Training the mind
This article is the final one in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're taking a look at the eighth factor of the path, right concentration. In the quotation above, the Buddha explains right concentration as the practice of the four jhanas - altered states of consciousness which we can train ourselves to enter through diligent practice. I've written about jhana several times before (giving detailed instructions here, setting the jhanas in the context of the wider path here, and looking at the so-called 'higher' or 'formless' jhanas here), so rather than repeat that material here, I'll instead try to give a sense of my current understanding of what the jhanas actually are, what function they serve in the context of the Eightfold Path, and then take a look at how some other traditions have arrived at different solutions to the same problems.
What actually are the jhanas anyway?
The jhanas are altered states of consciousness that can be entered through meditation. Each has a number of associated 'factors', but at a high level, the first jhana is a state of strong bodily bliss, the second jhana is a state of strong emotional joy or happiness, the third jhana is a state of quiet contentment, and the fourth jhana is a state of deep peace and equanimity. (I go into much more detail about the jhana factors here.)
The jhanas are sometimes described as 'concentration states', and they're strongly associated with samadhi practice, often called 'concentration meditation'. The basic idea with samadhi practice is to rest your attention on an object, and when you notice that your mind has wandered, let go of the distraction, relax, and come back to the object. Rinse and repeat until the mind wanders less and less - there's often a kind of tipping point when you notice that you aren't really getting distracted any more (a state which my teacher Leigh Brasington would call 'access concentration'). Following the instructions from this article, you can then enter the first jhana - at least, the way Leigh and I teach it.
It turns out that this is not the only interpretation of jhana. Some teachers require a much, much deeper level of concentration than what's described above before they're willing to call the resulting state 'jhana' - see the work of teachers like Pa Auk Sayadaw, Tina Rasmussen and Beth Upton for examples. And other teachers require less concentration, such as Bhante Vimalaramsi, because they want to use their version of the jhanas to do things that are difficult to do when the mind is more deeply concentrated. And to cap it all, every teacher worth their salt will tell you that their version of the jhanas is what the Buddha really taught, accept no imitations! What's a meditator to do?
My impression now, after ten years of jhana practice in Leigh's style and having dabbled a bit with a few other approaches (both a bit lighter and a bit deeper - I haven't gone really deep, so if you'll only accept the deepest of the deep, you can stop reading now!), is that it isn't really accurate to call the jhanas 'concentration states'. I say that because I can enter an altered state of consciousness which is recognisably one of the jhanas at will, without having first done the preparatory practice to stabilise my mind and build up concentration. The resulting state is weak, unclear and easily lost, but is still clearly whichever jhana I was aiming for - it's the same state, just with substantially less concentration. If I build up more concentration first, I go into a version of the jhana which looks exactly like what Leigh taught me. If I build up even more concentration first, the phenomenology starts to resemble some of the deeper jhanas taught by other teachers. And I presume that if I built up incredibly strong concentration, I would end up in the version of the jhanas taught by Pa Auk and friends.
So if the jhanas aren't 'concentration states', why do they come under the heading of 'right concentration', and why are they taught on 'concentration retreats'?
Well, for one, it's very helpful to have a concentrated mind to learn the jhanas in the first place. When you're first learning the practice, you're asking your mind to go somewhere unfamiliar, and that's a difficult thing to do. It's very helpful to have stabilised the mind beforehand so that it's less prone to wandering - otherwise you'll probably fall out of the state before you've had a chance to get used to it. Once you've become more familiar with the jhana, you'll probably find that you can intuitively 'incline' your mind toward it, and enter the jhana with less concentration than it took when you were first learning.
Secondly, and more relevantly for the Eightfold Path, the jhanas are also a fabulous way to deepen your concentration. Fundamentally, the jhanas are states of enhanced wellbeing - they're nice states that the mind likes to inhabit. Bliss, joy, contentment, peace - these are good places to be, so once the mind figures out how to find them, it gets easier to stay there for long periods. While you're in the jhana, you're focused on the qualities of the jhana itself, and so the mind will tend to be even less prone to distraction than it was previously, and thus become more deeply concentrated. The stillness and clarity of the mind coming out of the fourth jhana is typically much stronger than the stillness and clarity of a mind which has spent the same length of time in access concentration.
So concentration helps us to find the jhanas in the first place, and then in turn the jhanas help us to deepen our concentration further. That sounds like a solid definition of 'right concentration' to me.
Other interpretations of right concentration
As I mentioned above, some teachers have extremely high standards for jhana - high enough that most people don't have the time or even the capacity to develop concentration deep enough to meet their requirements. Perhaps as a result, you'll now find many teachers who will say that jhana isn't necessary at all, or even that it's a bad idea - just another cause for attachment. (To that I would say - can you get attached to the jhanas and start using them just to get high? Sure. Don't do that. There are lots of ways to misuse spiritual practice, but that doesn't mean you should reject the whole thing. That's like saying that because you might burn yourself on a flame, everyone should eat all their food raw all the time to avoid the terrible risk of getting burned. Raw food is fine if that's what you're into, but you could alternatively learn not to burn yourself and then enjoy cooked food. To each their own.)
At the extreme end of the spectrum, you'll find teachers offering what's usually called 'dry insight'. This approach doesn't have any 'concentration practice' per se - students will simply go directly into an ***insight practice. (See, for example, Mahasi noting.) But now these teachers have a problem, because 'right concentration' is one of the aspects of the Eightfold Path, and they've deleted the concentration practice.
Their solution is to emphasise 'momentary concentration', or 'khanika samadhi'. This is the type of concentration needed to stay focused on a complex, moving task - such as noting the arising and/or passing away of every sensation in your sensory experience. By comparison, the type of concentration I described above - putting your attention on one object and staying with it for a prolonged period - can be called 'one-pointed samadhi'. The noting practice is not one-pointed - since you're moving your attention from one sensation to another in order to note it - but you do nevertheless stay engaged in the (moving) practice for an extended period of time, so there's a kind of 'concentration' there.
The 'momentary concentration' approach has a couple of advantages. First, it's simpler - you only have one type of practice to do (your insight practice), rather than two. Second, some people have a really hard time focusing the mind, and so find one-pointed samadhi practice to be pretty unbearable. Being given permission to 'skip' the concentration can actually be really helpful in a circumstance like that, because it allows the practitioner to focus on their strengths rather than having to suffer through their weaknesses.
Another, more middle-ground, approach to redefining 'right concentration' is to make some effort to develop one-pointed concentration, but to omit any mention of jhana. (See, for example, the concentration practice in the Goenka tradition, which builds one-pointed concentration on the breath without referencing jhana at all.) Again, this has some advantages. Most practitioners will develop more concentration this way than through the 'dry insight' route, which will in turn make their insight practice deeper and more impactful. And by omitting any mention of jhanas, there's no need to learn altered states of consciousness which - depending on whose definition you're using - may be difficult or even unattainable.
Needless to say, I'm a fan of the jhanas! They really helped me, and I've seen them help plenty of other people too. But I've also seen people do well in other styles of practice too, so - despite the quotation at the top of the article - I don't want to give the impression that I think you'll go straight to Buddhist hell if you don't learn the jhanas right away. (Even so, I'd encourage you to give them a try! Come on a retreat with Leigh or me and see what happens. I'm currently hoping to arrange some retreats in Europe over the next few years, and I'd like some people to come to them - maybe you could help me out here?)
What does Zen make of all this?
Amusingly enough, although the words 'Zen' and 'jhana' actually come from the same root (Pali 'jhana' -> Sanskrit 'dhyana' -> Chinese 'chan'na', shortened to 'chan' -> Japanese 'zen'), the Zen tradition tends not to teach the jhanas, at least not openly.
It's actually very common for meditators of all traditions to stumble into the jhanas - I recently met a guy who said he was interested in them but had no idea how to get there, and when I asked him about his practice it was clear that he'd been in at least the first jhana many times without recognising it. In the case of Zen, though, the teacher will typically show little interest in reports of altered states of consciousness, saying something like 'Oh yes, that happens from time to time, just let it come and go like everything else.' Within the Soto tradition there's a much greater emphasis on 'ordinariness' and integration into daily life, while Rinzai Zennies are usually more interested in insight, kensho and satori than altered states which are not themselves intrinsically insight-producing. (Another risk of jhana is that people might mistake them for insights, because 'look, something's happening!' - again, in my mind, that's an argument in favour of teaching the jhanas openly, so that practitioners know what's happening, rather than concealing or demonising them, but whatever.)
As far as Zen is concerned, though, it's also worth noting that there's perhaps a little less need for a jhana practice in that context than in the early Buddhist context. Many of the insight practices in early Buddhism (and the Theravada tradition that developed out of it) place great emphasis on noticing impermanence and unreliability - and it can be unsettling or even destabilising to notice these things directly. Spending time cultivating the jhanas sharpens the mind, allowing you to notice impermanence more easily, but also stabilises it, allowing you to face aspects of your experience which would be unnerving or upsetting under normal circumstances, but which are easier to bear with the equanimity cultivated through samadhi. So you end up with two practices: samadhi to stabilise the mind, then insight which unsettles it, then back to samadhi to restore the stability, then back to insight to keep digging deeper, and so on.
By comparison, Zen's two major practices are Silent Illumination and working with a koan.
Silent Illumination can actually be defined as a balance of stillness (the silence, aka samadhi) and clarity (the illumination, aka insight). We stabilise our attention on the totality of the present moment and allow it to reveal itself to us more and more deeply - we aren't particularly focusing on impermanence or unreliability, or deconstructing anything, we're not actually doing anything apart from simply remaining aware. Individual moments of insight may have a destabilising effect, but the practice itself doesn't have an intrinsically abrading effect on the mind's calmness - quite the opposite.
Working with a koan can be a bumpier process, especially at first, when asking the question is bringing up all kinds of thoughts and ideas. But the key is that we don't do anything with whatever comes up - we simply notice it, let it go, and then ask the question again. Over time this has a kind of 'winnowing' effect, ultimately allowing the mind to become focused on the questioning itself rather than whatever 'answers' might be coming up. This focus on 'wanting to know' (sometimes called Great Doubt in the Zen tradition) should be balanced with a kind of radical openness, a willingness to receive an answer in any form, from any direction, at any moment. Thus, again, we have a balance of stillness (the focus on the questioning) and clarity (the receptivity to whatever may come up) - incorporating both 'concentration' and 'insight' into one practice.
So what exactly is 'right concentration'?
Well, if you're a purist, and you want to go with what the Buddha is reported to have said in the Pali Canon, then click on the link at the top of this article and check out Samyutta Nikaya 45.8 - and you'll find right concentration defined in terms of the four jhanas. You can use the resources on this website, or buy Leigh Brasington's excellent book Right Concentration, or (best of all) come on a retreat with Leigh or me and give it a go. (In fact, you can do any of those things even if you aren't a purist!)
If you're more inclined to the Zen way of things, then the key is to ensure that your practice includes both aspects - the silence and the illumination, the questioning and the receptivity.
More generally, any amount of concentration, of any sort, is likely to strengthen your insight practice - so even if you aren't interested in jhana, it's worth taking a look at how concentration might manifest itself in your practice. It's in the Eightfold Path for a reason!
The end of the Eightfold Path?
So, this brings us to the end of this article, and this series. Like I said at the start, though, the Eightfold Path isn't really sequential - you don't start with right view or end with right concentration. All eight aspects are to be practised as part of one holistic path. Different aspects will come to the fore at different times - but they're all helpful in their own ways. It can be interesting to reflect on this from time to time - are there aspects of the path where you're stronger, aspects which don't get so much attention? What might happen if you spent some time focusing on a neglected aspect of the path? And what does each aspect mean to you - not just in terms of the 'textbook' definition, but as an actual, living practice?
How might the Eightfold Path manifest itself in your life?
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!