by Eric Van Horn
Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn
for free distribution
You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever without the author’s permission, provided that: (1) such copies, etc. are made available free of any charge; (2) any translations of this work state that they are derived herefrom; (3) any derivations of this work state that they are derived and differ herefrom; and (4) you include the full text of this license in any copies, translations or derivations of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved.
Table of Contents
And what, friends, is right concentration? Here, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. With the stilling of applied and sustained thought, he enters upon and abides in the second jhāna, which has self-confidence and singleness of mind without applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he abides in equanimity, and mindful and fully aware, still feeling pleasure with the body, he enters upon and abides in the third jhāna, on account of which noble ones announce: ‘He has a pleasant abiding who has equanimity and is mindful.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, he enters upon and abides in the fourth jhāna, which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. This is called right concentration. - [MN 141.31]
At the heart of the Buddha's training is the practice of "jhāna", or "meditative absorption". It is the 8th part of the noble eightfold path, "right concentration".
There are many myths about jhāna. I am not going to try to refute them all here. This is a user's guide, and not an academic treatise. But you will inevitably run into these issues, so I want to address some of the common ones.
Is Jhāna Required to Attain Enlightenment?
For those that say that the jhānas are not necessary to Buddhist practice; they are doing the Noble Sevenfold Path, instead of the Noble Eightfold Middle Path. Right Concentration (jhāna) is an integral part of the Buddhist path.
- [Bhante Henepola Gunaratana]
Is jhāna really necessary? (hint: yes)
- [Justin Merritt]
It is clear from the Buddha's teachings that jhāna is required to attain an Awakening. There is one passage in the Pāli Canon that is sometimes interpreted - quite liberally - as saying that jhāna is not required to attain an Awakening. But the evidence is overwhelming that jhāna is a fundamental part of the path.
In the 20th century the political situation in Burma influenced how Buddhism evolved there, and eventually how it was imported into the West. There was a Burmese monk named Ledi Sayadaw who was afraid that British rule threatened Buddhism. So he developed "vipassana" or "insight meditation." He thought that this type of meditation, which does not require intense monastic training, would keep the tradition alive. Insight meditation emphasizes "dry insight", enlightenment without jhāna.
This was a noble intention. However, dry insight is not supported by the Buddha's teachings.
If you would like to know more about this piece of Buddhist history, see the article "The Insight Revolution" in the November 2013 edition of Buddhadharma Magazine.
The Four Material Jhānas
As described in the chapter on the Four Noble Truths, each jhāna has jhāna factors:
Here, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.
Again, with the stilling of applied and sustained thought, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the second jhāna, which has self-confidence and singleness of mind without applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of concentration.
Again, with the fading away as well of rapture, a bhikkhu abides in equanimity, and mindful and fully aware, still feeling pleasure with the body, he enters upon and abides in the third jhāna, on account of which the noble ones announce: ‘He has a pleasant abiding who has equanimity and is mindful.’
Again, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the fourth jhāna, which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. - [MN 25.12-15]
- First jhāna: applied and sustained thought, rapture and pleasure
- Second jhāna: self-confidence, singleness of mind, rapture and pleasure
- Third jhāna: equanimity and pleasure
- Fourth jhāna: equanimity
"Applied thought" means directing the thinking process to concentration, specifically the object of meditation. Thus, it is also called "directed thought". You direct your thinking - whatever thinking there is - to the subject of concentration.
In this case, directed thought means that you keep directing your thoughts to the breath. You don’t direct them anywhere else. This is the factor that helps you stay concentrated on one thing.
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, With Each and Every Breath]
In the first translation, the second factor is "sustained thought". However, it is now more commonly rendered as "evaluation". Directed thought directs your mind to concentration. Then you evaluate what you see, and make adjustments as necessary to sustain your concentration.
Evaluation is the discernment factor, and it covers several activities. You evaluate how comfortable the breath is, and how well you’re staying with the breath. You think up ways of improving either your breath or the way you’re focused on the breath; then you try them out, evaluating the results of your experiments. If they don’t turn out well, you try to think up new approaches. If they do turn out well, you try to figure out how to get the most out of them. This last aspect of evaluation includes the act of spreading good breath energy into different parts of the body, spreading your awareness to fill the body as well, and then maintaining that sense of full-body breath and full-body awareness.
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, With Each & Every Breath]
These first two factors are ones that you cultivate and develop. The other two are the fruits of that cultivation. They will arise when the mind is concentrated.
The words "rapture" and "pleasure" are our old Pāli friends, "pīti" and "sukkha". There is a classic simile in the Visuddhimagga that explains the difference between them:
If a man exhausted in the desert saw or heard about a pond on the edge of a wood, he would have [piti]; if he went into the wood’s shade and used the water, he would have [sukkha].
- [Visuddhimagga, IV.100]
Pīti is a whole body experience. People who do yoga find it easier to cultivate pīti than people who do not. It seems to flow naturally from their body awareness practices. Having said that, I can do it and I don't do yoga, it was just harder for me.
(Many people ask about the relationship between yoga and Buddhist meditation. I can only pass along some anecdotal comments. I was at a retreat once where someone asked why the Buddha never talked about yoga. One of the retreatants said that yoga as we know it did not come about until about the mid-first millenium C.E., about 1,000 years after the Buddha's death. Yoga is a Hindu practice, thus it has theistic qualities that are missing in Buddhism. However, there are monks and nuns who do yoga, and if you can excise out the theistic overtones, yoga is a useful adjunct to Buddhist meditation.)
As already discussed, pīti can be a highly charged state. It can be so highly charged that it can be uncomfortable. At other times, it will be milder. I call this the jhāna buzz. It feels more like blissthan joy or rapture.
The dominant quality of the first jhāna is pīti. "Sukkha" arises along with it, but that may be hard to see. The word "sukkha" means "pleasure". (It is the opposite of "dukkha".) It also means "happiness". I think that both are good renderings of the experience.
As the passage says, "with the stilling of applied and sustained thought, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the second jhāna". Thus, the thinking fades away. You lock into the state of concentration, and no longer need the directed thought and evaluation.
The new factors of the second jhāna are 1) "self confidence" - also translated as "composure" - and 2) "singleness of mind", also translated as "unification of awareness" and "unification of mind".
Ṭhānissaro gives a slightly different rendering of second jhāna factors:
The second jhāna has three factors: singleness of preoccupation, rapture, and pleasure. As the breath and awareness become one, they begin to feel saturated. No matter how much you try to make them feel even more full, they can’t fill any further. At this point, directed thought and evaluation have no further work to do. You can let them go.
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, With Each & Every Breath]
The sukkha is more dominant in the second jhāna than the pīti. The second jhāna is calmer and more tranquil than first jhāna. You may find yourself thinking that you are - simply put - happy.
In the third jhāna the pīti fades away leaving only the "happiness", or "pleasure". It is a feeling of deep contentment. And we now have one new factor, and that is "equanimity". The third jhāna is very calm, very tranquil, and very pleasant.
Finally, in the fourth jhāna, the pleasure disappears, leaving only the equanimity.
Attaining the four jhānas is the "standard way" to attain Awakening. However, the Buddha also says that just the first jhāna is enough:
When it was said: ‘Bhikkhus, I say that the destruction of the taints occurs in dependence on the first jhāna,’ for what reason was this said? Here, secluded from sensual pleasures … a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhāna …. He considers whatever phenomena exist there pertaining to form, feeling, perception, volitional activities, and consciousness as impermanent, suffering, an illness, a boil, a dart, misery, affliction, alien, disintegrating, empty, and non-self. He turns his mind away from those phenomena and directs it to the deathless element thus: ‘This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, the stilling of all activities, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna.’ If he is firm in this, he attains the destruction of the taints. - [AN 9.36]
However, I caution you against looking for shortcuts. I think the Buddha here is simply stating a fact. It would be unusual for someone to attain an Awakening with only the first jhāna. Nonetheless, the possibility exists.
What Are the Immaterial States?
...with the complete surmounting of perceptions of form, with the disappearance of perceptions of sensory impact, with non-attention to perceptions of diversity, aware that ‘space is infinite,’ a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the base of infinite space. This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Māra…
Again, by completely surmounting the base of infinite space, aware that ‘consciousness is infinite,’ a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the base of infinite consciousness. This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Māra…
Again, by completely surmounting the base of infinite consciousness, aware that ‘there is nothing,’ a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the base of nothingness. This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Māra…
Again, by completely surmounting the base of nothingness, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Māra, to have become invisible to the Evil One by depriving Māra’s eye of its opportunity.
Again, by completely surmounting the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the cessation of perception and feeling. - [MN 25.16-20]
Here we have the five-fold description of the immaterial states. As noted, sometimes the fifth one - cessation - is left out. The most common formulation for the immaterial states only lists the first four. They are:
- The infinity of space
- The infinity of consciousness
- The base of nothingness
- The base of neither perception-nor-non-perception
These states - especially the first three - are closely related. The differences between them are subtle. In order to move between the first three immaterial states, you just make a slight change in the focus of attention. Going from the base of nothingness to the base of neither perception-nor-non-perception is more difficult.
I am not going to say more about the immaterial states at this point. (They are covered in the next chapter.) How important they are in any one person's practice varies. Traditionally, as noted, the standard formula is to master the first four jhānas as the entry point to Awakening. We have also seen that just the first jhāna may be sufficient for Awakening. Historically some Arahants practiced the immaterial states after attaining an Awakening. Other Arahants never practiced them. And for others, the immaterial attainments are quite useful in attaining an Awakening. I have a friend who does these regularly and she is quite comfortable with them.
One of the values of the immaterial states is that - because they are immaterial - you lose the sense of a physical body. Thus, they help you detach from self-identifying with the body. There is also a loss of egocentricity, of the self being at the center of things. As Larry Rosenberg likes to say, most of the time our lives are like a movie. The movie is about me, it stars me, it's directed by me, produced by me... and that is a problem. The immaterial states put a good sized dent in that kind of thinking.
Jhāna in the Pāli Canon and the Visuddhimagga
As we saw in the discussion on concentration in the Four Noble Truths, jhāna was the standard practice among the Buddha's monks and nuns:
When they depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying ‘go do vipassana,’ but always ‘go do jhāna.’
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "One Tool Among Many"]
However, the description in the Visuddhimagga says that attaining jhāna is almost impossibly difficult:
The arousing of the sign is difficult for one who has done the preliminary work and only one in a hundred or a thousand can do it. To extend the sign when it has arisen and to reach absorption is difficult and only one in a hundred or a thousand can do it. To tame one’s mind in the fourteen ways after reaching absorption is difficult and only one in a hundred or a thousand can do it. Rapid response after attaining transformation is difficult and only one in a hundred or a thousand can do it.
- [Visuddhimagga, XII.8]
If you do the math given here, only 1 in 100 x 100 x 100 = 1,000,000 can reach absorption. Thus it is highly unlikely that the Buddha’s monks and nuns were doing the type of jhāna practice described in the Visuddhimagga.
One difference between Vissudhimagga style jhāna and that described in the Pāli Canon is the use of a "nimitta". The Pāli word "nimitta" literally means "sign". The Buddha uses the word "nimitta" in different contexts, typically to mean something like a signpost or a milestone, an indication that you have arrived somewhere. For example, the arising of pīti is a sign that you have achieved a certain level of concentration.
However, in the Vissudhimagga, a "nimitta" means - and this is a rather crude definition - a "mind-made" object. This is most commonly a bright - usually white - light in the mind:
You should determine to keep your mind calmly concentrated on the white uggaha-nimitta for one, two, three hours, or more. If you can keep your mind fixed on the uggaha-nimitta for one or two hours, it should become clear, bright, and brilliant. This is then the pa ibhaga-nimitta (counterpart sign). Determine and practise to keep your mind on the pa ibhaga-nimitta for one, two, or three hours. Practise until you succeed.
At this stage you will reach either access (upacara) or absorption (appana) concentration. It is called access concentration because it is close to and precedes jhāna. Absorption concentration is jhāna.
- [Pa Auk Tawya Sayadaw, Knowing and Seeing]
Remaining concentrated on a mind-made white light for three hours is quite a tall order (!). And as seen from the numbers given in the Visuddhimagga, it is unlikely that most people will ever be able to do this.
To be sure, it is quite common to see a diffuse white light doing concentration practice. The Buddha may have used the word "nimitta" in this way, i.e, to indicate that you have attained a certain level of concentration. But there are other possible signs as well. (There may be visions, etc. They are to be ignored.)
The Visuddhimagga style nimitta is a sharply defined circle, like looking at the moon. This requires a very high degree of focused concentration.
(There is a good description of the history of the nimitta in jhāna by Bhikkhu Sona called "The Mystery of the Breath Nimitta".)
Another difference in the Visuddhimagga concentration is that you focus on a narrow area - typically the nose - and exclude anything else. This goes against the instructions of the Buddha. As we have seen, the Buddha tells us to expand our area of concentration to include the whole body. It is a type of concentration that is broadly based.
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says that this narrow type of concentration is, in fact, very dangerous. It can cause you to lose the distinction between “inside” and “outside”. One practitioner of Visuddhimagga jhāna actually thought he had said something to someone when it was just part of his inner dialog. Another one became so narrowly focused that he could not do his simple work job - chopping vegetables - on a retreat. So not only is this type of concentration not what the Buddha taught, it can cause serious problems.
This type of concentration also contradicts the Buddha's teaching that concentration and wisdom - discernment - arise together. It is hard to see how this can happen with laser-like focus. There is no room for anything but the concentration, no way for insights to arise.
Don't worry about falling into this type of concentration accidentally. You have to try extremely hard - like months and months and maybe years on retreat - to attain Visuddhimagga jhāna. The style of practice that we are doing - one that emphasizes a broad-based awareness - does not lead to these problems. The type of concentration that we are practicing is closer to how Larry Rosenberg describes it, "steadying the mind".
It is not easy to attain jhāna, but it is possible. It is very pleasant, it is an antidote to the dangers of sense pleasures, and it is a very important step on the path to Awakening.
One reason that a proper definition of jhāna is important is that there are many teachers who criticize the practice. I think that they are referring to the Visuddhimagga style of jhāna. They may have seen some of the problems that I mentioned. But it is difficult to see how there is anything wrong with the canonical type of jhāna, at least if you claim to teach what the Buddha taught.
Mistaking Jhāna for Enlightenment
Finally, there is the problem of mistaking jhāna for enlightenment.
If you have not been instructed in the practice of jhāna, I believe that this is possible. My first practice was Zen, and in Zen there is this experience of "kensho", or "satori". It indicates a breakthrough in your practice. It is supposed to mean that you have Awakened. But when I learned about jhāna, it sounded like what I had been told about "kensho".
(In non-Buddhist traditions, the immaterial jhānas are interpreted as one-ness with God.)
As already described, Buddhism has had its share of scandals, especially sexual improprieties. This has happened with teachers who claim to have attained an Awakening.
By definition, however, this is not possible. Someone who has attained an Awakening is incapable of violating the precepts.
Jhāna is a conditioned state. When you come out of jhāna, you are back in the world of the mundane. Jhāna has wonderful benefits. But it is not an Awakening, and you are still subject to the three poisons, the hindrances, etc. This is why it is very important to understand jhāna, so you know what it is, how to work with it, and how to not be misled by the experience.
I am not saying that everyone who claims to have experienced kensho is experiencing jhāna. I would have no way of knowing that. But if this is the claim, and that person goes on to break the precepts, they have not attained an Awakening. When you attain an Awakening, there is a fundamental change in the mind. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu compares it to looking down into a well. You see that what the Buddha says is true. Once you see it you do not have any desire to turn back. Why would you? The world of sense desires looks like a mine field, full of dangers. There is no appeal in it.
Here, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. - [MN 25.13]
The first time that I attained jhāna, I didn't know what it was. I think this is very common, especially on retreat. Unfortunately since I did not know what it was, I did not know what to do with it. It was overwhelming and exhausting. It was equally unfortunate that the teachers could only tell me "not to get stuck there". But I was stuck there, and I wanted to get out, and did not know how.
Hopefully by having a full description of this state - some of which you already know - this will not happen to you.
I have practiced jhāna in two ways. I am going to describe them both. Method A is how I first attained jhāna. It is a more structured way of attaining jhāna. Having said that, I hardly ever practice this way any more. I now use Method B.
First of all, you need to be comfortable. If you have knee pain, it is not possible to attain jhāna. You need a good, stable posture.
Now you bring yourself into the present moment. Go through the process discussed at the beginning of the guide:
- Generate gratitude.
- Remember that you practice for the welfare and benefit of yourself and all beings.
- Generate mettā for yourself.
- Reflect on the five subjects for frequent recollection:
- That you are subject to aging.
- That your are subject to sickness.
- That you are subject to death, and that this can happen at any time.
- That all you will eventually become separated from everything and everyone that you know.
- That all you will take with you is the consequences of your actions.
- Turn your attention to the breath. Follow the breath all the way in, and all the way out.
If the mind wanders off of the breath, bring it back. If you are having a difficult time staying on the breath, use one of the techniques that we have already discussed:
- Note each in-breath with the word "in", and each out-breath with the word "out".
- If that does not work, try counting the breaths.
- If that does not work, do body sweeping, calming and relaxing each part of the body as you encounter it.
The beautiful breath is also a wonderful way to get quiet. Consciously breathe in until the whole body fills with breath energy. The simply let the air out. It's like going down a sliding board. As the air goes out, let the mind fall into silence.
Eventually the mind will get quieter. You will be able to stay with the breath. How long that will take I cannot tell you.
Ayya Khema had a student who did not attain jhāna for 19 years. This is not usual but it can happen. However, it is to her credit that she did not make it into a problem. The rest of her practice developed wonderfully, so by the time she did attain jhāna, she just slide into it like a comfortable set of clothes. This is the way to practice.
The breath will finally be in the forefront of your awareness. Anything else that happens will be happening in the background, like the scenery on a stage. Your thoughts will be quiet and wispy.
As you get more concentrated you will begin to feel pleasant sensations in the body. This is the pīti. It may be mild and it may also be elusive. It may move around. Keep your attention on the breath until you feel the pīti consistently somewhere in the body.
Leigh Brasington says that the pleasant sensations may appear anywhere. The most common places are in the palms of the hands and the soles of the feel. Wherever it is, once you have a steady spot where there is a pleasant sensation, put your attention on the "pleasantness" of the pleasant sensation.
This is the tricky part. You are concentrating on the pleasantness, not the body part.
Once you do this, let go of anything else, especially the desire to attain jhāna. Your concentration must be wholly on the pleasantness of the pleasant sensation. If you push yourself now to "attain jhāna", you won't. The next step is to do nothing. Just keep your attention on the pleasantness of the pleasant sensation, and do nothing.
If your concentration wavers - it probably will - go back to the breath. If it wavers even more, go back to one of the breath following techniques.
If you stay with the pleasantness, it will spread. You cannot make this happen. It happens as a result of your concentrating on the pleasantness. Eventually it will spread to the whole body. And at some point you will "cross over". You are there.
The first time that you enter jhāna, it may be extremely fleeting, perhaps just a moment or two. It is very common to get excited at this point, and that will take you out of jhāna. Just go back to the breath, and repeat as necessary.
Leigh Brasington describes it in this way:
Pleasant sensations can occur pretty much anywhere. The most common place people that find pleasant sensations when they get to access concentration is in the hands. What you want to do with your hands when you meditate is put them in a nice position in which you can just leave them. The traditional posture is one hand holding the other, with the thumbs lightly touching. This is a quite excellent posture because it has the tendency of moving the shoulders back and lining up your spine nicely. When the hands are held like this, many people find that eventually there is a nice, tingly, pleasant sensation that appears in the hands. You can also put your hands in all sorts of other positions -- just place them however appeals to you. When you get to access concentration, if you notice that there's a nice pleasant feeling in the hands, drop the attention on the breath and focus entirely on the pleasantness of that sensation.
Another common place that people find a pleasant sensation is in the heart center, particularly if you're using mettā as the access method. Just shift your attention to the pleasantness of that sensation. Other places people find pleasant sensations include the third eye, the top of the head, the shoulders -- actually, you name a body part, and I've had some student find a pleasant sensation there that they were able to focus upon long enough for the first jhāna to arise. It does not matter where the pleasant sensation manifests; what matters is that there is a pleasant sensation and you're able to put your attention on it and -- now here comes the really hard part -- do nothing else.
You find the pleasant sensation, and shift your attention to the pleasant sensation. You observe the pleasantness of the pleasant sensation, and do nothing else. If you can do that, the pleasant sensation will begin to grow in intensity, it will become stronger. This will not happen in a linear way. It'll sort of grow a little bit, and then grow a little bit more and then hang out, and grow a little bit more…and then eventually, it will suddenly take off and take you into what is obviously an altered state of consciousness.
In this altered state of consciousness, you will be overcome with Rapture ... Euphoria … Ecstasy … Delight. These are all English words that are used to translate the Pāli word piti. Piti is this physical sensation that literally takes you over and takes you into an altered state. It will be accompanied by an emotional sensation of joy and happiness. The Pāli word is sukha, the opposite of dukkha [pain, suffering]. And, if you remain one-pointed on this experience of piti and sukha, that is the first jhāna.
- [Leigh Brasington, "Instruction for Entering Jhana"]
At this point you have a pretty good idea of the jhāna terrain. You know about the four (material) jhānas, what the jhāna factors are, and you know a structured method for entering the first jhāna.
The problem with this is that it can make the practice sound like a cookbook, and it's not. I know more than one prominent teacher who says that you can only enter the jhānas in sequence. In other words, if you want to do the third jhāna, you have to go in sequence, 1-2-3. I know that is not the case. I did jhānas 2 and 3 before I could do 1. I had a lot of trouble getting into the first jhāna. The first jhāna, as noted, is an experience very much in the body, and at the time I was too much in my own head. I was not connected enough to my body to enter the first jhāna easily.
The Pāli canon says that the Buddha first learned to enter the immaterial attainments "the base of nothingness" and the "base of neither perception nor non-perception", and as a child had entered the first jhāna. Thus, according to his own account, the Buddha attained the first jhāna and the 7th and 8th jhānas before attaining any of the others. The scholars who say that the jhānas must be done in sequence claim that the canonical account is wrong. But the fact is that this is how the story goes.
Even today in Burma - where admittedly they do Visuddhimagga style jhāna - part of the mastery of doing jhāna is to jump from any one jhāna to any other. It is part of the final jhāna exam.
So that is one area where the cookbook doesn't quite hold together.
Not every state of concentration fits neatly into the formula that the Buddha gives. Even the Visuddhimagga lists 5 material jhānas, not four. And if we look outside of Buddhism, other religious traditions give different formulas. These states and practices are not unique to Buddhism. In the book Jewish Meditation Aryeh Kaplan describes what to a Buddhist would be one material state and one immaterial state. These practices are also known in Christian mysticism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and I am sure many others. And they do not all follow the same formula.
The problem is that it can all become quite mechanical. You see everything in terms of the cookbook, and as a result, you are not developing your own discernment. If you are in a state that does not fit the formula, you force it into that mold.
So it is very useful to do a formless concentration practice, and see where that takes you. You already know the lay of the land. You know about pīti and sukkha. You know about going from the higher energy of pīti to the lower energy of sukkha, from a state of joy and rapture to happiness and then contentment. Then equanimity will arise, and finally you let go of the pleasantness and all that is left is the equanimity. And soon we will be looking more deeply into the immaterial states. This gives you a map of the territory.
Method B - the unstructured way of practice - instructs you to simply get as concentrated as you can and see where that takes you. You should know the drill by now. Start by focusing at the nose. As your concentration gets stronger, your attention will natural expand to include the whole body. Get the mind as quiet as possible. No matter what, stay with the breath. If and when jhāna factors arise, simply note them with your background awareness. But always stay with the breath.
Chances are that you will find yourself going in and out of jhāna. It could be any of them. Use your discernment to figure out where you are, and that may not fit into the canonical definitions. Learn to play with them. Change your place of focus. Change your breathing. See what it has to offer.
Ṭhānissaro tells this story:
...[Ajaan Fuang] tried to instill in his students these qualities of self-reliance, ingenuity, and a willingness to take risks and test things for themselves. He did that not only by talking about these qualities, but also by forcing you into situations where you'd have to develop them. Had he always been there to confirm for you that, "Yes, you've reached the third jhāna", or, "No, that's only the second jhāna", he would have short-circuited the qualities he was trying to instill. He, rather than your own powers of observation, would have been the authority on what was going on in your mind; and you would have been absolved of any responsibility for correctly evaluating what you had experienced...
As he once told me, 'If I have to explain everything, you'll get used to having things handed to you on a platter. And then what will you do when problems come up in your meditation and you don't have any experience in figuring things out on your own?'
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "Jhana Not by the Numbers"]
As you get better at this practice, that sense of well-being gets stronger. Sitting is more pleasant. Your mind is sharper. Insights arise.
Now is also a good time to talk about the quality of attention. As I have said, the concentration that we are developing is broadly based. This is not an electron microscope. It is more like the zoom lens on a camera.
You have a focused kind of attention. That is what you are using to stay with the breath. You also have a background attention. That is what helps you see what is going on. It is especially important in the factor of evaluation.
This background awareness is especially helpful off of the cushion. We use it to observe the mind during the day. It helps to keep those Nazis in our mind from having complete control. We use the mind to watch the mind.
An interesting exercise when you go into the first jhāna is to look for the hindrances. They won't be there. You can look for desire, ill-will, restlessness, sloth, and doubt, and you won't see them.
There are times in your practice where one or more of the hindrances arise. If they are strong you may need to work with them in a pro-active way to abandon them. Sometimes simply turning your attention to them is enough to make them disappear. Simple awareness is enough. At other times you must apply an antidote, like the Buddha's suggestion of splashing water on the face if you feel sleepy.
But as you get more concentrated, they simply fall away, and that is another way to handle them. The concentration itself makes them disappear. This shows that your skill as a meditator is increasing. And this is a taste of one of the fruits of complete Awakening.
Getting Out of Jhāna
Usually the problem with jhāna is getting into it and then staying there. However, there are cases where the jhāna takes on a life of its own, and you cannot get out of it. If this happens to you, take a very deep breath and then exhale as far out as you can. You may need to blow the air out through your mouth, and you may need to do this several times. Bring the energy level down as much as possible.
Getting uncomfortably stuck is usually only a problem in the first jhāna. I am not aware of any case where it has happened in other jhānas. However if this does happen, the same technique should work.
Continuing to Practice Jhāna
In the next sections we will look at how to get into the other jhānas, but before we do that, I want to caution against turning this into a collection of attainments. Once you enter jhāna, that is a very important step. And as we have seen, according to the Buddha, attaining even the first jhāna can be enough for an Awakening.
So do not be in too much of a hurry to go on to other jhānas. You must do a lot - and I mean "a lot" - of work with jhāna. Just trying to learn how to go through them would be like flying from Paris to Berlin to Rome and then saying that you had seen France, Germany and Italy. There is a lot of territory in each jhāna, and I know people who are extremely adept at moving between them, but never go on to attain an Awakening. There are, to be sure, a number of reasons that I think this happens, but one of them is that they are too impatient to spend the time that it takes to fully explore France, as it were.
There is no extra credit for being able to move up and down through the jhānas. You are better off doing one jhāna really well then you are learning how to move up and down through them all. There are no fixed rules in this game, but patience - remember patience? - is one of our most important allies. It's twin sibling - persistence - is the other. They are the Romulus and Remus of meditation.
We live in this world of attainment and accomplishment, and that is very disruptive to a meditation practice. I have spent a lot of my life cultivating patience and persistence, because a) they are not a natural part of my temperament, and b) they are really important in engineering, my chosen career. And after a fashion I began to think of myself as a pretty patient person.
Then I went to India, and I got a completely different idea of what patience and persistence mean. We visited a place called "Mehta's Silk" where they do silk weaving the same way they did it 2,000 years ago. I got to see an 80+ year old master silk weaver at work.
Mehta's Silk has "modern" weaving machines, but this being India, the master weavers refuse to use them. They sit on a very uncomfortable concrete floor. The loom is in a pit that is below the floor level. The weaver sits there with only a picture of the finished product. He stares at it for a while, and eventually he picks up one of the silk bobbins and runs the thread through the tapestry, after which he carefully tamps down the thread to get the proper tension. He stares at it for a while until he is satisfied that it is perfect, and then he goes back to the picture and stares some more. Wash, rinse, repeat. This is what they do all day, every day.
I bought a couple of those silk weavings. Each one of them is about 18 inches wide and 3 feet long. It took three months to make each one.
That is patience. I found it deeply humbling. It gave me a completely different perspective on what that word means. So if you spend countless hours/months/years doing first jhāna, and that feels like the right place for you, and your practice is progressing in a balanced way, then that is a good way to practice. Remember Ayya Khema's student who spent 19 years before attaining jhāna, but who had an excellent practice?
There are a lot of moving parts to the Buddha's Path. Jhāna is one of them. It is a very important one, to be sure, but it is just one. And the first jhāna is also just one. You may have an affinity for one of the jhānas. And - as happened with me and first jhāna - you may find one that proves challenging. It is all a part of the practice.
So practice like the weaver. Get each thread just so. Whatever thread you are using at the moment - and remember that the Sanskrit word "sutra" is related to the English word "suture" - make that the only one you care about at the moment. Eventually you will have the whole tapestry, and it happens one patiently and perfectly placed thread at a time.
Entering the Second Jhāna
Again, with the stilling of applied and sustained thought, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the second jhāna, which has self-confidence and singleness of mind without applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of concentration. - [MN 25.14]
Just like a lake with spring-water welling up from within, having no inflow from east, west, north, or south, and with the skies periodically supplying abundant showers, so that the cool fount of water welling up from within the lake would permeate and pervade, suffuse and fill it with cool waters, there being no part of the lake unpervaded by the cool waters; even so, the [bhikkhu] permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the rapture and pleasure born of composure. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture and pleasure born of composure... - [AN 5.28]
As with so many passages in the canon there is a wonderful poetry to the second quote here, the one from the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Ponds like this do exist. They call them "kettle ponds" or "kettle lakes" in New England. Curiously, the most famous pond in New England is a kettle pond. That is Walden Pond, once home to Henry David Thoreau, the great American mystic. You can circumambulate Walden Pond without ever crossing a stream. Walden Pond is - as the Buddha describes - fed completely by underground streams.
In the first jhāna there is conscious activity due to the directed thought and evaluation. In the second jhāna there is still the effort of keeping the mind concentrated, but now the mind is locked in. The directed thought and evaluation fall away. Further, the highly charged energy of the first jhāna - the pīti - becomes less pronounced than the sukkha, the pleasantness/pleasure/happiness. You simply feel happy.
You may also find that the energy of the first jhāna is rooted in the whole body. Now - in the second jhāna - the distinction between body and mind falls away. There is no body experiencing joy/rapture/bliss. There is simply the happiness. The background and foreground attention are one. This is the unification of mind.
I know of three ways to get from first jhāna to second jhāna.
The first is to simply let it happen. You get into first jhāna, and you continue to stay with the breath as long as you can and as steadily as you can. Eventually the need for conscious activity to stay in jhāna falls away. I think that the texts imply that this is how the Buddha wants us to practice.
This may take quite a while to happen. If that becomes a problem, re-read the last section on Continuing to Practice Jhāna. Patience, persistence. Romulus, Remus. And this way of getting into second jhāna is consistent with Method B.
If you are achievement oriented, this will be a good way for you to practice. And it may be even if you are not. It helps to take some of the "me" out of the practice. It becomes more about the doing and less about the doer. You are not just practicing jhāna, you are practicing patience, contentment, and other qualities that are important on the path.
However, if the energy of the first jhāna is a problem, you may want a more pro-active way of getting into second jhāna. The second way that you can get into second jhāna is to find a place in the body where there is stillness. Put your attention there. Use this as your focal point for following the breath in and out. Use at least some of your attention to focus on the stillness. This should take the energy level down to a calmer, more tranquil place.
The breathing and the attention in the second jhāna stay together naturally. Yes, there is some energy and some effort involved in keeping them there, but they all work together. Nothing is forced. They are all in perfect harmony. Larry Rosenberg says that he had a student once who described it as a feeling of "being breathed":
It’s as if, in the first jhāna, you were identifying with one part of your breath and one part of your awareness as you worked another part of the breath through another part of your awareness. Now those dividing lines are erased. Awareness becomes one, the breath becomes one, and both become one with each other.
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, With Each & Every Breath]
A third way of entering the second jhāna is to put your attention on the heart center. Using the elevator analogy again, it is like pushing a button. That button is in the center of the chest. You go from the whole body experience of the first jhāna to the center of the chest, the heart center.
You may recall that the heart center - the heart chakra - is where you put your attention for mettā practice. There is a strong connection between the second jhāna and mettā. When you get a strong second jhāna, turn your attention to mettā. See if you can feel any anger, aversion or hatred for your worst enemy. You will not be able to.
Once you can enter the second jhāna, one of the skills of doing jhāna is to move back and forth between them. You can even move in and out of jhāna. You should try this. Go back to where you were before entering jhāna. Now enter the first jhāna. Then enter the second jhāna. Now move back to the first jhāna. Then back to the second jhāna. In second jhāna you can also move back and forth between it and mettā. Then you can move back to the first jhāna, and back to being out of jhāna. And so forth. This is fun, and it shows that your skill is growing. You are gaining mastery over your own mind. The tail is no longer wagging the dog.
Once you are in the second jhāna, take time and time and more time to explore the territory. Getting into the second jhāna just means you have landed in Berlin. Now explore the whole of it, all of Germany.
You can do these practices for months and years, and you will continue to find different qualities to them. There is always a new aspect to explore. This is important to maintain interest in the practice. Otherwise it becomes dry. If you have not yet attained jhāna, it might be hard to understand how you can get bored with bliss and happiness, but it does happen.
This leads to the topic of "delusion concentration". You can get into a state that feels like jhāna. It is quite pleasant, but it is like the mind is in a fog. In true jhāna the mind is sharp. Your awareness and attention are clear:
Delusion concentration... comes about when the breath gets so comfortable that your focus drifts from the breath to the sense of comfort itself, your mindfulness begins to blur, and your sense of the body and your surroundings gets lost in a pleasant haze. When you emerge, you find it hard to identify where exactly you were focused.
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, With Each & Every Breath]
Ṭhānissaro also describes another type of wrong concentration that is - I believe - the same as Visuddhimagga jhāna:
The state of non-perception comes about from making your focus extremely one-pointed and so refined that it refuses to settle on or label even the most fleeting mental objects. You drop into a state in which you lose all sense of the body, of any internal or external sounds, or of any thoughts or perceptions at all. There’s just enough tiny awareness to let you know, when you emerge, that you haven’t been asleep. You can stay there for many hours, and yet time passes very quickly. Two hours can seem like two minutes. You can also program yourself to come out at a particular time.
This state does have its uses - as when you’re in severe pain and want some respite from it. As long as you recognize that it’s not right concentration or release, the only danger is that you may decide that you like hiding out there so much that you don’t want to do the work needed to go further in the practice.
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, With Each & Every Breath]
The important quality here is "perception". Without perception you cannot have insight, and you cannot develop the vipassana - wisdom/insight - quality in tandem with concentration. The quality of perception is present in every level of jhāna except for the immaterial states of "neither perception nor non-perception" and "cessation". Otherwise it is wrong concentration. In those last two states you must come out of them in order to evaluate what happened while you were in them.
Entering the Third Jhāna
Again, with the fading away as well of rapture, a bhikkhu abides in equanimity, and mindful and fully aware, still feeling pleasure with the body, he enters upon and abides in the third jhāna, on account of which the noble ones announce: ‘He has a pleasant abiding who has equanimity and is mindful.’ - [MN 25.14]
Again, with the fading away as well of rapture, a bhikkhu dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences pleasure with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhāna of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ He makes the happiness divested of rapture drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the happiness divested of rapture. Just as, in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses that are born and grow in the water might thrive immersed in the water without rising out of it, and cool water would drench, steep, fill, and pervade them to their tips and their roots, so that there would be no part of those lotuses that would not be pervaded by cool water; so too, the bhikkhu makes the happiness divested of rapture drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the happiness divested of rapture. This is the third development of noble five-factored right concentration. - [AN 5.28]
(Note: The reason that the concentration is "five-factored" is because it is the four jhānas plus insight. This once again emphasizes the development of concentration and insight "yoked together".)
So there are two jhāna factors here, pleasure (sukkha) and equanimity. There is deep contentment. You may find yourself thinking, "I feel contented". It is pleasant and calm.
Here the energy level is even calmer. As with the second jhāna, this will happen naturally if you practice (and practice and practice) the second jhāna. It is natural for the mind in second jhāna to become more calm and more still, and this will lead you to the third jhāna.
One of the things that you can play with are the qualities of mind that come with these deeper states of concentration. Find the stillness, and lock onto it. Do the same with serenity.
We start by working very hard to get the mind still. We deal with distractions, the Three Poisons, the hindrances, etc. Our attention is mainly on the difficult mind states that we are trying to abandon.
But now we can turn that process around and latch onto the positive mind states. The difficult ones are now weaker. We direct our attention to the stillness, the calm, and the serenity. We can just go there, and any difficult mind states just hover in the background. They are not a problem any more.
There is also a pro-active way to go into the third jhāna. In the second jhāna the attention is at the heart center. Now move it down to the abdomen, to just below the navel. In Zen they call this the "hara". With these energy spots in the body, you may have to look around a little to find the sweet spot. Feel for it. You should feel the energy. These are not physical locations in the body. They are energy centers.
Moving the attention down also moves the energy level down. There are many ways to work with the breath in the abdomen. You can feel the diaphragm moving up and down. You can feel the rising and falling of the abdomen. You can imagine a balloon filling and emptying as the air moves in and out of the lungs. Play with these and see what works best for you. Make up your own. The cushion is your laboratory. Don't be afraid to try things, to experiment, and don't be afraid to fail. No one has ever been harmed cultivating serenity:
Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure.
- [Soichiro Honda]
When you are in the third jhāna, make sure that you can identify the jhāna factors: pleasantness and equanimity. The pleasantness has been with you all along, although in the first jhāna the pīti overwhelms it. The equanimity is new. If worldly unpleasant sensations arise, they will simply pass you by like a car on the highway. This is also true for pleasant sensations. It is incredibly liberating. You can now "sit in the midst of your own experience".
It takes a while to get this - or any of these states - to mature. And of course, the object is not to sit down on the cushion and start pressing buttons and moving up and down through the jhānas, although this is certainly a useful practice. (It is also fun.) The objective is to develop all the qualities that the Buddha teaches. It always goes back to virtue. If you are not cultivating kindness, generosity, wisdom, patience, etc., etc., etc., there is no point to any of this.
The more you do these practices, the more the qualities of virtue should manifest in your life. If you use your meditative attainments to feel superior to other people, you are missing the point. You will have conceit up to the point of final Awakening, just make sure that you use it skillfully. Use it to believe in your ability to Awaken. Eventually it will go away, but in the meantime you need conceit - self-confidence - to help you on the path. Other people have done this, and so can you.
I recently heard a story about a self-described Arahant who is "testy and unpleasant". I don't believe that he is an Arahant. I know a few people who have attained at least the first stage of Awakening. People gravitate toward them. They inspire. They are calm and centered. They are pleasant to be around. They have a sense of humor. They embody altruistic virtue.
In Buddhism, just as in every other aspect of life, people like to make claims about themselves. But the proof - as the saying goes - of the pudding is in the tasting. As you get more skilled on the cushion, make sure that this skill is manifesting equally off the cushion.
Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.
- [Dalai Lama XIV]
Entering the Fourth Jhāna
Again, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the fourth jhāna, which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. - [MN 25.12-15]
Again, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and dejection, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the fourth jhāna, neither painful nor pleasant, which has purification of mindfulness by equanimity. He sits pervading this body with a pure bright mind, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the pure bright mind. Just as a man might be sitting covered from the head down with a white cloth, so that there would be no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the white cloth; so too, the bhikkhu sits pervading this body with a pure bright mind, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the pure bright mind. This is the fourth development of noble five-factored right concentration. - [AN 5.28]
The fourth jhāna has only one factor: equanimity.
Equanimity shows up in many of the Buddha's teachings. It is one of the brahma vihāras, the "noble abidings". It is one of the factors of Awakening.
As with most of the qualities that we are cultivating, equanimity can manifest in three ways:
- In a mundane or worldy sense. In this case we simply try to do the best we can with whatever skill level we have.
- As a fruit of jhāna. This is still conditioned, but it gives us a pure sense of what it is like after Awakening.
- As a fruit of Awakening. In this case the quality is no longer conditioned. It is simply a part of our being. We are not capable of acting in a way that is contrary to it.
Until you have attained either the third - and preferably the fourth jhāna - I do not believe it is possible to know true equanimity. Until then you will be practicing equanimity in the worldly or mundane sense.
In the case of the other jhānas, if you practice long enough you will eventually fall into the next one. I do not think this is true of the fourth jhāna. The third jhāna is very pleasant, so the stress in it is not strong enough for the mind to naturally let go of it. That is what the mind is doing, letting go of ever more subtle levels of stress. There is still stress in these states, and that is why the mind tends - eventually - to let go of that stress and fall into the next level of concentration.
Be that as it may, the instruction to go from the third jhāna to the fourth is quite simple: let go of the pleasantness. All that will be left is the equanimity.
The mind will be very still and very sharp. The breath will be subtle. You may feel like the breathing has stopped. Sometimes people panic when this happens.
There is some debate about this phenomena. There are claims that when the body and mind get very still, the need for oxygen is so low that you can breathe through your skin. But whatever is going on physically, there is no harm in this. You are not going to die. No one ever has. So if this happens to you, work with it so you do not have a sense of panic. This is simply the mind-body complex getting very, very still. It is a good thing.
One thing that may happen in the forth jhāna is that you will like it. If this happens, you will fall back into the third jhāna. That is not a problem. Simply let go of the pleasantness, and you will be back in the fourth jhāna.
Practice going back and fourth between the different jhānas. You develop a great deal of control over your mind in this way. But also remember that it takes lots and lots and lots and lots of jhāna practice to see the whole terrain. And it takes lots and lots and lots and lots of jhāna practice to get to where we want to go, and that is an Awakening.
We are replacing our sense desires with the more wholesome desire for stillness, serenity, concentration, equanimity. This is an important step in our journey. This is the Buddha's dispassion. We are replacing our sense desires with something better, much better. It doesn't have the dangers inherent in sense desire. The sense desires are the leper's coal pit.
In this section, we started by discussing misunderstandings about jhāna, specifically:
- Whether jhāna is required to attain an Awakening. (Answer: yes.)
- The four material jhānas.
- The immaterial states.
- The differences between jhāna in the Visuddhimagga and the Pāli Canon.
- The issue of mistaking jhāna for Awakening.
Then we described two methods for entering the first jhāna, how the hindrances disappear, how to get out of it if that is a problem, and how to work with it once you have attained it.
This was followed by instructions on how to enter the second, third and fourth jhānas in turn.
Those with calm minds–
absorbed in jhāna–
clearly see Dhamma rightly,
Delighting in heedfulness,
seeing danger in heedlessness, they
– incapable of falling away –
are right in the presence of Unbinding. - [Iti 2.45]