Jhana, The Rapturous State of Stillness in Buddhist Meditation Practice

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

by Jayaram V

Summary: This is a comprehensive essay on Buddhist Jhanas, the meditative states experienced by the Buddhist monks during their practice of Right Concentration on the Eightfold Path


Buddhism is a practical religion. Its philosophy and practice are rooted in the mundane lives of common people who are subject to transience and suffering. The Buddha presented his teachings in clear terms, and set achievable and verifiable goals so that there was little scope for ambiguity or speculation. Therefore, Buddhism sets itself apart from the speculative philosophies and complex theologies of other religions.

For the same reason, although you may find identical words in Hinduism and Buddhism, they may not carry the same meaning, intent or purpose. Hinduism is primarily focused upon the eternal Self (Atman) and Buddhism upon the objective reality or the not-Self (Anatma). Hence, they fundamentally differ in their interpretation of various spiritual concepts and experiences.

For example, liberation in Buddhism does not mean immortality. It only means liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. Buddhism does not believe in the eternality of anything, nor does it view the world as unreal or illusory. The illusion arises in the mind due to unwholesome thoughts, desires and expectations. Buddhism also acknowledges the existence of devas (gods) in heavenly realm, but does not consider them to be immortal or immutable.

Another important concept where Buddhism differs from others is Samadhi. Samadhi in Buddhism does not mean absorption in the eternal self, but absorption within the mind or entering the unified states of awareness in which neither any thought nor emotion nor any other modification of the mind remains active.

To achieve this state, Buddhism prescribes the attainment of Jhanas through the transformative practices such as right actions, right thinking, right awareness, right concentration, etc., on the Eightfold Path. In the following discussion we focus upon the importance of Jhanas in Buddhist meditative practices and their distinguishing features.

Jhana

Jhana is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit word Dhayna. In Hinduism Dhyana refers to the practice of meditation or contemplation with or without concentration, whereas in Buddhism Jhana refers to both the practice of meditation and any meditative state which arises from it. The practice of Jhana in Buddhism forms part of Right Concentration. By practising it one abandons unwholesome and evil states of mind, which acts as the hindrances, and attains one pointedness, peace and happiness.

The practice of Jhana has a great significance in Buddhism, and is central to many Buddhist Practices. The Buddha constantly advised his followers to practice Jhanas to attain Nirvana. Jhana is also frequently mentioned in many Buddhist texts, which attests to its popularity and importance. The Buddha identified four progressive states of Jhana, which arise from the practice of Right Concentration and lead to meditative absorption (Samadhi).

He also explained their characteristic features and how to identify them and distinguish them on the path. From the Buddhist perspective, the Jhana (Concentrated meditation) is neither an abstract concept nor an aesthetic, mental exercise. It is a rather difficult but transformative practice which leads to verifiable and distinguishable mental states, which can help the practitioners know the progress they achieve.

The Jhanas are attained by eliminating the factors that need to be removed such as negative thoughts and emotions, and cultivating factors that need to be acquired such positive thoughts and states of mind. However, as we see later, when a monk advances into the higher Jhanas, he has to abandon even the positive aspects of the mind to end up with just one unified mental state in which one-pointedness, equanimity, discernment, sameness, etc., work in tandem.

To enter the first state of Jhana, the initiate has to begin the journey by abandoning the five hindrances (pañcanivarana) so that he can experience five positive states or modifications. These too he has to abandon as he advances into higher states, so that in the end he remains with nothing but sheer discernment (buddhi). The five hindrances are sensual desire (kama), ill will (vyapada), sloth and torpor ((thina and middha), restlessness and worry (uddhaca and kukkucca), and doubt (vicikiccha). The four Jhanas and their distinguishing features are explained below. First we mention the words of Buddha on each of them and explain their meaning.

The first Jhana

The Buddha: “There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities — enters and remains in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation.”

Explanation: The practitioner enters the first jhana when he wholly gives up the aforementioned five hindrances or unwholesome states of mind and cultivates the five “factors of possession” or the mental features that need to be cultivated. They are the directed thought (vitarka), evaluative thought (vichara), one pointedness (ekagrata), rapture (priti) and happiness (sukham). To attain this the practitioner has to follow a strict monastic discipline and live in a suitable dwelling place amidst likeminded people. It may be noted that vitarka and vicara are differently defined by different scholars. As their names suggest vitarka is associated with controlled thought, and vicara with analysis and evaluation. Together, they represent the whole thought process.

The second Jhana

The Buddha: "Furthermore, with the stilling of directed thought and evaluation, he enters and remains in the second jhana: rapture and pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought and evaluation — internal assurance.”

Explanation: When he is fully stabilized in the first Jhana and perfected the five factors of possession, with mastery in strengthening, attaining and sustaining those factors (which may involve considerable time), the practitioner qualifies to enter the second Jhana. In this stage, he has to abandon both types of thought so as to silence the mind and free it from all thoughts, and remain stabilized in the remaining three factors of possession namely rapture, pleasure and one pointedness. With the mind freed from thoughts, with unified and one-pointed awareness, and with the feelings of assuredness, composure, confidence and tranquility which arises from it, he experiences rapture and pleasure as they permeate and pervade his whole body. Thus, in this Jhana out of the five factors of possession, only three are retained.

The third Jhana

The Buddha: “And furthermore, with the fading of rapture, he remains in equanimity, mindful and alert, and physically sensitive to pleasure. He enters and remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, 'Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasurable abiding.'”

Explanation: After mastering the second Jhana in different ways and having succeeded in attaining, strengthening, sustaining the three factors of it, the practitioner is now ready to practice and enter the third Jhana. In this state, he comes to realize that rapture is also a form of unwholesome disturbance only and needs to be abandoned or eliminated to advance further into the deeper states of stability and tranquility. Thereby, he cultivates indifference towards it. To achieve mastery in its practice, he resorts to mindfulness (sati), sameness or equanimity (upeksha) and discernment (samprajnata). Thus in this state, out of the five factors of possession, only two are retained and the rest are abandoned as unwholesome.

The Fourth Jhana

The Buddha: "And furthermore, with the abandoning of pleasure and stress — as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress — he enters and remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither-pleasure-nor-pain.”

Explanation: The Fourth Jhana begins with the realization that one cannot completely abandon rapture without abandoning happiness. Since both are interlinked and have close affinity, the initiate realizes that since it is difficult not to experience rapture when one is happy, he is vulnerable to the risk of falling back to the previous Jhana and remaining stuck there. Further, he also realizes that abiding in prolonged happiness may lead to habitual clinging, which in itself is an unwholesome hindrance. Therefore, contemplating upon the state of equanimity or sameness and abandoning happiness along with its accompanying physical and mental feelings, he enters the four Jhana. With the neutral feeling of sameness firmly established in his mind in the place of happiness, with peace and stability reigning his mind, he abides in unified awareness more than ever. Having abandoned happiness, pleasure and pain, he practices unwavering concentration. Thus, in this Jhana, he retains only one pointedness, with equanimity and pure mindfulness (parisuddha sati), and abandons the remaining factors of possession as gross and unwholesome.

The subtle Jhanas

The Jhanas are usually four, since it is not practically possible to abandon one pointedness also and practice discernment. Once the four Jhanas are attained, there is nothing else to be abandoned or attained. The practitioner’s unified mental state becomes stabilized, without the risk of reversal or falling back. He cannot easily be disturbed or tempted with unwholesome thoughts and distractions.

However, it is not the end of the road. The Buddha described the fifth state of concentration as the practice of one pointed concentration which is refined, improved and perfected with discernment. It arises from the attainment of the four Jhanas. The Buddha also spoke about the supernatural powers that arise from the perfection one achieves in the fivefold practice of Right Concentration.

Apart from the four Jhanas, the Buddhist texts also refer to four subtle Jhanas or non-material Jhanas, which are named after their respective objects of concentration. They are, mindfulness of space (akasa chetana), mindfulness of consciousness (Vijnana chetana), mindfulness of emptiness (akincana chetana), and mindfulness of neither perception nor non-perception (nevasaññana saññayatana). Some describe them as variations or modes of the fourth Jhana.

From the names ascribed to them, it becomes clear that in these Jhanas the objects of the concentration are fixed, unlike in the previous Jhanas where one may choose different objects to practice concentration. The factor of possession, one-pointedness, also remains constant since it cannot be abandoned. The four objects of concentration are also progressively subtler. For example, consciousness is subtler than space, emptiness subtler than consciousness, and that which is neither perception nor non-perception is even more subtler than emptiness. By practising concentration on the subtle objects, one reaches the end of the objective world, the not-Self and attains the indescribable state of Nirvana.

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