The Pali word jhāna has been on a remarkable journey. The Sanskrit form dhyāna became chan in China and then soen in Korea and later zen in Japan. The word itself means “meditation,” so it is perhaps not surprising to see it become central to many different expressions of Buddhism.
Meditation practice goes back a long way in India, possibly to the Indus Valley civilization with its carved seals showing people seated in yogic meditation postures. It was certainly around long before Buddhism, and the Buddha himself is said to have learned concentration practices from other teachers.
He incorporated these practices into the right concentration aspect of his eightfold path. But although he saw concentration as an important tool insofar as it focused the mind, steadied it, and cleared it of its many impediments, to him it was not sufficient to bring about the awakening experience we know as nirvana. The Buddha’s unique insight was that wisdom alone is truly transformative and that meditation up to the point of awakening is largely a matter of “peaceful abiding here and now.”
Familiar to some practitioners today are the four jhānas, a sequence of four stages of deepening concentration leading to a profound state of equanimity. Here jhāna is often translated as “absorption” because, as the process unfolds, one’s attention is drawn more naturally and easily into the calm inner reaches of the mind.
The first jhāna requires the practitioner temporarily to abandon the five hindrances—restlessness, sluggishness, sense-desire, ill will, and doubt—at which point a deep feeling of pleasure and well-being naturally emerges in the body and mind. Perhaps the jhānas are not widely practiced these days because it can be so difficult to access the entry point—to become free of the hindrances.
Conceptual thinking subsides with the second jhāna, and in the third the sensations of pleasure begin to be tempered with equanimity. The fourth stage of absorption is characterized by a mind that has achieved “purity of mindfulness due to equanimity” and thereby has become steady, clear, flexible, and luminous.
At this point, the practitioner is more able to discern the impermanent, fragile, and impersonal nature of all experience—to “abide without clinging to anything whatsoever in the world”—and thus stands at the gateway of wisdom.