Stage Seven: Jhāna
POSTCARD#433: There are two common obstacles at the door into jhāna: exhilaration and fear. In exhilaration, the mind becomes excited: “Wow, this is it!” If the mind thinks like this, then the jhāna is unlikely to happen. This “wow!” response needs to be subdued in favor of absolute passivity. You can leave all the wows until after emerging from the jhāna, where they properly belong.
The more likely obstacle, though, is fear. Fear arises from the recognition of the sheer power and bliss of the jhāna, or else at the recognition that to go fully inside the jhāna something must be left behind—you! The doer is silent before entering the jhāna, but it is still there. Inside the jhāna, however, the do-er is completely gone. Only the knower is still functioning. One is fully aware, but all the controls are now beyond reach. One cannot even form asingle thought, let alone make a decision. The will is frozen, and this can be scary for beginners, who have never had the experience of being so stripped of control and yet so fully awake. The fear is of surrendering an essential part of one’s identity. This fear can be overcome through confidence in the Buddha’s teachings, and through recognizing and being drawn to the enticing bliss just ahead. The Buddha often said that this bliss of jhāna should not be feared but should be followed, developed, and practiced often (e.g.,Latụkikopama Sutta, MN 66,21). So before fear arises, offer your full confidence to that bliss, and maintain faith in the Buddha’s teachings and the example of the noble disciples. Trust the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings, and let the jhāna warmly embrace you in an effortless, bodiless, ego-less, and blissful experience that will be the most profound of your life. Have the courage to fully relinquish control for a while and experience all this for yourself.
Please note: It is understood that a meditation space is available for those meditators who enter the jhāna state because they may stay in the meditation for a number of hours. Ajahn Brahm would have rooms and spaces in the building. For those of us using less space we have to improvise and have friends taking care of the silent unmoving meditators.
The Qualities of Jhānas
A jhāna will last a long time. It does not deserve to be called jhāna if it lasts only a few minutes. The higher jhānas usually persist for many hours. Once inside, there is no choice. One will emerge from the jhāna only when the mind is ready to come out, when the accumulated “fuel” of relinquishment
is all used up. Each jhāna is such a still and satisfying state of consciousness that its very nature is to persist for a very long time. Another feature of jhāna is that it occurs only after the nimitta is discerned, as described above. Furthermore, one should know that during any jhāna it is impossible to experience the body (e.g., physical pain), hear a sound from outside, or produce any thought—not even a “good” thought. There is just a clear singleness of perception, an experience of non-dual bliss that continues unchanging for a very long time. This is not a trance but a state of heightened awareness. I say this so that you may know for yourself whether what you take to be a jhāna is real or imaginary. I will give particular attention to the jhāna in chapters 9 through 11. At this point in the text Ajahn moves the focus to the vipassana/samatha discussion and covers some valuable insight into mind states of various meditation:
The Great Vipassanā versus Samatha Debate
Some traditions speak of two types of meditation, insight meditation (vipassanā) and calm meditation (samatha). In fact the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation; insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation. Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm. For those who are misled to conceive of all the instructions offered here as “just samatha practice” (calming) without regard to vipassanā (insight), please know that this is neither vipassanā nor samatha. It is called bhāvanā (mental development). This method was taught bythe Buddha (AN IV,125-27; MN 151,13-19) and repeated in the forest tradition of Northeast Thailand, with which my teacher, Ven. Ajahn Chah, was associated. Ajahn Chah often said that samatha and vipassanā cannot be separated, nor can the pair be developed apart from right view, right thought, right moral conduct, and so forth. Samatha and vipassanā, Ajahn Chah said, are like two sides of one hand. In the original Buddhist tradition they are inseparable. Indeed, to make progress in the seven stages of meditation I have described, the meditator needs an understanding and acceptance of the Buddha’s teachings, and one’s virtue must be pure. Insight meditation is an inherent part of the method of meditation described so far. In particular, this meditation can produce insight or understanding in three important areas: insight into problems affecting daily happiness, insight into the way of meditation, and insight into the nature of “you.”
Insight into Problems Affecting Daily Happiness
When a problem arises – a death, a sickness, some other type of loss, or even a hurtful argument—it is not only painful but confusing. It is like being lost in dense and dangerous jungle. When one is lost in the forest, one should climb to the top of a tall tree or tower and look for a distant landmark, such as a river or road that leads to safety.
Having gained perspective and an overview of the situation, confusion vanishes. In this simile, the jungle stands for the tangled problems of daily life. Climbing to the top of a tower or tree refers to the practice of meditation, which leads to the calm, cool air where insight or perspective is gained. Thus if you have a heavy problem, do not think about it endlessly. Then you are merely wandering around lost in your jungle. Instead, carefully follow the instructions for the method of meditation described in this chapter and the previous one, and you will leave your problem behind. You will rise above your jungle, and from that vantage point you will gain insight into what is to be done. The answer will appear out of the calm.
Insight into the Way of Meditation
At the end of each meditation session, spend two or three minutes reviewing all that has happened during that session. There is no need to “take notes” (that is, remind oneself to remember) during the meditation, because you will find it easy to remember the important features at the end. Was it peaceful or frustrating? Now ask yourself why.
What did you do to experience peace, or what caused the feeling of frustration? If your mind wandered off into fantasyland, was that peaceful and useful? Such reviewing and inquiry only at the end of the session generates insight into how to meditate and what meditation is. No one starts out as a perfect meditator. The insights gained by reviewing your meditation at the end of each session will deepen your experience of meditation and overcome hindrances. Developing this type of insight into your meditation is important, and I will come back to it in part 2.
Suffice it to say at this point that you need insight to achieve each of the stages I have described. To be able to let go of your thoughts, for example, you need some insight into what “letting go” is. The further you develop these stages, the more profound your insight will be. And if you reach as far as jhāna, then it will change your whole understanding. By the way, these insights into the way of meditation also work for problems in daily life. This is because the tendencies that create obstacles in meditation are the same clumsy attitudes that cause difficulties in life. Meditation is like a gym in which you develop the powerful mental muscles of calm and insight, which you then use both in further meditation and in daily life to bring happiness and success.
Insight into the Nature of “You”
The deepest and most elusive insight is into who you really are. This insight is gained not through belief or thinking but only by meditation, by becoming absolutely still, releasing the mind, and then knowing the mind. The Buddha compared the mind to the full moon at night hidden behind clouds. The clouds stand for the activity of the five senses and thought. In deep meditation, the five senses recede to reveal the pure and radiant mind. In jhāna, you can actually observe the pure mind. In order to know the inner secrets of the mind, one must continue to observe it in the stillness of jhāna, with no thought at all, for a very long time. One simile tells of a thousand-petaled lotus that closes its petals at night and opens them at dawn. When the first rays of the morning sun warm the outermost row of petals, they begin to open, which allows the sun to warm the next row of petals. Soon those petals open too, and the sun’s warmth falls on the next row, and so on. But if a cloud appears and obscures the sun, then the lotus closes its petals. It takes a long period of unbroken sunshine to warm the lotus enough to in this simile stands for the mind; the sun’s warmth stands for still attention; and the cloud stands for a thought or mental agitation that destroys the stillness. I shall develop this simile later. For now, let me say that these inner secrets are beyond your imagining. Some meditators stop at an inner row of petals and mistakenly think, “This is it.” Then the stillness breaks and the lotus closes in a twinkling. This is false enlightenment. When your meditation is so profound that you can remain in stillness for several hours, observing the mind freed from the hindrances, and watching the innermost row of petals open fully to reveal the jewel in the heart of the lotus, then you will realize the ultimate insight, the truth of who you are. Find out for yourself! In the previous chapter, I counseled that patience is the fastest way to proceed. This also holds true for the three stages of meditation discussed in this chapter. These are all stages of letting go, each dependent upon the ones preceding. In the end, to enter into jhāna one has to really let go. This is a profound letting go made possible by careful and diligent practice.
There is much more to meditation than I have covered so far. In these two chapters only the basic method has been described: seven stages that culminate in the first jhāna. Much more needs to be said about the hindrances, qualities of mindfulness, other meditation objects, and
more. Continued next 27 August 2021