Sunday, January 12, 2014

In praise of meditative absorptions (jhanas)

Amber Larson, Wisdom Quarterly; Ven. Thanissaro (trans.) Pañcalacanda Sutta (SN 2.7)
New Year festival, monk light votive candles to the Buddha on Dec. 31, 2013, Phan Tao Temple, Chiang Mai, Thailand (ArztSamui/
The Blessed One was residing at Savatthi. Then Pañcalacanda the light being (deva), standing to one side, recited this verse in [the Buddha's] presence:
"Truly in a confining place, he found an opening -- the one of great wisdom, the enlightened one who awakened to [blissful, mentally-purifying] meditative absorption (jhana), the chief bull, withdrawn, the sage."
[The Buddha replied in verse:] "Even in a confining place, they find it, [Pañcalacanda], the Dharma for the attainment of nirvana (complete freedom). Those who have gained mindfulness are rightly concentrated (collected, absorbed).

G.P. Malalasekera (Dictionary of Pali Proper Names,
Deva (Kevin Borland/flickr)
Pañcálacanda devaputta: a deva who visited the Buddha at Jetavana and uttered a verse to the effect that the person who understands absorption (jhana) finds room even among crowding obstacles. The Buddha corrects him, saying that those who are mindful and self-possessed know the way to nirvana (S.i.48). This discussion forms the basis for the Pañcála Sutta. It is probably this same deva who is mentioned as a great yakkha in the Atánátiya Sutta (D.iii.205), invoked by the Buddha's followers in times of need.

Pañcacúlaka is the name of Sanankumára when he was reborn as a human being in a former life. He practiced the absorptions (jhanas). Having passed away in that meditative state, he was reborn in the Brahma world (MA.ii.584). More probably, Pañcacúlaka here is not a name but a descriptive nickname meaning "while he was yet a boy with his hair tied in five knots."

The first verse in this discourse focuses on absorption (jhana) as a crucial element on the path to liberation. The Buddha's "awakening to absorption" apparently refers to two points in his long career as a being striving for enlightenment (bodhisattva).

There was the point when, realizing the futility of self-torture, he surmised that blissful, suprasensual absorption might be part of the path to enlightenment, to awakening to the truth. There was also the point when he realized the limited extent to which absorption could actually lead to the wisdom (knowing and seeing) that resulted in full enlightenment. (For details on both of these points, see MN 35).

In the second verse, the Buddha expands on Pañcalacanda's understanding of the practice of the absorptions by pointing out that it has to be accompanied by mindfulness to be genuinely "right" concentration. [Concentration is the foundation of the fourfold setting up of mindfulness, but mindfulness is also one of the constituents of concentration.]

This point is related to the fact that the various lists of practices constituting the path -- such as the Five Faculties, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path -- always place "right mindfulness" before "right concentration." [But, of course, the list is not sequential; it is interdependent in that every factor aids and supports every other factor like spokes support a wheel.] It is also related to the statement in MN 44 that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness form the "sign" (nimitta) of right concentration.
AN 9.42 contains an explanation of the first verse here: Ven. Ananda identifies the first absorption as the opening offering an escape from the "confining place" of sensual pleasures. And each successive level of absorption (eight levels in all) are the openings offering an escape from the "confining place" of the preceding absorption. Finally, Ananda says, the "cessation of perception and feeling" (a higher level of concentration only available to enlightened individuals) acts as the ultimate opening offering escape from all forms of confinement.

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