2

I’m conducting research into the phenomena of Buddhist Jhanas/Dhyanas, and am looking for a good place to start.

In addition to primary sources that discuss what this phenomena is, how would you describe what the Jhanas are to a person unfamiliar with any sort of meditation practice? How do they differ across different sects/schools? How are they viewed sociologically or philosophically from OUTSIDE the lens of a practitioner or one who believes in the concept of enlightenment to begin with?

TL; DR seeking primary source information on Jhanas/Dhyanas. What is their history? How do they differ across schools/sects? How would an outsider or an academic understand them?

Thank you for your time.

3

I would say that Jhanas are the final stages of the progressive development of the state of inner harmony, that is the Buddhist path.

The entire Buddhist path is based on one principle, that psychological discomfort comes from inner conflict and that therefore eliminating inner conflict leads to inner harmony. Secondarily, outer conflict leads to inner conflict, and ethical behavior is defined as that which prevents outer conflict.

The prerequisite to Jhanas, therefore, is to eliminate all coarse conflicts that serve as obstacles to the attainment of harmony, such as external entanglements and various real life sources of personal drama and regret. Hence the emphasis on ethics, non-attachment, and non-egoism for beginners.

Once the life of an individual is more or less peaceful on a day to day basis, the student can focus solely on their mind and attain Complete Harmony. This is the role of Jhanas.

Jhanas are generally divided into two stages. On the first stage, student uses emotional intelligence techniques to generate a state of happiness. On the second stage, the student contemplates the way things work and perfects the state of harmony, culminating in what's known as suchness. The premise here is that harmony is a refinement of happiness, and suchness is perfectly refined harmony.

The particular techniques used to generate happiness vary between schools. In early Buddhism, the main technique was to review one's own ethical purity, one's philosophical realizations (insights), and one's peaceful lifestyle, comparing that with regular people, and by congratulating oneself on actually measuring up very well, generate the sought state of euphoria.

In conservative descendants (Theravada) this technique was preserved as part of the so-called anussati (recollection meditation), but divorced from the practice of jhana proper. In fact Silanussati, Caganussati, Buddhanussati, Dhammanussati, and Devatanussati are perfect themes for the first jhana. See e.g. this explanation for details on each. Since connection between positive recollection and the first jhana has been lost in Theravada, for them jhana became an exercise in brute-force one-pointed concentration, which eventually leads to a similar state of joy but requires much more time and effort.

In Tibetan schools, the technique was largely retained but shifted from recalling ones actual achievements, to substituting one's self-image with that of a deity ("yidam"). I imagine this so-called "generation-stage meditation" to be a development of the Devatanussati technique. This is thought to have a better effect, since the imaginary self has no limits to its perfect qualities and can be optimized to counteract particular student's emotional hangups. Naturally, this goes at the expense of no longer having one's ethical achievements be the necessary basis of meditation, which Tibetan schools compensate by greatly emphasizing compassion.

The second phase of jhanas is perfection of harmony. This is when the student realizes that the contrived state of happiness cannot be perfectly sustainable and instead learns to accept the natural uncontrived moment by moment state as the basis for the absence of inner conflict. This deepest acceptance of whatever arises at every moment, inwardly and outwardly, is known as suchness and is the summum bonum of Buddhist path.

Again, the original technique underwent mutation in historical schools. In Theravada they say that upon contemplating Three Marks of Existence seeing impermanence of all contrived states and inevitably of occasional suffering, the student must go through catharsis of accepting the existential failure, and emerge having completely lost all grasping to any experience. Reference "Sixteen Stages of Insight".

In most of the meditating Mahayana (such as various types of Chan/Zen), a state of non-judgmental awareness (don't accept, don't reject, just watch) is practiced as a straightforward way of cultivating suchness (following the beginner's breath meditation, therefore skipping the generation phase), but it's place in the big scheme of things is not usually explained, other than mysteriously stating that this is the very state of the Buddha.

Finally, in Tibetan schools, this phase is practiced in conjunction with study of emptiness. For philosophically inclined students, analytical meditation on emptiness serves to dispell doubts that any contrived state cannot be It. What follows from that is staying in a wordless realization of this profound groundlessness, which serves as an entry into suchness. For students of less intellectual bent, the practice takes form of so called meditation of no-meditation, which is a name given to cultivation of appreciation of suchness as the primordially natural state.

In any case, the path usually starts with removal of coarse obstacles, following by cultivation of the seemingly perfectly conflictless state, followed by realization that any contrived state is inherently unsustainable and conflict-ridden, followed by contemplation of the implications of this realization, followed by direct cultivation of suchness and complete liberation. The Jhanas symbolically refer to the non-preliminary stages of this sequence.

I'm necessarily glossing over many nuances and simplifying a bit, but I think this covers most of what you asked, let me know if you have further questions.

1

In addition to primary sources that discuss what this phenomena is, how would you describe what the Jhanas are to a person unfamiliar with any sort of meditation practice?

Jhanas are the practice to pause the present unwholesome mind. While jhāna mind are arising, there are no any unwholesome mind can arise, whole hours or whole day. Jhāna is basis of insight meditation.

How do they differ across different sects/schools?

They are same in meditation. It just difference in a few detail.

How are they viewed sociologically or philosophically from OUTSIDE the lens of a practitioner or one who believes in the concept of enlightenment to begin with?

The jhāna practitioner looks very judicious, worshipful.

TL; DR seeking primary source information on Jhanas/Dhyanas. What is their history? How do they differ across schools/sects? How would an outsider or an academic understand them?

1

If you don't ascribe any Buddhist overhead to them, then they'd just be blissful states of mind comparable (though entirely distinct) to orgasm in the following ways:

  1. First jhana - approaching orgasm. Arising of a something that isn't a part of normal cognition. Mind and body both working toward climax - thrusting in sex, changes in breathing patterns, etc (applied thought; vitakka). Loss of awareness of what is going outside of the sex, mind directed solely to the act etc. (one-pointedness; ekaggata). Full mental participation in the act (sustained attention; vicara,). Bliss, enjoyment, rapture (sukkha, piti).
  2. Second jhana - explosion of actual climax. No longer requires thrusting or bodily application (applied thought - vitakka - no longer required). The body just orgasms. Bliss so powerful that it becomes an inevitable object of attention (effortful sustained attention - vicara - no longer required). One pointedness is maintained. (Seriously, how easy is it to distract someone from the height of orgasm!).
  3. Third jhana - rapture tapers off (piti fades). The sweetness of the experience remains (sukkha). Unlike post coitus, the mind remains completely collected (ekaggata remains). Feelings of bliss. Not a care in the world; nothing can bother you (equanimity begins to emerge; upekkha).
  4. Fourth jhana - This is where things really depart from our sexual metaphor. Partner disappears, world is still absent from awareness, but the mind remains one pointed (ekaggata). The sweetness of the experience subsides (sukkha fades). Mind is unshakable. Equanimity is most prominent (upekkha).
0

Words don't really do jhanic experiences any justice. In the grand scheme of things, words are like tiny particles of sediment in the vast ocean of a jhanic experience. This is further compounded by the experience of formless jhanas.

Yes, they can be described and quite creatively too. My first wakeful jhana happened last year. It spanned a period of 5 hours and it changed my whole lifestyle. They can be life changing, powerful and perhaps mystical but jhanas come and go and so not worth attaching oneself to them. No sect or school can claim any exclusivity over these wakeful states.

Below is a description which was written last year after the event.

The temporary awakening was devoid of any kind of grand entrance. I was out with my 7 year old who was playing. It seemed to happen whilst I was looking at the foliage in the park. The plantation took on a whole new aliveness and vibrancy. This was when I sensed an undertone that something had shifted in my consciousness. My thoughts no longer existed. Instead, they were replaced by a deep intuitive 'knowing' about the things I observed in my environment. Nothing seemed to matter because everything had a relationship through a very odd unification. When I looked at people a knowing arose in me of their discontent but at the very same time I could recognise their immense potential. From the fusion of those two seeming poles grew a deep and warm compassion for human beings. Quite a beautiful way to view people!

The experience completely shredded my mental concepts of who I thought I had been and the structure of the world around me seems drastically different henceforth. Smaller jhanas occurred afterwards. I look at a tree stretching towards its ultimate creator - the mysterious darkness of the cosmos, the totality of consciousness itself - and it gently sways as if joyously waving at other passing lifeforms, inviting them to join in its moment of presence and symphonic rhythm of interconnectedness. Previously it was just a tree. I hardly gave them a second glance.

0

In addition to primary sources that discuss what this phenomena is, how would you describe what the Jhanas are to a person unfamiliar with any sort of meditation practice?

The obvious primary source is the Pali suttas, which have the following standard formula found in many suttas:

Unflagging persistence was aroused in me, and unmuddled mindfulness established. My body was calm & unaroused, my mind concentrated & single. Quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, I entered & remained in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. With the fading of rapture I remained in equanimity, mindful & alert, and physically sensitive of pleasure. I entered & remained in the third jhana, of which the noble ones declare, 'Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.' With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — I entered & remained in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain.

MN 4

The 1st reference to the experience of jhana is found in MN 36, where the Buddha recollected how as a child his mind spontaneously entered jhana under the rose apple tree:

I thought: 'I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?' Then following on that memory came the realization: 'That is the path to Awakening.' I thought: 'So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?' I thought: 'I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but that pleasure is not easy to achieve with a body so extremely emaciated. Suppose I were to take some solid food: some rice & porridge.' So I took some solid food: some rice & porridge. Now five monks had been attending on me, thinking, 'If Gotama, our contemplative, achieves some higher state, he will tell us.' But when they saw me taking some solid food — some rice & porridge — they were disgusted and left me, thinking, 'Gotama the contemplative is living luxuriously. He has abandoned his exertion and is backsliding into abundance.'

MN 36


How do they differ across different sects/schools?

The jhana of the Buddha is called "noble" "("ariya") "supramundane" ("lokuttara"), per MN 117, because it is developed by using "letting go" ("vossagga") of craving and ego the meditation object, as described in SN 48.10:

And what is the faculty of concentration? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, making it his object to let go (vossagga), attains concentration, attains singleness of mind. Quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, he enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, 'Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.' With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called the faculty of concentration.

SN 48.10

The above quality of "letting go" is what distinguishes the jhana of the Buddha from other sects, including so-called Buddhist sects, which refer to false ideas such as "suppression" and use "yogic" ("Hindu") techniques such as counting, fixing and mental application (fueled by craving). Some of the false heretical jhana sects are listed below:

How are they viewed sociologically or philosophically from OUTSIDE the lens of a practitioner or one who believes in the concept of enlightenment to begin with?

Like most religions, OUTSIDERS view jhana in very superstitious (magical) & egoistic ways. The internet is replete with particularly Westerners who claim they (as a self or ego) have experienced jhana when they have not.

TL; DR seeking primary source information on Jhanas/Dhyanas. What is their history? How do they differ across schools/sects? How would an outsider or an academic understand them?

Academics can read books of other academics, such as A History of Mindfulness by Bhikkhu Sujato. I recommend to start with this book. Simply type "jhana" into the find function. For example:

This psychology also emerges in the usage of the word dhī, familiar as the root of the Buddhist term ‘jhāna’. Dhī is used early on in the sense of ‘thought’, and has a special connection with the ‘visioning’ of the Vedic poetry: dhī is the intuitive awareness as the poet/priest ‘sees’ the verses. This ‘thought’ (dhī) or ‘mind’ (manas) is disciplined (yoga) by the reciters. ‘The priests of him the divine Savitr well-skilled in hymns Harness their mind, yea, harness their holy thoughts.’

But jhāna did not develop its meaning of ‘deep absorption’ until the Buddha. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, jhāna is contrasted with the stillness of the True Self.

‘Which is the Self? ‘That person here made of cognition among the senses [breaths], the light within the heart. He, remaining the same, wanders about the two worlds as if thinking (dhyāyati), as if playing (lelāyati).’

The Upaniṣads constantly remind us to preserve the correct mental attitude; to perform the rituals with one’s whole being, contemplating the significance of each aspect as one carriesit out. Even the earlier Brahmanas allow that if a ritual cannot be carried out physically it may be performed by ‘faith’, i.e. as a purely mental act. In this immersion of awareness in one’s actions we can discern a precursor to the Buddhist emphasis on mindfulness through all one’s activities.

It is a curious thing that when we look at the sources most likely to be contemporary with the Buddha​—​namely the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya​—​we find that these well-known meditative terms are used less frequently, and a word apparently foreign to Buddhist meditation is found far more often. This word is upāsana. Edward Crangle, following Velkar, has studied this term in detail, and lists the frequency of occurrence. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, upāsana occurs 63 times, jhāna thrice, and yoga twice. In the Chāndogya, upāsana occurs 115 times, jhāna twelve times, and yoga again twice.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.