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Q&A on Jhana States
– Leigh Brasington
Leigh Brasington, 55, has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1985 and is the senior American student of the German-born Theravada teacher Ayya Khema.
You have described the jhanas as being “the heart of the Buddha’s practice:’ How is it that they’re so little known to most practitioners these days? “I don’t know” is the short answer. They’re certainly all over the place in the suttas—they’re mentioned in about half of the suttas of the Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourses of the Buddha) and in about a third of the suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya (The Middle-Length Discourses). The Buddha defined Right Concentration as the practice of the first fout jhanas, so it would seem obvious they’d be known everywhere, but they’re not. It appears there was a split after the Buddha’s death concerning the importance of the jhanas, and that dispute continues to this day.
Why does jhana practice seem to have been on the losing side of this split? One thing I could speculate is that as the monastic community withdrew into the forest and began practicing the jhanas, they began taking concentration to deeper and deeper levels. There certainly is a human tendency to say “If you’re not doing it as well as I can do it, you’re not doing the real thing.” The view of extremely deep concentration was promoted by the Visuddhimagga, which gives the odds on a meditator learning all eight of the jhanas as one in one hundred million. Whereas if you look at the suttas, people are entering the jhanas all over the place.
So Westerners have never been much exposed to the jhanas. It’s not the practice that was brought to the West. What principally came here was the Mahasi tradition—Vipassana, or insight meditation—from Burma, and some of the Thai traditions. I’ve heard that just a small percentage of the monks in Thailand meditate. Now, of that small percent, how many are actually doing jhana practice?
My teacher, Ayya Khema, taught herself the jhanas, by reading the suttas and the Visuddhimagga. But she didn’t know if she was doing it right. So when she was in Sri Lanka, she began inquiring as to who was a jhana master with whom she could study. She eventually found Matara Sri Nanarama Mahathera and had an interview with him. She described what she was doing and asked, “Am I doing them right)” He said, “Yes. And furthermore, you must teach them. They are in danger of becoming a lost art.”
So even in a place like Sri Lanka, which considers itself the guardian of Theravada Buddhism, the jhanas are in danger of being a lost practice.
Is there much known about the pre-Buddhist history of the jhanas? They definitely existed prior to the Buddha—he learned jhanas one through seven from his first teacher, and the eighth from his second teacher. Anapanasati—watching the breath as a form of meditation—is believed to be five thousand years old. The Buddha came along twenty-five hundred years later, and certainly during the intervening years people had stumbled into these altered states of consciousness. It happens remarkably often. On most of the retreats I teach, a significant number of the new students have stumbled into one or more of these states. So, given two and a half thousand years of people practicing anapanasati, a lot of people presumably discovered these states, and by the Buddha’s time, they had systematized them in increasing order of subtlety of the objects.
It’s interesting to note that the Buddha first entered jhana as a child, while sitting under the rose apple tree at what was probably a plowing festival. And on the night of his enlightenment, the first thing he did was step through the jhanas. In the post-jhanic state of mind, in the last watch of the night, he penetrated the Four Noble Truths.
Do we know exactly what the Buddha was doing? We don’t know for sure exactly what the Buddha was practicing. There is a lot of dispute over how to define or interpret the jhanas. Perhaps the better question is, What’s a useful definition? Is there some level of jhana that people can actually learn and will help them in their spiritual growth) Hopefully, this is the level at which I am teaching.
What is your definition of the jhanas? I would define them as eight altered states of consciousness, each one requiring more concentration than the previous, and each one generating more concentration than the previous. The standard definition of the jhanas that’s found in the suttas, such as in the “Greater Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” describes the first four states, in very specific terms.The last four jhanas build on the fourth jhana and are referred to as the immaterial (fromless) jhanas.
Each jhana it’s factors.
– In the first jhana:
–initial attention on the meditation subject
–sustained attention on the meditation subject
That is, putting your attention on the object and keeping your attention on the object.
Then there is:
–physical sense of rapture, pleasure coursing through the body,
–an energetic release
–an emotional sense of joy
The first jhana, then, is a state where there is a release of this uplifting, pleasurable, physical energy accompanied by an emotional sense of joy and happiness that you can put and sustain your attention upon.
In the second jhana, Joy moves into the foreground, and initial and sustained attention fades, to be replaced by inner tranquility and oneness of mind. Consciousness becomes absorbed in rapture.
In the third jhana, the rapture—the physical component—disappears and the joy calms down to contentment. The concentration is becoming more refined, and there’s a spreading of contentment that is all-pervasive. It’s a state of wishlessness, a state of complete satisfaction.
The contentment that arises in the third jhana contains pleasure.
In the fourth jhana, the pleasure goes away and the mind becomes neutral. The suttas say that “with the abandoning of pleasure and pain—as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress—one enters and remains in the fourth jhana, which is beyond pleasure and pain, and purified by equanimity and mindfulness.” This is a state that’s very peaceful, very restful, very quiet, very still.
And the next four? The next four jhanas are further refinements of the concentration. The mind takes in more and more subtle objects until it reaches a state where simultaneously it has very little recognition of what’s happening, yet stable awareness remains. It is very concentrated.
You’ve said that these are naturally occurring states of mind. Do students come upon these states on their own? All eight jhanas, rarely. However, students do stumble into one or more of the first seven, surprisingly frequently. And a number of people report having experienced these states as children.
So how do the jhanas help us? The Buddha says that they are right concentration and, therefore, a cornerstone of the path to liberation. On the night of his enlightenment, after stepping through the jhanas, he described himself as having “a mind concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability.” This is the mind he then applied to the true knowledges. The purpose of the jhanas is to generate a mind that can most efficiently gain insight into the nature of things as they are. That’s why they’re important.
Jhana and insight, hand-in-hand
(Definition:Jhana is a meditative state of profound stillness and concentration in which the mind becomes fully immersed and absorbed in the chosen object of attention. It is the cornerstone in the development of Right Concentration.)
– The Buddha
There’s no jhana
for one with no discernment,
for one with no jhana.
But with both jhana & discernment:
one is on the verge of Unbinding.