“Meditation” is a vague term.
Even in English it has two opposing meanings: thinking and not-thinking. But unsurprisingly, since the word meditation is derived from Latin, the term can be even more confusing when it comes to Buddhist meditation and its recent offshoot, secular mindfulness.
In the Pali canon, there’s no single word for meditation. Mindfulness (sati) is part of vipassana bhavana, or the cultivation of insight. It’s also part of the eightfold path—though the Pali word “sati” may or may not correspond to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s helpful definition of nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment noticing.
But sati is only one of the meditative elements of the eightfold path—the other major one is samadhi, or concentration. And here’s where things get interesting. In most of the Pali canon’s discussion of samadhi, it’s described not simply as one-pointed concentration in general, but as the ability to enter the four jhanas—distinct, concentrated mind states—in particular.
Eventually, dhyana, the Sanskrit for jhana, became chan in Chinese, and later zen in Japanese. These words became roughly synonymous with meditation itself and later identified with various specific meditation practices such as zazen.
But a funny thing happened to the jhanas within Theravadan traditions, particularly in the “dry insight” Burmese lineages that evolved into Western insight meditation and from there into secular mindfulness: jhana practically disappeared.
Why? Perhaps the problem is that the meaning of jhana was never entirely clear. The suttas do describe what these states are like. The second jhana, for example, is often described as “gaining of inner stillness and oneness of mind . . . without applied and sustained thinking, and in which there are joy and pleasure born of concentration.” Sounds nice, right? Dozens of such descriptions appear in the Pali canon.
But how do I get there, exactly? How do I know it’s a jhana and not just a passing pleasant mind state? What does it mean to “enter and remain” in that state?
Commentaries, especially the fifth-century Visuddhimagga, said that for jhana to be real, it has to be a wholly immersive and absorptive mind state. If you can hear anything, think anything, or even note the passage of time, you weren’t experiencing jhana.
With that high of a standard, cultivating jhana became a practice only for elites. Regular chumps like you and me didn’t have a chance.
Thus, while developing concentration remained central to these forms of Buddhist practice, jhana itself did not. This was an unfortunate development for two reasons.
First, given that the Buddha spells out exactly what he means by Right Concentration [one of the required spokes of the eightfold path]— cultivating jhana—surely it must be a mistake to jettison the practice entirely. Why would the Buddha say that jhana is essential and that the path is accessible to anyone, and then prescribe a practice that is inaccessible to all but a few?
Moreover, as my teacher Leigh Brasington summarized in his recent book, Right Concentration, there are numerous instances of nonabsorptive jhana in the suttas themselves. In one such account, practitioners talk to one another while experiencing jhana, which hardly comports with the notion that jhana is all-absorptive. (The Visuddhimagga says they must have been psychic.)
Now, it’s clear that jhana can be absorptive, and it is deeply profound when it is. I’ve had those experiences on long retreats, and many teachers still teach that way today. But jhana is also powerful without full absorption. As the Thai Forest teacher Ajahn Chah put it, the four jhanas are like four pools of water; they can be deeper or shallower, but they’re the same four pools.
Which is the second reason why it’s a shame to jettison jhana: because jhana is good for you. In my experience practicing and teaching the jhanas, there are numerous benefits to both beginner and advanced meditators. The states themselves are so profound as to be transformative in themselves, especially for shaking the mind free from attachment to other pleasant mind states, whether spiritual or pharmacological or otherwise. The pleasure they bring is regarded as “pure.”
And then there’s their main benefit: they spur you toward awakening. In one famous Tibetan analogy, building concentration is like sharpening the sword that cuts off the head of delusion. On its own, concentration doesn’t get you anywhere. But concentration, and jhana in particular, can make any meditation practice easier, sharper, and more effective.
There are two other, more modern reasons why a contemporary meditator should consider adding jhana to their repertoire.
The first is variety. We all get in dharma ruts now and then. Practices get stale, and even sitting with the staleness gets stale. Cultivating jhana really is different from mindfulness and other popular forms of meditation; it inclines the mind differently, builds different skills, yields different fruit. And while it’s difficult to attain jhana off retreat, it’s not hard to translate jhana skills into everyday life, infusing regular sits with concentration or noticing the wholesome feelings of bliss, equanimity, and so on when they arise. Jhana spices up meditation.
Cultivating jhana also, I think, addresses some of the big reasons laypeople meditate today: stress reduction, relaxation, and the pursuit of bliss. Despite its use for stress reduction, mindfulness done properly can often be stress inducing, as you see harmful habits of mind, deconstruct the self, or notice how everything arises and passes so quickly. I actually think that it’s the concentration aspect of mindfulness meditation—the calming, centering, focusing part—that actually holds appeal for most beginning meditators.
Of course, meditation’s not meant to be a narcotic. But most beginners are experiencing real dukkha [suffering] and they are searching for ways to lessen it. Mindfulness, meta-cognition, insight, and building witness consciousness are great ways to do so. But so are building concentration, focus, and calm—and that’s where jhana meditation excels.
And not just for beginners! Personally, I have a “day job” as a political pundit and columnist. I can vouch from firsthand experience that building samadhi is a key part of my own meditation toolkit. Creating islands of calm amid the insanity of our culture enables me to rest, recharge, and go back to the work of justice.
Last year, Leigh Brasington authorized me to teach jhana in the lineage of his teacher, the Ven. Ayya Khema. This method cultivates jhana as described in the Pali canon, rather than in the commentaries. It’s an honor to be leading my first retreat in this style later this fall. In my experience, jhana meditation can lead to transformative experiences, aid in the work of insight, add variety to meditation practice, and provide valuable tools for modern life. It’s a vital part of the eightfold path.
Which I guess is why it’s there.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.