Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Meditative Absorption: The First Jhana

A jhana or "absorption" is a meditative state of profound concentration and stillness in which the mind becomes fully immersed and literally absorbed in the chosen object of attention. It is the cornerstone in the development of Right Concentration.

By being without worry or remorse over things done (having practiced blameless morality), one sits and focuses on a meditation subject. If the breath -- a popular choice because it is what the Buddha had taken up when he became enlightened -- is chosen, one focuses completely just under the nose. One is aware of the breath coming in and out. And one remains undistracted, unagitated, and wakeful. Eventually, one will see the breath.

It appears as a tuft of cotton, a glow, or a bright moon released from clouds. Yet, one keeps applying attention only to the spot under the nose not turning attention to anything else. One is "mindful" just of the breath in that area outside the nose. By ignoring the light, the light will approach where attention is being paid. In time, it will become the breath. It is very important to remain quiet, still, undistracted by others. Even when one gets up to rest or attend to affairs, the attention remains on the breath at that spot. That is mindfulness of the breath.

With constant mindfulness applied just there, dropped only when sleeping but otherwise maintained most hours of the day, that "sign" (nimitta) will strengthen and brighten. Since the attention has not changed places and the focus has remained the breath, the sign (an internally created light that becomes visible even with eyes open) will become steady. The body and mind become suffused with temporary states of purity, collectedness, rapture, joy, and bliss. Yet attention remains at the same spot.

  • How long will it take to get to jhana? For some it may seem instant. The reasons for this are easy to understand but terribly difficult to believe. For most people, it takes intensive and consistent effort of more than a month, which is why a retreat is so very helpful. Other vital ingredients are silence, withdrawal, undistractedness, good sleep, consistency, little food intake, and above all a balancing of effort and ease. The company of concentrated people is very helpful but, of course, difficult to find.

Then, when the light is steady, brilliant, and one is able to control it making it bigger or smaller by simply determining that it be so, one is ready to "absorb." One literally does so by forming the intention and making the determination to merge. One becomes one with the light. And in doing so, one has "entered" the first absorption. What is jhana?

"There is the case where a meditator — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful states of mind — enters and remains in the first jhana, experiencing: mental rapture and bodily pleasure born of withdrawal, accompanied by applied-attention and sustained-attention.
  • The five jhana factors are: (1) Initial application of the mind to the object (vitakka or applied attention), (2) sustained application (vicara), (3) joy (piti), (4) happiness (sukha), and (5) one-pointedness (ekaggata). The result in equanimity (upekkha or serene impartiality).
One permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the rapture and pleasure born of mental and physical withdrawal. There is nothing in this entire body left unpervaded by rapture and pleasure born of withdrawal.

"It is just as if a skilled bath attendant or apprentice would pour bath powder into a brass basin and knead it together, sprinkling it again and again with water, so that this ball of bath powder — saturated, laden with moisture, permeated within and without — would become a ball of soap and not drip. Even so, the meditator permeates, suffuses, and fills every part of this body with the rapture and pleasure born of withdrawal. There is nothing in this entire body unpervaded by rapture and pleasure born of withdrawal...

Why would anyone want to do this? The Buddha's definition of Right Concentration in the Noble Eightfold Path is the first four jhanas. In order to successfully practice mindfulness for liberating insight (described in the commentaries as vipassana) as well as the Divine Abidings (Brahma Viharas), one needs a powerful concentration (calm, serenity, or collectedness known as samadhi). In this way, wisdom can be cultivated and developed that results in enlightenment.

"Mindfulness" (sati) without sufficient concentration (samadhi) is a hard and often futile effort. However, it is said that a very intensive "dry insight" practice gives rise to weak but sufficient form of "momentary" or "access" concentration. This is unstable concentration is a very frustrating, brittle, hit-and-miss substitute for Right Concentration. But on account of it, countless meditators have neglected jhana, which the Buddha praised in countless sutras.

Some even believe that Right Concentration is no longer possible in this dissolute and distracted age. It is more difficult to be sure, but we guarantee it is possible. Otherwise we would not speak of it. But meditators at Wisdom Quarterly and their teachers have verified the sutras and commentaries (such as the Path of Purification) and can say with perfect assurance that it is possible for one practicing in the correct way to experience what is recorded.


Vern said...

I'd like to hear from others that are experiencing jhana... for me, they came within a year. I started to share some of my experiences. I hope, if you are experiencing something like jhana during meditation, you write and share it with me too... metta, vern

Ron said...

What is the difference between Meditation and Absorption?