This article is part of Trike Daily’s Sutta Study series, led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin. The suttas, found in the Pali Canon, comprise the discourses the historical Buddha gave during his 45 years of teaching. Rather than philosophical tracts, the suttas are a map for dharma practice. In this series, we’ll focus on the practical application of the teachings in our day-to-day lives.
In the Samadhanga Sutta (The Factors of Concentration), the Buddha offers a vivid explication of the relationship between concentration and discernment. As the sutta begins, the Buddha tells his disciples that he’s going to talk about “five-factored noble right concentration.” As he goes on to explain, the first four factors are concerned with jhana, the Buddha’s concentration. The fifth factor is discernment. The Buddha’s message is that if we develop jhana, we’ll be able to develop discernment.
The Buddha then describes each of the four jhanas, around which there has always been a great deal of misunderstanding. There’s a tendency to think about “jhana practice” as a standalone exercise in which we seek to attain four discrete states of concentration: first jhana, second jhana, and so on. But generally that’s not a useful way to think about it. Indeed, the Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains in his essay “Jhana Not by the Numbers” that his teacher in Thailand, Ajaan Fuang, didn’t teach in this fashion. Instead, Ajaan Fuang “rarely mentioned the word jhana in his conversations, and never indicated to any of his students that they had reached a particular level of jhana in their practice.” We’re better served to think of jhana in terms of qualities of concentration that we cultivate through breath meditation practice.
In the first jhana, we cultivate the qualities of rapture and pleasure. Rapture is a quality of physical ease, an energy that flows through the body. When this quality of ease is developed, the mind registers pleasure. But even though pleasure is a mental quality, we feel it largely in the body. Rapture and pleasure, when fully developed, “pervade” the body. The Buddha likens this pervading to a ball of bath powder—which was used for soap in the Buddha’s day—being massaged, kneaded, and sprinkled with water, so that the bath powder is “saturated, moisture-laden, permeated within and without.”
The dharma student cultivates rapture and pleasure by using “directed thought & evaluation.” She guides herself through the process by applying what the teachings call “internal verbal fabrication”—essentially, internal dialogue. She purposefully brings her attention to her breath by using directed thought, and then she evaluates that breath. In practicing evaluation, the dharma student scrutinizes every inhale and exhale, discerning where there is ease or dis-ease. Gradually, she focuses her attention on the easeful part, cultivates that quality, and lets herself breathe in the most pleasurable way. Then she allows the easeful breath to pervade the whole body, all the while expanding her awareness of the body along with it.
The term jhana is related to jhayati, a word used to describe a small steady flame, like the flame from a lamp that can clearly illuminate an entire room. Developing jhana, we begin by focusing on and cultivating an easeful, pleasurable breath—a small steady flame. As we keep our mind on the breath, the light of the flame gradually spreads to the entire body, which fills with that pleasant quality.
As the qualities of rapture and pleasure develop, the mind becomes more inclined to stay with the breath and body. Happy to reside there, the mind doesn’t stray after its usual preoccupations, thoughts, sense experiences, and so on. Eventually, the practitioner doesn’t have to do anything to keep her mind on the body—it just stays. Now the dharma student has developed the quality of jhana that the sutta refers to as “unification of awareness,” in which awareness is concentrated entirely on the body.
The effort required to fabricate directed thought and evaluation creates a degree of dissonance in the mind, but now the practitioner can let these tools go. And “with the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations,” concentration deepens even further.
Describing this level of concentration, the Buddha uses the metaphor of cool spring-water filling a lake so that there is “no part of the lake unpervaded by the cool waters.” Imagine the breath fueling the body with “breath energy,” the easeful, pleasurable energy suffusing the body.
The third development of the five-factored noble right concentration, the Buddha tells us, occurs when the practitioner abandons the quality of rapture, the energy pervading the body. Now, in the body, there’s simply pleasure. Again, it’s a more refined state of concentration. Rapture has its sharp edges, it causes some dissonance; when we let it go, the quality of pleasure increases. The dharma student has, as the Buddha puts it, “a pleasant abiding.”
Here, the Buddha uses the metaphor of a lotus flowers immersed in a pond, “permeated and pervaded, suffused and filled with cool water from their roots to their tips.”
As the dharma student progresses to the next “development” of jhana, she lets go of pleasure as well. At this stage, her experience comprises a “purity of equanimity & mindfulness.” Equanimity is the fourth quality the dharma student learns to cultivate. Now there is an inner stillness and clarity, what the Buddha describes as “pure, bright awareness.” When equanimity is developed there may be a quality of exquisite contentment. When we experience it, the Buddha says, it’s as if we’re wrapped from head to foot with a white cloth.
As dharma students practicing breath meditation, we learn to develop these qualities: rapture, pleasure, unification of awareness, and equanimity. If we put in the effort and follow the Buddha’s instructions, there’s no question that we can do this. It’s important to understand that developing the factors of jhana is not limited to monk and nuns and people living in retreat settings—even as householders, living in the modern world, we are capable of it.
When these qualities are developed, we’re then able to practice discernment, the fifth factor.
Describing this fifth development, the Buddha says: “And further, the monk has his theme of reflection well in hand, well attended to, well-pondered, well-tuned [well-penetrated] by means of discernment.”
At this stage, we’re able to work with the four noble truths, the Buddha’s main practice for achieving discernment. We’re asked, first and foremost, to comprehend our suffering, and having developed the qualities of jhana, we’re now in a position to do this. We’re able to look clearly at our suffering, as it is, in the present moment, and see the way we cause ourselves suffering by clinging to various mental states—aversion, desire, and their myriad subsets.
When the qualities of jhana are developed, the dharma student is able to observe her experience with calm and objectivity. In the sutta, the Buddha gives an important description of what this observation is like. He says it’s like one person observing another person, or a standing person observing someone who is sitting, or a seated person observing someone who is lying down. It’s important to remember that, in order to develop insight, we need to be able to observe in this manner.
When we develop the qualities of jhana, the Buddha says, we’re able to develop insight quite easily. In the first of several striking analogies, he says it occurs with the ease with which a strong man tips over a glass of water.
The Buddha then speaks about six “higher knowledges” that we realize when we cultivate jhana. For our purposes, we’ll discuss the last three. The fourth and fifth knowledges concern the law of karma. First the Buddha describes how he came to see into the truth of his “past lives.” As he explains, as human beings we go through a process of ongoing change, the process of birth and death. This could mean that we take birth into this life, we die, and we pass on to another life; or it could mean we go through a process of birth and death in this very life, from day to day, week to week, year to year, and so on.
Next, the Buddha explains that the kind of life into which we’re reborn depends upon our actions. If our actions—our deeds, our speech, our thinking—are unskillful, informed by desire and aversion, we’ll take an unfortunate rebirth—which can occur in the next life, later on in the day, later on in the month, or in the year or decade. What it comes down to is that our actions determine what our lives will be like. Our actions determine our happiness.
When developed in the qualities of jhana, we’re able understand the law of karma. Not on an intellectual level, but on a deeper level, in the heart.
The sixth higher knowledge is the knowledge that leads to the end of suffering, or, as the Buddha puts it, the “ending of the effluents.” Established in jhana, we’re able to develop liberating insight. We’re able to understand the four noble truths. We’re able to bring an end to our suffering and know a greater happiness in our lives.
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