There’s no jhana
for one with no discernment,
for one with no jhana.
But one with both jhana
they’re on the verge
—The Buddha, Dhammapada 372, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
The Buddha says that just as in the great ocean there is but one taste, the taste of salt, so in his doctrine and discipline there is but one taste, the taste of freedom. The taste of freedom that pervades the Buddha’s teaching is the taste of spiritual freedom, which from the Buddhist perspective means freedom from suffering. In the process leading to deliverance from suffering, meditation is the means of generating the inner awakening required for liberation. The methods of meditation taught in the Theravada Buddhist tradition are based on the Buddha’s own experience, forged by him in the course of his own quest for enlightenment. They are designed to re-create in the disciple who practices them the same essential enlightenment that the Buddha himself attained when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree, the awakening to the Four Noble Truths.
The various subjects and methods of meditation expounded in the Theravada Buddhist scriptures—the Pali canon and its commentaries—divide into two interrelated systems. One is called the development of serenity (shamatha-bhavana), the other the development of insight (vipassana-bhavana). The former also goes under the name of the development of concentration (samadhi-bhavana), the latter the development of wisdom (panna-bhavana). The practice of serenity meditation aims at developing a calm, concentrated, unified mind as a means of experiencing inner peace and as a basis for wisdom. The practice of insight meditation aims at gaining a direct understanding of the real nature of phenomena. Of the two, the development of insight is regarded by Buddhism as the essential key to liberation, the direct antidote to the ignorance underlying bondage and suffering. Whereas serenity meditation is recognized as common to both Buddhist and non-Buddhist contemplative disciplines, insight meditation is held to be the unique discovery of the Buddha and an unparalleled feature of his path.
However, because the growth of insight presupposes a certain degree of concentration, and serenity meditation helps to achieve this, the development of serenity also claims an incontestable place in the Buddhist meditative process. Together the two types of meditation work to make the mind a fit instrument for enlightenment. With his mind unified by means of the development of serenity, made sharp and bright by the development of insight, the meditator can proceed unobstructed to reach the end of suffering, nibbana.
Pivotal to both systems of meditation, though belonging inherently to the side of serenity, is a set of meditative attainments called the jhanas. Though translators have offered various renderings of this word, ranging from the feeble “musing” to the misleading “trance” and the ambiguous “meditation,” we prefer to leave the word untranslated and to let its meaning emerge from its contextual usage. From these it is clear that the jhanas are states of deep mental unification that result from the centering of the mind upon a single object with such power of attention that a total immersion in the object takes place. The early suttas [discourses of the Buddha] speak of four jhanas, named simply after their numerical position in the series: the first jhana, the second jhana, the third jhana, and the fourth jhana. In the suttas the four repeatedly appear, each described by a standard formula.
The importance of the jhanas in the Buddhist path can readily be gauged from the frequency with which they are mentioned throughout the suttas. The jhanas figure prominently both in the Buddha’s own experience and in his exhortation to disciples. In his childhood, while attending an annual plowing festival, the future Buddha spontaneously entered the first jhana. It was the memory of this childhood incident, many years later after his futile pursuit of austerities, that revealed to him the way to enlightenment during his period of deepest despondency. After taking his seat beneath the Bodhi tree, the Buddha entered the four jhanas immediately before directing his mind to the threefold knowledge that issued in his enlightenment.
Throughout his active career the four jhanas remained his heavenly dwelling to which he resorted in order to live happily here and now. His understanding of the corruption, purification, and emergence in the jhanas and other meditative attainments is one of the Tathagata’s (literally “thus-gone one,” a name for the Buddha) ten powers that enable him to turn the matchless wheel of the dhamma. Just before his passing away the Buddha entered the jhanas in direct and reverse order, and the passing away itself took place directly from the fourth jhana.
The Buddha is constantly seen in the suttas encouraging his disciples to develop jhana. The four jhanas are invariably included in the complete course of training laid down for disciples. They figure in the training as the discipline of higher consciousness, right concentration of the Noble Eightfold Path, and the faculty and power of concentration. Though a vehicle of dry insight (non-jhanic insight practice) can be found, indications ffi are that this path is not an easy one, lacking the aid of the powerful serenity available to the practitioner of jhana. The way of the jhana attainer seems by comparison smoother and more pleasurable. The Buddha even refers to the four jhanas figuratively as a kind of nibbana.
To attain the jhanas, the meditator must begin by eliminating the unwholesome mental states obstructing inner collectedness, generally grouped together as the five hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. The mind’s absorption on its object is brought about by five opposing mental states-applied thought, sustained thought, rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness—called the jhana factors because they lift the mind to the level of the first jhana and remain there as its defining components.
After reaching the first jhana, the ardent meditator can go on to reach the higher jhanas, which is done by eliminating the coarser factors in each jhana while aiming at the superior purity of the next higher jhana. Beyond the four jhanas lies another fourfold set of higher meditative states, which deepen still further the element of serenity. These attainments, known as the formless or immaterial attainments, are the base of boundless space, the base of boundless consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. In the Pali commentaries these come to be called the four immaterial jhanas, the four preceding stages being renamed, for the sake of clarity, the four fine-material jhanas. Often the two sets are joined together under the collective title of the eight jhanas or the eight attainments.
The four jhanas and the four immaterial attainments appear initially as mundane states of deep serenity pertaining to the preliminary stage of the Buddhist path, and on this level they help provide the base of concentration needed for wisdom to arise. But the four jhanas again reappear in a later stage in the development of the path, in direct association with liberating wisdom, and they are then designated the supramundane jhanas. These supramundane jhanas are the levels of concentration pertaining to the four degrees of enlightenment experience called the supramundane paths and the stages of liberation resulting from them are known as the four fruits.
Finally, even after full liberation is achieved, the mundane jhanas can still remain as attainments available to the fully liberated person, part of his untrammeled contemplative experience.
“The Path of Serenity and Insight” is excerpted from The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation, © 1988 by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Reprinted with permission of the Bhavana Society. To leam more about Ven. Gunaratana and his teachings, visit www.bhavanasociety.org.
This Is Called Right Concentration
Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s principal disciples, describes the jhanas in his explanation of right concentration, one component of the Noble Eightfold Path.
And what is right concentration? Herein a monk aloof from sense desires, aloof from unwholesome thoughts, attains to and abides in the first meditative absorption (jhana), which is detachment-born and accompanied by applied thought, sustained thought, joy, and bliss.
By allaying applied and sustained thought, he attains to and abides in the second jhana, which is inner tranquility, which is unification (of the mind), devoid of applied and sustained thought, and which has joy and bliss.
By detachment from joy he dwells in equanimity, mindful and with clear comprehension and enjoys bliss in body, and attains to and abides in the third jhana, which the noble ones (ariyas) call: “Dwelling in equanimity, mindfulness, and bliss.”
By giving up of bliss and suffering, by the disappearance already of joy and sorrow, he attains to and abides in the fourth jhana, which is neither suffering nor bliss, and which is the purity of equanimity-mindfulness. This is called right concentration.
—From the Majjhima Nikaya 141, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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