A few days before the eminent scholar Lance Cousins passed away in 2015, he revealed to one of his students, Sarah Shaw, that he had been working on a book on Buddhist meditation. After his death, with the permission of his family, Shaw found the manuscript on his desktop and prepared it for publication. The book, Meditations of the Pali Tradition: Illuminating Buddhist Doctrine, History, and Practice, which comes out September 27, is the first comprehensive exploration of meditation systems in Theravada Buddhism, and it offers an in-depth analysis of the ritual, somatic, and devotional aspects of Theravada practice that are often overlooked.

In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, sat down with Shaw to discuss a system of Buddhist meditation known as the jhanas, as well as the underappreciated role of joy in meditative practice.


What are the jhanas

The jhanas are a way of the mind finding unity and peace within itself. We usually apply our minds to things we need to do or things we’re working on, like the housework. But what we don’t do very easily is release our mind from the preoccupations around us and just let it settle on the breath. When the mind can settle, a great joy and happiness can arise. Eventually, this will take the mind to this state known as jhana, where the mind is unified and freed from searching for other objects.

The link between the jhanas and wisdom

People will often say that the jhanas won’t get you to awakening—you need wisdom. But it’s rarely looked at the other way around. The Dhammapada says you can’t have wisdom without jhana. The two are very closely linked. People who practice the jhanas defend it as being a way of being able to go deeper into the mind peacefully and thereby get more insight because there is a greater sense of peace there.

The overlooked factor of awakening 

Joy is central to the jhanas—and to awakening. The Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula Thero said years ago that Buddhism always gets such a reputation for going on about suffering, but people forget that the central factor for awakening, the fourth out of the seven, is joy. It’s the most important thing you can have in Buddhist practice, and Rahula said it was the hallmark of the Buddhist path at every stage. 

The movement from joy to happiness 

In the jhanas, the joy goes through five stages and can get quite violent. But it then settles and deepens. There’s an image in one of the suttas where joy is compared to somebody parched in a desert who sees a wonderful freshwater lake and feels this great joy, and happiness is what they feel when they’ve drunk from that lake. This is a nice analogy for the movement from the second jhana to the third: in the second jhana, there is said to be so much joy that it is the overriding experience. But then in the third jhana, the joy is stilled. The mind is very refreshed, and there’s an increase in mindfulness then.

Where the Buddha wanted to be

In what the Buddha told us about his life, he clearly wanted the jhanas to occupy an important role. He is said to have recollected stumbling on the first jhana as a child while sitting under a rose apple tree watching the breath. His system of breathing mindfulness is a way of training to find that too. Even after enlightenment, a lot of the arahats and the Buddha enter jhana. They want to. It’s where they refresh their mind. At the moment of his entrance into nibbana, the Buddha goes up through all the jhanas and formless states and then back down again, and he leaves his human body on the fourth jhana. It’s almost like that’s where he wanted to be, and he made his departure from the human body a kind of meditation for those around him.

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