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, 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, spoke with Shaw about a system of Buddhist meditation known as the jhanas, as well as the underappreciated role of joy in meditative practice.

What is jhana?

Jhana (Pali; S. dhyana; T. bsam gtan; C. chan; J. zen; K. son), or “meditative absorption,” refers both to a description of the state of full absorption and to various meditative practices. Commonly translated as “meditation” and often regarded as a focused concentration, jhana involves the ability to control the mind and does not have any particular insight itself. Divided into eight stages of absorption, the practices of jhana lead to the gradual removal of the five hindrances of practice (sensual desire, malice, lethargy and drowsiness, restlessness and anxiety, and skeptical doubt) and the gradual cultivation of their counterparts, the five mental factors (one-pointedness of mind, rapture, applied attention, joy, and sustained attention). 

Meditation teachers and different schools of Buddhist thought interpret the states and practices of jhana in a variety of ways, and a rich commentarial tradition continues to inform debates. In the Theravada Buddhist schools, such as the Vipassana movement, debates on the usefulness of jhana have led to the “Jhana Wars,” in which both practitioners and scholars question interpretations and practices centered on the jhanas. For the Mahayana schools of East Asia, jhana often references specific meditative techniques practiced during sitting and walking meditation or throughout the day, such as observing the breath, observing the mind, and contemplating koans. Several non-Buddhist contemporary spiritual teachings, such as Theosophy, were influenced by the jhanas

James Shaheen (JS): Many of the essays in this book focus on the jhanas. To start, can you walk us through what those are?

Sarah Shaw (SS): The jhanas are a way of the mind finding unity and peace within itself.  The Buddha is said to have stumbled on this state as a child while sitting under a rose apple tree simply through watching his breath. He found this state by chance, and his system of breathing mindfulness is a way of training the mind to enter the jhanas. 

We usually apply our minds to things we need to do. But what we don’t do very easily is release the mind from the preoccupations around us and just let it settle on the breath. When we can apply the mind to breath, great joy and happiness can arise. This will eventually take the mind to the state known as jhana, this great unification where the mind is freed from searching for other objects.

JS: Cousins focuses on the jhana factor of piti, or joy. Can you share more about the role of joy in meditative practice?

SS: The Sri Lankan Buddhist teacher Walpola Rahula once said that Buddhism always gets a reputation for going on about suffering, but people forget that the central factor for awakening—the fourth out of seven—is joy. Joy is the most important thing you can have in Buddhist practice, and Rahula said it was the hallmark of the Buddhist path at every stage. Cousins talks about it quite a bit in his book because he felt that it was a crucial aspect of how Buddhist meditation actually works. Without joy, we just can’t do things well. This is described at great length in the boran kammatthana, or the ancient system of meditation. Joy is one of the starting points for meditation, and it’s something that changes people. Cousins actually thought that the closest translation of piti was love, though it’s a difficult word to use in the West.

In the jhanas, the joy can get quite violent, but it eventually settles and deepens into sukha, or happiness, and then equanimity. In one of the suttas, piti is compared to what someone feels when they’re parched in a desert and see a wonderful freshwater lake, and sukha is what they feel when they’ve drunk from the water. I think that gives a nice analogy of 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, that joy is stilled. The mind is refreshed, and there’s an increase in mindfulness.

JS: In Western practice, the jhanas are often dismissed or less frequently discussed, but Cousins defends them as part of a rich tradition crucial to the Buddha’s own life story. Can you speak to the role that the jhanas played in the Buddha’s biography?

SS: In what the Buddha told us about his life, he clearly wanted jhanas to occupy an important role. He describes the instant under the rose apple tree when he attains the first jhana. He then describes various meditations he pursued before he became enlightened, as well as after attaining enlightenment. The Buddha and a lot of the arhats [beings who have achieved enlightenment] continue to enter jhana after they’re enlightened—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, leaving his human body on the fourth jhana. In this way, he made his departure from his human body a form of meditation for those around him. He wanted to demonstrate that the jhanas were really important. It’s almost like that’s where he wanted his body to be.

Often, people will say that you need wisdom to get to enlightenment and jhana won’t get you there. It’s rarely looked at the other way around. But the Dhammapada says that you can’t get wisdom without jhana. The two are very closely linked. People who practice jhana defend it as a way of being able to go deeper into the mind and thereby get more insight because the mind is more peaceful.

JS: Cousins also examines the development of insight meditation. Today, we tend to see insight as opposed to the jhanas, but the relationship between vipassana and samatha is more complex. Can you share more about how this relationship is described in the Pali canon and commentaries?

SS: Samatha is calm meditation, and it’s always been seen as in tandem to what is known as vipassana, or insight meditation. They’re often compared to the two wings of a bird—both are needed. Most Buddhist practices tend to have an emphasis on one or the other, but they still have elements of both. In samatha breathing mindfulness, the emphasis is on the pursuit of calm, but there are also elements of insight because you’re aware of the rise and fall of the breath and its impermanence and unsatisfactoriness. The two are often described as yoked together. The Buddha says that some people practice samatha first, then insight; some people do insight first, then samatha. They’re not really in opposition. It’s a bit like how you feel and what you see. If I’m looking at a beautiful view, the act of seeing the view is vipassana, whereas how I feel is samatha. That’s the state of my being. The two aren’t in contradiction. They’re just two slightly different functions that can be going on at the same time.

Listen to the full discussion between Sarah Shaw and James Shaheen here on Tricycle Talks:

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.