The jhānas do not arise
out of a void but in dependence on the right conditions. They come to growth
only when provided with the nutriments conducive to their development.
Therefore, prior to beginning meditation, the aspirant to the jhānas must
prepare a groundwork for his practice by fulfilling certain preliminary
requirements. He first must endeavour to purify his moral virtue, sever the
outer impediments to practice, and place himself under a qualified teacher who
will assign him a suitable meditation subject and explain to him the methods of
developing lt. After learning these the disciple must then seek outer collegial
dwelling and diligently strive for success. In this chapter we will examine in
order each of the preparatory steps that have to be fulfilled before commencing
to develop jhāna.
A disciple aspiring to the
jhānas first has to lay a solid foundation of moral discipline. Moral purity is
indispensable to meditative progress for several deeply psychological reasons.
It is needed, first, in order to safeguard against the danger of remorse, the
nagging sense of guilt that arises when the basic principles of morality are
ignored or deliberately violated. Scrupulous conformity to virtuous rules of
conduct protects the meditator from this danger disruptive to inner calm, and
brings joy and happiness when the meditator reflects upon the purity of his
conduct (see A.v,1-7).
A second reason a moral
foundation is needed for meditation follows from an understanding of the purpose
of concentration. Concentration, in the Buddhist discipline, aims at providing a
base for wisdom by cleansing the mind of the dispersive influence of the
defilements. But in order for the concentration exercises to effectively combat
the defilements, the coarser expressions of the latter through bodily and verbal
action first have to be checked. Moral transgressions being invariably motivated
by defilements - by greed, hatred and delusion - when a person acts in violation
of the precepts of morality he excites and reinforces the very same mental
factors his practice of meditation is intended to eliminate. This involves him
in a crossfire of incompatible aims which renders his attempts at mental
purification ineffective. The only way he can avoid frustrating his endeavour to
purify the mind of its subtler defilements is to prevent the unwholesome inner
impulses from breaking out in the coarser form of unwholesome bodily and verbal
deeds. Only when he establishes control over the outer expression of the
defilements can he turn to deal with them inwardly as mental obsessions that
appear in the process of meditation.
The practice of moral
discipline consists negatively in abstinence from immoral actions of body and
speech and positively in the observance of ethical principles promoting peace
within oneself and harmony in one’s relations with others. The basic code of
moral discipline taught by the Buddha for the guidance of his lay followers is
the five precepts: abstinence from taking life, from stealing, from sexual
misconduct, from false speech, and from intoxicating drugs and drinks. These
principles are binding as minimal ethical obligations for all practitioners of
the Buddhist path, and within their bounds considerable progress in meditation
can be made. However, those aspiring to reach the higher levels of the jhānas,
and to pursue the path further to the stages of liberation, are encouraged to
take up the more complete moral discipline pertaining to the life of
renunciation. Early Buddhism is unambiguous in its emphasis on the limitations
of household life for following the path in its fullness and perfection. Time
and again the texts say that the household life is confining, a „path for the
dust of passion,“ while the life of homelessness is like open space. Thus a
disciple who is fully intent upon making rapid progress towards Nibbāna will,
when outer conditions allow for it, „shave off his hair and beard, put on the
yellow robe, and go forth from the home life into homelessness“ (M.i,179).
The moral training for the
Bhikkhus monks has been arranged into a system called the fourfold purification
of morality (cātupārisuddhisīla).
The first component of this scheme, its backbone, consists in the morality of
restraint according to the Patimokkha,
the code of 227 training precepts promulgated by the Buddha to regulate the
conduct of the Sangha or monastic order. Each of these rules is in some way
intended to facilitate control over the defilements and to induce a mode of
living marked by harmlessness, contentment and simplicity. The second aspect of
the monk’s moral discipline is restraint of the senses, by which the monk
maintains close watchfulness over his mind as he engages in sense contacts so
that he does not give rise to desire for pleasurable objects and aversion
towards repulsive ones. Third, the monk is to live by a purified livelihood,
obtaining his basic requisites such as robes, food, lodgings and medicines in
ways consistent with his vocation. The fourth factor of the moral training is
proper use of the requisites, which means that the monk should reflect upon
the purposes for which he makes use of his requisites and should employ them
only for maintaining his health and comfort, not for luxury and enjoyment.
After establishing a
foundation of purified morality, the aspirant to meditation is advised to cut
off any outer impediments (palibodha)
that may hinder his efforts to lead a contemplative life. These impediments are
numbered as ten: a dwelling, which becomes an impediment for those who allow
their minds to become preoccupied with its upkeep or with its appurtenances; a
family of relatives or supporters with whom the aspirant may become emotionally
involved in ways that hinder his progress; gains, which may bind the monk by
obligations to those who offer them; a class of students who must be instructed;
building work, which demands time and attention; travel; kin, meaning parents,
teachers, pupils or close friends; illness; the study of scriptures; and
supernormal powers, which are an impediment to insight (Vism.90-97; PP.91-98).
The path of practice
leading to the jhānas is an arduous course involving precise techniques and
skilfulness is needed in dealing with the pitfalls that lie along the way. The
knowledge of how to attain the jhānas has been transmitted through a lineage of
teachers going back to the time of the Buddha himself. A prospective meditator
is advised to avail himself of the living heritage of accumulated knowledge and
experience by placing himself under the care of a qualified teacher, described
as a „good friend“ (kalyānamitta), one who gives guidance and wise advice rooted in his
own practice and experience. On the basis either of the power of penetrating
others’ minds, or by personal observation, or by questioning, the teacher will
size up the temperament of his new pupil and then select a meditation subject
for him appropriate to his temperament.
The various meditation
subjects that the Buddha prescribed for the development of serenity have been
collected in the commentaries into a set called the forty
kammatthāna. This word means literally a place of work, and is applied to
the subject of meditation as the place where the meditator undertakes the work
of meditation. The forty meditation subjects are distributed into seven
categories, enumerated in the Visuddhi-Magga as follows: ten kasinas, ten kinds
of foulness, ten recollections, four divine abiding, four immaterial states, one
perception, and one defining.
A kasina is a device
representing a particular quality used as a support for concentration. The ten
kasinas are those of earth, water, fire and air; four colour kasinas - blue,
yellow, red and white, the light kasina and the limited space kasina. The kasina
can be either a naturally occurring form of the element or colour chosen, or an
artificially produced device such as a disk that the meditator can use at his
convenience in his meditation quarters.
The ten kinds of foulness
are ten stages in the decomposition of a corpse: the bloated, the livid, the
festering, the cut-up, the gnawed, the scattered, the hacked and scattered, the
bleeding, the worm-infested and a skeleton. The primary purpose of these
meditations is to reduce sensual lust by gaining a clear perception of the
repulsiveness of the body.
The ten recollections are
the recollections of the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, morality, generosity
and the deities, mindfulness of death, mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of
breathing, and the recollection of peace. The first three are devotional
contemplations on the sublime qualities of the „Three Jewels,“ the primary
objects of Buddhist veneration. The second three are reflections on two cardinal
Buddhist virtues and on the deities inhabiting the heavenly worlds, intended
principally for those still intent on a higher rebirth. Mindfulness of death is
reflection on the inevitability of death, a constant spur to spiritual exertion.
Mindfulness of the body involves the mental dissection of the body into
thirty-two parts, undertaken with a view to perceiving its unattractiveness.
Mindfulness of breathing is awareness of the in-and-out movement of the breath,
perhaps the most fundamental of all Buddhist meditation subjects. And the
recollection of peace is reflection on the qualities of Nibbāna.
The four divine abidings (brahmavihāra)
are the development of boundless loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy
and equanimity. These meditations are also called the „immeasurables“ (appamaññā)
because they are to be developed towards all sentient beings without
qualification or exclusiveness.
The four immaterial states
are the base of boundless space, the base of boundless consciousness, the base
of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. These are
the objects leading to the corresponding meditative attainments, the immaterial
The one perception is the
perception of the repulsiveness of food. The one defining is the defining of the
four elements, that is, the analysis of the physical body into the elemental
modes of solidity, fluidity, heat and oscillation.
The forty meditation
subjects are treated in the commentarial texts from two important angles - one
their ability to induce different levels of concentration, the other their
suitability for different temperaments.
Not all meditation
subjects are equally effective in inducing the deeper levels of concentration.
They are first distinguished on the basis of their capacity for inducing only
access concentration or for inducing full absorption; those capable of inducing
absorption are then distinguished further according to their ability to induce
the different levels of jhāna.
Of the forty subjects, ten
are capable of leading only to access concentration: eight recollections - i. e.
all except mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of breathing - plus the
perception of repulsiveness in nutriment and the defining of the four elements.
These, because they are occupied with a diversity of qualities and involve an
active application of discursive thought, cannot lead beyond access. The other
thirty subjects can all lead to absorption.
The ten kasinas and
mindfulness of breathing, owing to their simplicity and freedom from thought
construction, can lead to all four jhānas. The ten kinds of foulness and
mindfulness of the body lead only to the first jhāna, being limited because the
mind can only hold onto them with the aid of applied thought (vitakka)
which is absent in the second and higher jhānas. The first three divine abidings
can induce the lower three jhānas but not the fourth, since they arise in
association with pleasant feeling, while the divine abiding of equanimity occurs
only at the level of the fourth jhāna, where neutral feeling gains ascendancy.
The four immaterial states conduce to the respective immaterial jhānas
corresponding to their names.
The forty subjects are
also differentiated according to their appropriateness for different character
types. Six main character types are recognised - the greedy, the hating, the
deluded, the faithful, the intelligent and the speculative - this oversimplified
typology being taken only as a pragmatic guideline which in practice admits
various shades and combinations. The ten kinds of foulness and mindfulness of
the body, clearly intended to attenuate sensual desire, are suitable for those
of greedy temperament. Eight subjects - the four divine abidings and four colour
kasinas - are appropriate for the hating temperament. Mindfulness of breathing
is suitable for those of the deluded and the speculative temperaments. The first
six recollections are appropriate for the faithful temperament. Four subjects -
mindfulness of death, the recollection of peace, the defining of the four
elements, and the perception of the repulsiveness in nutriment - are especially
effective for those of intelligent temperament. The remaining six kasinas and
the immaterial states are suitable for all kinds of temperaments. But the
kasinas should be limited in size for one of speculative temperament and large
in size for one of deluded temperament.
Immediately after giving
this breakdown Buddhaghosa adds a proviso to prevent misunderstanding. He states
that this division by way of temperament is made on the basis of direct
opposition and complete suitability, but actually there is no wholesome form of
meditation that does not suppress the defilements and strengthen the virtuous
mental factors. Thus an individual meditator may be advised to meditate on
foulness to abandon lust, on loving-kindness to abandon hatred, on breathing to
cut off discursive thought, and on impermanence to eliminate the conceit „I am“
The teacher assigns a
meditation subject to his pupil appropriate to his character and explains the
methods of developing it. He can teach it gradually to a pupil who is going to
remain in close proximity to him, or in detail to one who will go to practise it
elsewhere. If the disciple is not going to stay with his teacher he must be
careful to select a suitable place for meditation. The texts mention eighteen
kinds of monasteries unfavourable to the development of jhāna: a large
monastery, a new one, a dilapidated one, one near a road, one with a pond,
leaves, flowers or fruits, one sought after by many people, one in cities, among
timber or fields, where people quarrel, in a port, in border lands, on a
frontier, a haunted place, and one without access to a spiritual teacher (Vism.
The factors which make a
dwelling favourable to meditation are mentioned by the Buddha himself. If should
not be too far from or too near a village that can be relied on as an alms
resort, and should have a clear path; it should be quiet and secluded; it should
be free from rough weather and from harmful insects and animals; one should be
able to obtain one’s physical requisites while dwelling there; and the dwelling
should provide ready access to learned elders and spiritual friends who can be
consulted when problems arise in meditation (A.v, 15). The types of dwelling
places commended by the Buddha most frequently in the suttas as conducive to the
jhānas are a secluded dwelling in the forest, at the foot of a tree, on a
mountain, in a cleft, in a cave, in a cemetery, on a wooded flatland, in the
open air, or on a heap of straw (M.i, 181 ). Having found a suitable dwelling
and settled there, the disciple should maintain scrupulous observance of the
rules of discipline. He should be content with his simple requisites, exercise
control over his sense faculties, be mindful and discerning in all activities,
and practise meditation diligently as he was instructed. It is at this point
that he meets the first great challenge of his contemplative life, the battle
with the five hindrances.
A full description of the fourfold purification of morality will be found in the Visuddhi-Magga. Chapter I.
The following discussion is based on Vism.110-115; PP.112-118.