Cultivating the seed of Buddha Nature
This week we're going to take another look at a fundamental teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, the idea of 'Buddha Nature'.
In a nutshell, the idea is that we each possess a kind of seed within our hearts, the seed of enlightenment or awakening, and if that seed is cultivated appropriately, it will grow and flourish until we ultimately become living Buddhas.
This 'seed' imagery conveys two important messages. One, enlightenment is not something that we need to 'get' from outside ourselves - it isn't something that someone can give us. It's already inside us. Whereas Catholicism has a doctrine of 'original sin', Mahayana Buddhism instead suggests 'original enlightenment'. However, that doesn't mean that there's no need to practise! For most of us, it needs some help to come forth fully into the world, in the same way that we might cultivate a garden. (We can probably all think of people whose seed of Buddha Nature is pretty well hidden.)
But what actually is it? Why should we believe in something that we can't see or touch? Isn't this just another kind of empty religious promise of 'cake tomorrow'?
Well, I'm going to make a few observations, based both on the classical teachings and my own experiences. I may be wrong about some of this (that's always true!). But if you're on the fence about the whole Buddha Nature thing, then consider what follows to be something that you can explore for yourself in your own practice, to see what you make of it.
Life is positively oriented
Whatever form it takes, life seems to have an instinctive sense of 'good' and 'bad', and an urge to move toward the good. Even an amoeba, the simplest form of life we know about, will move toward a food source and away from acid. Flowers turn toward the sun. Some birds and animals seem to do things simply because they're fun, not because they have any kind of survival function. And, given the choice, I will choose chocolate over aniseed ten times out of ten.
From this we can see two key aspects of life - awareness and responsiveness. I must say I'm not up on the current scientific consensus on what constitutes life, so maybe there are some exceptions to this (let me know in the comments if that's the case, I'd be interested!), but it seems to me that a key quality of life is to be in some way sensitive to what's going on nearby - to have some kind of receptive mechanism which can detect incoming signals and then adapt accordingly. In our case, we have our sense organs (in the classical Buddhist analysis, the six senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought; modern science has identified a few more), but as we know, different creatures have different ranges and types of sensitivity (bats can echolocate, dogs have very sensitive noses and so on). So living things have the capacity to receive information, but that wouldn't be much use unless they were also able to respond to it - and so I consider responsiveness to be another defining feature of life. And, as I commented above, that responsiveness seems to be basically oriented toward what's positive, and away from what's negative.
Here, we can see the raw material for wisdom and compassion, which we might say are the two defining qualities of Buddha Nature. Awareness, when suitably refined, can become wisdom - a deep knowing of what's going on which sees clearly and without delusion; and responsiveness, when purified of self-centred motivation and oriented toward the universal good, can manifest as compassion. We can see both of these qualities, in embryonic form, even in an amoeba - how much more so in ourselves?
Moment by moment, every living thing is doing its very best to sense what's going on around it and act accordingly, in a way which improves the situation. In fact, viewed that way, it doesn't even seem like so much of a stretch to acknowledge what mystics have been saying for thousands of years - that we live in the best of all possible worlds, a world which is the product of everything that exists trying its hardest to make this the best it can be.
Wait a second - this is the best of all possible worlds? Are you being serious right now?
I know this is a lot to swallow. Honestly, if it's true, in some ways it's a bit upsetting that the best we can collectively do is to create a world of injustice, war, plague, famine, climate change and all the rest of it. Bad things happen every single day, and I'm not trying to airbrush any of that away, or to say that we shouldn't work to address our collective problems but instead just throw in the towel and say 'Well, this is as good as it gets.' I'm sure we could do better in the future if we put our minds to it.
But rather than simply throwing out the ideas above because the supposedly 'best possible' reality is pretty awful at times, I'm going to suggest that it's worth looking a bit more closely at how the bad stuff comes into the world. And - unless you have developed the siddhis to the point that you can know the minds of others - it's probably easiest for us to start by examining our own less-than-spotless actions. (Believe it or not, I do have some myself. One or two.)
When I look at my own experience of life, it's clear that my mind/body system has the capacity to learn from experience. Things happen, and I remember at least some of them; when something really bad happens, it leaves a strong memory with a big flashing neon sign saying 'Don't do that again!' - especially when the memory is laid down early in life, when we're at our most impressionable. In my own case, I wasn't a particularly socially astute child, and made a lot of mistakes which caused others to make fun of me - and so my system learnt that, basically, 'people are scary'. In adult life, this manifests as a mild social anxiety, a dislike of large groups, and a kind of clumsiness when dealing with unfamiliar people. On a pretty primal level, something in me doesn't want to take the risk of getting hurt again, and so tries to steer me away from the kinds of situations where I used to get hurt a lot as a kid. Now, unfortunately the experience of the anxiety is actually pretty unpleasant for me, and it has negative consequences for my life as well, making it harder to meet new people and establish friendships. But it's still coming from a basically good place - from the desire to protect myself from what seems like the worse emotional pain that would result from yet another unsuccessful social encounter.
Another part of the developmental process also contributes to the twisting of our basically good nature into something less desirable. When we're born, we're totally dependent on others for support. It takes time to learn how to function independently, and part of that process is learning to focus our attention on this particular mind and body, separating it out from the rest of the world at large. That sense of separation comes to feel very strong and real, and as a result the needs of 'me' may become considerably more important than the needs of 'not me'. This isn't the case for everyone - if you grew up in a family situation where you always came last, you may feel the opposite, that everyone else is more important than you. But hopefully you get the broader point - that this journey toward independence sets up a situation where our initial impulse toward 'good' becomes strongly funnelled toward 'good for a particular person or group of people', rather than 'good for everyone'. Basically, we learn how to be selfish.
So what I see when I look at my worst moments is a situation where some kind of stress, pressure or pain had become so unbearable that something had to be done to try to escape the situation, and a kind of tunnel vision had developed in which my needs were all that mattered. In a situation like that, our actions can't help but be coming from a place of ignorance (because the tunnel vision cuts off the broader context of the needs of the people around us), and it's an easy setup for greed and/or hatred to be in the mix as well (to get the pleasant thing that we think will ease our pain, or to destroy the hated thing that we regard as the source of our pain).
Thus, injustice of all sorts - my group is much more important than your group, and so it's OK for my group to subjugate, exploit or kill yours, and so on.
Unclogging the hose pipe
I've done a couple of retreats at the beautiful Cloud Mountain retreat centre in the U.S., and one time I had a job which involved using a hose pipe to wash out the compost buckets each day. The trouble was, the retreat was in February, and it was incredibly cold, so most days the hose would be frozen solid when I came to take out the compost. I could turn on the tap as much as I liked, but no water came out. What I would have to do was work my way painstakingly along the length of the hose, flexing it back and forth in my hands to break up the ice into small pieces. This was a pretty painful process - it took a long time, and like I said it was really cold - but eventually I'd get to the point where the ice was broken up enough that I could turn on the tap, and little bits of ice would start to spit out of the end of the hose pipe. After a while, more and more ice would start to flood out of the hose, until finally the last of the ice would come rocketing out, and finally the water would flow freely.
Cultivating the seed of our Buddha Nature is a bit like unclogging that frozen hose pipe. The water is that pure, benevolent impulse at the very heart of life - and the ice is all of those twisted, frozen coping mechanisms and self-centred habits that we've learnt over the course of our lives, so tightly packed into the hose that the water doesn't seem to flow at all at first. But as we practise, we begin to break up the ice, and little by little, drip by drip, the water starts to make its way out of the hose. That process of purification can be pretty uncomfortable at times, but as the hose gets more and more cleared out, the water can flow more and more freely.
In actual practice, we find a couple of things starting to happen. One is a gradual 'broadening' of our awareness - we become more sensitive to the big picture, more aware of what's going on in the whole present moment rather than just the bits that affect us most. And, over time, we confront and release our defence mechanisms - as we sit with difficult emotions and memories, allowing them to be fully experienced without either suppressing them or allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by reactivity, they gradually work themselves out and let go of their icy grip on our hearts. (In many cases, we find that those defence mechanisms were trying to protect us from something which may well have been totally overwhelming when we were children, but which we can now handle as adults, even if we still don't enjoy the feeling much.)
And so, little by little, the ice begins to melt, and our Buddha Nature can flow forth freely.
Why so many great movies have a training montage
This week we're looking at case 28 in the Gateless Barrier, ‘Long Have I Heard’, and using it as a vehicle to take another look at Silent Illumination, spurred partly by a discussion at the end of last week's Wednesday class about the difference between Silent Illumination and concentration practices like jhana. So we'll start there, and use that as a jumping off point to dig into how Silent Illumination works, and what is (and is not) required of us in order to practise it, and as we go through we’ll link back to the central point of the koan - ‘even if you hit him with a stick, he won’t turn his head.’
Let’s get into it!
Silent Illumination versus body-based samadhi
If you've been to any of my Wednesday night classes in the last couple of years, you'll be familiar with Silent Illumination - it's the practice that opens each class, providing a bit of consistency week-to-week in a class which otherwise bounces around quite a bit from topic to topic. If you haven't come to one of those sessions (please do, you're most welcome and can attend for free via Zoom), you can get an idea of what we do from the Silent Illumination page on my website.
We start by setting up the posture, then take a couple of deep breaths, and relax the body on each exhalation. Then we scan slowly down through the body, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet, gradually feeling into each body part in turn and then allowing any unnecessary tension to relax and release. After that, we open up the awareness to take in the whole body, and drop the intention to relax. Then we simply sit, aware of the body as it sits and breathes. Sometimes, we'll go a step further and open up the awareness completely, becoming equally aware of our body, our surroundings, and our mental activity - but I get a lot of new people coming through the class, and that last step can be tricky, so we'll often simply stay with the body awareness for that first (relatively short) sit.
Last week I was talking about early Buddhist concentration practice, and at the end of the class we did a body-based samadhi practice, focusing on the sensations of the body with the intention of cultivating mental stability and (maybe, eventually) finding a way in to jhana through that portal. (If that means nothing to you, it wouldn't hurt to skim last week's article, because I'm about to contrast that practice with Silent Illumination.)
At the end, someone asked how that body-based samadhi practice was different to Silent Illumination. Both involve awareness of the total field of body sensations, after all - so what's the difference? I'd made a big deal about how early Buddhism separates out samadhi and insight practices whereas Zen cultivates both at once, and yet here's this iconic Zen practice that looks a lot like the samadhi one. What gives?
This is a great question (thanks, Alex!). To answer it, let's first unpack what we mean by 'meditation' a bit. In any meditation practice, we have two elements: an object, and an intention. The object is the 'focus' of the practice, or (somewhat crudely) 'what you're paying attention to'. The intention is how you relate to that object, or (very crudely) 'what you're doing with it'. Most of the time, any object can be used with any intention.
Some example objects (not an exhaustive list!):
Some example intentions:
The first of these intentions is the cultivation of samadhi, aka 'concentration practice'. The second of these intentions is one way of cultivating wisdom, aka 'insight practice'. Either of these intentions can be pursued with any of the example objects given above, or plenty more besides. So, for last week's practice, the object we were using was the body sensations, and the intention was the cultivation of samadhi. In Silent Illumination, the object is either the body sensations or the total field of awareness - but what's the intention?
'Just sitting' - the intention of doing nothing
Silent Illumination is also known as shikantaza, which literally means 'just sitting'. The 'just' is a very strong, emphatic JUST - in other words, 'sitting AND ONLY SITTING, not doing anything else!', as opposed to the kind of 'just sitting' that you might do on the sofa on a lazy Sunday afternoon when it's raining outside and you can't be bothered to get up.
Many meditation practices involve trying to cultivate something in an active way - developing attentional stability in samadhi practice, or nurturing a positive emotion in Brahmavihara practice, for example. Silent Illumination goes in the other direction, aiming at non-doing. Sometimes we describe it as 'being aware of the body', but awareness isn't something we actually do - awareness happens all by itself, spontaneously. Check it out! You don't require the slightest effort in order to hear sounds around you. All that is required for you to hear the sounds from your surroundings is that you are not so focused on something else that the sounds drop away.
When we focus on something in particular, we shine a spotlight on that particular object, and the act of shining that light casts a shadow on everything else in our experience. The more focused we are on one thing, the less consciously aware we are of everything else - and, in the extreme case of samadhi practice, we become totally focused on the object, to the exclusion of everything else. In contrast, in Silent Illumination, we aim to focus on nothing, to do nothing in particular, so that we can be effortlessly aware of everything that happens.
The problem is, doing nothing is really hard! As it turns out, our minds have many, many habits, and in particular will invent things to do when there's nothing going on. Neuroscientists study the brain's 'Default Mode Network', which is a circuit that lights up when we aren't engaged in a particular activity, and results in mind-wandering and self-referential thought. In Silent Illumination we effectively train ourselves to replace that 'default mind-wandering' with a kind of 'default present-moment awareness'.
This is why many Zen teachers will use the body as a focus in Silent Illumination/shikantaza. At first, the habit-energy of mind wandering is incredibly strong, and having no specific object of focus at all is too ungrounded - 'just sitting' becomes 'just mind-wandering', and the practice loses its value. By inviting the mind to rest on a specific object, we engage a bit of the 'Task-Positive Network', which counteracts the Default Mode Network and allows the mind to settle more easily. At a certain point, the mind has settled enough that the focus on the body is no longer needed (and, indeed, starts to feel a bit onerous), and the mind naturally relaxes and opens up to the total experience. In effect, we use the body focus as a kind of 'training wheels' to get us to where we want to go a little more easily than trying to jump directly there without any support at all.
Even when we're using the body, however, the intention is still different to how we used the body in our samadhi practice. In samadhi, the focus is exclusively on the body - everything else is forgotten. In Silent Illumination, the body is in the 'foreground', but sights, sounds, thoughts etc. continue in the 'background' - we simply aren't giving them our conscious attention. And when the focus on the body is let go, all aspects of our experience have equal prominence - no foreground or background, just experience unfolding.
Why does doing nothing help?
But what's the big deal about doing nothing anyway? Why would we want to learn such a thing? Many people are attracted to meditation because of the advertised 'benefits' - you do this thing, and you get this reward in return. Particularly for results-oriented people (such as I was when I first took up Zen), Silent Illumination doesn't make a lot of sense - we find ourselves waiting for the next instruction, wondering when we're going to be told what to do.
Now, don't get me wrong. Results-oriented practice totally has its place, and 'active' meditation techniques (samadhi/jhana, Brahmavihara, early Buddhist insight practices, koans - basically anything apart from Silent Illumination!) are great. I've used them myself to great effect - part of the reason I teach is because, after a while, I'd benefitted so much from what I'd learnt that I started to feel selfish not sharing it with others. Finding cool stuff and showing it to other people is pretty much how I make my way through the world, so teaching meditation became a natural extension of that.
At the same time, though, the 'active' approach has its limitations. In particular, it can potentially reinforce the idea of a discrete 'me' living in my head somewhere, totally disconnected from the rest of the universe, which is doing all this stuff by itself. While there's some truth to this way of looking at things, we also discover as we get deeper into the practice is that there are important ways in which we're not separate from the universe at all. It can be difficult to accept that way of looking at things if we're too wedded to the idea of 'self-power'.
Too much emphasis on 'me doing stuff' can also turn meditation into a self-improvement project, and even give us the idea that we can meditate our way out of every problem, every difficult situation in our lives that we don't want to face. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work like that - we still have to pay the bills, take showers and poop from time to time. People we love will die, and things that we love dearly will change and vanish. Life is unsatisfactory at times. And in the worst case, a meditation practice can turn into an avoidance strategy, a way of running away from the things we really don't want to face.
This is where it can be incredibly powerful to learn to do nothing - to relax that constant subliminal urge to be in motion, and simply sit, at rest. Simultaneously, we must allow whatever arises to come into our awareness and be accepted, open-handedly and compassionately; at the same time, we must allow whatever reactivity may arise to pass away again without acting on it. In short, even if someone hits us with a stick while we’re meditating, we must not turn our heads.
In order to learn to do nothing, we must figure out two 'tricks':
Language is tricky here. It's very easy for this to sound like 'here's what you have to do' - but, actually, both of these are types of stopping doing something which is already taking place. You can use active language to talk about 'relaxing a muscle', but really what's required is to stop tensing the muscle. In the same way, the first point above is about stopping feeding whatever mental process you've noticed - letting go of that train of thought, disengaging from the desire to think more about the person who wronged you, etc. - and the second, subtler, point is about letting go of a whole layer of mental processing which shapes the way we see the world.
The first one is closely related to the core skill of any meditation technique - noticing when the mind has wandered, and coming back. But the key here is that we're not coming back to doing something actively (e.g. actively focusing on the cultivation of loving kindness) - we're simply dropping the mental activity, and that's it. (This is not to be confused with actively suppressing mental activity, which is just another form of doing.)
This first skill can be a real game-changer. Learning to see what's coming up in your mind and simply not engage with it - without 'distracting yourself' or 'substituting a positive thought' or anything else at all - is an incredibly valuable skill, and can get you through some incredibly hard times. (Again, this is not to be confused with 'spiritual bypassing' or deliberately avoiding engagement with things that do need our attention. It's about refusing to get angry as that painful, humiliating memory comes up for the hundredth time, refusing to play the mind's games as it tries to draw you into distraction. ‘Not turning your head’ is only one side of the story - the other side is taking appropriate action in the world, as we’ve seen in other koans like case 11. But in order to have the freedom to act in that way, we need to cultivate this bedrock of acceptance and non-reactivity.)
The second one relates to our salience landscape - the way we see the world in terms of what's relevant to us and our interests. We commonly look at the world through the lens of our preferences - I like this and want more of it, I don't like that and want it to go away, I don't care about that so I'll ignore it. The desire to move towards the positive and away from the negative creates a subtle sense of unease, a constant undercurrent pushing and pulling us around.
It turns out that we're able to let that activity go, and let things be as they are. In Zen circles, this is sometimes called seeing the world 'objectively' rather than 'subjectively'. It isn't that you suddenly get a third-person view of the world, like your point of view floats up to the ceiling to look down on the room. Rather, you simply see the world without that extra layer of '...and this is how it relates to me'. It has to be experienced to make sense, really, but take it from me that it's pretty great to experience the world without self-concern.
The need for a montage
The final thing (for now!) that's so great about learning to do nothing at all is that it's a great way to build up kshanti, one of the six paramitas - virtues or qualities which are regarded as especially helpful when following the Zen path. Kshanti is usually translated as patience, tolerance or forebearance, although personally I tend to think of it as something like 'endurance'. The unfortunate truth - particularly for those of us who are used to 'efforting' our way through life - is that some things just take time. The pizza that's in my fridge is going to take 12 minutes to cook. If I turn up the heat to try to cook it faster, I'll end up with a burnt pizza, not quicker food. In the same way, while it may seem like meditation is something we 'do', it's perhaps better to think of it as setting up the conditions for changes to take place, and then waiting for those changes to happen.
Training montages are less fashionable in movies than they used to be (a lot of modern Hollywood writing seems to push the idea that people should be instantly amazing at everything, which I regard as a pretty poisonous idea), but they were there for a reason. Learning a skill takes time - it isn't enough to get the information, it has to be ingrained in the body through repetition. It's easy for me to say 'oh, just notice when your mind is doing something and drop it', but it will probably take a lot of time for you to figure out how to do that, and even saying it that way is misleading - it isn't that one day you're going to wake up with the answer in your head like you've solved a mathematical equation and now know the value of x, and boom, that's your Zen practice sorted. Instead, as you sit in Silent Illumination day after day, week after week, year after year, your mind will figure out how to conform to the intention that you bring to your practice... eventually. You can't force it, and while practising more will help a bit, it's going to be a marathon rather than a sprint.
It turns out that developing this 'endurance' mentality has side benefits as well. As your practice deepens, sooner or later you'll pass through periods of purification - times when buried psychological material will surface and demand to be dealt with. Sometimes this material is traumatic enough that the assistance of a therapist can be necessary (if in doubt, please play it safe), but in many cases all that's really required is to allow whatever is buried there to come up into the light of awareness and be fully felt and experienced. A thousand and one small hurts from years ago that we pushed down at the time each need to have their moment in the sun before we can really let them go.
If we're not careful, we can easily prolong our misery here by pushing that stuff back down again, or by trying to 'meditate it away' with the secret intention of not having to deal with it. Ultimately, we need to arrive at a genuine place of acceptance before it will really lose its emotional charge, and it can really help us to get there if we've already developed a strong practice of sitting with whatever's going on without interfering with it - not letting ourselves get sucked into seductive trains of thought, but not pushing them away either. If we're able to do that, then we may be able to sit with whatever painful material is arising long enough to feel it fully and finally let it go. Sometimes having a specific technique ('pay attention to how it feels in the body', 'bring compassion to the memory', etc.) can provide just a bit of support to enable us to stay with the really difficult stuff, provided we're able to wield that technique without it turning into another avoidance strategy. At the end of the day, though, that pizza still needs 12 minutes to cook, whether or not I do a fancy dance in front of the oven while it's in there.
Take the 100-day challenge!
By nature, I tend toward restlessness and doubt in my own practice. I've lost count of how many times I've picked up a new meditation technique or qigong form, done it two or three times, and then announced 'nothing's happening, maybe I'm doing it wrong, maybe it just doesn't work'. Like sticking a pizza in the oven for five seconds and then complaining that the cheese hasn't melted yet and chucking the whole thing in the bin, this is not a recipe for success. So I've found it helpful from time to time to make a strong commitment to a particular period of practice (usually a little longer than feels entirely comfortable for me, but not ridiculously long) and really do my best to stick to it. In Zen, 100 days is a traditional length of time, as well as being comfortably above the various thresholds for habit formation and behaviour change reported by scientists.
So why not take a 100-day Silent Illumination challenge? If you start on the day I post this article (Thursday 17th November), your last day will be Friday February 24th. It sounds like a long time away, but it'll come sooner than you think! And in the meantime, you'll have had 100 days to create the conditions for your mind and body to learn to 'just sit', not doing anything in particular. If you're totally new to the practice, start with the body focus; if you're more experienced, just follow your intuition. The attitude to have here is using this period of time to let your mind and body figure it out for themselves, rather than you making something happen through sheer force of will.
Let the pizza cook, and enjoy your meal when it's ready!
Why practise jhana?
This week we're going to be looking at one of the most beautiful meditation practices I know - the practice of jhana.
I've written about jhana a couple of times before. I have an article which describes what the jhanas are and how to start learning them, and there's a page in the Early Buddhism section which describes how to move from one jhana to the next. So why am I doing another article on the subject?
Well, for one thing, I'm a jhana teacher, so the subject is going to come up from time to time! But for another, it may be interesting to take a look at some different motivations for learning jhana. It can take a while to find your way into jhana for the first time (it's best learnt on a silent retreat, such as the one that Leigh Brasington and I are teaching next June on Zoom), and you could instead be spending that time doing insight practice, cultivating an open heart, chewing on a koan or doing pretty much anything else. So why bother?
Jhana in context
The early Buddhist path is sometimes described as consisting of three factors, or 'three trainings': sīla, samādhi, pañña.
Sīla refers to ethical conduct, and includes adherence to the precepts (see the Right Action section in this article), but also living a kind, compassionate life in general.
Samādhi refers to training the mind. The word 'samādhi' means something like 'gathering together' or 'collecting'; samādhi practices involve training the mind to focus, to 'gather together' with an object of attention and become stable.
Pañña refers to developing wisdom - coming to see what's really going on, shedding delusion, overcoming self-deception, waking up to who and what we really are.
In the early Buddhist discourses, you'll often find these three trainings unpacked into a longer format known as the 'gradual training'. See, for example, Digha Nikaya 2 - skip down to the section titled 'The More Excellent Fruits of Recluseship' for the start of the gradual training, which then goes all the way to the penultimate section - it ends immediately before 'King Ajatasattu Declares Himself a Lay Follower'. Don't feel obliged to read the whole thing now, though - it's massive, and I'm going to give an overview.
A bird's eye view of the gradual training
The training starts with the arising of a Tathagata - a fully awakened Buddha, who appears in the world to teach. In other words, it really helps to have a competent teacher before you start trying to get enlightened, because it's hard and it takes a long time, and without an experienced guide you're going to spend a lot of time floundering.
The next step that's given in the traditional exposition of the gradual training is to become a monk or nun - shave your hair, leave home, give away all your money, and so forth. It's worth remembering that these early Buddhist discourses were preserved by, and often given to, a monastic audience, so it's very common to find a strong emphasis on the monastic lifestyle. In the 21st century, however, non-monastic but still serious forms of practice have become the dominant mode in the Western world - that's how I practise!
In any case, having made the decision to practise seriously, one then 'lives restrained' - by the precepts, and by an ethical code of conduct more generally.
At this point, DN2 has not one but three progressively more detailed sections on ethical conduct, which you can read if you'd like to see what was considered unethical at the time of the Buddha. I wouldn't take this too literally, but it's well worth taking some time every once in a while to reflect on ethics, and whether you are living the life that you aspire to live, as opposed to following a path of least resistance.
Sorting out one's ethics is good in its own right, but it's also very helpful for the subsequent stages of the gradual training. Generally speaking, an ethical life has fewer worries and regrets than an unethical one, and so the mind will be less troubled and quicker to settle when we meditate.
Training the mind is the next step - we now begin to move into the samādhi portion of the training. We're invited to live with senses restrained (not chasing after every source of pleasure that presents itself to us, which, again, has an agitating effect), to cultivate mindfulness and clear comprehension (to be present here and now, and aware of what's going on), to cultivate contentment with little, and to abandon the Hindrances.
So now you're living with senses restrained, having abandoned the Hindrances, and you're developing mindfulness. At that point, you're ready for jhana practice!
Quite secluded from sense pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, one enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion.
With the subsiding of thought and examination, one enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration.
With the fading away as well of rapture, one dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, one experiences happiness with the body; one enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘That one is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’
With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, one enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity.
After the jhanas, we move into the pañña section, with an invitation to practise insight meditation:
When one's mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright, unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady and attained to imperturbability, one directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision. One understands thus: ‘This is my body, having material form, composed of the four primary elements, originating from father and mother, built up out of rice and gruel, impermanent, subject to rubbing and pressing, to dissolution and dispersion. And this is my consciousness, supported by it and bound up with it.’
The section on pañña ends with the ultimate 'goal' of the early Buddhist path - awakening, and the total overcoming of suffering.
The function of jhana in the gradual training
As we can see from what's above, the jhanas are the Empire Strikes Back of the gradual training - the super-awesome bit in the middle, very cool in their own right, but not something intended to stand alone. Rather, the jhanas are empowered by what came before them (the training in ethics and the cultivation of basic mindfulness), and they flow into what comes next (the cultivation of wisdom through insight practice).
Seen in this way, we can understand jhana as a powerful form of mind-training which takes us well beyond simple mindfulness practices, giving us a mind which is 'pure and bright, unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability'. That's a pretty powerful mind right there.
Now, many modern teachers offer what's called 'dry insight' - that is, jumping straight into insight practice without having done any samādhi practice beforehand. Does it work? That wasn't my path, but it seems to. So why bother with jhana, rather than just jumping straight into insight - after all, if the point is to get enlightened, and insight practice is what does that, then why waste time on jhana?
The analogy my teacher Leigh uses is this. Suppose you want to cut through a wooden table, and all you have is a butter knife. You can probably do it, but it's going to take a long time, and there will probably be many, many occasions when you start to wish you'd just left the damn table alone.
Now suppose you get a whetstone and start sharpening your butter knife. Surely you're wasting your time - while you're sharpening, you're not doing any cutting! But once you've sharpened that knife and you finally start cutting the table, it's going to go much, much faster - and you'll make back all of the time you 'wasted', and then some. The cutting process will also be easier and less painful, because you have a better tool for the job. Of course, over time the knife will get blunt and will need to be sharpened again, but that's okay - you can alternate sharpening and cutting, sharpening and cutting.
Meditation is like this too. Effective insight practice requires us to see very clearly what's going on in our minds, even when what there's to be seen is not what we might want it to be. That's a hard thing to do. For one, our minds wander a lot - remember the first time you tried to pay attention to your breath for ten minutes. For another, some of the stuff that will come up in insight practice is downright unsettling (as you may have discovered if you've worked with a practice such as the Five Daily Reflections) - and when it gets too much, your mind may revolt and refuse to look any further.
Jhana practice (and samādhi practice in general) helps with both of these obstacles. As the mind becomes focused and unified, it wanders less - so we're better able to stay with the insight practice, and see more clearly what's coming up. And it's more stable - imperturbable, as the discourse says - which means that when difficult or unpleasant stuff does come up, we can stay the course rather than hitting the emergency stop button.
My own experience was that learning the jhanas was a massive force multiplier for my insight practice. Prior to learning jhana, I'd had a few bits and pieces come up. After learning jhana, insight practice changed my whole life. And that's not just my experience - I've spoken to many others at this point who've found the same thing.
So this is one reason to learn jhana - because it's the crucial 'middle bit' of the path, the mind-training which makes your insight practice (and everything else you do) much more effective. But it isn't the only reason!
Jhana as an inner resource
Much of our conventional lives is spent trying to arrange our external circumstances to our liking - and that's a never-ending task. No sooner than we've solved one problem, another springs up from nowhere. Usually we have several on the go at once - at least that's how my life seems to be!
Basically, we want to be happy. Happiness feels good, and so we try to pursue happiness through things that make us feel good - food and drink, entertainment, sex, money, whatever it might be. But the things out there that make us feel good are unreliable, and so our happiness wavers and wobbles.
When we learn jhana (or other practices in the samādhi family, like the Brahmaviharas), we find another source of good feelings - one that's internally generated. We don't need to buy anything to do jhana; we just need to sit down and return to that place within ourselves where we find the jhana waiting for us. Rapture, joy, contentment, peace - all of these things are already within us, just waiting for us to tap into them.
Learning that we can tap into these qualities on demand can really help to reduce our craving for external sources of pleasure. Personally, I still enjoy my external sources of pleasure as well! But if I can't get something I wanted, it's nowhere near as big a deal as it used to be. (Jhana isn't the only aspect of practice which helps here, of course, but it's a biggie.)
Healing psychological wounds through jhana
There can also be a kind of healing associated with jhana practice. Many of us feel a sense of deep lack or inadequacy - a fundamental sorrow, discontent or agitation - and the jhanas can help us to address this.
If you feel deeply sad, learn to sit in the second jhana for an hour or more, bathing and marinating in the sweet, pure joy of the jhana - let that joy seep into every nook and cranny of your being, filling every void until there's no more space left. If you feel inadequate or discontented, how is it to sit in the third jhana over and over, resting in pure, wishless contentment, feeling beyond doubt that everything is fine just the way it is, at least for that moment? If you always feel like you should be doing something else, something more, then what happens if you totally immerse yourself in the peace and equanimity of the fourth jhana, over and over, for longer and longer stretches until your mind finally relaxes?
At this point, it's important to say that jhana practice is not a total solution to suffering and discontent - it's rightly presented as one of three aspects of practice in the gradual training precisely because it isn't a complete practice in itself. The Buddha himself found that jhana was not the answer to suffering because, when he emerged from his jhana practice, his suffering would return.
Even so, I and others have found real benefits in allowing ourselves to rest in jhana for extended periods, so long as it's part of a balanced diet, so to speak. If nothing else, it really can't hurt to spend an hour or two in the second or third jhana to see what effect it has.
OK, I'm convinced, I want to learn the jhanas!
Learning jhana at home can be done, but it's tough - I know people who've done it, but I'm not one of them. For me, I've found that a silent retreat of 10+ days is a much more supportive environment.
As I mentioned above, I'll be co-teaching a jhana retreat next June, which you're welcome to attend if you meet the prerequisites. My teacher Leigh runs many jhana retreats each year, so if you can't make the one in June, take a look at his retreats page to see what he's got coming up. Other teachers I would recommend from my own experience include Mary Aubry, Jason Bartlett and Tara-Lloyd Burton.
Leigh also has a book, Right Concentration, which goes into lots of detail about jhana practice - if you're at all interested in this practice, you owe it to yourself to get a copy.
May your jhana practice be fruitful!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!