The Jhanās I Bliss

Editor’s note: in the original, pages 127-133 (print book copy) the author looks at the Jhanās from a historical and theoretical point of view. That section is not included here, if anyone would like to have it, please let me know [dhammafootsteps at gmail dot com] – let me have your email address and I will send the missing section. Now the author continues with the Jhanās in terms of their practice.

Pīti-sukha—Joy and Happiness

POSTCARD#461: In Pali the compound word pīti-sukha means the combination of joy  with  happiness.  One  can  use  those  words  for  many  kinds  of experiences, even worldly ones. But in meditation, pīti-sukha refers only to that joy and happiness that is generated through letting go.

Just as various types of fire can be distinguished by their fuel, such as a wood fire, oil fire, or bushfire, so can the various types of happiness be differentiated by their cause. The joy and happiness that arises with the beautiful breath is fueled by the letting go of the burdens of past and future, internal commentary, and diversity of consciousness. Because it is a delight born of letting go, it cannot produce attachment. One cannot be attached and let go at the same time. The delight that arises with the beautiful breath is, in fact, a clear sign that some detachment has taken place.

Pīti- sukha may arise from sensual excitement, from personal achievement, or from letting go. These three types of happiness differ in their nature. The happiness generated by sensual excitement is hot and stimulating but also agitated and therefore tiring. Repetition makes it fade. The happiness caused by personal achievement is warm and fulfilling but also fades quickly, leaving a vacant hole. But the happiness born of letting go is cool and long-lasting. It is associated with the sense of real freedom.

Moreover, the happiness generated by sensual excitement produces ever-stronger desires, making the happiness unstable and tyrannical. The happiness caused by personal achievement produces more investment in being a control freak and encourages the illusion of personal power. The controller then kills any happiness. The happiness born of letting go inspires more letting go and less interference. Because it encourages one to leave things alone, it is stable and effortless. It is the happiness most independent of causes and closest to the unconditioned, the uncaused.

It is important for success in meditation to recognize the different types of happiness. If the happiness that arises with awareness of the breath is of the sensual excitement – for example, waves of physical pleasure coursing through your body – it will soon disappear when effort is relaxed, leaving you heavy and tired. If the happiness is associated with the sense of achievement – “Wow! At last I’m getting somewhere in my meditation” – it will often disintegrate, destroyed by the arousal of the controller, ruined by the interfering ego. But if the happiness that arises from the beautiful breath is that born of letting go, then you feel that you don’t need you say anything or do anything. It becomes the happiness whose brother is freedom and whose sister is peace. It will grow all by itself in magnificent intensity, blossoming like a flower in the garden of jhāna.

In addition to the beautiful breath, there are many other objects of meditation: loving-kindness (mettā), parts of the body (kāyagatāsati), simple visualizations (kasina), and others. However, in all meditation that develops into jhāna there must come a stage where the pīti-sukha born of letting go arises. For example, loving-kindness meditation opens into a wonderful, gorgeous, unconditioned love for the whole cosmos filling the meditator with delicious joy. Pīti-sukha born of letting go has arisen and one is at the stage of “beautiful mettā.” Some meditators focus on parts of the human body, often a skull. As the meditation deepens as mindfulness rests on the inner image of a skull, an amazing process unfolds. The image of the skull in one’s mind starts to whiten, then deepen in colour, until it appears to glow with intense luminosity, as the “beautiful skull.” Again, pīti-sukha born of letting go has appeared, filling the whole experience with joy and happiness. Even some monks who practice asubha (loathsomeness) meditation, on a decaying corpse, for instance, can experience the initially repugnant cadaver suddenly changing into one of the most beautiful images of all. Letting go has aroused so much happiness that it overwhelms the natural disgust and floods the image with pīti-sukha. One has realized the stage of the ‘beautiful corpse.”

In meditation on the breath, the Lord Buddha taught the arousing of pīti-sukha along with the experience of one’s breath as the fifth and sixth steps of the 16-step ānāpānasati method. I dealt with this crucial stage of meditation at length above.

When pīti-sukha doesn’t arise, it must be because there is not enough contentment, that is, one is still trying too hard. One should reflect on the first two of the five hindrances. The first hindrance, sensory desire, draws the attention toward the object of desire and thus away from the breath. The second hindrance, ill will, finds fault with the experience of breath, and the dissatisfaction repels the attention from the breath. Contentment is the “middle way ”between desire and ill will. It keeps one’s  mindfulness with the breath long enough for pīti-sukha to arise.

The Way Into Stillness

Stillness means lack of movement. Since will causes the mind to move, to experience stillness one must remove all will, all doing, all control. If you grasp a leaf on a tree and try your hardest to hold it still, no matter how hard you try, you will never succeed. There will always be some vibration caused by slight tremors in your muscles. However if you don’t touch the leaf and just protect it from the breeze, then the leaf comes to a natural state of stillness. In exactly the same way, you cannot achieve stillness by holding the mind in the grip of the will. But if you remove the cause of movement in the mind, the will, the mind soon becomes still. Thus one cannot will the mind to be still. The way into stillness is through pīti-sukha born of letting go. Once the delight that comes with the beautiful breath appears, then the will becomes redundant. It becomes unnecessary since mindfulness stays with the breath all by itself, effortlessly. Mindfulness enjoys being with the beautiful breath, and so does not need to be forced.

When stillness appears it enriches the pīti-sukha. The deepening of pīti-sukha, in turn, creates even less  opportunity  for  effort,  and  so  stillness  grows  stronger.  A  self-reinforcing  feedback  process ensues. Stillness deepens pīti-sukha, and pīti-sukha increases the stillness. This process continues, when not interrupted, all the way into jhāna, where stillness is profound and pīti-sukha ecstatic.

In this chapter I have explored some of the issues often raised about the jhānas. The next chapter, on the nimitta, takes us farther down the road to the deep absorptions.

Continued next week: 11th March 2022

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