Mapping the jhana controversy

Statue of the Buddha, Hong Kong

There is no jhāna for one who lacks insight, and no insight for one who lacks jhāna.

The Buddha, Dhammapada

This point is of considerable relevance to an understanding of the nature of absorption. The issue at stake, simply stated, is whether the first absorption is a deep state of concentration, achieved only after a prolonged period of practice and seclusion, or a stage of relaxed happy reflection within easy reach of anyone and without much need for meditative proficiency.

Bhikkhu Anālayo, Satipatthāna: The Direct Path to Realization

It is quite alarming that we can’t definitively agree on what jhāna is. The story goes that after leaving the household life, the Buddha-to-be trained with two meditation teachers, Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, mastering the spheres of no-thingness and neither-perception-nor-non-perception under their respective guidance. Seeing that these states did not lead to freedom from suffering, he sought another path. Some years later, exhausted from austerities, he reflected on a scene from his childhood in which, relaxed and happy, he watched his father plough a field under a rose apple tree and had slipped into the first jhāna. This, he realised, was the way to the end of suffering.

So we have a paradox. The meditative attainments the Buddha mastered with his former teachers are often understood to be the 7th and 8th jhānas, presumably requiring mastery of the preceding jhānas. So, if the Buddha had previously rejected these states, how could he later have the realisation that they were in fact the path he had been seeking? It’s something I have pondered for years. And I’m not alone: here are some of the views and explanations I’ve come across over the years. I have caricatured these positions for brevity, so forgive me if they’re not 100% accurate or nuanced. I’m simplifying to convey the broad range of opinions out there. And, to be clear, I don’t know the answer. I’m trying to find my way through this confusion myself.

  1. The first possibility is one I’ll propose myself, I don’t think I’ve seen it elsewhere. Could it be that the Buddha simply realised he had abandoned the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception (NPNNP) prematurely, and then resumed this path of development? I don’t think so, for if this were the case, why would he later find it difficult to attain the first jhāna, as related in the Upakkilesa Sutta? Out of practice perhaps? Not convinced.
  2. This is where a possible solution from the contemporary teacher, Bodhipaksa, comes in. In this fascinating blog post, Bodhipaksa reminds us that the spheres of no-thingness and NPNNP are not referred to as jhānas but as āyatanas. He suggests they’re a completely different meditative attainment, a yogic attainment that existed pre-Buddhism. On this account, the Buddha was never taught the jhānas, and in fact was the discoverer of the jhānas. These states require equanimity to enter but they lack the increasingly narrowing focus (in terms of mental factors) of the four jhānas. It was the Buddha’s genius to see that, rather than a more and more expansive, cosmic awareness, he needed a more refined focus. This tallies with the account of the Buddha leaving his former teachers, and it also has the virtue of explaining why the Buddha found attaining the first jhāna difficult as an adult some time after leaving his teachers: he was doing so for the first time. An interesting and well-reasoned theory.
  3. Elsewhere, we find the idea that the Buddha turned completely away from absorption and that his conception of jhāna was more like a relaxed, open awareness. Thich Nhat Hanh took this line, and some subschools of Theravada and Early Buddhism hold to it. The idea is you don’t need absorption at all, in fact it’s moving you in the wrong direction: away from a mind that can gain insight into change and instability. You might find this idea where people are practicing dry insight methods of vipassanā: noting their experience using the Mahasi technique. Sayadaw U Tejaniya even speaks of people practicing concentration methods as becoming almost zombie-like, although what kind of concentration practice has led to this is not clear.
  4. At the opposite end of the spectrum to this is the idea that full absorption is the only way, that the suttas are mention jhāna repeatedly and this means complete, unwavering fixation on an object for long periods of time. If someone fired a gun next to your head while you were in jhāna, you wouldn’t hear it. If you can’t attain jhāna: keep working at it, maybe you will one day. Ajahn Brahm is one of the contemporary teachers I associate with this view.
  5. Adjacent to but not identical to this is the idea that jhāna is indeed this extreme—involving loss of bodily senses for prolonged periods—but that it is completely unnecessary, an incredibly rare attainment. This is the view found in the Visuddhimagga, which I associate with Shaila Catherine and the Pa Auk Sayadaw approach.
  6. Opposed to that is the view that the jhāna of the suttas—as opposed to that of the Visuddhimagga—is much more easily attained and not as extreme. It raises the prospect of what you might call lighter jhānas in which sensations may be somewhat diminished but are still accessible. This is the view, almost certainly correct in my opinion, that the Visuddhimagga is not a reliable lens through which to understand early Buddhism, since it was written around 1,000 years after the Buddha’s death. Basically, this view says that we can benefit a great deal from jhāna, it’s really important and helpful, but attaining it is a lower bar than you may think. This is where I place Richard Shankman and Leigh Brasington. Richard Shankman has a really interesting book on the range of views around samādhi (collectedness/concentration), The Experience of Samādhi.
  7. Let’s press on. There is the idea that jhānas are more like stages of understanding that we unlock progressively, put forward by Bhante Vimalaramsi in his Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation system (TWIM). I’ve been practising with the TWIM style for much of this year. Read Maija Haavisto’s ‘Jhanas As Easily Accessible Insight Practice‘ write up. It really is an excellent summary of the jhana controversy and the TWIM standpoint: “You do not need to reach a high level of concentration as such: it is sufficient to feel a lot of meditative joy/bliss and build a feedback loop around it just by really feeling into the mettā.”
  8. Another fascinating idea comes from the scholar, Grzegorz Polak. Drawing on Tilmann Vetter, I think, Polak suggests that absorption supported by sustained focus on an object is a yogic technique preceding the Buddha, and that the Buddha’s jhāna involved simply sitting down and letting your practice of the eightfold path bring the mind to peace. Polak also discusses the “jhāna of a thoroughbred” mentioned in the Sandha Sutta. In this sutta the Buddha describes the correct practice of jhāna as not being supported by any object. This could be as Polak describes above or, and I have no way of being sure, I wonder if this is talking about signless concentration, which Bhikkhu Anālayo describes as disregarding those features (nimitta) by which we recognise an object. (I highly recommend his book, Compassion and Emptiness, if you’d like to know more about this trajectory of practice which begins with the Brahmavihāras and progresses into the gradual entry into emptiness, resulting in signless concentration.) Jhāna not supported by any object also sounds like it could be related to what today we might call choiceless awareness, and the Zen practice of shikantaza: “just sitting.” I find that an intriguing possibility as it seems those methods are not without results. Or perhaps jhāna without object is a reference to the emptiness of objects. The Aksayamati Sutta says, “for bodhisattvas who have attained receptivity to the truth of non-orgination, metta has no object.
  9. Anyway, since we’ve mentioned that great scholar, Bhikkhu Anālayo’s view is that Right Concentration is meditation that’s free from the five hindrances and in harmony with the other elements of the eightfold path. That seems reasonable. For Anālayo, absorption in the first jhāna is an attainment requiring considerable skill: even the Buddha found it difficult when he attempted this as an adult (Anālayo, Satipatthāna: The Direct Path to Realization, p. 76). One might ask how the Buddha was able to attain this as a child, but I think it’s reasonable to speculate that a happy, relaxed child may have a mind that is less beset by hindrances than an adult.
  10. Bhikkhu Anālayo also has a view on the crucial question as to whether jhāna is needed for stream-entry, “According to the discourses, what is a necessary condition for being able to gain stream-entry is a state of mind completely free from the five hindrances. Although a convenient way to remove the hindrances is the development of absorption, this is not the only way to do so.” (Anālayo, Satipatthāna: The Direct Path to Realization, p. 80).
  11. Finally, Rob Burbea described the jhānas as absorptions but speaks about their cultivation quite organically, I think, as a practice of skilful play and the exploration of bodily energies, metta, etc. It’s not the “just sit there and don’t let your attention move from the nostrils” approach. He offered many ways of getting to the same destination. Most interestingly, Rob spoke of eight jhānas that are progressive states of less and less fabrication. So there’s an insight lens related to the teachings on emptiness here. I highly recommend this series of talks from Rob on Practising the jhānas.

I have gone back and forth through all of these viewpoints over time. This controversy can be a great source of doubt and hesitancy. So, what are we to do? Well, I can only say that my own approach is to do what is practical. At first glance, as a householder in a somewhat chaotic family life, conceptions of jhāna put forward by Ajahn Brahm and Pa Auk Sayadaw, which seem heavily dependent on long retreats, don’t appear feasible. However, these days I am keen not to make prior judgments about what is and what is not possible. I think you have to go where your interest leads you, where the practice feels alive and, as Rob Burbea says, explore the edge of your playground. Understand where you are. Consolidate what you can learn from that. See if you can expand a little further into new territory. Richard Shankman also has a pragmatic view: when the mind is steady, do samādhi practice; when the mind is unsteady, do insight practice.

My feeling is that any approach that encourages exploration, cultivation of the brahmavihāras, and a sutta-oriented understanding must be heading in the right direction. The Buddha himself asked why he was afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskilful mental qualities. So perhaps, at the very least, we have nothing to fear from jhāna as long as we hold it without grasping or clinging, as best we are able.

In terms of how far we take this practice, perhaps Jhāna doesn’t have to be cultivated to the level of absolute mastery. Rob Burbea said that the cultivation of samadhi goes on forever, it’s endless. At some point, insight, ethics, wisdom, and heart qualities are what makes the difference. And there are many teachers who teach that an ordinary person can cultivate enough samādhi for liberating insight. I am heartened by Bhikkhu Anālayo’s stance on stream-entry and put a lot of trust in his scholarship, which seems rigorous and balanced to me. I think he would say, essentially, that absorption is helpful, especially for the higher stages of realisation, but even then we can make some of the most crucial progress through diligent practice with whatever we have to hand. I suppose the answer is to practice as intelligently and as sensitively as we can, and find out for ourselves.

Finally, I’ve found the TWIM approach very freeing and enjoyable this year. It definitely seems easier to cultivate a sense of wellbeing and open-heartedness using metta and the 6Rs than by trying to rivet attention to the breath with strong concentration. I think this idea of the jhanas as stages of understanding is very interesting. A TWIM teacher described it to me as like moving up through the gears on a bicycle. You’re moving slowly at first, maybe there isn’t much concentration so you might not notice the features of the jhana. You might not believe you’re in one. But, if it’s a long sit, you’ll keep moving up through the gears and, eventually, the mind is really settled and it becomes apparent that the jhana factors, or certain hallmarks of such a state are there. Crucial to this method: you are using a technique known as the 6Rs to cultivate insight and relaxation whenever attention is pulled away from the object. Because these are not absorption jhanas, in which the mind is essentially frozen still, you are able to see the process of hindrances and distractions arising, and let go of them. This cultivates insight into dependent arising. The lightness of the jhana is exactly what makes it useful for insight. A convincing middle way.

UPDATE: You may be interested in Kumāra Bhikkhu’s free eBook, What You Might Not Know about Jhāna and Samādhi, which was recommended to me by Laura Bridgman. I found it a very stimulating read. Kumāra Bhikkhu explains the difference between sutta- and Visuddhimagga-style jhanas: “So, the Sutta jhāna, though presently not commonly called by its original name, is still actually being taught and practised—often by people who say ‘jhāna’ is not necessary! As for the Visuddhimagga jhāna, we should simply refer to it as “absorption”, not “jhāna”, so that our audience will understand us correctly when we speak of states of absorption.” It’s well worth a look.

Photograph by Jamie Street.

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