Tuesday, July 9, 2019

How many factors in the First Absorption?

Leigh Brasington (leighb.com/jhana...); Dhr. Seven (ed.), D. Cong, Wisdom Quarterly

Five Factors for the First Jhana - NOT!
There is a widespread misunderstanding that the first jhana (meditative absorption, zen, chan, dhyana) has five factors.

But this is not what is described in the sutras (Buddhist discourses) and is certainly not what the Buddha taught and practiced. The first jhana has four factors. (Yes, four: Look it up; see it in Pali):
  1. vitakka - thinking [applied attention]
  2. vicara - more thinking, examining [sustained attention]
  3. piti - rapture, glee, zest
  4. sukha - happiness [contentment]
  5. [ekaggata - onepointedness of mind]
In the vast majority of cases -- over 100 sutras -- the first jhana is described as having only the first four factors listed above.

However, the "Teachings in Ultimate Terms" (Abhidharma) and the Commentaries do speak of five factors for the first jhana. 

They add ekaggata ("one-pointedness"). Ekaggata is not mentioned in the sutras because it is not and cannot be part of the formula.

In the first place, vitakka and vicara always and only mean "thinking" and "examining" in the sutras. There is no place where they can be interpreted to mean "initial and sustained attention" or any such thing.
  • [EDITORIAL NOTE: The great Burmese Buddhist meditation master Pa Auk Sayadaw, whom Leigh Brasington sat a retreat with IMS in Barre, Massachussets, as witnessed by the present editor, who stood outside the door as they met in conference. The Sayadaw admonished Leigh not to cling to the piti (joy, rapture) that accompanies the initial absorptions no matter how blissful they are. But Leigh had his own extensive experiences, comprehension, and teaching methods, whereas the Sayadaw had the various stages of enlightenment as a result of his own experiences, comprehension, and teaching methods. It is not clear that Leigh can claim that. In addition, Westerners have an aversion to the Abhidharma and other commentarial texts, whereas Burmese Buddhists treasure more than any other Theravada school.]
It is even explicit in the Pali canon that vitakka and vicara refer to thinking in the context of the first jhana. See, for example SN 21:1.

There "Noble Silence" is defined as the Second Jhana because vitakka and vicara are now absent. It is simply not possible to have onepointedness and thinking at the same time.

So experiencing ekaggata in the same jhana as vitakka and vicara makes no sense whatsoever.
Furthermore, in the Second Jhana, vitakka and vicara are replaced with vupasama, ajjhattam sampasadanam and ekodi-bhavam -- "inner tranquility" and "unification of mind."

If there were ekaggata in First Jhana, there would be no need to specify the gaining of ekodi-bhavam to replace vitakka and vicara in the Second Jhana.
Now to be fair, there are two sutras where five factors are given for the First Jhana and a third sutra where "unification of mind" is mentioned in regard to the First Jhana:
  1. M I 294 - MN 43 "The Greater Set of Questions-and-Answers"
  2. M III 25-29 - MN 111 "One After Another"
  3. S IV 263 - SN 40.1 "The First Jhana" (not ekaggata, but ekodim; the context makes it a real stretch to consider this a fifth factor).
But all of these appear to be "late" sutras written at the close of the Sutra Era and the beginning of the Abhidharma Era. Sutra MN 111 is actually internally contradictory:

It first gives the standard First Jhana formula with vitakka and vicara and then says Ven. Sariputra examined the factors of the First Jhana and found ekaggata.

As mentioned above, you just can't have ekaggata and vitakka and vicara happening at the same time. Of course, this was a problem for the Abhidhammaikas and the commentators. So they redefined vitakka and vicara to mean "initial and sustained attention."

But clearly the Abhidharma has tinkered with the definitions of the meditative absorptions (jhanas), converting the First Jhana into two different states -- one with vitakka and vicara and one with only vicara. There is no basis for this in the sutras except again in a couple of "late" sutras.

And by the time of The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), a compendious commentarial text, the definitions of what constitutes a jhana had diverged significantly from the sutra definitions.

The Visuddhimagga has made the jhanas so difficult that only one in a million who come to meditation can enter the First Jhana (Section XII.8), whereas in the sutras, the monastics (monks and nuns) were all practicing jhana.

(The Buddha didn't have millions of followers but rather probably only a few [or as many as 80] thousand at most. Yet, there are many accounts of monastics successfully practicing the jhanas)

The absorption level described in the Visuddhimagga is so deep that "sounds are a thorn to the First Jhana" as found in AN 10.72 makes no sense at all.

Clearly ekaggata as a factor of the First Jhana is a later addition making the five factors of the First Jhana a later schema.

In fact, looking at the jhanas with the traditional Abhidharma/Commentarial factors misses some of the important information in the sutra schema. See leighb.com/jhanatrd. Source

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