Jhanas in Buddhism
- The path of purification implies it is a process of moving from one place to
another. When traveling, especially in a foreign land, it is wise to find a
skilled guide or a guide book. Skilled guides are often difficult to find, and
can be quite costly. They may also have arrived just ahead of you, and may not
know any more than you do, or worse, they may be deluded.
One can purchase guide books from many locations. AAA has a nice guide book,
and it is free if you are a member, but it just gives you the shortest and
often most uninteresting rout. I prefer my Gazetteer, because it gets me to the
hot springs and hiking trails along the way. The AAA map wont help me to get to
remote places, where I am likely to see and enjoy the rare and beautiful
places that are not often explored. But, in their haste, some people want to avoid
the beautiful sights along the way, they want to just drive straight through,
to get to their destination in the shortest amount of time, even if that
means the journey is unpleasant.
Other people like having several maps to refer to on their journey. I carry a
box of maps in my van when I travel, because I've found no map gives me all
of the information I need. We gain instruction, we travel, we come to a fork in
the road, we take another look a that map. Sometimes (if we aren't men) we
ask for direction. Sometimes those directions are misleading, (that's why men
don't ask for directions). When we find we are lost, we take another look at the
map, and perhaps we find out we were sent in the wrong direction. So, we make
a course correction. If we find we are free from suffering we say, "Oh, I
guess I have arrived, cool."
This article is in response to what has been a long debate in the Theravadan
tradition. As you may know Bhikkhu Nanamoli referred to this conflict between
the monasteries of Sri Lanka in the introduction to his translation of the
Visuddhimagga. I have been told the conflict was between what was called the
'wet' verses the 'dry' factions. I am no scholar on this conflict, but from what I
understand the 'wets' claimed that jhana was an essential component of the
path of liberation, and that one MUST pass through them to achieve nibanna. From
what I understand the 'drys' claimed that jhana was a distraction, and should
even be avoided.
This conflict may originate in the earlier decision to emphasize the
preservation of the canon over realization. This I believe is a fatal flaw for any
contemplative tradition. I believe there is no accident that neither Siddharta
Guatama, nor Jesus of Nazareth chose to write any of there teachings down. Nor
did they make any attempt to build an organization or temple. They both
concentrated on transmitting enlightenment to as many as they could.
So, where does this leave us? We could simply agree to disagree on this
ancient conflict between 'wet' and 'dry' practice, and accept our corresponding
places in the world of Theravada. I am obviously a 'wet,' and the orthodox are
pretty clearly the 'drys.' Personally, I would find the path much too tedious if
it was only about scholarship and impressing people with my ability to vomit
Pali on command. As far as I am concerned that skill is no more impressive
than keeping three balls in the air. But, then I can't do either anyway, so I
wouldn't even try.
What has kept me sitting twice a day everyday for 30 years is the jhana
(ecstasy) that I began to experience from the first time I sat. Jhana has only
deepened and become richer for me over these years. What keeps a 'dry' sitting day
after day for the whole of one's life? I wouldn't know. I have noticed that
the 'dry' practitioners have difficulty maintaining a daily meditation
practice. If my limited observation is correct, it probably has to do with the lack of
jhana (ecstasy). Otherwise, why just sit and observe one's over active
imagination, or scan the surface of the body if there is no jhana (ecstasy) in it?
In many of the retreats I have attended I have mentioned to the teachers in
interview the experiences I have. Most of these teachers say, "Just ignore that
and keep scanning the body." I found body scanning was too boring to keep up
with after about the second day of my first retreat 28 years ago. I had heard
in the discourse that we should observe all of the sensations that arise, so I
couldn't quite understand why I should ignore some sensations and attend to
others. It seemed like an inconstancy in the training that had fundamental
flaws, so I discarded this incongruous teaching immediately. I'm glad I did,
because in allowing the sensations of jhana to have as much freedom of expression
as any other sensation, I have become skilled in their manifestations. And, why
not let them emerge, when they are ever so pleasant?
Now, the typical 'dry' argument is that the jhanas are a distraction and lead
to delusion. Interesting. How does one set of sensations lead to delusion and
another set of sensations lead to liberation? Well, I would somewhat agree
with that assessment, only if we consider if one's attention is always on
sensory input, then that's all you are going to get. I would think only observing
the itches and tickles on the surface of your body would make for a very dry and
But, if you allow yourself to let the jhanas manifest themselves in you
naturally, you will probably find, as I did, a rich and fulfilling domain of
non-physical experience that will not only inspire you to keep practicing often, but
you are likely to arrive where I have, which is jhana 24/7.
If I have jhana all of the time and I do not ever experience depression,
anxiety, loneliness, fear, insecurity, etc., then have I arrived at freedom from
suffering? It seems so. How did I get here? I got here from allowing jhana to
'arise' and, like with any other sensation, I made it the object of my
meditation. That, after all, is the essence of the practice of Vipassana, is it not?
Is the 'dry' assertion that jhanas are just a distraction, and that the
direct path to liberation is in avoiding the jhanas, correct? Well, I think one can
assess that based on observation. How many 'drys' are liberated? How many of
the Buddhas of the past appear to have been 'wets'? Perhaps the 'direct' path
is one that wonders about "smelling the flowers" and enjoying the pleasant
"scenery" along the way?
For those who just absolutely have to have a Pali reference for what I have
said, then feel free to read the Visuddhimagga, as I have. While, upon close
reading, I found the book has a number of troubling errors, however its central
premise is 'jhana is the way of purification,' and I fully agree. If 5th
century commentary wont work for you, then I found considerable support for my
position in both the Majjhima Nikaya and the Digha Nikaya in particular the
Potthapada Sutta helped me out a great deal. I have included it here with copious
corrections, scholars please excuse my literary license.
Potthapada Sutta, DN. 9-17
9-10. (One scrutinizes) the sense doors...Having reached the first jhana,
(one) remains in it. Whatever sensations (that were there) disappear. At that
time there is present a true but subtle perception of delight and happiness, born
of detachment, and (one) becomes one(,) who is conscious of this delight and
happiness. In this way some perceptions arise through training, and some pass
way. This is that training...
11. ...With the subsiding of thinking, by gaining inner tranquillity and
unity of mind (consciousness), (one) reaches and remains in the second jhana,
which is free from thinking, born of concentration, filled with delight and
happiness. At (this) time there arises a true but subtle perception of delight and
happiness born of concentration, and (one) becomes one(,) who is conscious of
this delight and happiness. In this way some perceptions arise through
training, and some pass way.
12. ...Dwelling in equanimity, mindful and clearly aware, (one) experiences
in (one's) body that pleasant feeling of which the Noble Ones say: "Happy
dwells the (one) of equanimity and mindfulness," (thus one) reaches and remains in
the third jhana...There arises at this time a true but subtle sense of
equanimity and happiness. In this way some perceptions arise through training, and
some pass way.
13. ...With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the disappearance
of previous joy and grief, one reaches and remains in the fourth jhana, a state
beyond pleasure and pain, purified by equanimity and mindfulness...and there
arises a true and subtle sense of neither happiness nor unhappiness, and (one)
becomes one(,) who is conscious of this subtle sense of neither happiness nor
unhappiness. In this way some perceptions arise through training, and some
14. ...By passing entirely beyond bodily sensations, by the disappearance of
all sense of resistance and by non-attraction to the (diverse perceptions),
seeing that space is infinite, (one) reaches and remains in the sphere of
Infinite Space. In this way some perceptions arise through training, and some pass
15. ...By passing entirely beyond the Sphere of Infinite Space, seeing that
consciousness is infinite (one) reaches and remains in the Sphere of Infinite
Consciousness. In this way some perceptions arise through training, and some
16. ...By passing entirely beyond the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness,
seeing that there is no thing, one reaches and remains in the Sphere of
No-Thingness. (One) becomes one who is conscious of this true but subtle perception of
the Sphere of No-Thingness. In this way some perceptions arise through training,
and some pass away.
17. ...From the moment that one has gained this (self-awareness, one)
proceeds from stage to stage till (one) reaches the limit of perception. (At this
moment) it occurs: "Mental activity is worse for me, lack of mental activity is
better...So, (one chooses to) neither think nor imagine. Then...(one) attains
If your teachers disagree, then determine whether they are free of suffering.
If they are, then listen to them, but if you determine that they are not, t
hen why follow the deluded, even if they wear saffron? It is difficult to find
a guide on the way. There are many who offer direction, but few seem to the
know the way.
May you be free from suffering,
layman, Jeff Brooks
University of Arizona Meditation Club