THE JHANIC EXPERIENCE (The four material jhanas)
Ron Wijewantha, Ph.D. (edited for Wisdom Quarterly)
ABSORPTION: The word jhana (Sanskrit, dhyana) implies, essentially, the process of unifying the mind and transmuting the lower states of consciousness into higher, transcendental states that lead to the summit of progress in meditative training. That summit is enlightenment.
Most followers of the Theravada tradition hold the jhanas in awe, for they believe that attaining them is not within the capability of lay persons. Fortunately during the last few decades, there has been a resurgence of insight practice (vipassana) by lay meditators, some of whom are reported to have been quite successful in their endeavors.
However, they are yet diffident in even attempting to extend their meditation practices to the field of the jhana. This may perhaps be due to the scarcity of monastics and lay teachers adept at achieving even the first four (of eight) jhanas.
The Jhanic Journey
The purpose of this essay is to give an explanation, substantiated by textual information, of how one should be able to attain the first four jhanas by proper application and striving. But there is one proviso. It is that the person who wishes to proceed along this path should be conscientious and dedicated to the task in hand and not discouraged by the pace of progress.
The journey could be short or long, depending on individual temperament, mentality, and dedication. Nevertheless, success in the end is within a person's reach. It must also be kept in mind that there can initially be no "instant jhana." One can attain jhana only by exercising unlimited patience and proper application, and by having the constant guidance of an experienced and accomplished teacher.
Finally, a meditator should also have previously had some experience in vipassana meditation so as to be familiar with the five hindrances that prevent a meditator from concentrating and remaining collected without straying from the object of meditation or scattering the mind to diverse thoughts. The Five Hindrances are:
- Sensual desire (kamacchanda)
- Ill-will (vyapada)
- Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)
- Restlessness and scruples (uddhacca-kukkucca)
- Doubt or perplexity (vicikiccha)
It is appropriate to briefly discuss the hindrances that need to be eliminated before discussing the mental factors that characterize jhana.
Meditators will have experienced the Five Hindrances to varying degrees in their daily meditation on in-and-out breathing (anapana-sati). With practice they will then have learned to temporarily rid themselves of these hindrances to concentration and insight. But a deeper understanding is necessary. Because without coming to terms with these hindrances, meditation leading to jhana is impossible. Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses these hindrances in the following manner:
"The elimination of the hindrances prior to attaining jhana is brought about by means of two methods, one specifically directed to each hindrance separately, the other applicable to all at once. The former is to be employed when a particular hindrance obtrudes itself with persistent force, the latter on other occasions when no one hindrance seems especially conspicuous.
"The specific method involves the reversing of the causal situation out of which the hindrance develops. Since each defiling factor is a conditioned phenomenon coming into existence through distinct causes, the key to its elimination lies in applying the appropriate antidote to its causal base:
Sensual desire arises on account of unskillful attention to the attractive features of things, to alluring objects and physical bodies. It is attenuated by considering the impermanence of the objects of attachment, and by reflecting on the repulsive nature underlying the attractive appearance of the bodies that arouse desire.
Ill-will or anger also springs up from unskillful attention, in this case to the unpleasant aspects of persons and things; it is reversed by developing loving-kindness towards disagreeable people and patience in the face of unfavorable circumstances.
Sloth and torpor become prominent by submitting to moods of sloth and drowsiness; they are dispelled by the arousal of energy.
Restlessness and worry and regret arise from attending to disturbing thoughts and are eliminated by directing the mind to an object conducive to inner peace.
Doubt or perplexity, grounded upon un-clarity with regard to fundamental points of doctrine, is dispelled by clear thinking and precise analysis of the issues shrouded in obscurity.
To further comprehend the hindrances, there are similes in the discourses illustrating the manner in which they obstruct mental clarity, summarized as follows:
Imagine a pond of clear water with a rare gem lying at the bottom. A number of bright dyes are added to the surface, which swirl into psychedelic patterns. The colors are entrancing, beautiful and intricate, and the depths cannot be discerned.
- Sensual desires can be compared to these colors.
- Anger, ill will, and aversion can be compared to boiling water. Water that is boiling, as in a geyser, is very turbulent, and we cannot see through to the bottom.
- Sloth and torpor are like the pond getting covered by a dense layer of algae. One cannot possibly penetrate to the bottom.
- Restlessness, worry, and regret are like a windswept pond. The surface is agitated and the bottom is impenetrable.
- Doubt is like turbid water that has become all muddy obsucring the bottom.
The First (material) Jhana
There are in the first jhana five mental factors namely:
- Applied attention (vitakka)
- Sustained attention (vicara)
- Rapture (piti, euphoria, happiness in the mind)
- Joy (sukha, bliss, happiness in the body)
- One-pointedness (ekaggata)
These factors can bring about a complete (temporary) suspension of fivefold sense activity. Entry (or absorption) into the first jhana is then possible. These factors simultaneously expel from the mind the Five Hindrances (pancha nivarana) to jhana. Absorption is a purified, undistracted, powerfully wholesome state of mind.