Some Reflections on How to Read Meditative Maps (and specifically the Jhānic Map)

I would like to offer some reflections about how to read meditative maps, not only the meditative map of the four jhānas I offer in my book (and a summary in the previous post), but also other maps of this kind that exist in abundance in classical Buddhist literature.

Meditative maps are less common in Buddhist teaching and publications in the West (unlike many meditation manuals on “how to practice meditation”). This lacuna seems to arise because many contemporary Buddhist teachers share a view – which I believe to be valid – that such maps can easily become the object of craving, attachment and comparison, especially for those who grew up in a culture which glorifies achievements and attainments. In other words, presenting maps of meditative progress can create an unbeneficial relationship with practice. Steve Armstrong is quoted in Ann Gleig’s book American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (chapter 4) saying about the “Progress of Insight Map” written by Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw (which is based on Buddhaghosa’s “seven stages of purification”) that: ”For us, Western seekers, there was a danger that the Progress of Insight could have led to excessive striving and imbalanced effort as well as misevaluation of one’s practice.” The exception for this view in western vipassanā teachings (to the best of my knowledge) are Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram. Folk is cited in the same chapter stating that the lack of transparency regarding meditation progress is unhelpful and harmful to students as it leaves them unmotivated and confused about their meditation practice (same chapter).

Although I tend to accept the view Armstrong presents (especially concerning new practitioners of meditation), I do believe that there are noteworthy benefits for introducing experienced practitioners of meditation to key Buddhist meditative maps. These maps were an object of study in most Buddhist traditions. They describe the possible route of practice in a detailed phenomenological way for the purpose of guiding us to awakening.

Thus, although the study of meditative maps can produce expectation, wanting or craving (as any desirable object can) it can also guide us into the right path and chart more clearly the way to awakening and freedom. We just have to learn these maps with the right attitude, that is, to learn to read these meditative maps in a way that will contribute and enrich our practice contrary to learning it with an attitude of expectation and craving. I believe that it is our responsibility, as serious practitioners of the Dhamma, to learn to read these practice-maps skillfully: as a compass that can direct us in our meditative practice without being drawn to comparison, obsessive striving or despair when we feel that we “did not get it yet” (it is important to observe the dukkha of expectation that nourish this mental attitude).

Reading a meditative map as a compass (and not as an object to achieve), allows the map to be present in the “background” of the mind during our practice, and can be helpful at the right moment. In my experience, the map will appear as a guide – and as a reminder – at the right moment in a useful and liberating way. It will also allow us to understand what’s going on in our practice: what should we pay attention to and what should we let go.


The Jhānic Map

My intention in offering a detailed analysis of the four jhānas, as they are depicted in the suttas, was to offer a perspective that sees the four jhānas as part of the practice of insight. The analysis I offer is not a meditation manual, but a map that highlight the liberating value of each of these meditative states. My hope is that learning this particular jhānic map will allow practitioners to identify “in real time” how the four jhānas express an important dimension of the deepening of non-clinging and liberating wisdom. This meditative map can also give us a framework to contemplate the trajectory of our practice and the emphasis we place – or do not place – on various elements of the path.

More specifically, I hope that my analysis of the jhānas as part of the deepening of wisdom can remind practitioners of vipassanā – when they enter into one of the jhānas – that these four body-mind states are not just special meditation experiences, they actually signify the deepening of Insight (vipassanā); that is, the four jhānas are not just meditation attainments but modes of perceiving that fabricate less. Recognizing that there are states that fabricate less has a great liberative value: one sees clearly how subjective experience is formed, and how this reality is insubstantial in nature. Understanding the meditative process of the jhānas in this way, will allow practitioners not only to “enjoy” the experience of the jhānas as it unfolds but to pay attention, as it occurs, how this experience teaches us something about the fabrication of self.  

Thus, learning the map and its significance, offers insights, how to see these attainments as a springboard for further deepening of liberating wisdom.

One example for the above is the experience of “spiritual [or jhanic] joy and pleasure” in the first and second jhānas [SN IV.236]. The analysis I offer of the liberative value of this type of pleasure and joy points out that the first and second jhānas are not just pleasurable and joyful attainments but actually an important moment in our practice. If we remember to observe these experiences from the viewpoint of insight and liberation we can see clearly that there are pleasure (sukha) and joy (piti) that lead one to awakening and do not perpetuate desire. Furthermore, experiencing phenomena in the jhānas without unwholesome reactions such as desire, aversion etc., (the pre-requisite for entering the jhānas) allows the mind to find delight not in sense pleasures, but from letting go of the unwholesome (for reading my argument about the jhānas as attainment which are not separated from sense experience see my previous post and the chapter on the first jhāna in the book).


The Suttas Awakening Map

Having said the above, I think it is interesting to also reflect on the “awakening map” which is offered in the suttas. The suttas describe four “breakthroughs” into awakening: stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner and arahantship. This map of progress, contrary to the Theravada model of the “Progress of Insight”, emphasizes I believe, that what really matters in the path taught by the Buddha – what we should observe in our minds as signposts of fulfilling the path – is not certain insights or experiences, but whether these meditative experiences or insights allowed us to let go of clinging and other unwholesome states of mind.

When we adopt this perspective into the map of the jhānas, we can see how these four meditative states exemplify a gradual development of an awakened awareness of experience: entering the first jhāna, means that one has abandoned the unwholesome mind through discernment (please read the chapter on the first jhāna for thorough analysis). And as I pointed out in the book:

“The jhānas exemplify the aim of the Buddhist path: a progression from ordinary mind, filled with many moments of unwholesome states, to a purified mind, wholesome and free. When one progresses from one jhāna to the next, insight (vipassanā) becomes deeper and one actualizes the aim of Buddhist meditation.”
(Arbel Keren, Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as the Actualization of Insight, p.200)

To conclude, recognizing the jhānas in our own lived meditative experience can allow us to further nourish the wholesome and deepen the qualities that can release and awaken the mind: mindfulness, unworldly pleasure and joy, samādhi (a non-distracted mind), discernment and deep equanimity.


Yet, it is important to pay close attention during practice if there is any craving that “expects” or “waits” for these body-mind states to appear (or any expectation of certain insights). This instruction is relevant also when the mind is considerably calmer, since many times we can notice more subtle “waiting” (for deeper peace, insight etc.) which can sneak in. Every time we notice that there is craving, desire, expectation or despair, this is the moment when we need to remember the Buddha’s clear instruction in the Satipatthāna Sutta: to observe a mind with craving as a mind with craving without holding on or pushing away (no matter what the object of craving is…). Paradoxically, seeing clearly in this way – when craving (or despair) arises – inclines the mind into wholesomeness and hence into the attainment of the first jhāna.


To conclude, I would summarize my points in this way:

1. It is skillful to read meditative maps as a compass, and not as an object to be achieved. That is, to learn these maps with the right attitude.

2. The jhānic map I offer can be significant since it can allow practitioners to identify “in real time” how the four jhānas express an important dimension of the deepening of non-clinging and “wisdom-awareness”.

3. Recognizing “in real time” that the mind – in these four meditative states – fabricates less, one can see clearly and directly how subjective experience is formed, and how this experience is insubstantial in nature.

4. Lastly, what is important to observe truthfully in our progress along the path is whether the meditative experiences and insights allowed us to let go of clinging and other unwholesome states and behavior. These are the real signposts of fulfilling the path taught by the Buddha.

May we all experience a mind which is happy, clear, peaceful and free.

May we all be free from the unwholesome, and express compassion, kindness and wisdom in our lives.