“Bhikkhus, just as the river Ganges slants, slopes, and inclines towards the east, similarly, a bhikkhu, who develops and cultivates the four jhāna s slants, slopes, and inclines towards Nibbana.”
“There is no jhāna for the one without liberating wisdom,
no liberating wisdom for the one without jhāna ;
the one who has jhāna and liberating wisdom
he indeed is in the presence of nibbana.”
These citations from the early Buddhist texts in Pali (i.e., the suttas), and many others in these inspiring texts, captured my curiosity from the first time I heard about the jhānas from my Dhamma teachers and from books I have read on Buddhist meditation. The references to these four specific psych-somatic states, which the Buddha called “the four jhānas”, and the frequentness in which they appear in the path taught by the Buddha, awakened a deep interest in me, first as a practitioner of vipassana meditation, and later on, as a scholar as well.
Walk into almost any contemporary Theravada practice center or insight meditation center, and you’re likely to hear that practicing the jhānas is unnecessary for the cultivation of insight and awakening. This view has long been recognized as a mainstream position, yet the suttas contain numerous passages in which the Buddha refers to the four jhānas as intrinsic and essential to the development of liberating wisdom and awakening. These four states appear repeatedly in the Buddha’s descriptions of the path to liberation:
“The one with great wisdom,
have found an opening in the obstruction;
The Buddha, the withdrawn, the bull among men, the sage,
awakened to the jhānas” (jhāna mbujjha buddho).[SN I.48]
Recognizing that these four states were essential to the Buddha’s own awakening path, how can we omit these attainments from our practice, especially as they are so central in the suttas, which describe them in numerous places as the last phase before one attains liberation [for example, MN I.179ff, I.268-70, I.271-7, I.346ff, III.1-5; III.33-6; III.134-6; DN I.63ff, III.270; AN II.208ff, V.206].
Thus, the obvious inconsistency between the representation of the jhānas in the suttas and their representation in mainstream Theravada teachings seems to express discontinuity between the two traditions. Realizing this discontinuity challenged deeply my initial acceptance of the traditional understanding. I have come to understand the attainment of the four jhānas as the outcome of both calming the mind and developing insight into the nature of experience, and that which allow the practitioner to further de-condition ignorance and unwholesome mental tendencies. In other words, I believe they are an integral dimension of the path to awakening according to the suttas.
This understanding is offered in depth in my book Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhānas as the Actualization of Insight. Here I will offer some reflections which are developed exhaustively in the book.
A Tale of Two Types of Jhānas
Contemporary teachers of vipassanā (insight meditation) most often take their lead concerning the jhānas from the 5th century commentarial text called “the Path of Purification” (Visuddhimagga) written by of Buddhghosa. This important Theravada text, describes the four jhānas as states of deep absorption attained by means of one-pointed concentration and separation from sense experience. According to the prevalent Theravada view, while this kind of concentration can strengthen the mind of the practitioner (and yield various spiritual powers), these “altered states of consciousness” are not necessary for liberation, nor do they aid in the deconditioning of ignorance. Furthermore, the Theravada commentaries proclaim that one can “bypass” the attainment of the jhānas on the path to liberation. Those who attain liberation without attaining the four jhānas are called “dry insight arahants” (sukkha-vipassaka) [SA II.127]. This view was presented by the renowned 20th century Theravada scholar Walpola Rahula who wrote in his most famous work that “all these mystic states [i.e. the jhānas), according to the Buddha, have nothing to do with Reality, Truth, Nirvana” [Rahula 1978, 68].
This interpretation of the jhānas has played a key role in shaping the teaching of many modern influential vipassana meditation teachers in Asia and the west. Adopting this Theravada view has marginalized the liberative significance of the jhānas in most contemporary teaching of vipassana. And while this might seem like an esoteric matter, the issue of how to approach the jhānas is incredibly relevant for anyone who aspires to deepen liberating insight. I hope that the new jhāna map I offer in my book and here only succinctly will assist practitioners to recognize the jhānas in their own lived experience, and through this recognition, further nourish the awakening qualities that can liberate and awaken the mind. By providing a map of practice that includes the jhānas as part of the practice of insight, I hope to reclaim these psycho-somatic states into the path of practice in a beneficial way.
The above polarized view of the meditative path, which divides the path into is two different meditation techniques - samatha-bhāvanā and vipassanā-bhavanā - evokes serious problems in the ability to integrate the practice of vipassana with the attainment of the four jhānas into a coherent and harmonious path-model (note, that the commonly used idioms samatha-bhavana and vipassana-bhavana cannot be found in the suttas. This is later terminology).
First, if the jhānas are described as a narrow field of awareness in which the mind is absorbed into one object of perception, while in vipassanā, one is instructed to observe the changing phenomenal field, how do these two elements of the path can be integrated into one coherent path-structure?
Second, if samma-samādhi - one of the factors of the Eightfold Path - is another designation for the attainment of the four jhānas (while it is never identified as the four “formless attainments”) how can we not develop this path factor in full? How can we disregard these four meditative states from our practice, when the Buddha marked them out time and again in his map to liberation? Would we disregard or “bypass” “right view”, “right mindfulness” or any other path factor?
Third, we cannot find in the suttas a clear statement from the Buddha that the jhānas are completely cut off from the five sense stimuli. On the contrary there are various statements that connect the attainment of the jhanas with the practice of mindfulness of sense experience [e.g. MN I.301, MN III.136].
And lastly, how can we overlook their central role in the suttas as mentioned above.
These questions are added to other important facts:
The suttas never associate the practice of one-pointed concentration with the attainment of the jhānas. On the contrary, many suttas present a path in which the jhānas (i.e. samma-samādhi) are the outcome of developing the other path factors:
“Bhikkhus I shall teach you noble right samadhi with its support and requisites… What bhikkhus is noble right samādhi with its support and requisites, that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness? Unification of mind equipped with these seven factors is called noble right samādhi with its support and requisites.” [MN III.71]
(see also MN I.356-7, SN V.21, AN IV.40, DN II.216-7, DN III.252-3, AN V.212)
Furthermore, while the suttas do describe a series of “formless attainments” (arupa samāpattis) that do not lead to nibbāna [MN I 165-6], there are numerous statements in the suttas affirming that the four jhānas are conducive to awakening, and that they are the unique teaching of the Buddha [for example, DN III.132, SN V.308, MN I.246–7, SN I.48].
Thus, in this article, when I use the term “jhānas”, I only refer to the four jhānas, not including the four “formless attainments” which are different types of experience in my understanding (the chapter “Reconsidering Samatha-bhāvanā, Vipassanā-bhāvanā and Paññā-vimutti” deals thoroughly with this issue).
The above problems and inconsistencies are added to an obvious fact that there are numerous passages in the suttas in which the four jhānas are depicted as the outcome of a growing depth of insight into the nature of experience, the experiential fruit of deep letting go and that which incline the mind into a free mode of being. These suttas offer a map in which the four jhānas and the practice of insight cannot not be seen as two distinct and separated meditation techniques, but as integral dimensions of a single process that leads to awakening.
Therefore, in order to understand the inconsistency, one must be willing to consider the possibility that what the suttas call “jhānas” and what the Theravada tradition calls “jhānas” might actually be two different types of experiences brought about by two different types of practice. This suggestion is in no way intended to negate the existence of the type of experiences the Theravada tradition calls jhānas (that is, absorptions brought about by the practice of one-pointed concentration), but merely to suggest that there might be another way to understand the nature of the four jhānas described in the suttas.
Hopefully, this new way of thinking about the four jhānas will restore to wholeness the fragmented view of the meditative path in a way that makes sense. This new analysis of the jhānas, and the liberating value of insights they bring about, can give us a framework to contemplate the trajectory of our practice and the emphasis we place on various elements of the path.
The Jhānas in the Suttas
For insight into the differences between the traditional understanding of the jhānas and the standard description of the jhānas, as it appears in numerous suttas, consider the following passage, which equates attainment of the jhānas with the eighth division of the noble eightfold path:
“And what, friend, is right samādhi?
Here, separated from the desire for sensual pleasures, separated from [other] unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhāna , which is [mental] joy and [bodily] pleasure born of viveka, accompanied by thought and reflection. With the stilling of thought and reflection, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the second jhāna, which is [mental] joy and [bodily] pleasure born of samādhi, inner stillness, and unification of mind, without thought and reflection. With the fading away of [mental] joy, a bhikkhu abides in equanimity, mindful and fully aware. [Still] experiencing pleasure with the body, he enters upon and abides in the third jhāna , on account of which noble ones announce: “abiding in pleasure, one is equanimous and mindful.” 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 is neither-painful-nor-pleasurable, and has purity of mindfulness and equanimity. This is called right samādhi.”
[MN III.252. See also SN V.9 and SN V.196]
Few things pop up immediately from reading this succinct description: the jhānas are four gradual states in which something important happens when one enters the first jhāna and moves from one jhāna to the next. In this meditative process, some important wholesome qualities arise and affect the mind and when they fade away, they give room for other wholesome qualities to “shine forth”. The culmination of this process is the “purification of mindfulness and equanimity” – the first and the last qualities in the list of the seven factors of awakening – and the two most important qualities, developed in vipassanā meditation.
While I cannot present here my full analysis of this meditative process, I would like to offer some examples to what I suggest above. For my full analysis, one will have to read my book…
The First Jhāna
The entrance into the first jhāna was a momentous moment in the Buddha’s path, and should, it stands to reason, represent an important milestone for all practitioners. The first jhāna is described as a completely wholesome state in which one “enters upon and abides in”. This statement precludes the possibility that the attainment of the jhānas could be a mere momentary event.
In the first jhāna, the mind is free from the hindrances and other unwholesome states for a prolonged period of time; that is, for multiple mind-moments, a practitioner can dwell in a wholesome stream of consciousness, observing phenomena unhindered by the obscurations of mind and unwholesome reactions that characterize ordinary cognition.
This is clear in the Indriya-vibhanga Sutta [SN V.198] where the Buddha explains that, in order to enter into the first jhāna , one must release (vossaga) unwholesome states of mind, or in other description, abandoning the hindrances (nivārana) and [other] unwholesome states (akusalehi dhammehi) [MN III.136].
Furthermore, the suttas never state that entering the jhānas means one is completely cut off from sense experience. Rather, the Buddha stated that, on entering the first jhāna, one is separated from kāma (the desire of sense pleasure) and other unwholesome states. Kama is an important term in the Buddha’s teaching, and it is quite different from the object of the senses. The Buddha states quite clearly that:
“The thought of desire in a person is kāma,
not the wonderful sense pleasures [found] in the world.
The thought of desire in a person is kāma.
The wonderful [things] remain as they are in the world,
while the wise men remove the impulse [for them].”[ AN III.411]
In other words, one is not cut off from sense experience but from unwholesome reactions to experience. Experiencing phenomena without unwholesome reactions such as desire and aversion allows the mind to find delight not in sense pleasures, but from letting go of the unwholesome; this is the joy of letting go, the joy of clarity. (Arbel, p.51-2, 58-60).
This last point takes us to another liberating dimension of the jhānas—the experience of “spiritual [or jhanic] joy and pleasure” [SN IV.236]. In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta, the Buddha describes the moment he entered the first jhāna as the moment when he understood something significant about the path to awakening after years of practicing asceticism:
“I realized that when my father the Sakyan was working, while I was sitting under the cool shade of the rose-apple tree, separated from the desire for sensual pleasures, separated from [other] unwholesome states, I entered and abided in the first jhāna, which is [mental] joy and [bodily] pleasure born of viveka, accompanied by thought and reflection. Could that be the path to awakening?” Then, following that memory, I realized: “this is the path to awakening.”[MN I.246-7]
This reflective memory was a pivotal turning point in his spiritual quest. At this important moment, he realized that he should not fear all types of pleasure, as he did when he practiced asceticism (tapas). He understood that there is a pleasure (sukha) and joy (piti) that lead one to awakening and do not perpetuate desire.
About this pleasure and joy he declared: “I say of this kind of pleasure that it should be pursued, that it should be developed, that it should be cultivated, and that it should not be feared” [MN III.233-4 & MN I.464; DN III.132].
It is important to notice that the Buddha speaks of bodily pleasure and mental joy not only as the fruit of practice, but as a central part of practice itself, as a way to freedom and awakening. When we learn how to allow this pleasure and joy to nourish and support the wholesome mind, it can deepen our ability to let go, and hence, deepen the clarity and the insight into the nature of experience.
Remember that the jhānas are attainment in which one “enters into and abides in” (upasampajja viharati). That is, the practitioner dwells in, or better put, experiences “being in” this attainment for a period of time. Such a comprehensive experience that saturates both body and mind allows one to experience fully and intimately a different mode of being, very different from ordinary experience. Knowing intimately, that there is a type of wholesome pleasure which does not depend on pleasant sense experience – but on letting go – is the way to wear out deeply rooted disposition to regard sense pleasures as the most gratifying experiences [Arbel, p.67].
The Second Jhāna
The transition into the second jhāna has an important liberative dimension. In this meditative state, the interpretative and conceptual element of the mind is stilled. While this is usually seen as the outcome of suppressing thoughts through one pointed concentration, the Dantabhumi Sutta expresses a different process – one which connects the practice of mindfulness (satipatthana) with the attainment of the jhānas and the stilling of thoughts:
“[C]ome bhikkhu, abide observing the body as the body but do not think thoughts connected with the body; abide observing feelings as feelings but do not think thoughts connected with feelings; abide observing mind as mind but do not think thoughts connected with the mind; abide observing phenomena as phenomena but do not think thoughts connected with phenomena. With the stilling of thoughts and reflections he enters upon and abides in the second jhāna.” [MN III.136]
This sutta expresses quite clearly that one can, and should observe experience, while dwelling in the jhānas. It also elucidates how the transition between the first and second jhāna occur: when the practitioner does not react or cling to experience by thinking and commenting about it, thoughts fade away, and one enters naturally into the second jhāna.
What I would like to point out here, is that although thoughts are not “the problem”, and discursive thinking is useful in the preliminary stages of developing insight, it also has serious disadvantages. Even when thinking is wholesome it has a relative liberative value [e.g., SN II.66]. This is because thinking is that which sustains the sense of self, at least, the grossest sense of “me” and “I”. We can say that “I am”, “this is mine” and “this is myself” are certain types of thoughts. Therefore, experiencing the cessation of thinking when transitioning from the first jhāna to the second, lends insight into the emptiness of thoughts, and at the same time, into the origin and nature of the misconceived sense of self.
Thus, the cessation of the thinking process – accompanied by the observation of this cessation – is an important realization for loosening attachment and clinging to subjective experience and to a “thinker”. After one has seen directly the origination and cessation of thinking and its connection to the sense of self, thinking will no longer have the same delusive power [Arbel, 87-9].
The Third and Fourth Jhānas
I will refer to the third and fourth jhānas together as I believe the fourth jhāna is the grounding of a specialized form of awareness that becomes established in the third jhāna. These two meditative states express the fulfilment and grounding of three qualities: full knowing (sampajana), mindfulness (sati) and equanimity (upekkha) (note that the last two are “officially” “awakening factors” (”bojjhangas). (The chapter “Awakening Jhāna Factors” offer an in depth analysis of the jhāna model and the seven awakening factors).
Pathamahuneyya Sutta gives us an illuminating description of this state, where full knowing, mindfulness and equanimity are fully matured:
“Monks, herein a monk on seeing a form with the eye he is neither elated nor sad; rather he abides in equanimity, mindful and fully knowing. On hearing a sound with the ear…; on smelling a smell with the nose…; on tasting a taste with the tongue…; on touching a touchable with the body…; on cognizing a mental phenomenon with the mind he is neither elated or sad; rather he abides in equanimity, mindful and fully knowing. Monks, a monk who possesses these six things is worthy of offerings, worthy of gifts, worthy of donation, worthy of being honoured, unsurpassed, the world’s field of merit.” [AN III.279]
While this passage does not explicitly state that this is a description of the third jhāna, one can clearly see that it refers to it. It point out that when full knowing, mindfulness and equanimity are fully matured, in a wholesome stream of consciousness, the mind is not conditioned in an ordinary way; it is an ennobling dwelling.
When the mind is devoid of this habitual reactivity of desire and aversion (the active aspects of ignorance), awareness is present with whatever contacts the senses, knows their nature fully, and therefore, remains completely equanimous in the midst of it. The meditator experiences the sensory world without clinging or attaching to the flow of experience. This is the embodiment of wisdom in the sense of wise relationship to experience (contrary to referring to wisdom as a specific content). It is the actualization of non-clinging, the actualization of anattā – the understanding that no experience can be regarded as “me”, “mine” or “I”.
By the time a practitioner attains the fourth jhāna —the final attainment of this meditative progress—a specialized form of awareness—a form of awareness that resembles an awakened awareness [Arbel, p.144]—has been fully established. This marks an important moment in the path to awakening. Because the fourth jhāna (as the other three) is not momentary, but an attainment one enters into and abides in for a sustained period of time, the mind can become intimately familiar with an awakened and free mode of being. This, I would suggest, is what ameliorates the link between an ordinary mind that is dominated by deeply rooted mental and physical patterns of reactivity, and an awakened mind, that is permanently free from all unwholesome tendencies and predispositions [Arbel, p.149].
“If the fourth-jhāna -awareness is attained repeatedly before one attains awakening (either as an “ordinary person” or as a “stream-enterer”, “once-returner” or “non-returner”), we might hypothesize that the unawakened practitioner strengthens and establishes what I have called “wisdom-awareness”—a wholesome and lucid awareness that knows directly the emptiness of all phenomena, knowing that is free from affective and cognitive overlays—thereby weakening the unwholesome tendencies and wrong perceptions of experience, until these mental and cognitive obstructions do not arise any longer.” [Arbel, p.200].
The Threshold to Awakening
A lengthy contemplative and scholarly journey into the subject of the jhānas culminated in the publication of my book Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhānas as the Actualization of Insight (Routledge, 2017). As a result of that investigation, I’ve come to understand the attainment of the four jhānas as integral to the path to awakening.
In contrast to the most common understanding, I suggest that the four jhānas should not be conceived as a meditative technique at all. They are not concentration exercises one can choose to practice as a basis for vipassana meditation, but rather the actualization and embodiment of the deepening of insight and non-clinging. Further, the fourth jhāna —as the culmination of this meditative process—is the optimal experiential event for the utter de-conditioning of unwholesome tendencies and deep epistemological structures. Although the fourth jhāna (as the other three) is a conditioned state (as all experiences and insights are), I believe it is “less” conditioned than other experiences. It anticipates an awakened awareness for an un-awakened practitioner, and therefore, it is the threshold of awakening.
To conclude, I believe that the four jhānas embody a distinct Buddhist view of mental cultivation and express an ethical mind. They are not states of absorption disconnected from sense experience, but four meditative states, that actualize the aim of Buddhist meditation: they purify the mind from that which obstructs clear seeing, and fulfil those wholesome qualities that can awaken the mind. By progressing through the jhāna s one can observe the nature of experience more and more clearly and hence gradually de-conditions the misconceived sense of self. That is, they are not just specific experiences, but actually modes of perceiving, that fabricate less.
Nanamoli, Bhikkhu (trans). The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Colombo: Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre, 1956.
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught, London: Gordon Fraser, 1978.
The book includes much more than presented in this post, in terms of depth of analysis of the suttas and in scope. Here are the contents of the book:
1. The Fourfold Jhāna Model: Buddhist or Not?
2. The First Jhāna: A Turning Point in the Spiritual Path
3. The Second Jhāna: Non-discursive Broad Field of Awareness
4. Awakening Jhāna Factors
5. The Third Jhāna: Establishing a Specialized Form of Awareness
6. The Fourth Jhāna: Non-reactive and Lucid Awareness of the Phenomenal Field
7. Morality (sīla), Wisdom (paññā) and the Attainment of the Jhānas
8. Reconsidering Samatha-bhāvanā, Vipassanā-bhāvanā and Paññā-vimutti