In the paper "Multiple Buddhist Modernisms: Jhāna in Convert Theravāda", Natalie Quli compares what the following teachers have taught about jhana: Ayya Khema, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Pa-Auk Sayadaw, Ajahn Brahmavamso, Bhante Vimalaramsi, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Leigh Brasington and Shaila Catherine.
There seems to be roughly two camps of teachers. The first that depend on Visuddhimagga, Abhidhamma, commentaries and suttas for the teaching on jhanas. The second depends either primarily or solely on the suttas, and not the other sources.
Another way to divide them is those who consider ekaggatā or very deep one-pointed concentration important, or those who don't.
- What's the actual difference between sutta jhana and visuddhimagga jhana?
- Is ekaggatā or very deep one-pointed concentration required for jhana?
- Would a jhana attainer be able to use his jhana state to reflect on the four foundations of mindfulness as found in the Satipatthana Sutta? Or is jhana simply used to overcome the five hindrances, which aids the four foundations of mindfulness meditation?
The paper discussed Ajahn Brahm's view:
Brahmavaṃso argues for a very deep level of concentration—ekaggatā—that other teachers often criticize. He states that in jhāna the body disappears, so that one can no longer see or hear. He also states bluntly that jhāna is not possible during walking meditation, perhaps a statement made in reference to Vimalaramsi’s light, sutta-based jhānas, discussed below. Finally, he argues that “some teachers today present a level of meditation and call it jhāna when it is clearly less than the real thing.” Among the sources Brahmavaṃso reveres and cites throughout his work are the Vinaya, the Visuddhimagga, and even the jātakas — which are very rarely mentioned by Western Insight Meditation teachers.
The paper discussed Bhante Vimalaramsi's view:
Part of this effort to return to the origin of Buddhism has led Vimalaramsi to revere the suttas and Vinaya but reject the later commentaries and the Abhidhamma. He is particularly critical of the Visuddhimagga. For example, he notes:
So you have the Visuddhimagga teaching one kind of meditation, that doesn’t lead to nibbāna, and you have the sutta, that teaches an-other kind of meditation, and it leads directly to nibbāna. And now, because we’re so far away from the time of the Buddha, there’s a lot of monks that take the Visuddhimagga as the same as the teaching of the Buddha, and then there’s other monks that don’t take that as the teaching of the Buddha, they take the suttas as the true teaching.
Though Vimalaramsi initially studied in the vipassanā centers in Burma, he became convinced that this style of meditation was not authentic because it was based on commentaries rather than the suttas. In fact, this sutta-based interpretation of meditation has led him to teaching what he calls “tranquil-wisdom meditation,” a joint samatha/vipassanā meditation. He teaches mainly from the Anapanasati-sutta and the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, and maintains that jhāna should not be considered ecstatic or one-pointed (ekaggatā). Rather, it is a light, relaxed state in which various Buddhist insights are examined. He maintains that (1) those who follow the commentaries’ descriptions of jhāna are practicing a non-Buddhist meditation that does not lead to nirvana and (2) those who follow the commentaries in practicing a separate vipassanā practice are mistaken in following a non-canonical authority.
The paper discussed Thanissaro Bhikkhu's view:
Thanissaro Bhikkhu teaches jhāna exclusively from the suttas and not from the commentaries. After noting that the jhānas as taught in the Visuddhimagga include elements not mentioned in the suttas, Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes, “Some Theravadins insist that questioning the commentaries is a sign of disrespect for the tradition, but it seems to be a sign of greater disrespect for the Buddha—or the compilers of the Canon—to assume that he or they would have left out something absolutely essential to the practice.” He concludes that jhāna in the commentaries is “something quite different” than jhāna in the canon.
Unlike others who advocate the “deeper” states described in the Visuddhimagga, Thanissaro Bhikkhu argues that extremely deep states of meditation are “wrong concentration.” One must be fully aware of the body; powerful ekaggatā, as discussed in the Visuddhimagga, can lead to one losing a sense of sounds, thoughts, or perceptions, which is not ideal for insight in his opinion. People who advocate such deep meditation are, according to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, blocking out certain areas of awareness and are “psychologically adept at dissociation and denial.”
Leigh Brasington, student of Ayya Khema, described sutta jhana vs. visuddhimagga jhana:
Leigh Brasington is an American student of Ayya Khema who now teaches regularly on the jhānas across the United States, mainly to students at Insight Meditation centers. Like his teacher, Brasington suggests that the jhānas are not difficult to learn or practice. He notes that “The jhānas as discussed in the suttas are accessible to many people” but maintains that the jhānas presented in the Visuddhimagga are actually qualitatively different from those described in the suttas; he speculates that the Visuddhimagga jhānas were developed during a later period and are more difficult to achieve. In fact, Brasington has suggested that we distinguish between “sutta jhānas” and “Visuddhimagga jhānas,” which he considers quite different from one another. Brasington favors the lighter sutta jhānas.
A further comment by the paper's author:
Likewise, Thai-trained Thanissaro Bhikkhu completely rejects the authority of the commentaries in terms of jhāna practice. Both of these teachers agree that the jhānas are a light state of meditation because ekaggatā, deep one-pointedness, is mentioned only in the commentaries. Thanissaro argues that the deep state of meditation advocated by some Buddhist teachers is “wrong concentration,” while Vimalaramsi suggests that the jhāna practices endorsed by Visuddhimagga followers is “hypnosis,” not jhāna.