When I first started to meditate it was in a Zen practice. We were told mainly to “just sit.” If any question or problem came up, the instruction was the same, to “just keep sitting”. To this day the words “resume zazen” pop into my head, and that was 20 years ago.
After 5 years of not really getting anywhere, I started the switch to what is commonly called “Vipassana” or “insight” meditation. (Note 1.) Here I was given instructions to follow the breath and to try not to move for the duration of the sitting, which was typically 45 minutes. This is very hard for an inexperienced meditator, at least it was for me. Mainly I remember a lot of knee pain. If you had asked my honest definition of meditation at that point it would have been “knee pain”.
To be sure, and to be fair, I was given lots and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of instruction on how to handle this and other situations when they arose. But it is like that old line about draining the swamp:
“The objective of all dedicated [meditators] is to thoroughly analyze all situations, anticipate all problems prior to their occurrence, have answers for these problems, and move swiftly to solve these problems when called upon. However, when you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp [a.k.a. follow the breath].”
It was actually worse than that. I was in many group interviews when someone would describe – finally! – attaining some peace and calm and tranquility, and inevitably they would be sternly warned “not to get stuck there.” Certainly no one was ever encouraged to explore and cultivate that territory. Not ever. Not once.
By the time I started reading the Majjhima Nikaya – the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha – I had been practicing about 7 years as I recall. I got quite a different picture of Buddhist practice and the Buddhist path than what I had been taught. For one thing, I kept reading over and over about “jhana”. In all my years of practice I had never even heard the word.
The word “jhana” means “absorption.” (Note 2.) It is a calm or tranquility practice. In the original texts the word jhana applied only to what later became known as the “four material jhanas”. The jhanas are simply numbered 1 through 4. Each jhana has “jhana factors” that defined it. For example, the first jhana has five factors: applied thought, examination, one pointedness, rapture and happiness.
There were also four “immaterial states” that came to be known as the “immaterial jhanas”, and were numbered 5 through 8. In the immaterial jhanas, the meditator loses the sense of a body. Jhana 5 is the “base of boundless space”, jhana 6 is the “base of boundless consciousness” and so forth.
The Buddha really emphasized jhanas 1-4 as being the important ones for becoming enlightened. But all of the jhanas were well known and practiced by the Buddha’s followers. This is quite clear from reading the texts.
So having read the Majjhima Nikaya I became interested in jhana. It certainly seemed to me that attaining liberation was done through first mastering the jhanas. I went looking for any books I could find and at that time I could only find one. It was Bhante Gunuratana’s book The Path of Serenity and Insight. Even though it was in English, the only publisher was in India. I ordered a copy and two weeks later a rather battered volume showed up in a bubble wrap package with lots of stamps on it.
I couldn’t really make much sense of it. To be sure, it has been quite a while since I read it, and the problem is probably mine and not the book’s. I was in a little over my head at the time, jhanically speaking.
Years passed and it started to dawn on me that jhana was sort of the Buddhist equivalent of gay marriage. Teachers who knew the jhanas were actually afraid to teach them. Ayya Khema, in the 1980’s, would only teach them if her students stumbled across them. One of the Buddhist magazines (I think it was Buddhadharma) devoted a whole issue to jhana, and I can remember thinking, “Uh, oh.” Sure enough, in the next issue the letters to the editor were full if vitriolic letters warning everyone about the dangers of practicing jhana. It was like listening to Fox News describe Democrats.
But I knew what I had read, and I knew this was an important teaching. Fortunately over the years teaching jhana started to come out of the closet somewhat. A few more books were published, a few more articles in magazines were published (and subsequently hammered), and occasionally you could even find a retreat at which jhana was taught.
Unfortunately this was not the norm. There is a tradition – I think it comes from Burma – that teaches “dry insight”. “Dry insight” is enlightenment without jhana. There is an obscure rationale for dry insight that has to do with a particular reading of a sutta by Ananda in the Anguttara Nikaya. But even that interpretation has been largely disputed. It seems rather clear that to the Buddha the path to enlightenment went through the jhanas.
I started trying to do the practice on my own, using what I had read, talks I found on the Internet, and so forth. Unfortunately the way jhana is taught varies widely, and many teachers teach an approach that is attainable by very few people and requires months on retreat. This didn’t quite jive with what I had read either.
Nonetheless, I started to see some of the benefits of the concentration practice. While I didn’t (or didn’t think I did) attain jhana, I was much calmer, more tranquil, happier. I enjoyed sitting more, much more. And further I came to believe that the distinction between concentration practice and insight practice was somewhat arbitrary. In fact, I now know that on some occasions I was attaining jhana, but I did it through doing what are nominally insight practices. Conversely, I found that when I was very concentrated, insights would arise.
Finally I went to a jhana retreat where I was able to learn how to enter and recognize most of the jhanas. I also found a small handful of other meditators who were doing jhana. To a person they all agree that the boogey-man status of jhana is unwarranted. In fact, I don’t think I have ever heard someone who does jhana practice who made any of the criticism of it that people who have never done it do.
In fact, this is a very beautiful practice. The Buddha made a distinction between sense pleasure, which he said gets us into all kinds of trouble, and “pleasure born of seclusion.” This was the pleasure he allowed himself. It is very beautiful and very beneficial. The first time that I experienced true equanimity it was in jhana. The first time that I experienced true metta (boundless love for all beings), it was due to jhana. The first time that I got a true sense of what dukkha is and what liberation is was in jhana.
Further, I began to read from teachers who know this practice that the only people they know who are enlightened got there by doing jhana.
For me personally this was quite a sense of relief. After well over a decade of chasing the ideas that I had read about, I was beginning to see it show up, nipping at the edges of mainstream Western Buddhism. I didn’t feel stuck on an island quite as much.
Just this past February Thanissaro Bhikkhu published a book called “With Each and Every Breath”. This book, better than any other, describes the path as I understand it was meant to be. I highly recommend it. It is available for free as an eBook (http://www.dhammatalks.org/ebook_index.html) or you can write the monastery and they will send you a free copy of it. And jhana is certainly one of the centerpieces of what he teaches.
I also recommend Thanissaro’s article One Tool Among Many (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/onetool.html). The (first big) paragraph always makes me laugh because it is such a perfect summary of what I was taught for so many years. Thanissaro goes on to make the case for jhana much better than I can.
It is time for jhana to come out of the closet. You know, when the Buddha taught something, he wasn’t kidding. I know that sounds funny, but I am amazed at how many intelligent, educated, “qualified” people read something the Buddha said, and simply blow right past it. When he said something, he meant it, and he was a pretty wise person.
1.) As Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out, the Buddha never taught anything called “Vipassana” or “insight” meditation. He used the terms samatha and vipassana as two qualities of the mind to be developed together.
2.) Thanissaro Bhikku gives a particularly poetic description of the word “jhana.”
The word [the Buddha] uses for going to meditate is “to go do jhana”—jhayati is the verb in Pali. It’s a homonym with a verb for burning, as when a flame burns steadily. They have lots of different words for burning in Pali—words for raging fires, words for smoldering fires—but the verb for a steady burn, as in the flame of an oil lamp, is jhayati. And the same verb is used for doing jhana. As you practice concentration, you try to make the mind burn steadily, with a clean, clear flame.