Stephanie Nash (mindfulnessarts.org) interviews Leigh Brasington, respected jhana meditation teacher about the "meditative absorptions." This is the beginning of a longer interview about the what, why, and how of jhanas as part of a meditation practice. Filmed in August 2009 at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center, Washington.
The Jhanas in Ancient Buddhism
Ven. Henepola Gunaratana ("Bhante G")
The various subjects and methods of meditation divide into two inter-related systems. One is called the development of serenity (samatha), the other the development of insight (vipassana).
The former also goes under the name of development of concentration (samadhi), the latter the development of wisdom (pañña). The practice of serenity meditation aims at developing a calm, concentrated, unified mind as a means of experiencing inner peace and as a basis for wisdom.
The practice of insight meditation aims at gaining a direct understanding of the real nature of phenomena.
Of the two, the development of insight is regarded by Buddhism as the essential key to liberation, the direct antidote to the ignorance underlying bondage and suffering.
Whereas serenity meditation is recognized as common to both Buddhist and non-Buddhist contemplative disciplines, insight meditation is held to be the unique discovery of the Buddha and an unparalleled feature of his path.
However, because the growth of insight presupposes a certain degree of concentration, and serenity meditation helps to achieve this, the development of serenity also claims an incontestable place in the Buddhist meditative process.
Jon Kabat Zinn narrates a guided meditation that corresponds to the first two stages of Ajahn Brahm's jhana meditation technique: (1) Letting go of past and future, placing attention on the body, (2) letting go of inner chatter, placing attention on sounds, (3) letting go of diversity, placing attention only on the breath.
Together the two types of meditation work to make the mind a fit instrument for enlightenment. With his mind unified by means of the development of serenity, made sharp and bright by the development of insight, the meditator can proceed unobstructed to reach the end of suffering, nirvana.
Pivotal to both systems of meditation, though belonging inherently to the side of serenity, is a set of meditative attainments called the jhanas. Though translators have offered various renderings of this word, ranging from the feeble "musing" to the misleading "trance" and the ambiguous "meditation," we prefer to leave the word untranslated and to let its meaning emerge from its contextual usages.
From these it is clear that the jhanas are states of deep mental unification that result from the centering of the mind upon a single object with such power of attention that a total immersion in the object takes place.
The early sutras speak of four absorptions, named simply after their numerical position in the series: the first jhana, the second jhana, the third jhana, and the forth jhana. In the sutras the four repeatedly appear each described by a standard formula, which we will examine later in detail.
The importance of the jhanas in the Buddhist path can readily be gauged from the frequency with which they are mentioned throughout the discourses. They figure prominently both in the Buddha's own experience and in his exhortation to disciples.
In his childhood, while attending an annual plowing festival, the future Buddha spontaneously entered the first jhana. It was the memory of this childhood incident, many years later [during his six year quest for enlightenment] after his futile pursuit of austerities, that revealed to him the way to enlightenment during his period of deepest despondency (M.i, 246-247).
After taking his seat beneath the Bodhi tree, [Siddhartha] entered the four jhanas immediately before direction his mind to the threefold knowledge that issued in his enlightenment (M.i.247-249).
Throughout his active career the four jhanas remained "his heavenly dwelling" (D.iii.220) to which he resorted in order to live happily here and now.
His understanding of the corruption, purification, and emergence in the jhanas and other meditative attainments is one of the Ten Powers [of a Buddha or Tathagata] which enable him to turn the matchless wheel of the Dharma (M.i.70).
Just before his passing away the Buddha entered the jhanas in direct and reverse order, and the passing away itself took place directly from the fourth jhana (D.ii.156).
The Buddha is constantly seen in the suttas encouraging his disciples to develop jhana. The four jhanas are invariably included in the complete course of training laid down for disciples ("Fruits of Recluseship" discourse (DN 2; MN 27).
They figure in the training as the discipline of the Noble Eightfold Path... More