Image: © Michael S. Wertz
Image: © Michael S. Wertz

There are some apt similes for the first four meditative absorptions given by Buddhaghosa in his commentary, the “Visuddhimagga,” written in the fifth century. A man is wandering through the desert, carrying no water with him, and growing thirstier and thirstier. At last, he sees a pool in the distance and is filled with excitement and delight.

To wander through the desert feeling very thirsty represents our inner yearning for joy, happiness, and peace, which we try unsuccessfully to satisfy in the outside world. The excitement and delight experienced on seeing the pool in the distance correspond to the feeling that arises in the firstjhana [meditative absorption]— the realization that there is something that, though it is still “in the distance,” can ultimately bring us complete satisfaction. Knowing it is there, the mind moves toward it.

Next, the man stands at the edge of the pool and is extremely joyful, knowing he has reached the water that will take away his thirst. This describes the second jhana, the joy of knowing that we have come to the brink of inner satisfaction.

He then climbs into the pool and drinks, and having drunk all he needs, he feels contented and quite a different person from the one who was wandering around in the desert without any water. This is the experience of the third jhana.

If we have ever been without water for a long period, we know how distressing that would be, both physically and mentally. The simile refers to our normal mental and emotional states, for while we are searching, we are always agitated and ill at ease, but once we have “drunk what we need,” the difference is enormous. We experience joy and contentment. This delightful state is not the final goal of the Buddha’s teaching, but only a step on the way. It is, however, a vital step, for it gives us the impetus to carry on and also to gain new insights.

Now the wanderer in the desert feels at peace. Earlier, restlessly searching, he was in a very unpleasant situation, for water is an absolute necessity for physical survival. His need pushed him in all directions. Now that he has slaked his thirst, he climbs out of the pool, goes to a shady tree, and lies down to recover from his great exertions. This feeling of being totally at ease is experienced in the fourth jhana. Not that we fall asleep, but rather that, in the stillness of the jhana, the mind comes to rest.

These similes describe very well what we go through in life, sometimes without even knowing what is happening. Just as we cannot live without water, so are joy and peace essential for our inner fulfillment. We may not even be aware that we are searching for something. It manifests only in our restlessness as we move from here to there, trying out different friends, different ideas, different jobs, different countries. Whatever we attempt is a reflection of our inner thirst, which we hope to quench in all these external ways. What we are looking for lies within us, and if we gave out time and energy to an interior search, we would come across it much faster, since that is the only place where it is to be found.

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