Discussion: The Jhanas

The discussion on Friday from 7:00 PM – 8:50 PM 2011 December 16th will be led by Mary and Robert. The topic will be the jhanas, states of heightened concentration and relaxation. The focus of the discussion will be on their personal experiences, Q & A and some suttas:

Mary will discuss experiencing the benefit of jhana practice as described in paragraph 40 of Sutta 38 in the Majjhima Nikaya, The Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving.

From Robert, writing for himself and on behalf of Mary:

“Some participants of our sutta group expressed an interest in hearing about the benefits of practicing jhana (absorption) based on our own experiences. The nectar for our discussion, then, does not flow from theoretical discussions of jhana, as experienced by others, but from the fruit of our experiences. There are many excellent jhana books that I understand you have read and studied thoroughly. As such, there is no required reading list, as we prefer to encourage you to spend time as much time practicing as possible at this point. However, some readings are included at the end because we may refer to them because of the unique images and succinct phrasing that comes to mind. We hope that one of the benefits you will gain from this discussion is the encouragement to sign up for a jhana retreat in the near future and to spend more time practicing. In addition, we hope that you won’t find jhana off-putting or too difficult when you see two people like Mary and myself in front of you. Finally, because jhana can be experienced in many forms, as naturally occurring states, as well as imperfectly and perfectly, we hope that our approach will broaden your views on jhana.

Mary and I experienced jhana firsthand, before knowing the meaning of the word “jhana”, much less the classic descriptions of it in the suttas. However, at the time, I did have considerable practical understanding, and no difficulty, in suppressing the hindrances (seclusion) and in encouraging the five jhanic factors (initial application, sustained application, joy, happiness and one-pointedness). Based on our experiences, we believe that there is no quantum of verbal knowledge that is necessary to attaining jhana. We both have our own set of external conditions that we have found useful for attaining jhana, but the perception of these conditions has changed, too. I have found that the more jhana is practiced the more these conditions appear incidental (quiet or physical health or life situations that ignited ardent and balanced effort towards concentration), and less causative. In other words, the transformation to jhanayanika (one who takes jhana as his vehicle) occurs on the inside and not from success in controlling the external conditions. For me this has been useful to attaining equanimity (in the sense of freedom from life’s vicissitudes and a rigid view of the causative factors of jhana). Equanimity is one goal I approve of in meditation because of its real world applications. I admit spending much time practicing equanamity has also helped me attain the formless jhanas. As I have experienced them, the formless jhanas, when experienced profoundly, lead to nibbana. So, the jhana are not an artificial extension of concentration practice leading away from nibbana, but a clear view of the path itself as practiced by the Buddha himself.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, the first step set down on the path to jhana must aim towards the suppression of the hindrances. This point cannot be understated. As stated so succinctly in the Yuganaddha Sutta, there are many intersecting paths between jhana and vipassana bhavana. Some begin with jhana and move towards vipassana; others begin with vipassana and move towards jhana; etc. Most of you have considerable experience and training in vipassana bhavana. At this point, whether you choose to focus on jhana or continue focusing on vipassana is a personal decision, but time will be well spent setting the mind upon jhana (as in the jhanic factors), whether you ultimately attain jhana or not. In fact, if you practice diligently, you may experience the jhanas, as I did, even when vipassana is your primary vehicle.

In the Mahasi tradition, some insight gained from mindfulness, especially into the mind-body phenomena, is a minimal first step to jhana. Ask yourself whether you can clearly distinguish between mind and body phenomena. If you can determine each object as mind or body, you have likely obtained that insight stage. As a student of this tradition, it was after having penetrated much later insight stages (while practicing vipassana bhavana) that I entered the first jhana. This occurred for me after I attained the knowledge of the arising and passing of phenomena (this stage merely describes one’s mindfulness as occurring simultaneously with the arising mental and physical phenomena). Many vipassanayanika (those who take vipassana as their vehicle) experience access concentration that is in the neighborhood of jhana at this time. When seclusion from the hindrances is strong, I experience a pervasively effulgent light accompanied by joy, lightness (or a sense of alighting upon and sticking to the object of my focus) and unbroken concentration. This is strong access concentration for me. For this reason, jhana is always near to the practice of vipassana. Because jhana is a streamlined system, it can lead, for some, to clearer ways of perceiving the path to nibbana than in vipassana. For this reason, we have experienced both jhana as a naturally (or spontaneously) occurring and essential practice to obtaining the fruit of nibbana. Therefore, we strongly encourage you not to neglect this ancient practice.”

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