I've found this to be an interesting question with highly respected monastics falling on both sides of the answer.

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    Given it's a controversial topic, I'd suggest this question is a better one to get a definitive answer; I'm not sure that we want questions that are so subject to controversy, do we? – yuttadhammo Jun 27 '14 at 19:29
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    Are you asking about Buddhist meditation in general or the Four Jhanas specifically? If meditation, then I suggest you update the question title. If Four Jhanas, then this is a duplicate of the following question: buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/1287/… – Andrei Volkov Jun 27 '14 at 19:34
  • @yuttadhammo We want, just let people state different points of view. – catpnosis Jun 28 '14 at 20:09
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    Then how does one choose the "best" answer without relying upon personal opinion? – yuttadhammo Jun 28 '14 at 22:40
  • Please discuss here: meta.buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/114/… – yuttadhammo Jun 29 '14 at 1:41

Actually, a point that is not well understood is that, among those who follow the Pali canon, there is no controversy over whether some jhāna is necessary; the answer is in all cases yes. The controversy is really over which jhāna is necessary.

There are three types of jhāna in total:

  1. samatha-jhāna - jhāna based on a conceptual object that, due to its conceptual nature, cannot lead to the realization of the nature of reality.

For example, in the Visuddhimagga:

The colour should not be reviewed. The characteristic should not be given attention. But rather, while not ignoring the colour, attention should be given by setting the mind on the [name] concept as the most outstanding mental datum, relegating the colour to the position of a property of its physical support. That [conceptual state] can be called by anyone he likes among the names for earth (pathavī) such as “earth” (pathavī), “the Great One” (mahī), “the Friendly One” (medinī), “ground” (bhūmi), “the Provider of Wealth” (vasudhā), “the Bearer of Wealth” (vasudharā), etc., whichever suits his manner of perception. Still “earth” is also a name that is obvious, so it can be developed with the obvious one by saying “earth, earth.” It should be adverted to now with eyes open, now with eyes shut. And he should go on developing it in this way a hundred times, a thousand times, and even more than that, until the learning sign arises.

Path of Purification, IV.29

2. vipassana-jhāna - jhāna based on ultimate reality that allows one to see the three characteristics and thus attain nibbana. As the Mahasi Sayadaw states:

The tranquillity that occurs while one contemplates various phenomena is called momentary concentration, the concentration that lasts momentarily during contemplation. No insight is possible without this momentary concentration. The meditator who has no basic [samatha] jhānic experience and relies on insight meditation alone develops insight through momentary concentration and attains the noble path. This concentration for insight is not confined to a single object. The meditator practising it notes all the mental and physical phenomena that arise. However, at the moment of noting, his mind is fixed on the object and free from distraction. This is obvious to the meditator who practises effectively.


3. lokuttara-jhāna - jhāna that takes a supermundane object (nibbana), and is equivalent to attaining the noble path and fruition. According to Bhante Gunaratana:

But the four jhanas again reappear in a later stage in the development of the path, in direct association with liberating wisdom, and they are then designated the supramundane (lokuttara) jhanas. These supramundane jhanas are the levels of concentration pertaining to the four degrees of enlightenment experience called the supramundane paths (magga) and the stages of liberation resulting form them, the four fruits (phala).


It is this third type of jhāna that everyone agrees is necessary. The problem is with deciding which type of jhāna the Buddha is talking about in specific contexts. Since these three types of jhāna are not enumerated in the sutta pitaka, the debate centres around whether lokiya (mundane) samatha jhāna are necessary, since that is the only type of jhāna recognized by certain Buddhists.

This too can be seen as a misunderstanding, since samatha jhāna according to those who hold that it is not necessary is not exactly the same as jhāna according to those who hold that lokiya jhāna is.

According to those who say lokiya jhāna is necessary, they seem to believe that lokiya jhāna is a practice which allows for the realization of insight, in which case it cannot be samatha jhāna as understood by those who believe that samatha jhāna cannot lead directly to insight, unless the former group actually believes that jhāna based on a conceptual object can allow for the realization of insight into reality, which I'm pretty sure is not the case.

So, the debate is really not all it is cracked up to be, unless there are people who believe meditation based on a non-real conceptual object is sufficient for attainment of understanding of reality, in which case they are in contradiction with the sutta pitaka, not to mention the abhidhamma and commentaries.

I suppose there could still be room for debate over whether samatha jhāna based on a concept must be cultivated prior to Vipassana; the yuganaddha sutta probably shows this to be false:

Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquillity preceded by insight. As he develops tranquillity preceded by insight, the path is born. He follows that path, develops it, pursues it. As he follows the path, developing it & pursuing it — his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.


Of course for anyone actually adhering to the Theravada (I.e. the commentaries, patisambidhamagga, and abhidhamma), there isn't much room for controversy. Most of the debate is over whether to follow the existing commentaries or create one's own.

  • Yuttadhammo, this is really useful but could you clarify the meaning of the word "lokiya". Your answer lists three kinds of jhana -- samatha, vipassana, and lokuttara -- but then you introduce a fourth word, "lokiya", without prior mention of what it means. (I don't doubt the content of what you're saying -- just pointing out that an already good answer could be even better if you clarified this one point). Thanks! – tkp Jun 30 '14 at 1:03
  • Lokiya just means mundane - I added a parenthetical. – yuttadhammo Jun 30 '14 at 2:02
  • So of the three types, samatha is lokiya, lokuttara is not lokiya, is that right? So then what is vipassana -- lokiya or not lokiya? – tkp Jun 30 '14 at 16:11
  • On further Googling I realise that lokuttara is the antonym of lokiya, so me noting that "lokuttura is not lokiya" is just an empty tautology. Still, my question remains: what is Vipassana; mundane, or supramundane (I'm guessing the former)? – tkp Jun 30 '14 at 16:18
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    Yep, vipassana is mundane. – yuttadhammo Jun 30 '14 at 17:01

Well, I think there is a reason why the path is eightfold and not sevenfold. The Pāḷi Canon is full of encouragements, made by the Buddha, to practice jhānas. It would be stretching the texts a lot to say it isn't necessary. I wouldn't argue over it though.

‘The sage, the withdrawn chief bull,
the Buddha who awakened to jhāna,
the One of Broad Wisdom has found
the opening amid confinement.’
-AN 9.42, Confinement (Sambādha-suttaṃ) & SN 2.7, Pañcālacaṇḍa (Pañcālacaṇḍa-suttaṃ)

'There's no jhāna for one with no discernment,
no discernment for one with no jhāna.
But one with both jhāna & discernment:
he's on the verge of Unbinding.'
-Dhp v372

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    Isn't one of the difficulties, though, that the word "jhāna" is used in (at least) two different ways. One -- the least common now but maybe exactly what was intended back then -- is simply "meditation". The second -- the most common today -- refers to a series of distinct states or stages of absorption while meditating. I'm guessing the original questioner was using it in the second form, but it's possible the Canon is using it in the first. In which case the answer is "Yes, jhana is required, but all that means is you need to meditate"?? – tkp Jun 28 '14 at 1:00
  • I would say the two meanings apply since there is no contradiction between them. So I would say, "Yes, jhāna is required, but all that means is you need to meditate to make those stages appear in your practice." – Unrul3r Jun 28 '14 at 7:37
  • I'm not sure that's true. I've seen many comment on how they'd been meditating for years and never experienced absorptions. Then they encountered a teacher who, or read a book that, guided them precisely, and bingo they experienced absorption. The very fact there is a debate shows there are two concepts at stake. The percentage of people who meditate seems much higher than the percentage who meditate and experience the absorptions. So the question still remains -- is it necessary, for awakening, to meditate to the extent that one experiences the absorptions (or at least upacara samadhi). – tkp Jun 28 '14 at 17:36
  • As I said in the answer, I wouldn't argue about it. :) – Unrul3r Jun 28 '14 at 17:38

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