At the heart of the Buddha’s teaching there are doctrines and strategies that dharma students must learn, and internalize, in order to understand his map to liberation. But few strategies are as central to the Buddhist path, and as little known to Westerners, as those called the jhanas. Jhana is the Pali word for mental or meditative absorption, and refers to a set of states of deep and subtle concentration focused on a single object. In the Pali suttas, the Buddha described four jhanas, each a more profound and refined state of consciousness than the preceding one, and each building on the preceding one. The fourth jhana, in turn, can be refined even further into four more states of ever deepening concentration. These latter jhanas are called the nonmaterial jhanas because perception of the material world fades and disappears. In order to enter the first jhana, meditators must establish a base of mental tranquility known as “access concentration” (because the jhanas are accessed from that state).
The Buddha called the jhanas the cornerstone of right concentration, which is the eighth factor in the Noble Eightfold Path to freedom from suffering—and he described mastery of these states as a key to reaching enlightenment. His first two teachers instructed him in jhana practice, so we know the jhanas predated his own era and philosophy, but there is little documentation of their pre-Buddhist origins. The Buddha also describes stepping through the jhanas on the night of his enlightenment. They gave him, he recalled, a mind “concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady and attained to imperturbability”—the mind that was able to penetrate the true nature of reality and the path to nibbana. Later, when he began to teach, he is quoted telling his monks to go off to the forest-not to “meditate,” but to “do jhana.”
Jhana is the same term as the Sanskrit dhyana, the Chinese word ch’an, and the Japanese zen. All these words refer to the same meditative absorption the Buddha described, and the jhanas appear in the teachings of the Mahayanist schools of Buddhism, such as Rinzai Zen and Vajrayana. But the Theravada school of Buddhism in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka has long been the stronghold of jhana teachings, and the term is usually associated with and used by Theravada Buddhists.
Given the prevalence—and preeminence—of the jhanas in the Buddha’s practice and teachings, it seems incredible that so few Westerners know of them. The roots of the jhanas’ obscurity go way back, to disputes that roiled up in the centuries after the Buddha’s death over whether jhana practice was necessary or whether “dry”—non-jhanic—insight was sufficient for piercing the Four Noble Truths and reaching nibbana. In the fifth century, when the prolific monk and translator Buddhaghosha wrote the Visuddhimagga (“Path to Purification”), a massive Buddhist meditation manual, the jhanas were codified as a very difficult though noble pathway, inaccessible to the majority of practitioners. Much later still, in early twentieth-century Burma, political and ideological wars were waged over the best route to nibbana: the monastic hierarchy sought a “true” vipassana, or insight, path; concentration practices, including jhana, were relegated to the margins. A dry insight tradition, known as Mahasi Vipassana after the prominent Burmese teacher Mahasi Sayadaw, won out and has been transmitted to thousands of Westerners since the late 1960s.
Teachers in the Thai Forest tradition spearheaded a jhana revival in the twentieth century, affirming that sincere and dedicated practitioners could most certainly attain these states. Nevertheless, Theravada cultures largely have overlooked the jhanas in recent decades, assuming that the merit of latter-day Buddhists isn’t sufficient to lead them into the jhanas. Meditators who have come upon the states, either on their own or by learning of them from teachers or texts, have not had much to draw on. The Buddha himself offered little in the way of “how to,” and jhana masters are few and far between today.
This practice section is an introduction to the jhanas and some of the varied ways they are practiced and taught today by Theravada teachers, including excerpts from the Pali canon, articles by contemporary practitioners of the jhanas, and an interview with the Buddhist teacher Leigh Brasington, who studied jhana with the late Theravada master Ayya Khema and now teaches jhana retreats around the world. We hope this offering will draw some attention to this central but widely unknown doctrine and remind dharma students of the depth and breadth of what the Buddha taught.
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