Leigh Brasington, 55, has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1985 and is the senior American student of the German-born Theravada teacher Ayya Khema. Raised in Mississippi the son of a Presbyterian minister, Brasington lost faith in the family religion at the age of 18, while reading James Michener’s The Source, an epic novel that traces the history of Judaism. “Basically, God died that summer.” A decade later, he “awakened to the spiritual dimension of life” while traveling through Asia on a round-the-world tour. Actual practice, however, didn’t begin until several years later, when he attended a meditation retreat led by Ayya Khema, who eventually helped Brasington map his way through the jhanas and urged him to teach. [Khema died in 1997—see Tricycle, Spring 1998.] Today he spends several months of the year traveling the United States, Western Europe, and beyond, leading meditation retreats—most of which include jhana practice. Brasington works as a computer programmer in Alameda, California, where, among other projects, he recently designed a Tibetan word-processing program. In addition to working with Theravada teachers, he has studied for twelve years with the Tibetan Dzogchen master Tsoknyi Rinpoche. He spoke with Mary Talbot at the tail end of a jhana retreat in Chupadero, New Mexico, in July.

 "Crouching Buddha: I see you," © Miriam Hernandez, Acrylic, Print, Transfer, Collage, Graphite on Plexi, 2001, 12 x 9 inches
“Crouching Buddha: I see you,” © Miriam Hernandez, Acrylic, Print, Transfer, Collage, Graphite on Plexi, 2001, 12 x 9 inches

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? {Laughs} “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.

Related: Entering the Jhanas: Focus Comes First 

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. [See “This Is Called Right Concentration,”] The last four jhanas build on the fourth jhana and are referred to as the immaterial jhanas.

 "Crouching Buddha: Dyne," © Miriam Hernandez, Acrylic, Collage, Print, Ink , China Marker, Transfer on Plexi, 2002, 10 x 8 inches
“Crouching Buddha: Dyne,” © Miriam Hernandez, Acrylic, Collage, Print, Ink , China Marker, Transfer on Plexi, 2002, 10 x 8 inches

Each jhana has several factors. In the first jhana, the first two factors are vitaka and vicara, which have been translated variously, from “thinking and pondering” to “initial and sustained attention on the meditation subject.” I tend to go with “initial and sustained attention on the meditation subject.”‘ That is, putting your attention on the object and keeping your attention on the object. Then there are piti and sukha, piti being a physical sense of rapture, of pleasure coursing through the body, an energetic release; andsukha, an emotional sense of joy and happiness.

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, the piti subsides somewhat, but not entirely. The emotional joy of sukha moves into the foreground, and initial and sustained attention fades, to be replaced by inner tranquility and oneness of mind—ekodi-bhavam. Consciousness becomes absorbed in the sukha—ekagatta.

In the third jhana, the rapture—the physical component—disappears and the sukha calms down from joy 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—[a monk] 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.

But people do not get to the jhanas right off the bat. You suggest that students should have done at least two longer retreats and have a diligent daily meditation practice in order to do a jhana retreat. Can you talk about how people get to the jhanas in the first place? You must have a certain amount of concentration for the first jhana to arise. This is called access concentration. Access concentration has sila—morality—as a prerequisite. The description of the first jhana starts “Withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities …. ” If you are not leading a morally upright life, you cannot expect to sit down on a little pillow and find yourself secluded from sense desires, secluded from unwholesome states of mind. If there is not sufficient sila, there is too much to desire, too much hate or fear, too much to worry about. Access concentration also requires that you be in a physical posture that is both comfortable and alert; otherwise, you’ll be in pain, or you will be too sleepy to meditate.

Access concentration can be induced in a number of different ways. There are some forty different methods of meditation mentioned in the suttas, and about thirty of these are suitable for gaining entry to the jhanas. For example, if you have chosen anapanasati as the meditation method, you put your attention on the breath and you keep your attention on the breath until access concentration is established.

How do you know when your concentration is sufficient? In general, you are fully with the object of meditation. If there are any thoughts, they are wispy and in the background, not drawing you away from the object of meditation. Additionally, for mindfulness of breathing, the breath becomes very fine, almost undetectable.

"Crouching Buddha: Player," © Miriam Hernandez, Acrylic, Collage, Fabric, Graphite on Plexi, 2001, 10 x 8 inches
“Crouching Buddha: Player,” © Miriam Hernandez, Acrylic, Collage, Fabric, Graphite on Plexi, 2001, 10 x 8 inches

This kind of concentration is clearly achieved by Zen and Tibetan practitioners, too. But I’ve never heard of these states referred to as jhanas or categorized in this way. Are they? This kind of concentration is only access—not jhana, which is a specific, further refinement. Interestingly enough, the word jhana is dhyana in Sanskrit, ch’an in Chinese, and in Japanese zen. It literally means to meditate. The Zen students I’ve worked with have not learned about jhanas. I have seen all eight jhanas described in Tibetan literature, but never heard of them being taught. Also, the Zen and Tibetan traditions have most of the Pali canon, so the information is there, but it’s not been a central part of those practices, at least not as we know them in the West.
We know, too, that the jhanas appear in yogic teachings. An interesting possibility is that kundalini energy is the same as the piti energy—perhaps a slightly different manifestation, but I would say it’s much the same thing. Both kundalini and piti are described as producing heat at times. Women in their forties and fifties tell me, “All you’re doing is generating hot flashes!” In the Tibetan tradition, there is the practice of tumo, generating heat. I would not be surprised to learn that it’s related to generating piti. Whether they go from there to an advanced practice that is the jhanas, I don’t know.

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.

They are also described as being the basis for developing supernormal powers.
I would say any pursuit of supernormal powers is a distraction from the path. The Buddha certainly cautioned against pursuing them. So I would say the jhanas are to be used to generate a mind most suited to insight—particularly about mind and body and the Four Noble Truths.

Related: Jhana: The Spice Your Meditation Has Been Missing 

As you said, insight meditation is one of the most commonly taught forms in the West. But given your view, and that of the suttas, how can people pursue insight practice without preparing the mind with the jhanas?
Well, even the Buddha taught insight practice without jhanas. If you take a look at the “Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing” in the Majjhima Nikaya 118, two of the sixteen steps are piti and sukha, but those steps are not jhanas. The first four steps you could say are generating access concentration. The next eight steps are generating a much calmer, quieter, concentrated mind, and the last four steps are insight practice. The Buddha taught mindfulness of breathing on many different occasions, so obviously he didn’t feel that the jhanas were the only way, but they’re certainly a helpful way.

But you see concentration practice as key, no?
My own opinion is if someone can concentrate their mind to any extent, their insight practice is going to be much better. So if you can just get to access concentration and then you switch to doing the Mahasi method, you’re going to have less ego involvement. If you can concentrate your mind to the level of jhanic concentration, the ego will hush up and sit in the corner. Any insight practice will be enhanced by having a less egocentric perspective.

Do you find yourself at odds with the Vipassana tradition?
Not at all. I find that what’s being taught at {places such as Insight Meditation Society and at Spirit Rock, in Woodacre, California} is very helpful, very profound—yet could be turbocharged by adding jhana practice as a preliminary. It’s not that I feel at odds with Vipassana teachers; it’s just that I feel jhana practice could be a useful addition—especially for students who are stumbling into these states. 

I hear people talking about hitting a ceiling in their Vipassana practice. Do you think the jhanas could figure in there? They are certainly one way to cut through the ceiling. I have had a number of people come on retreat and tell me they felt their practice has stagnated. And suddenly here was something that opened it up. Part of what they’re experiencing is some rapture and joy that makes their dry practice a lot more lively, but even if it’s just more lively and they’re more into it, that’s going to be of benefit. In the long run, the ability to concentrate at increasingly deeper levels skillfully enhances the mind for Vipassana practice. The understood experience has the potential to become much more profound.

Tell me about your relationship with your teacher, Ayya Khema.
I first heard her talk at the San Francisco Zen Center. A friend named Mary Wall, to whom I’m eternally grateful, suggested that I go to that talk and consider attending Ayya’s upcoming retreat. I went to the retreat having never meditated before in my life. I thought I had, but I quickly learned that what I had been doing was not what Ayya Khema considered meditation. I could barely follow my breath by the end of those ten days. But one of the things that Ayya Khema taught was the method of sweeping. And that I could do.

Can you explain what that is?
Sweeping is a systematic moving of your attention over every square inch of your body simply noticing whatever sensations you can notice. There may be physical sensations, such as hot, cold, pressure, tingling, and there may also be emotional sensations that arise. You simply notice what is there and move on with the systematic sweeping of your awareness over the body.

Sweeping has the effect of generating sufficient concentration for a number of people to be able to enter the jhanas. It’s also a very effective insight practice.

So that’s how you arrived at the jhanas.
Not really. Ayya Khema also taught metta (lovingkindness meditation), and I liked doing metta. So my practice for the first three years was to do ten minutes of metta, do the sweep and then follow my breath for a little while thereafter. That kept me going, and I sat with other teachers since Ayya wasn’t around.

At my second retreat, which was at {the Thai teacher Ajaan} Buddhadasa’s center in Thailand, I stumbled into piti while practicing mindfulness of breathing. The experience of piti certainly made me a lot more interested in meditating. I became a piti addict for a couple of years. {laughs} Sometimes I hear of people being worried about “jhana addiction.” But I got over the addiction even without a teacher—I knew there had to be more than just getting high.

Then I went to another retreat with Ayya Khema. I had no idea that what I was experiencing was related to the jhanas. When I went into the interview with her, she said, “Tell me about your meditation practice,” and I said, “I can get to piti,” and she said, “Oh good, that’s the first jhana; here’s how you do the second.” It wasn’t quite the first jhana because I didn’t have any control over it, but I quickly learned that and began learning more jhanas from her.

For two years I’d been experiencing piti and getting no encouragement from other teachers—in fact, some discouragement—but I’d just kept doing it because it felt so right. When I realized Ayya knew what was going on, and by then having some background in Buddhism, I could really appreciate her teaching. When the student is ready, the teacher reappears.

Did you keep working with the jhanas? Or did you do other practices? Actually, most of what I did with Ayya Khema was insight practice. When I started doing insight work in the post-jhanic state of mind I found that the number and scope of insights was astonishing. I learned so much more in a monthlong retreat with her than I had in the previous six years. It completely changed my life. Even my friends noticed a difference.

Speaking of retreats, what do your retreats on the jhanas look like? First off, although sometimes a retreat is billed as a retreat on jhanas, it actually is a retreat on dharma with jhanas included. I talk about the precepts, the Four Noble Truths, the five hindrances, and so on. Then I talk about the jhanas in detail, give the instructions for the first jhana, and afterward, go back to talking about insight practice. I usually go through the “Great Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness” and discuss and lead guided meditations based on the practices it describes. But if it’s a student’s first retreat with me and they haven’t done jhana practice before, they’re usually spending most of the time working on concentration, rather than working on the insight practices I’m teaching.

Do people come thinking they’re going to jump through these jhana hoops?
At all of my retreats, the first thing I do is warn people that not everyone on the retreat will experience the jhanas. There’s a percentage of people that’s fairly constant who experience at least one jhana, one time. And there’s a smaller percentage that get pretty skilled with jhana practice. The worst thing that anyone can bring on any retreat is expectation of any sort. However, it’s really going to be in the way on a retreat dealing with jhana.

The second thing I talk about is that if you start fooling with deep states of concentration, you need to be prepared for your psychological stuff to come up. Normally we walk around with all of our stuff under control, but once you get deeply concentrated, the energy you use to keep your stuff at bay is not there anymore, and you’re faced with it. The primary purpose of doing one-on-one interviews is to talk about the dharma and the techniques of practice. But if what’s coming up in practice is your stuff, then we can use the interviews to try and work with the stuff.

Do you give more specific instructions in the interviews? Yes, I check in with the student and do a little more refining of the instructions. As I said, in order to enter the first jhana you have to generate a sufficient baseline of concentration. Some people find that mindfulness of breathing is the best method to get to access. Other people find that metta works best, and for others it’s the sweeping method. Interestingly enough, some of the old TM practitioners resurrect their mantras and use that to get to access concentration. So part of my job in the interviews is to find out what method of access concentration is going to work best for a student.

Why do you think you’re the only one of Ayya Khema’s American disciples to teach the jhanas? She has other students who are more capable in the jhanas than I am, but they didn’t feel like teaching. You have to find someone who is proficient in the jhanas, understands how they do what they do, and is willing to teach. The combination seems fairly rare. I’m the only one in North America, but there are about eight of her students who are teaching jhanas in Germany, and there’s another in Australia.

If the jhanas are naturally occurring states that meditators find themselves in, as you did, how is it possible that teachers are not teaching about them?
Do you think that’s a problem? You’re asking the wrong person. I asked the same question of Ayya Khema. She didn’t know either. After my experience, after seeing the insight that was possible, I was amazed more people didn’t teach them. But for me, I can’t see any way not to teach them. Deeper concentration just seems to lead to deeper truths.

Leigh Brasington‘s articles, teaching schedule, and links to many sources on the jhanas can be found at www.leighb.com.

Like a Lake

The Buddha describes the qualities of the jhanas and offers similes to illustrate them.

First jhana:
There is the case where a monk—quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities—enters and remains in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal.
Just as if a skilled bath man or bathman’s apprentice would pour bath powder into a brass basin and knead it together, sprinkling it again and again with water, so that his ball of bath powder—saturated, moisture-laden, permeated within and withoutwould nevertheless not drip; even so, the monk permeates, suffuses and fills this very body with the rapture and pleasure born of withdrawal. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal.

Second jhana:

Furthermore, with the stilling of directed thought and evaluation, he enters and remains in the second jhana: rapture and pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought and evaluation-internal assurance. He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the rapture and pleasure born of composure. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture and pleasure born of composure.
Just like a lake with spring water welling up from within, having no inflow from east, west, north, or south, and with the skies periodically supplying abundant showers, so that the cool fount of water welling up from within the lake would permeate and pervade, suffuse and fill it with cool waters, there being no part of the lake unpervaded by the cool waters; even so, the monk permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the rapture and pleasure born of composure. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture and pleasure born of composure ….

Third jhana:

And furthermore, with the fading of rapture, he remains in equanimiry, mindful and alert, and physically sensitive to pleasure. He enters and remains in the third jhana, of which the noble ones declare, equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasurable abiding. He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the pleasure divested of rapture, so that there is nothing of his entire body unpervaded with pleasure divested of rapture.
Just as in a blue, white, or red lotus pond, there may be some of the blue, white, or red lotuses that, born and growing in the water, stay immersed in the water and flourish without standing up out of the water, so that they are permeated and pervaded, suffused and filled with cool water from their roots to their tips, and nothing of those blue, white, or red lotuses would be unpervaded with cool water; even so, the monk permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the pleasure divested of rapture. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded with pleasure divested of rapture ….

Fourth jhana:
And furthermore, with the abandoning of pleasure and stress—as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress—he enters and remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither-pleasure-nor-pain. He sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness, so that there is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness.
Just as if a man were sitting wrapped from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; even so, the monk sits, permeating his body with a pure, bright awareness. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness.

—From the Anguttara Nikaya 28, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu 


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