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The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation
by Bhikkhu Henepola Gunaratana

Chapter 1



The Doctrinal Context of Jhana

The Buddha says that just as in the great ocean there is but one taste, the taste of salt, so in his doctrine and discipline there is but one taste, the taste of freedom. The taste of freedom that pervades the Buddha's teaching is the taste of spiritual freedom, which from the Buddhist perspective means freedom from suffering. In the process leading to deliverance from suffering, meditation is the means of generating the inner awakening required for liberation. The methods of meditation taught in the Theravada Buddhist tradition are based on the Buddha's own experience, forged by him in the course of his own quest for enlightenment. They are designed to re-create in the disciple who practices them the same essential enlightenment that the Buddha himself attained when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree, the awakening to the Four Noble Truths.

The various subjects and methods of meditation expounded in the Theravada Buddhist scriptures -- the Pali Canon and its commentaries -- divide into two inter-related systems. One is called the development of serenity (samathabhavana), the other the development of insight (vipassanabhavana). The former also goes under the name of development of concentration (samadhibhavana), the latter the development of wisdom (pannabhavana). The practice of serenity meditation aims at developing a calm, concentrated, unified mind as a means of experiencing inner peace and as a basis for wisdom. The practice of insight meditation aims at gaining a direct understanding of the real nature of phenomena. Of the two, the development of insight is regarded by Buddhism as the essential key to liberation, the direct antidote to the ignorance underlying bondage and suffering. Whereas serenity meditation is recognized as common to both Buddhist and non-Buddhist contemplative disciplines, insight meditation is held to be the unique discovery of the Buddha and an unparalleled feature of his path. However, because the growth of insight presupposes a certain degree of concentration, and serenity meditation helps to achieve this, the development of serenity also claims an incontestable place in the Buddhist meditative process. Together the two types of meditation work to make the mind a fit instrument for enlightenment. With his mind unified by means of the development of serenity, made sharp and bright by the development of insight, the meditator can proceed unobstructed to reach the end of suffering, Nibbana.

Pivotal to both systems of meditation, though belonging inherently to the side of serenity, is a set of meditative attainments called the jhanas. Though translators have offered various renderings of this word, ranging from the feeble "musing" to the misleading "trance" and the ambiguous "meditation," we prefer to leave the word untranslated and to let its meaning emerge from its contextual usages. From these it is clear that the jhanas are states of deep mental unification which result from the centering of the mind upon a single object with such power of attention that a total immersion in the object takes place. The early suttas speak of four jhanas, named simply after their numerical position in the series: the first jhana, the second jhana, the third jhana and the forth jhana. In the suttas the four repeatedly appear each described by a standard formula which we will examine later in detail.

The importance of the jhanas in the Buddhist path can readily be gauged from the frequency with which they are mentioned throughout the suttas. The jhanas figure prominently both in the Buddha's own experience and in his exhortation to disciples. In his childhood, while attending an annual ploughing festival, the future Buddha spontaneously entered the first jhana. It was the memory of this childhood incident, many years later after his futile pursuit of austerities, that revealed to him the way to enlightenment during his period of deepest despondency (M.i, 246-47). After taking his seat beneath the Bodhi tree, the Buddha enter the four jhanas immediately before direction his mind to the threefold knowledge that issued in his enlightenment (M.i.247-49). Throughout his active career the four jhanas remained "his heavenly dwelling" (D.iii,220) to which he resorted in order to live happily here and now. His understanding of the corruption, purification and emergence in the jhanas and other meditative attainments is one of the Tathagata's ten powers which enable him to turn the matchless wheel of the Dhamma (M.i,70). Just before his passing away the Buddha entered the jhanas in direct and reverse order, and the passing away itself took place directly from the fourth jhana (D.ii,156).

The Buddha is constantly seen in the suttas encouraging his disciples to develop jhana. The four jhanas are invariably included in the complete course of training laid down for disciples. [1] They figure in the training as the discipline of higher consciousness (adhicittasikkha), right concentration (sammasamadhi) of the Noble Eightfold Path, and the faculty and power of concentration (samadhindriya, samadhibala). Though a vehicle of dry insight can be found, indications are that this path is not an easy one, lacking the aid of the powerful serenity available to the practitioner of jhana. The way of the jhana attainer seems by comparison smoother and more pleasurable (A.ii,150-52). The Buddha even refers to the four jhanas figuratively as a kind of Nibbana: he calls them immediately visible Nibbana, factorial Nibbana, Nibbana here and now (A.iv,453-54).

To attain the jhanas, the meditator must begin by eliminating the unwholesome mental states obstructing inner collectedness, generally grouped together as the five hindrances (pancanivarana): sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry and doubt.[2] The mind's absorption on its object is brought about by five opposing mental states -- applied thought, sustained thought, rapture, happiness and one pointedness [3] -- called the jhana factors (jhanangani) because they lift the mind to the level of the first jhana and remain there as its defining components.

After reaching the first jhana the ardent meditator can go on to reach the higher jhanas, which is done by eliminating the coarser factors in each jhana. Beyond the four jhanas lies another fourfold set of higher meditative states which deepen still further the element of serenity. These attainments (aruppa), are the base of boundless space, the base of boundless consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.[4] In the Pali commentaries these come to be called the four immaterial jhanas (arupajhana), the four preceding states being renamed for the sake of clarity, the four fine-material jhanas (rupajhana). Often the two sets are joined together under the collective title of the eight jhanas or the eight attainments (atthasamapattiyo).

The four jhanas and the four immaterial attainments appear initially as mundane states of deep serenity pertaining to the preliminary stage of the Buddhist path, and on this level they help provide the base of concentration needed for wisdom to arise. But the four jhanas again reappear in a later stage in the development of the path, in direct association with liberating wisdom, and they are then designated the supramundane (lokuttara) jhanas. These supramundane jhanas are the levels of concentration pertaining to the four degrees of enlightenment experience called the supramundane paths (magga) and the stages of liberation resulting form them, the four fruits (phala).

Finally, even after full liberation is achieved, the mundane jhanas can still remain as attainments available to the fully liberated person, part of his untrammeled contemplative experience.

Etymology of Jhana

The great Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa traces the Pali word "jhana" (Skt. dhyana) to two verbal forms. One, the etymologically correct derivation, is the verb jhayati, meaning to think or meditate; the other is a more playful derivation, intended to illuminate its function rather than its verbal source, from the verb jhapeti meaning to burn up. He explains: "It burns up opposing states, thus it is jhana" (Vin.A. i, 116), the purport being that jhana "burns up" or destroys the mental defilements preventing the developing the development of serenity and insight.

In the same passage Buddhaghosa says that jhana has the characteristic mark of contemplation (upanijjhana). Contemplation, he states, is twofold: the contemplation of the object and the contemplation of the characteristics of phenomena. The former is exercised by the eight attainments of serenity together with their access, since these contemplate the object used as the basis for developing concentration; for this reason these attainments are given the name "jhana" in the mainstream of Pali meditative exposition. However, Buddhaghosa also allows that the term "jhana" can be extended loosely to insight (vipassana), the paths and the fruits on the ground that these perform the work of contemplating the characteristics of things the three marks of impermanence, suffering and non-self in the case of insight, Nibbana in the case of the paths and fruits.

In brief the twofold meaning of jhana as "contemplation" and "burning up" can be brought into connection with the meditative process as follows. By fixing his mind on the object the meditator reduces and eliminates the lower mental qualities such as the five hindrances and promotes the growth of the higher qualities such as the jhana factors, which lead the mind to complete absorption in the object. Then by contemplating the characteristics of phenomena with insight, the meditator eventually reaches the supramundane jhana of the four paths, and with this jhana he burns up the defilements and attains the liberating experience of the fruits.

Jhana and Samadhi

In the vocabulary of Buddhist meditation the word "jhana" is closely connected with another word, "samadhi" generally rendered by "concentration." Samadhi derives from the prefixed verbal root sam-a-dha, meaning to collect or to bring together, thus suggesting the concentration or unification of the mind. The word "samadhi" is almost interchangeable with the word "samatha," serenity, though the latter comes from a different root, sam, meaning to become calm.

In the suttas samadhi is defined as mental one-pointedness, (cittass'ekaggata M.i,301) and this definition is followed through rigorously in the Abhidhamma. The Abhidhamma treats one-pointedness as a distinct mental factor present in every state of consciousness, exercising the function of unifying the mind on its object. From this strict psychological standpoint samadhi can be present in unwholesome states of consciousness as well as in wholesome an neutral states. In its unwholesome forms it is called "wrong concentration" (micchasamadhi), In its wholesome forms "right concentration" (sammasamadhi).

In expositions on the practice of meditation, however, samadhi is limited to one-pointedness of mind (Vism.84-85; PP.84-85), and even here we can understand from the context that the word means only the wholesome one-pointedness involved in the deliberate transmutation of the mind to a heightened level of calm. Thus Buddhaghosa explains samadhi etymologically as "the centering of consciousness and consciousness concomitants evenly and rightly on a single object ... the state in virtue of which consciousness and its concomitants remain evenly and rightly on a single object, undistracted and unscattered" (Vism.84-85; PP.85).

However, despite the commentator's bid for consistency, the word samadhi is used in the Pali literature on meditation with varying degrees of specificity of meaning. In the narrowest sense, as defined by Buddhaghosa, it denotes the particular mental factor responsible for the concentrating of the mind, namely, one-pointedness. In a wider sense it can signify the states of unified consciousness that result from the strengthening of concentration, i.e. the meditative attainments of serenity and the stages leading up to them. And in a still wider sense the word samadhi can be applied to the method of practice used to produce and cultivate these refined states of concentration, here being equivalent to the development of serenity. It is in the second sense that samadhi and jhana come closest in meaning. The Buddha explains right concentration as the four jhanas (D.ii,313), and in doing so allows concentration to encompass the meditative attainments signified by the jhanas. However, even though jhana and samadhi can overlap in denotation, certain differences in their suggested and contextual meanings prevent unqualified identification of the two terms. First behind the Buddha's use of the jhana formula to explain right concentration lies a more technical understanding of the terms. According to this understanding samadhi can be narrowed down in range to signify only one mental factor, the most prominent in the jhana, namely, one-pointedness, while the word "jhana" itself must be seen as encompassing the state of consciousness in its entirety, or at least the whole group of mental factors individuating that meditative state as a jhana.

In the second place, when samadhi is considered in its broader meaning it involves a wider range of reference than jhana. The Pali exegetical tradition recognizes three levels of samadhi: preliminary concentration (parikammasamadhi), which is produced as a result of the meditator's initial efforts to focus his mind on his meditation subject; access concentration (upacarasamadhi), marked by the suppression of the five hindrances, the manifestation of the jhana factors, and the appearance of a luminous mental replica of the meditation object called the counterpart sign (patibhaganimitta); and absorption concentration (appanasamadhi), the complete immersion of the mind in its object effected by the full maturation of the jhana factors.[5] Absorption concentration comprises the eight attainments, the four immaterial attainments, and to this extent jhana and samadhi coincide. However, samadhi still has a broader scope than jhana, since it includes not only the jhanas themselves but also the two preparatory degrees of concentration leading up to them. Further, samadhi also covers a still different type of concentration called momentary concentration (khanikasamadhi), the mobile mental stabilization produced in the course of insight contemplation of the passing flow of phenomena.

[1] See for example, the Samannaphala Sutta (D. 2), the Culahatthipadopama Sutta (M. 27),etc.
[2] Kamacchanda, byapada, thinamiddha, uddhaccakukkucca, vicikiccha.
[3] Vitakka, vicara, piti, sukha, ekaggata.
[4] Akasanancayatana, vinnanancayatana, akincannayatana, nevasannanasannayatana.
[5] See Narada, A Manual of Abhidhamma. 4th ed. (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1980), pp.389, 395-96

[Title Page] [Contents]
[1. Introduction] [2. Preparation for Jhana]
[3. The First Jhana] [4. The Higher Jhanas]
[5. Jhana & The Supramundane] [6. Jhanas & The Noble Disciples]

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