Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Absorption and "Right Concentration"

Ajahn Thanissaro (Tan Geoff), Abbot, Wat Metta, Right Mindfulness: Memory and Ardency on the Buddhist Path (Appendix III, pp. 167-169); Amber Dorrian, Seth Auberon, Wisdom Quarterly
The Buddha, Sukhothai, Thailand (fredMin/
Among the cardinal tenets of the modern interpretation of mindfulness are these: 
  • that mindfulness practice is radically different from jhana (meditative absorption) practice
  • that jhana is not necessary for awakening
  • that the concentration attained through mindfulness-as-bare awareness practices is enough to qualify as “right concentration.”
However, these tenets fly in the face of the standard definition of the Noble Eightfold Path, which defines “right concentration” as the four jhanas (SN 45:8; DN 22; MN 141). 

So to justify the modern view, many writers have argued that the Pali discourses contain passages indicating that right concentration does not necessarily mean jhana, or that jhana is not always necessary for awakening (bodhi, enlightenment).
Because this is such an important point, it is worth examining these passages carefully, to see if they actually support the arguments based on them. Before doing this, however, we should note that the texts record the Buddha as providing clear standards for how to evaluate statements made about the Dharma (teachings).
In DN 29 he presents a list of teachings to be taken as standard [for contrast and comparison purposes] -- the Wings to Awakening (bodhi-pakkhiya-dhamma or “Requisites of Enlightenment”) -- among which are the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, including “right concentration.”

He goes on to say that if anyone claims to quote him on the topic of the Dharma (Pali, Dhamma), that person’s words should be measured against the standard [or comparison/contrast mirror]. Anything that conflicts with the Wings to Awakening -- either in expression or interpretation -- should be recognized as wrong.
This means that if a passage in the discourses can be shown necessarily to conflict with these teachings, it must have been included in the discourses (sutras) by mistake, for it is not in line with the Dharma. 
So in this sense, the efforts to find passages deviating from the standard definition of “right concentration” are self-defeating:
Any passage that proves the modern argument would [ipso facto], by the standards [set out] in DN 29, not count as Dharma and so would not count as authoritative. It would have to be put aside.
However, when we examine the passages cited for the purpose of justifying the modern view, we find that they do not actually conflict with the standard definition of right concentration and therefore do not need to be put aside. 
What needs to be put aside is the modern interpretation forced on them. 

The arguments supporting the modern interpretation fall into three main sorts: those based on the defining characteristics of an awakened person (arhat), those based on alternative definitions of right concentration, and those based on redefining the word “right” in right concentration.

Sign (nimitta) preceding jhana (Jay Bar/flickr)
A discourse frequently cited by arguments of the first sort is SN 12:70, which concerns a group of monks who are arhats “released through discernment (wisdom).” Another monk, Ven. Susıma -- who has ordained with the purpose of stealing the Dharma from the monastic Order to take it to his sectarian friends so that they can claim it as their own -- questions these arhats as to their attainments. 

Running down the list of the psychic powers that can sometimes result from jhana practice, he asks them if they have attained any of the powers, and they repeatedly reply, “No, friend.” Then the conversation continues as follows:
Ven. Susıma: “Then, having known thus, having seen thus, do you dwell touching with your body the peaceful emancipations, the formless states beyond form?” The monks: “No, friend.”
“So just now, friends, did you not make that declaration [of arhatship] without having attained any of these dhammas [things, phenomena]?”
“We are released through discernment, friend Susıma.” — SN 12:70
Some modern writers have cited this passage as proof that the arhats in question had not practiced the jhanas and yet had still gained awakening. This would imply that jhana is not a necessary part of the path. However, the “peaceful liberations, the formless states beyond form” are not the four jhanas.
Instead, they are the formless attainments that can be developed based on the [sort of] equanimity developed in the fourth jhana (see the quotation from MN 140 in Chapter 1). The fact that the arhats in this discourse had not reached these attainments in no way proves that they reached arhatship without attaining the jhanas. In fact, the definition of “released through discernment” given in AN 9:43-45 states explicitly that arhats released through discernment can have attained any of the jhanas or formless attainments up through the cessation-of-feeling-and-perception, simply that they have not “touched with the body” any of the other subsidiary attainments -- such as clairvoyance -- that can open from those levels of concentration.

Ven. Udayin: “‘Released through discernment, released through discernment,’ it is said. To what extent is one described by the Blessed One as released through discernment?”

Ven. Ananda: “There is the case, friend, where a monastic, quite secluded from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by [application of mind attention]. And one knows it through discernment. It is to this extent that one is described by the Blessed One as released through discernment, but with a sequel.
“And further, with the stilling of [applied and sustained attention], one enters and remains in the second jhana… the third jhana… the fourth jhana… the [base of boundless] space… the [base of boundless] consciousness… the [base] of nothingness… the [base] of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. And one knows it through discernment. It is to this extent that one is described by the Blessed One as released through discernment, but with a sequel.
“And further, with the complete transcending of the [base] of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, one enters and remains in the cessation of feeling and perception. And as one sees with discernment, the [taints (asavas, defilements, effluents, outflows)] go to their total end. And one knows it through discernment. It is to this extent that one is described by the Blessed One as released through discernment without a sequel.” — AN 9:44

So SN 12:70, particularly when read in the context of AN 9:43-45, does not support the argument that jhana is not necessary for awakening. This fact has been pointed out several times by several authors. 
In response, a more recent version of the argument asserts that the compilers of SN 12:70 wanted to state that release through discernment does not involve the jhanas, but for some reason backed off from saying what they actually wanted to say. Of course, this argument takes the discussion away from the quest for Dharma [ultimate truth] and into the realm of idle speculation.

Even if we could divine the compilers’ hidden agenda, and that agenda actually did deviate from the standard teaching on the necessity of jhana, that would automatically disqualify the discourse from being taken as authoritative. So again, this new version of the argument is self-defeating as a guide to the Dharma. 
However, it does raise one important Dharma question that has to be taken seriously.
Jhana: absorbed bliss (Isa_adsr/
The question relates to the ensuing scene in SN 12:70. After questioning the arhats, Susıma goes to see the Buddha to report what he has heard. The Buddha validates the arhats’ statements and then gives Susıma a standard questionnaire on the Five Aggregates and whether they are constant, pleasant, or deserve to be called “self.”
After Susıma gives the correct answers, the Buddha then quizzes him about whether he sees the connections among the factors of Dependent Origination (co-arising), and Susıma answers that he does. This, in the standard idiom of the Canon, indicates that Susıma has attained at least stream entry, the first [stage of enlightenment or] level of awakening, probably as a result of being exposed to the questioning on the Five Aggregates. 

Now, the argument states, Susıma would have had no opportunity during this conversation to develop any of the jhanas. Thus the hidden purpose of including the conversation in the discourse was to show that awakening can occur without jhana.
However, there is nothing in the definition of jhana [absorption] to indicate that it cannot be developed while listening to a Dharma talk. As AN 10:71 points out, insight can lead to jhana, so it is possible that -- if other conditions are right -- the insight gained while listening to the Dharma could induce a state of jhana in the listener while the talk was occurring. 
In fact, the questioning on the Five Aggregates that the Buddha uses with Susıma is one that he and his disciples used with great success in bringing about immediate awakening among their listeners -- even some who, prior to hearing the questions, suffered from severe wrong view (MN 109, SN 22:59, SN 22:83, SN 22:85).
As MN 111 and AN 9:36 show, the Five Aggregates are directly observable in the first jhana, so a person at that level of concentration would be in an ideal position to observe the Five Aggregates while being questioned on them. More

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