THE JHANAS IN THERAVADAN BUDDHIST MEDITATION
Before he became the Buddha, at the beginning of his spiritual quest, Siddhartha Gautama studied with two teachers. The first teacher taught him the first Seven Jhanas; the other teacher taught him the Eighth Jhana. Both teachers told him they had taught him all there was to learn. But Siddhartha still didn't know why there was suffering, so he left each of these teachers and wound up doing six years of austerity practises. These too did not provide the answer to his question and he abandoned these for what has come to be known as the Middle Way. The suttas indicate that on the night of his Enlightenment, he sat down under the Bodhi Tree and began his meditation by practising the Jhanas (for example, see the Mahasaccaka Sutta - Majjhima Nikaya #36). When his mind was "concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady and attained to imperturbability" he direct it to the "true knowledges" that gave rise to his incredible breakthrough in consciousness known in the sutras as Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi. So we see that the Jhanas are not only at the heart of his teaching, but also were at the heart of his own practise.
All of us are familiar with The Eightfold Path -- the Gautama Buddha's prescription for attaining Enlightenment. We have some idea what is meant by right speech, right action, right livelihood and so forth. And we know that these are very important. However, the one step in the path that is often short-changed is the eighth step: "Right Concentration" or dhayna (Jhana in Pali). This paper will seek to explain what right concentration is, how to practice it, and the role it plays in the road to Enlightenment.
Right Concentration, (Samma Samadhi) is explicitly defined in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (Digha Nikaya #22) and in other suttas (for example, Saccavibhanga Sutta - Majjhima Nikaya #141) as Jhanic meditation:
And what is Right Concentration? Here a monk -- secluded from sense desires, secluded from unwholesome states of mind -- enters and remains in the First Jhana which is filled with rapture and joy born of seclusion accompanied by initial and sustained attention. With the stilling of initial and sustained attention, by gaining inner tranquillity and oneness of mind, he enters and remains in the Second Jhana which is without initial and sustained attention; born of concentration, and is filled with rapture and joy. With the fading away of rapture, remaining imperturbable, mindful, and clearly aware, he enters and remains in the Third Jhana, and of him the Noble Ones declare, "Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasurable abiding." With the the abandoning of pleasure and pain -- as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress -- he enters and remains in the Fourth Jhana: which is beyond pleasure and pain; and purified by equanimity and mindfulness. This is called Right Concentration.
Thus the Jhanas are at the very heart of the Buddha's teaching as presented in this important sutta.
What are the Jhanas
The Pali word Jhana is best translated as "meditative absorption state." It is the same as the Sanskrit Dhyana, which derives from Dhayati, meaning to think or meditate. You know what an "absorption state" is -- it's when you get so involved in a TV show or video game or mystery novel that you are surprised when the phone rings and brings you back to reality. The Jhanas are eight altered states of consciousness which can arise during periods of strong concentration. The Jhanas are naturally occurring states of mind, but learning how to enter them at will and how to stay in them takes practice.
From the Vishudhi maga (or Visuddhimagga):
(1)"Detached from sensual objects, o monks, detached from unwholesome consciousness, attached with thought-conception (vitakka) and discursive thinking, born of detachment (vivekaja) and filled with rapture and joy (sukha) he enters the first absorption.Part 2: how to enter the Jhanas?
(2)"After the subsiding of thought-conception and discursive thinking, and by gaining inner tranquility and oneness of mind, he enters into a state free from thought-conception and discursive thinking, the second absorption, which is born of concentration , and filled with rapture and joy (sukha).
(3) "After the fading away of rapture he dwells in equanimity, mindful, clearly conscious; and he experiences in his person that feeling of which the Noble Ones say, 'Happy lives the man of equanimity and attentive mind'; thus he enters the 3rd absorption.
(4) "After having given uppleasure and pain, and through the disappearance of previous joy and grief, he enters into a state beyond pleasure and pain, into the 4th absorption, which is purified by equanimity and mindfulness.
(5)"Through the total overcoming of the perceptions of matter, however, and through the vanishing of sense-reactions and the non-attentionto the perceptions of variety, with the idea, 'Boundless is space', he reaches the sphere of boundless space and abides therein.
(6)"Through the total overcoming of the sphere of boundless space, and with the idea 'Boundless is consciousness', he reaches the sphere of boundless consciousness and abides therein.
(7) "Through the total overcoming of the sphere of boundless consciousness, and with the idea 'Nothing is there', he reaches the sphere of nothingness and abides therein.
(8) "Through the total overcoming of the sphere of nothingness he reaches the sphere of neither-perception- nor- non- perception and abides therein."
Part 3: Controversy around the Jhanas
[reprinted and adapted for this website with permission. Most text and information from: http://www.angelfire.com/electronic/awakening101/janas.html]