence on attaining the second jhana, bodily fabrications vanish on attaining the fourth jhana, and mental fabrications quiesce on attaining the cessation of perception and feeling.
Right concentration in systems
In technical system development we adopt equivalent constructs, especially in information- and knowledge based systems. A well-designed and well-implemented system can be defined as stable and transparent, and as making optimal use of resources to achieve its intended function. Modern system configurations make it possible for the system to adapt and transform, and even evolve dynamically.
Well-designed systems are capable of addressing and handling failures to minimize disruption and loss. In system development, various types of bugs—errors, flaws—can be considered equivalent to obscuration and defilements, and the “fabrications” described earlier.
If we consider that the ultimate goal of an information or knowledge system is to provide access to information and knowledge, we can compare the optimal state of this system to “right concentration” as described by the Dharma. The state of an optimal system can be a moving target, and so is a meditator’s concentration.
All development methods, in different ways, follow the lifecycle approach, which is made up of stages such as analysis and implementation testing, often carried out through a process of ongoing refinement.
Typical structured approaches adopt the “waterfall” model where these development phases are carried out sequentially, but more contemporary approaches such as agile methods and scrum tend to scramble the sequence and follow more organic schedules, moving away from sequential development. The stages of system development are, structurally speaking, not dissimilar from the jhanas.
Right concentration can be compared to the system being in an optimal state, where the use of all resources is optimized and all system functions are performed correctly with the minimum necessary amount of resources. Various principles and techniques are adopted to support right concentration in system development.
One of these techniques is cohesion, which denotes the level of intra-dependency among the elements of a software module. In other words, cohesion is a measure of the degree to which the responsibilities of a single module or component form a meaningful unit. It can be broken down into different types, such as coincidental cohesion, logical cohesion, temporal cohesion, procedural cohesion, communicational cohesion, sequential cohesion, and functional cohesion.*
Other constructs used in engineering that somewhat resonate with Right Concentration are “alignment,” which occurs “when all structures, processes, and systems support your organization’s heart—and don’t work against it.” (Skills2lead) And “orchestration:” the automated coordination, arrangement, and management of complex computer systems and services. It is often said that orchestration includes some sense of inherent intelligence or autonomic control, but that is, for the moment, more of an analogy used to explain the system and an aspiration for the future.
So to conclude, Right Concentration in the Dharma describes stages of absorption and meditation leading up to enlightenment. In systems engineering, comparable constructs and phases of development and refinement are adopted to achieve optimal system state, and to produce the closest technology can yield to human intelligence and enlightenment.
* Kamabhu Sutta: With Kamabhu: On the Cessation of Perception & Feeling (Access to Insight)
Vetter, Tilmann. 1988. The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism. Leiden: Brill.
Busi, Nadia, Roberto Gorrieri, Claudio Guidi, Roberto Lucchi, and Gianluigi Zavattaro. 2005. “Choreography and Orchestration: A Synergic Approach for System Design.” In: Service-Oriented Computing - ICSOC 2005. ICSOC 2005. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 3826. Edited by Boualem Benatallah, Fabio Casati, Paolo Traverso, 228–40. Heidelberg: Springer.
Erl, Thomas. 2006. Service-Oriented Architecture: Concepts, Technology & Design. Prentice Hall: Boston.
Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Awareness (Pali Tipitaka)
The Fourth Noble Truth: The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of dukkha (Access to Insight)
Jhanas (Dhamma Wiki)
Design for change: Coupling and cohesion in object oriented systems (InfoWorld)
Alignment Definition (Skills2lead)
The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation (Access to Insight)
The Jhanas In Theravadan Buddhist Meditation (Angelfire)