Part 3: Controversy around the practicing of the Jhanas

[ Back to part 1: what are the Jhanas, or stages of meditation?]
[ Back to part 2: Practicing the Jhanas]

Since the time of the Buddha, attitudes towards the Jhanas have varied greatly. There is strong evidence in the Suttas that quite early on there were at least two schools of thought. 

One approach emphasized insight practice almost exclusively, feeling that since insight gives rise to the wisdom necessary for enlightenment, this was what was more important. An excellent example of a sutra reflecting this approach is the Sammaditthi Sutra (Majjhima Nikaya #9). Here Sariputta gives a beautiful discourse on Right View. He discussed 16 important topics and ends each topic by saying "When a noble disciple has thus understood [the topic], he uproots the underlying tendency to greed, hatred, the 'I am' conceit and ignorance, and arousing true knowledge he here and now makes an end of suffering." Here enlightenment is achieved solely through insights; the Jhanas are not even mentioned.

Another school of thought gave considerable importance to the Jhanas. Those using this approach practiced the Jhanas so deeply that they developed what is called in Sanskrit Siddhi, that is, supernatural powers. These Siddhis, such as the divine ear (telepathy), being in two places at once, (bi-location), remembering past lives, etc., may be seen as phenomena in which the person is tapping into the "collective unconscious." This approach to Enlightenment can be found in the Kevatta Sutra. 

The Buddha first teaches morality and then the Jhanas. From the concentration resulting from the Jhanas, "one applies and directs the mind" to the attainment of these Siddhis. Enlightenment is attained in exactly the same way as the divine ear; there is no discussion of insights other than "knowing and seeing". This "formula" appears in each of these eleven suttas in almost exactly the same way -- something to be expected in an oral tradition -- but which means that we cannot be sure of what was originally in the sutra before the formula was inserted. Insight is barely mentioned in this method. Here Enlightenment is achieved through developing paranormal powers. We can assume that Enlightenment arises in one who has developed sufficent intimate contact with the collective unconscious that one can no longer concieve of himself as a separate entity.

The Culasaropama Sutra (Majjhima Nikaya #30) in addition to being an excellent teaching on the dangers of spiritual materialism, also refers to the Jhanas. However, it shows signs that suggest the text has been altered. Its beautiful mathematical harmony of the sutra suddenly breaks down in section 12 with a discussion of the Jhanas. The Jhanas are a concentration practice and concentration has already been stated in section 10 to be a lesser state than knowledge and vision. But when the Jhanas are introduced in section 12, they are said to be "higher and more sublime than knowledge and vision." The inclusion of the Jhanas here actually makes the sutta self-contradictory. It also contradicts other pro-Jhana sutras. The formulation of the eight Jhanas is the standard "short" one, (similiar to what is found in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta) but with the addition of a last sentence in each of the paragraphs: "This [too] is a state higher and more sublime than knowledge and vision." This sentence directly contradicts the last sentence of section 84 of the Samannaphala Sutta (Digha Nikaya #2). In the previous paragraph of the Samannaphala Sutta, the recluse directs the concentrated, pure, bright mind resulting from the fourth Jhana towards knowledge and vision. The understanding gained "is a visible fruit of recluseship more excellent and sublime than the previous ones". Many other suttas show signs of this type of tampering and we are left today with the task of puzzling out the original teaching.


The effects of this multi-millennium old debate still affect us today, not only in not knowing what the original suttas looked like, but also in understanding the role of the Jhanas.

The Jhanas are sometimes considered a dangerous practice because they are not an Insight Practice. The primary factor of the first Jhana is Piti and Piti is mentioned as a corruption of insight in the commentaries (see, for example, the Visuddhimagga). This has been taken to mean that Piti is bad, when all that is meant is that Piti should not be mistaken for a non-mundane state. Theravadan Buddhism in the West has primarily come down from the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition in Burma and this tradition is a"dry insight" (non-Jhanic) tradition. Thus the Jhanas are seldom mentioned, let alone taught, in Western Theravadan Buddhist teaching.

The Jhanas are also difficult to teach. Not everyone has a temperament suited to concentration practice. Even for those who find concentration easy, the Jhanas require a long silent retreat setting for learning. Far from being "secluded from unwholesome states of mind," people who wish to learn the Jhanas are immediately thrust INTO the state of desiring something. Finally, as mentioned above, the Jhanas do not lend themselves to "book learning"; you really need one-on-one, immediate feedback from a teacher in order to aim your mind in the correct direction. The Jhanas are natural states on mind, but the lives we lead here at the close of the 20th century are so filled that it is difficult to find the quiet, natural mind.

The Jhanas are states of concentration. How to do them was common knowledge at the time of the Buddha. He practiced them, and it is clear from the suttas that they comprise right concentration. We are left with the task of fitting the Jhanas into our present spiritual practises. Perhaps between the extremes of ignoring them completely and practising them to excess, lies the middle way of using them as a tool to sharpen the mind for Insight Practise.

From the story out of the life of the Buddha it is clear that the Jhanas are merely a step (or eight steps) towards Enlightenment, indispensible, but also not enough.

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