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I have read about 'Jhana' in Ajahn Brahm's book, 'Mindfulness, bliss and beyond'. It looks like, from his teaching of Theravada Buddhism, 'Jhana' is a pre-requisite to attain 'Nirvana'.

I want to ask, is there anything similar to 'Jhana' in Zen.

From my readings it does not seem it's 'Satori'.

  • it is my understanding the jhana occurs in zen, but is not always very important. depends on if we're talking soto, rinzai. son, etc.. that's from asking on-line tho. they are not the same as enlightenment – user2512 Jul 14 at 16:53
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Zen and Jhana are the same word. Jhana is a word in the original spoken language. In Sanskrit it is written as Dhyana. Channa or Chan is how it came to Chinese language, and Zen is how it subsequently came into the Japanese (in English transliteration).

Jhana or Zen means the mind of meditation.

If you ever heard the phrases "attain the state of Zen" or "show me your Zen" - that refers to the same practice/result as Jhana. (The popular image that it refers to being a crazy wacko is a modern misunderstanding. "Attaining Zen" is breaking through to spontaneous clarity as a result of quality meditation practice.)

Of course if you are looking for the one-to-one Zen equivalents of each of the four jhanas or the eight jhanas, you will be disappointed - because such cut-and-dry categorization of practical experience would be very much against the spirit of Zen which emphasizes the first-hand discovery and learning-by-doing while avoiding the step-by-step instructions a-la Theravada as a dangerous trap for the mind. So in Zen everything is a little more fluid and the practice of meditation is not split in discrete phases. Nevertheless, the kind of meditation practiced in Zen is an authentic Jhana, functionally equivalent to the fourth Jhana of Theravada Buddhism.

Now, if you expand your scope beyond Zen and take a look at Vajrayana, it has two types of meditation closely associated with the first and second/third jhanas. I'm talking about Generation-phase and Completion-phase meditations correspondingly.

I imagine someone daring might combine the traditions and practice the Generation-, then the Completion-, then the Zazen/Shikantaza-meditation with great results.

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    I think there is some semantic mis-understanding here. The way experience of Jhana is described in book is completely different than experiencing Zen. There are apperently four different Jhana's. And when in Jhana a person seems to be in some transcendental state of being. Also there is something called as 'Nimmata' experienced before entering into Jhana. Check this -> books.google.co.in/books/about/… – The White Cloud Jul 14 at 15:57
  • @TheWhiteCloud please see wikipedia article on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhy%C4%81na_in_Buddhism that explains Andrei's point. – OyaMist Jul 14 at 17:05
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    @TheWhiteCloud Perhaps you wanted to ask a more specific question, for example -- "Theravada e.g. Ajahn Brahm's book describes the jhanas in detail, including (four) 'states', and the 'signs'. Is there any such description (e.g. of states and signs) in the Zen tradition (its doctrine, literature or practice)? If not why not; or if so are the descriptions similar to Ajahn Brahm's?" -- or something like that. – ChrisW Jul 14 at 17:11
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    i'm not sure. a master student relation that draws from zen texts and traditions? – user2512 Jul 14 at 19:19
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    That's only a supporting structure. Meditation is only an instrument. Zen practice is finding and cultivating one's truenature (which is either Bodhi or Emptiness depending on how you look at it). – Andrei Volkov Jul 14 at 19:58
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When a person doesn't eat, he gets hungry. When you drop a ball from the top of a parking deck, it falls. Likewise, when you watch your breath, a sign, or sit facing emptiness, the mind will eventually but invariably enter jhana. Jhana is a natural phenomenon. It manifests regardless of whether you practice Theravada, Zen, or nothing at all. The Buddha himself entered the first jhana spontaneously under the rose apple tree. So as long as the conditions for jhana are met, you can't help but arrive there. People who practice Zen practice the jhanas. If you are sitting sincerely, it is impossible to do otherwise.

All that being said, no, Zen doesn't "teach" the jhanas. We would see that as a waste of time if not an utter hindrance to effective mediation. Nothing screws up your sitting more efficaciously than trying to make something happen on the cushion. Jhana (and really all meditation) should unfold like a flower. You wait and let it happen. If you try to speed the process along or, god forbid, try impose your own deluded idea of how and when that flower should open, you are going to kill it. The more ideas and techniques you have bouncing around in your head, the further away you are.

Frankly, I also think the whole notion of stratified jhanas is just another bullshit obstacle. The purpose of sitting is to prepare the mind for insight. I mean, don't get me wrong - the mind is more stable and open to insight in the 4th jhana than it is in the 1st - but you can destroy all sorts of obstacles by just dipping your toe into absorption. It's important not to fetishize mental states. Insight is insight. It doesn't matter if it comes from a mind parked in the 2nd jhana, the base of infinite space, or in the Wendy's drive thru.

And for the love of Pete, don't waste time arguing about what "Zen" is. That's like picking one note or measure out of Beethoven's 5th and calling it the whole damn symphony. Zen is everything and everywhere.

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I practiced Zen for over a decade. Only much later did I read the suttas. And after reading the suttas, I belatedly realized that practicing Zen alone without ready access to a teacher is a bit like learning to drive a stick-shift car on the freeway by yourself.

The suttas (Early Buddhist Texts in particular) provide a vast, coherent, inclusive, accessible and gently progressive path of practice that really informs the practice of Zen. For example, I did this for ten years on my zabuton:

MN118:17.2: Just mindful, they breathe in. Mindful, they breathe out. When breathing in heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing in heavily.’ When breathing out heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing out heavily.’ When breathing in lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing in lightly.’ When breathing out lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing out lightly.’ They practice breathing in experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing out experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing in stilling the body’s motion. They practice breathing out stilling the body’s motion. They practice breathing in experiencing rapture. They practice breathing out experiencing rapture. They practice breathing in experiencing bliss. They practice breathing out experiencing bliss.

Everything that I read in the suttas aligns with my experience of Zen. I have found no contradictions. Indeed, one sutta in particular was particularly helpful to me in aligning the EBTs with Zen:

MN44:12.1: “But ma’am, what is immersion? What things are the foundations of immersion? What things are the prerequisites for immersion? What is the development of immersion?”

MN44:12.2: “Unification of the mind is immersion...

The EBT stratification of immersion (i.e., jhana's, form and formless dimensions, etc.) was also very helpful to me as a guide, and it revealed pitfalls to be wary of as well as approaches I had not yet practiced.

My roshi was a 6-hour plane flight away. He was an amazing teacher and I made some progress. For those without ready access to good teachers, there are suttas such as AN8.63 that provide instruction that can be read along with Zen scriptures:

AN8.63:1.2: “Sir, may the Buddha please teach me Dhamma in brief. When I’ve heard it, I’ll live alone, withdrawn, diligent, keen, and resolute.”

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  • you say, 'I belatedly realized that practicing Zen alone without ready access to a teacher is a bit like learning to drive a stick-shift car on the freeway by yourself.' Do you think practising Zazen alone without access to teacher will lead one nowhere. What can I do if I dont have access to teacher? – The White Cloud Jul 15 at 15:04
  • Great question. I added some more info and a link to a sutta that has helped me a lot. – OyaMist Jul 15 at 15:34
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    That soothes my mind and was helpful. Thanks. – The White Cloud Jul 15 at 15:47
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D. T. Suzuki wrote

In the view of zen, dhyana does not correspond to the true practice of zen

and

Zen is not a type of dhyana

Dhyana can mean trance states, or it can just mean mental cultivation in general. It is the latter sense, it is argued, that is transliterated as ch'an. Furthermore

Rinzai and Soto... the former most often attacks absorption in trance as mindless quietism... the ghost cave of the spirit... the latter... rejects [its] striving

Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, p129

By contrast, I have seen it claimed by a Son monk that there is no access to the beginning of the bodhisattva path without the first dhyana.

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    Thanks for the reference. I just ordered a copy of Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning which includes one of those quotes and which I hope will be a good introduction, including comparing and contrasting with Theravada. – ChrisW Jul 14 at 18:57
  • i think i've read it, and i believe it is an AMAZING intro @ChrisW – user2512 Jul 14 at 19:11
  • alas i'm thinking of this two series books.google.co.uk/… but yeah get it too ;) – user2512 Jul 14 at 19:14
  • I read a page of Heinrich Dumoulin's book before I ordered it. I hope it will be relevant (make sense) to me in particular -- given what I know and don't know already, and what I hope to better understand... FWIW in the one page I read the author seemed to be writing in a step-by-step kind of way, covering the topic or bridging the two topics -- he was a university professor (also a Jesuit), which, is a style of exposition I'm familiar with. I'll see how that happens when it arrives; I'm no longer able to read many books. – ChrisW Jul 17 at 10:21

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