The Doctrinal Context of Jhāna


The Buddha says that just as in the great ocean there is but one taste, the taste of salt, so in his doctrine and discipline there is but one taste, the taste of freedom. The taste of freedom that pervades the Buddha’s teaching is the taste of spiritual freedom, which from the Buddhist perspective means freedom from suffering. In the process leading to deliverance from suffering, meditation is the means of generating the inner awakening required for liberation. The methods of meditation taught in the Theravada Buddhist tradition are based on the Buddha’s own experience forged by him in the course of his own quest for enlightenment. They are designed to re-create in the disciple who practises them the same essential enlightenment that the Buddha himself attained when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree, the awakening to the Four Noble Truths.


The various subjects and methods of meditation expounded in the Theravada Buddhist scriptures - the Pali Canon and its commentaries - divide into two inter-related systems. One is called the development of serenity (samatha-bhāvanā), the other the development of insight (vipassanā-bhāvanā). The former also goes under the name of the development of concentration (samādhi-bhāvanā), the latter the development of wisdom (paññā-bhāvanā). 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 recognised 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. 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, Nibbāna.


Pivotal to both systems of meditation, though belonging inherently to the side of serenity, is a set of meditative attainments called the jhānas. 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 un-translated and to let its meaning emerge from its contextual usage. From these it is clear that the jhānas are states of deep mental unification which result from the centring of the mind upon a single object with such power of attention that a total immersion in the object takes place. The early suttas speak of four jhānas, named simply after their numerical position in the series: the first jhāna, the second jhāna, the third jhāna and the fourth jhāna. In the suttas the four repeatedly appear each described by a standard formula, which we will examine later in detail.


The importance of the jhānas in the Buddhist path can readily be gauged from the frequency with which they are mentioned throughout the suttas. The jhānas figure prominently both in the Buddha’s own experience and in his exhortation to disciples. In his childhood, while attending an annual ploughing festival, the future Buddha spontaneously entered the first jhāna. It was the memory of this childhood incident, many years later after his futile pursuit of austerities, that revealed to him the way to enlightenment during his period of deepest despondency (M.i.246-47). After taking his seat beneath the Bodhi tree, the Buddha entered the four jhānas immediately before directing his mind to the threefold knowledge that issued in his enlightenment (M.i.247-49). Throughout his active career the four jhānas 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 jhānas and other meditative attainments is one of the Tathāgata’s ten powers which enable him to turn the matchless wheel of the Dhamma (M.i.70). Just before his passing away the Buddha entered the jhānas in direct and reverse order, and the passing away itself took place directly from the fourth jhāna (D.ii.156).


The Buddha is constantly seen in the suttas encouraging his disciples to develop jhāna. The four jhānas are invariably included in the complete course of training laid down for disciples.[1] They figure in the training as the discipline of higher consciousness (adhicittasikkhā), right concentration (sammā samādhi) of the Noble Eightfold Path, and the faculty and power of concentration (samādhindriya, samādhibala). Though a vehicle of dry insight can be found, indications are that this path is not an easy one, lacking the aid of the powerful serenity available to the practitioner of jhāna. The way of the jhāna attainer seems by comparison smoother and more pleasurable (A.ii.150-52). The Buddha even refers to the four jhānas figuratively as a kind of Nibbāna: he calls them immediately visible Nibbāna, factorial Nibbāna, Nibbāna here and now (A.iv.453-54).


To attain the jhānas, the meditator must begin by eliminating the unwholesome mental states obstructing inner collectedness, generally grouped together as the five hindrances (pañcanivaranā): sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt.[2] The mind’s absorption on its object is brought about by five opposing mental states - applied thought, sustained thought, rapture, happiness and one-pointedness[3] - called the jhāna factors (jhānangāni) because they lift the mind to the level of the first jhāna and remain there as its defining components.


After reaching the first jhāna the ardent meditator can go on to reach the higher jhānas, which is done by eliminating the coarser factors in each jhāna while aiming at the superior purity of the next higher jhāna. Beyond the four jhānas lies another fourfold set of higher meditative states which deepen still further the element of serenity. These attainments, known as the formless or immaterial attainments (āruppā), are the base of boundless space, the base of boundless consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.[4] In the Pali commentaries these come to be called the ‘four immaterial jhānas’ (arūpa-jhāna), the four preceding stages being renamed, for the sake of clarity, the ‘four fine-material jhānas’ (rūpajjhāna). Often the two sets are joined together under the collective title of the eight jhānas or the eight attainments (atthasamāpattiyo).


The four jhānas and the four immaterial attainments appear initially as mundane states of deep serenity pertaining to the preliminary stage of the Buddhist path, and on this level they help provide the base of concentration needed for wisdom to arise. But the four jhānas again reappear in a later stage in the development of the path, in direct association with liberating wisdom, and they are then designated the supramundane (lokuttara) jhānas. These supramundane jhānas are the levels of concentration pertaining to the four degrees of enlightenment experience called the supramundane paths (magga) and the stages of liberation resulting from them, the four fruits (phala).


Finally, even after full liberation is achieved, the mundane jhānas can still remain as attainments available to the fully liberated person, part of his untrammelled contemplative experience.

[1]See, for example, the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (D. 2), the Cūllahatthipadopama Sutta (M.27), etc.

[2]Kāmacchanda, byāpāda, thīnamiddha, uddhaccakukkucca, vicikicchā.

[3]Vitakka, vicāra, pīti, sukha, ekaggatā.

[4]ākāsānañcāyatana, viññānañcāyatana, ākiñcaññāyatana, nevasaññanāsaññāyatana.

Etymology of Jhāna


The great Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa traces the Pali word „jhāna“ (Skt. dhyāna) to two verbal forms. One, the etymologically correct derivation, is the verb jhāyati, meaning to think or meditate; the other is a more playful derivation, intended to illuminate its function rather than its verbal source, from the verb jhāpeti meaning to burn up, explains: „It burns up opposing states, thus it is called jhāna“ (Vin.A.i.116), the purport being that jhāna „burns up“ or destroys the mental defilements preventing the development of serenity and insight.


In the same passage Buddhaghosa says that jhāna has the characteristic mark of contemplation (upanijjhāna). Contemplation, he states, is twofold: the contemplation of the object and the contemplation of the characteristics of phenomena. The former is exercised by the eight attainments of serenity together with their access, since these contemplate the object used as the basis for developing concentration; for this reason these attainments are given the name „jhāna“ in the mainstream of Pali meditative exposition. However, Buddhaghosa also allows that the term „jhāna“ can be extended loosely to insight (vipassanā), the paths and the fruits on the ground that these perform the work of contemplating the characteristics of things - the three marks of impermanence, suffering and non-self in the case of insight, Nibbāna in the case of the paths and fruits.


In brief the twofold meaning of jhāna as „contemplation“ and „burning up“ can be brought into connection with the meditative process as follows. By fixing his mind on the object the meditator reduces and eliminates the lower mental qualities such as the five hindrances and promotes the growth of the higher qualities such as the jhāna factors, which lead the mind to complete absorption in the object. Then, by contemplating the characteristics of phenomena with insight, the meditator eventually reaches the supramundane jhāna of the four paths, and with this jhāna he burns up the defilements and attains the liberating experience of the fruits.

Jhāna and Samādhi


In the vocabulary of Buddhist meditation the word „jhāna“ is closely connected with another word, „samādhi“ generally rendered by „concentration.“ Samādhi derives from the prefixed verbal root sam-ā-dhā, meaning to collect or to bring together, thus suggesting the concentration or unification of the mind. The word „samādhi“ is almost interchangeable with the word „samatha,“ serenity, though the latter comes from a different root, sam, meaning to become calm.


In the suttas samādhi is defined as mental one-pointedness, (cittass’ekaggata, M.i,301) and this definition is followed through rigorously in the Abhidhamma. The Abhidhamma treats one-pointedness as a distinct mental factor present in every state of consciousness, exercising the function of unifying the mind on its object. From this strict psychological standpoint samādhi can be present in unwholesome states of consciousness as well as in wholesome and neutral states. In its unwholesome forms it is called „wrong concentration“ (micchāsamādhi), in its wholesome forms „right concentration“ (sammāsamādhi).


In expositions on the practice of meditation, however, samādhi is limited to one-pointedness of mind (Vism. 84-85; PP.84-85), and even here we can understand from the context that the word means only the wholesome one-pointedness involved in the deliberate transmutation of the mind to a heightened level of calm. Thus Buddhaghosa explains samādhi etymologically as „ the centring of consciousness and consciousness concomitants evenly and rightly on a single object … the state in virtue of which consciousness and its concomitants remain evenly and rightly on a single object, undistracted and unscattered“ (Vism.84-85; PP.85).


However, despite the commentator’s bid for consistency, the word samādhi is used in the Pali literature on meditation with varying degrees of specificity of meaning. In the narrowest sense, as defined by Buddhaghosa, it denotes the particular mental factor responsible for the concentrating of the mind, namely, one-pointedness. In a wider sense it can signify the states of unified consciousness that result from the strengthening of concentration, i. e. the meditative attainments of serenity and the stages leading up to them. And in a still wider sense the word samādhi can be applied to the method of practice used to produce and cultivate those refined states of concentration, here being equivalent to the development of serenity.


It is in the second sense that samādhi and jhāna come closest in meaning. The Buddha explains right concentration as the four jhānas (D.ii,313), and in doing so allows concentration to encompass the meditative attainments signified by the jhānas. However, even though jhāna and samādhi can overlap in denotation, certain differences in their suggested and contextual meanings prevent unqualified identification of the two terms. First, behind the Buddha’s use of the jhāna formula to explain right concentration lies a more technical understanding of the terms. According to this understanding samādhi can be narrowed down in range to signify only one mental factor, the most prominent in the jhāna, namely, one-pointedness, while the word „jhāna“ itself must be seen as encompassing the state of consciousness in its entirety, or at least the whole group of mental factors individuating that meditative state as a jhāna.


In the second place, when samādhi is considered in its broader meaning it involves a wider range of reference than jhāna. The Pali exegetical tradition recognises three levels of samādhi preliminary concentration (parikamma-samādhi) which is produced as a result of the meditator’s initial efforts to focus his mind on his meditation subject; access concentration (upacāra-samādhi), marked by the suppression of the five hindrances, the manifestation of the jhāna factors, and the appearance of a luminous mental replica of the meditation object called the counterpart sign (patibhāganimitta); and absorption concentration (appanā-samādhi), the complete immersion of the mind in its object effected by the full maturation of the jhāna factors.[1] Absorption concentration comprises the eight attainments, the four jhānas and the four immaterial attainments, and to this extent jhāna and samādhi coincide. However, samādhi still has a broader scope than jhāna, since it includes not only the jhānas themselves but also the two preparatory degrees of concentration leading up to them. Further, samādhi also covers a still different type of concentration called momentary concentration (khanika-samādhi), the mobile mental stabilisation produced in the course of insight contemplation on the passing flow of phenomena.

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[1]See Nārada, A Manual of Abhidhamma, 4th ed. (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1980), pp. 389, 395-96.