Monday, July 28, 2008

Bliss and Magic (through Jhana)

By Seven Jaini

The Four Imponderables: The Buddha warned that one might become unhinged and mentally imbalanced by pondering any of these four unfathomable things:
  1. The range of a Buddha (the extent of the influence of a Buddha from the development of the Ten Perfections).
  2. The range of one absorbed in jhana (the power one might obtain from the meditative absorptions)
  3. The incomprehensibly complex working out of the consequences of karma (volitional actions)
  4. A first moment, initial cause, or purpose for the universe
"These four imponderables are not to be pondered. If one were to ponder and attempt to fathom them, one would become unhinged."

The importance of the meditative absorptions (jhanas) can therefore hardly be overstated. In Sanskrit, the word "absorption" is dhyana, in Pali, jhana. Throughout the Pali Canon, the Buddha defines Right Concentration (samma samadhi) as entering the first Four Jhanas.

Because of this, in many languages the word "meditation" -- and entire Buddhist schools of meditation -- is simply the translation of this word (dhyana). In Chinese, "Jhana" is Ch'an; in Korean Sŏn; in Tibet Samten (bsam gtan); in Vietnamese Thiền; and in Japan "Jhana" is translated as Zen.

Jhana did not develop in a Buddhist context but was prevalent in the Indian subcontinent before the Buddha in various yogic systems of spiritual training. In Jainism, an ancient religion of extreme asceticism and ahimsa (non-harming) that developed alongside Buddhism and survives today in India, it is called Samayika. This is in the Prakrit dialect, somewhat akin to the Pali word Shamatha (Serenity), referring to the practice of developing the absorptions.

The purpose of Jhana in a Buddhist context is never an end in itself, as it would seem in other Indian traditions. The Buddha's first teachers -- Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta -- were yogi masters skilled in attaining high states of jhana. They were therefore regarded as saints and sages with wondrous powers (siddhis). The Buddha's ability to perform miracles, which he perceived danger in doing, was based on his ability to enter the jhanas (or "ecstatic meditation attainments") at will and remain in them for a predetermined period of time.

He became a buddha by realizing that rather than asceticism and self-mortification, jhana was the path. The Five Mental Hindrances were the problem, and they absent in jhana. As he gained meditative stability, he developed the factor of mindfulness. This combination gave rise to insight, enlightenment, and liberation overnight.

It quite literally took one full night of meditation through the Four Jhanas, directing his attention to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The final two factors in the Noble Eightfold Path are Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, defined as these foundations and jhanas. In the absence of insight, such powers readily turn to one's disadvantage, exacerbating the unskillful tendencies (greed, ill-will, delusion, and fear) until one's meditative stability evaporates.

Unless one is liberated (nirvana), the positive karmic result of mastering the jhanas is rebirth in successively more exalted celestial planes. (See WQ article on the 31 Planes of Existence for detailed explanation). The negative karmic result of unprofitably wielding such power is hard to fathom because rebirth into heaven does not preclude future rebirth elsewhere.

  • The Buddha's First Sermon
  • Suggested reading

    PHOTOS: Woman in deep meditation (Ebay Ebook CD); the Buddha emerging from Jhana (Flickr)

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