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Is it possible, having been taught meditation by a zen master, to naturally enter the 1st three jhanas. By that, I mean through mental effort which is not really meditation as we normally think of it (seated or walking, all effort being applied to that).

I ask because the 1st three jhanas seem, potentially, much more mundane than the rest, worldly. e.g. I feel pretty strong sensations of pleasure most of the time, as long as I'm not there and then planning to do something.

If that second paragraph seems super delusional, then how close is dhyana to a pleasure in which you can't identify why you feel good?

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All dogs are animals but all animals are not dogs. Similarly, each of the 1st three rupa jhanas has pleasure as a factor however all feelings of pleasure are not jhana. Each jhana is characteristized by ekaggatā (one-pointedness; stillness; unmovingness) rather than by feelings of pleasure.

That said, jhana is not reached by 'effort'. It is reached by 'letting go', as quoted below:

And what is the faculty of concentration? There is the case where a monk, a noble disciple, making it his object to let go (vossagga), attains concentration, attains singleness of mind.

SN 48.10

Therefore, when you say: "I feel pretty strong sensations of pleasure most of the time, as long as I'm not there and not planning to do something", this is the 'natural' path to jhana the Lord Buddha described in SN 48.10.

This is similar to the Zen masters, for example:

The Supreme Way is not difficult If only you do not pick and choose. Neither love nor hate, And you will clearly understand. Be off by a hair, And you are as far from it as heaven from earth. If you want the Way to appear, Be neither for nor against. For and against opposing each other This is the mind's disease. Without recognizing the mysterious principle It is useless to practice quietude. The Way is perfect like great space, Without lack, without excess. Because of grasping and rejecting, You cannot attain it.

Hsin Hsin Ming

Buddhadasa, Thai teacher, who fancied Zen, spoke a lot about natural concentration:

As for samadhi, an empty mind is the supreme samadhi, the supremely focused firmness of mind. The straining and striving sort of samadhi isn't the real thing and the samadhi which aims at anything other than non-clinging to the five khandas is micchasamadhi (wrong or perverted samadhi). You should be aware that there is both micchasamadhi and sammasamadhi (right or correct samadhi). Only the mind that is empty of grasping at and clinging to 'I' and 'mine' can have the true and perfect stability of sammasamadhi. One who has an empty mind has correct samadhi. Heartwood from the Bo Tree

Also refer, here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an11/an11.002.than.html http://www.buddhanet.net/budasa10.htm

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I think one can conclude that there are other activities, apart from the classic meditation, which may lead to states similar to the lower jhanas. Long distance runners often speak of getting into unrestricted states of mind. Where thinking is moved to the background and concentration is unwavering but not tense, there are feelings of deep joy, rapture, loss of all doubt, loss of hindering self conscious. The runner feels as if he can go on forever. (Similarities with The Tibetan Lung gom pa, trancerunner, comes to mind) Other athletes than runners also describe kicking into similar states of "flow". These states mainly appear after longer repetitive tasks that requires keeping the mind on one place, so to speak.

Artists, and especially musicians move in and out of states that are very similar to the first levels of jhana. One might suggest that they enter even higher levels. The difference being that the musician is bodily active playing an instrument. And since he/she also utilises parts of the active mind to do so, it cannot get passed that level of absorption.

So, yes. I would definitely say that other activities, more or less mundane, indeed can trigger states that in comparison are quite the same as the Jhanas.

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