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!