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.
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