end of the book study, and looking back

Dear Readers. I propose bringing our study of “Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond,” to a close now. The text from here on, in my opinion, is intended for those who have a functioning knowledge of the Jhānas. I’m thinking of senior monks who have been practicing for a few decades, or more – those to whom I show respect including, of course, the author of the book, Ajahn Brahm.

So what has been going on here these last few months? We are working on the book versions of the posts, some of them soon to be published, in time for our 10th Anniversary: 2012/ 2022!

There was one ground-breaking post in December 2011 and the actual starting date was January 2012. Special thanks to WordPress for hosting the site and to all our readers, those who have looked, liked and made a comment – those too, who engaged in lengthy dialogue on this humble platform. I’m very grateful.

To celebrate our 10th year, I think we have to re-publish a few posts from that year, beginning with “Jesus and Advaita Vedānta,” posted on July 1 2012

Jesus and Advaita Vedānta

POSTCARD#473: I didn’t know about Advaita Vedānta when I was a child and only recently discovered there were people like Alan Watts (and others) writing about non-duality in the Christian context, Now I’m convinced it is important to focus on the fact that there is something at the heart of Christianity. The uncomfortable feeling that’s followed me all these years – that somehow I missed the point of the Jesus Teaching – all this has gone when I think of the Advaitist aspect of the teaching. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle I just stumbled upon, coming from an Asian perspective, an inductive knowing and that’s how it works.

The reason I didn’t see it before is because the Western concept of God, having human attributes (similar to the Advaitist idea of Ishvara), contradicts the rational scientific view. Accepting something that’s scientifically impossible, just because it’s written down in the Bible, doesn’t make sense. It’s like a myth and that’s why Christianity never had any reality in the West. What’s needed is to take it all a bit further.

“… when human beings think of Brahman, the Supreme Cosmic Spirit is projected upon the limited, finite human mind and appears as Ishvara. Therefore, the mind projects human attributes, such as personality, motherhood, and fatherhood on the Supreme Being. God (as in Brahman) is not thought to have such attributes in the true sense.”

In Western countries, people are wandering around without a map. There’s the shopping mall and that’s all. How to let go of the individual ‘self’ if everything in the system is aimed at getting you to hold on? Looking for the way out by browsing possibilities will take a lifetime. The distractions built-in to window shopping behaviour are designed to keep you ‘shopping’ and prevent you from finding the way out too easily. By the time you get there you’ll have forgotten what it was you were looking for.

“The Advaita Teachings are pointers, offered at the level of the audience, so to some people Jesus would talk about “a mansion with many rooms” and to other people he would say: “(heaven) is within.” (And) without understanding Advaita and the way pointers are adjusted depending on the audience, (most) Christians haven’t a clue what Jesus was talking about ….” 

Those who didn’t fall into the shopping mall trap just took the belief ‘thing’ to pieces to see what it was made of. That’s how it was seen that there was/is no substantial “self” in the centre of consciousness. It’s an operating system that keeps all working parts in the state of  ‘oneness’. “We are, right at this moment, God itself, and we can rejoice in that – if we can break out of our individual identity…” If someone had been able to explain it to me like this when I was a child, the challenge to find out what it could mean would have been enough motivation for a lifetime.

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Note: I’m including the Jesus Teaching in a oneness of spiritual teaching centred in that geographical region where the three Abrahamic religions arose: Christianity, Judaism, Islam and the connection with Brahmanic religions, Buddhism and Jainism. That region, from North India through to Israel and the Mediterranean, a distance of about 3000 miles, say from New York to San Francisco? I see it like a highway of knowledge, wisdom and information. All of it coming and going along the route many centuries before Jesus was born and many centuries after. All the world’s religions arose here.

The Fourth Jhāna

POSTCARD#472: As the stillness of the knower calms that which is known, the bliss that was the central feature of the first three jhānas changes again when one enters the fourth jhāna. Only this time it changes more radically. Sukha completely disappears. What remains is an absolute still knower, seeing absolute stillness.

From the perspective of the fourth jhāna, the bliss of the previous jhāna as a residual movement of the mental object, and an affliction obscuring something much greater. When the bliss subsides, all that is left is the profound peace that is the hallmark of the fourth jhāna. Nothing moves in here, nothing glows. Nothing experiences happiness or discomfort. One feels perfect balance in the very center of the mind. As in the center of a cyclone, nothing stirs in the center of the mind’s eye. There is a sense of perfection here, a perfection of stillness and of awareness. The Buddha described it as the purification of mindfulness, just looking on (upekkhā sati pārisuddhi) (DN 9,13).

The peace of the fourth jhāna is like no other peace to be found in the world. It can only be known having passed though the experience of the previous three jhānas. That passage is the only way of later confirming that the unmoving peace that one felt was indeed that of fourth jhāna. Furthermore, the state of fourth jhāna is so very still that one remains on its plateau for many hours. It seems impossible that one could experience the fourth jhāna for any less time.

Though pīti and sukha have both ceased in the fourth jhāna and all that is left is the perfection of peace, such an experience is later recognized, upon reviewing, as supremely delightful. The perfect peace of the fourth jhāna is seen as the best bliss so far. It is the bliss of no more bliss! This is not playing with words, trying to sound clever and mystical. This is how it is.

Summary of the Fourth Jhāna

Thus the fourth jhāna has the following features:

1. The disappearance of sukha;

2. An extremely long-lasting, and unchanging, perception of the perfection of peace, reached only through the lower three jhānas;

3. The same absolute rocklike stillness, and absence of a doer, as in the second and third jhāna;

4. The complete inaccessibility from the world of the five senses and one’s body.

The Buddha’s Similes for the Four Jhānas

The Buddha would often describe the experience within the four jhanas by evocative similes (e.g.; MN 39,15-18;77, 25-28). Before explaining these similes, it is helpful to pause and clarify the meaning of kāya, a key Pāli word used in all the similes. Kāya has the same range of meanings as the English word “body.” Just as “body” can mean things other than the body of a person, such as a “body of evidence,” for example, so too kāya can mean things other than a physical body, such as a body of mental factors, nāma-kāya (DN 15,20). In the jhānas the five senses do not operate, which means that there is no experience of a physical body. The body has been transcended. Therefore, when the Buddha states in these four similes, “so that there is no part of his whole kāya unpervaded (by bliss and so on),” this can be taken to mean “so that there is no part of his whole mental body of experience unpervaded” (MN 39,16). This point is frequently misunderstood.

The Buddha’s simile for the first jhāna is a ball of clay (used as soap) with just the right amount of moisture, neither too dry nor too wet. The ball of clay stands for the unified mind, wherein mindfulness has been restricted to the very small area created by the “wobble.” The moisture stands for the bliss caused by total seclusion from the world of the five senses. The moisture that completely pervades the clay ball indicates the bliss that thoroughly pervades the space and duration of the mental experience. This

is later recognized as bliss followed by bliss, and then more bliss, without interruption. That the moisture is not in excess, and so does not leak out, describes how the bliss is always contained in the space generated by the wobble, never leaking out of this area of mind-space into the world of the five senses, as long as the jhāna persists.

The second jhāna is likened to a lake with no external entry for water but with an internal spring that replenishes it with cool water. The lake represents the mind. The complete absence of any way that water from outside can enter the lake describes the inaccessibility of the mind by any influence from outside. Not even the doer can enter such a mind in this jhāna. Such hermetic inaccessibility is the cause of the rocklike stillness of the second jhāna. The internal spring that supplies the cool water represents ajjhattam sampasādanam, the internal confidence in the bliss of second jhāna. This internal confidence causes complete letting go, cooling the mind into stillness and freeing it from all movement. The coolness stands for the bliss itself, born of samādhi or stillness, which pervades the whole mental experience, unchanging throughout the duration of the jhāna.

The third jhāna is described by the metaphor of a lotus flower that thrives immersed in the cool water of a lake. The lotus represents the mind in the third jhāna. Water can cool the petals and leaves of a lotus but can never penetrate the lotus, since all water rolls off. The coolness stands for sukha, and the wetness stands for pīti. So like the lotus immersed in water, the

mind in the third jhāna is cooled by sukha but is not penetrated by pīti. The mind in the third jhāna experiences only sukha. In the third jhāna, the mind continues to experience a rocklike stillness, never moving outside, just as the lotus in the simile always remains immersed within the water. Just as the cool water causes the lotus to thrive, so the bliss of the third jhāna sustains the mind therein. Once again, just as the cool waters in the simile pervade the lotus with coolness from its roots to its tips, so the unique bliss of the third jhāna pervades the whole mental experience from beginning to end.

The fourth jhāna is likened to a man draped from head to toe in a clean white cloth. The man represents the mind, while the cloth represents the perfect purity of equanimity and mindfulness that is the hallmark of the fourth jhāna. The mind in the fourth jhāna is stainless, spotless as a clean cloth, perfectly still and just looking on, purely and simply. This absolute purity of peacefulness pervades the whole body of mental experience, from the start to the end, just as the white cloth completely covers the man’s body from head to toe.

Such is the meaning of the four similes for jhāna, as I (the author) understands them.

Truthful Words to Pacify the Fear of War

Editor’s Note: I’m here with Jiab and M on holiday in Phuket. Some rain and sunshine, Thinking of those less fortunate than I, and the terrible situation in Ukraine. Just this morning I found a beautiful, apt Dharma message from The Great Middle Way blog, and re-blogged it here:

https://greatmiddleway.wordpress.com/2022/04/21/truthful-words-to-pacify-the-fear-of-war/

oṃ maṇi peme hum

POSTCARD#471: Victorious Maitreya, sublime and noble Chenrezi, ferocious king Hayagrīva, Jetsün Tārā, and all Holy Buddhas, the mere sound of whose names dispels all fear —compassionate sources of refuge, please hear my prayer!

In this time when individuals experience an oceanic surge of negative karma and jealousy –the age of fivefold decadence and strife– as intense suffering, fighting and quarrelling oppress us, please burn it all in the fires of your compassionate wisdom.

Shower the nectar of love upon those who fan the flames of hatred. Bless them to recognize one another as parents, and thereby usher in auspiciousness and happiness.

May the mischievous unwholesome thoughts that enter the minds of beings and instantaneously transform their hosts into warring demons never hold sway again.

May all who have died in battles, combat, conflicts, and wars immediately give up their indulgence in destructive action, cause and effect, and, having taken birth in the pure realm of Dewachen, lead all to that same Buddha realm.

May all beings have long and healthy lives, be free of quarrels and strife, practice the ten virtues, experience timely rains and bountiful harvests, and may the auspiciousness of the environment and beings increase exponentially.

May these pure, vast prayers be accomplished through the compassion of the Lama, Yidam, and Three Rare and Sublime Ones, Suchness, which by its very nature is utterly pure, and the appearance of things, the undeceiving nature of cause and effect.

—Thangtong Gyalpo

The First Jhāna

The Wobble (Vitakka and Vicāra)

POSTCARD#469: All jhānas are states of unmoving bliss, almost. However in the first jhāna, there is some discernable movement. I call this movement the “wobble” of first jhāna. One is aware of great bliss, so powerful it has subdued completely the part of the ego that wills and does. In jhāna one is on automatic pilot, as it were, with no sense of being in control. However, the bliss is so delicious  that it can generate a small residue of attachment. The mind instinctively grasps at the bliss. Because the bliss of the first jhāna is fuelled by letting-go, such involuntary grasping weakens the bliss. Seeing the bliss weaken, the mind automatically lets go of its grasping, and the bliss increases its power again. The mind then grasps again, then lets go again, Such subtle involuntary movement gives rise to the wobble of the first jhāna.

This process can be perceived in another way. As the bliss weakens because of the involuntary grasping, it seems as if mindfulness moves a small distance away from the bliss. Then the mindfulness gets pulled back into the bliss as the mind automatically lets go. This back-and-forth movement is a second way of describing the wobble.

The wobble is, in fact, the pair of first jhāna factors called vitakka and vicāra. Vitakka is the automatic movement back into the bliss; vicārra is the involuntary grasping of the bliss. Some commentators explain vitakka and vicāra as “initial thought” and ”sustained thought” While in other contexts this pair can refer to thought, in jhāna they certainly mean something else. It is impossible that such a gross activity as thinking can exist in such a refined state as jhāna. In fact thinking ceases a long time prior to jhāna. In jhāna vitakka and vicāra are both subverbal and so do not qualify as thought. Vitakka is the subverbal movement of mind back into bliss. Vicāra is the subverbal movement of mind that holds on to the bliss. Outside of jhāna such movements of mind will often generate thought and sometimes speech. But in jhāna vitakka and vicāra are too subtle to create any thought. All they are capable of doing is moving mindfulness back into bliss and holding mindfulness there.

One-Pointedness (Ekaggatā)

The third factor of the first jhāna is one-pointedness, ekaggatā. One-pointedness is mindfulness that is sharply focused on a minute area of existence. It is one-pointed in space because it sees only the point-source of bliss, together with a small area surrounding the bliss caused by the first jhāna wobble. It is one-pointed in time because it perceives only the present moment, so exclusively and precisely that all notion of time completely disappears. And it is one-pointed in phenomena because it knows only one object – the mental object of pīti-sukha – and is totally oblivious to the world of the five senses and one’s physical body.

Such one-pointedness in space produces the peculiar experience, only found in jhāna, of non-dual consciousness, where one is fully aware but only of one thing, and from one angle, for timeless periods. Consciousness is so focused on the one thing that the faculty of comprehension is suspended a while. Only after the one-pointedness is dissipated, and one has emerged from the jhāna, will one be able to recognize these features of the first jhāna and comprehend them all.

The one-pointedness in time produces the extraordinary stability of the first jhāna, allowing it to last effortlessly for such a long period of time. The concept of time relies on measuring intervals from past to present or present to future of from past to future. When all that is perceived within the first jhāna is the precise moment of now, then there is no room for measuring time. All intervals have closed. It is replaced with timelessness unmoving.

One-pointedness of phenomena produces the exceptional occurrence of bliss upon bliss, unchanging throughout the duration of the jhāna. This makes the first jhāna such restful abode.

In academic terms, ekaggatā is a Pali compound meaning “one-peakness.” The middle term agga (Sanskrit agra ) refers to the peak of a mountain, the summit of an experience, or even the capital of a country (as in Agra the old Moghul capital of India). Thus ekaggatā is not just any old one-pointedness, it is a singleness of something soaring and sublime. The single exalted summit  that is the focus of ekaggatā in the first jhāna is the supreme bliss of pīti-sukha.

Joy Happiness (Pīti-sukha)

Indeed the last two factors of the first jhāna are pīti and sukkah, which I will discuss together since they are such a close-knit pair. In fact they only separate out in the third jhāna, where pīti cease and leaves sukha “widowed.” Therefore only after the third jhāna, can one know from experience what sukha is and what pīti was, Here it is sufficient to explain the pair as one thing.

These two factors of the first jhāna refer to the bliss that is the focus of mindfulness, and which forms the central experience of the first jhāna. Bliss is the dominant feature of the first jhāna, so much so that it is the first thing that one recognizes when reviewing after emerging from the jhāna. Indeed, mystic traditions more recent than Buddhism have been so overwhelmed by the sheer immensity, egolessness, stillness, ecstasy, ultimateness, and pure otherworldliness of the first jhāna thsy they have understood the experience as ‘union with God.’ However, the Buddha explained that this is but one form of supramundane bliss. The first jhāna is the first  level. Even though after emerging from the first jhāna, one cannot conceive of an experience more blissful. There is much more!  

Each level of bliss has a different “taste,” a quality that sets it apart. These different qualities can be explained by the diverse causes of the bliss. Just as heat generated by sunlight has a different quality than heat caused by a wood fire, which in turn is different from heat generated by a furnace, so bliss fueled by different causes exhibits distinguishing features.

The distinguishing feature of the bliss of first jhāna is that it is fueled by the complete absence of all five senses activities. When the five senses have shut down, including all echoes of the five senses manifesting as thoughts, then one has left the world of the body and material things (kāmaloka) and has entered the world of pure mind (rūpaloka). It is as if a huge burden has dropped away. Or, as Ajahn Chah used to describe it, it is as if you have had a rope tied tightly around your neck for as long as you can remember. So long, in fact, that you have become used to it and no longer recognize the pain. Then somehow the tension is suddenly released and the rope is removed. The bliss you then feel is the result of that noose disappearing. In much the same way, the bliss of the first jhāna is caused by the complete fading away of a heavy burden, of all that you took to be the world. Such  insight into the cause of the bliss of the first jhāna is fundamental to understanding the Buddha’s four noble truths about suffering.

Summary of the First Jhāna

In summary then, the first jhāna is distinguished by the five factors, here compressed into three.

1 + 2. vitakka-vicāra: experienced the “wobble,” being the fine subtle movement in and out of the bliss.

3. ekaggatā: experienced as nonduality, timelessness, and stillness.

4 + 5. pīti-sukha: experienced as a bliss surpassing anything in the material world, and fuelled by the complete transcendence of the world of the five senses.

Continued next week: 6th May 2022

The Jhānas III: Bliss upon Bliss upon Bliss

The Landmark of all Jhānas

POSTCARD#468: From the moment of entering a jhāna, one will have no control. One will be unable to give orders as one normally does. When the will that is controlling vanishes, then the “I will” that fashions one’s concept of future also disappears. Since the concept of time ceases in jhāna, the very question “What should I do next?” cannot arise. One cannot even decide when to come out. It is this absolute absence of will, and of its offspring, time, that gives the jhānas their timeless stability and allows them to last sometimes for many blissful hours.

Because of the perfect one-pointedness and fixed attention, one loses the faculty of perspective within jhāna. Comprehension relies on comparison –relating this to that, here to there, now with then. In jhāna, all that is perceived is an unmoving, enveloping, nondual bliss that allows no space for the arising of perspective. It is like that puzzle where one is shown a photograph of a well-known object from an unusual angle, and one has to guess what it is. It is very difficult to identify some objects  without  looking  at  them  from  different  angles.  When  perspective  is  removed,  so  is comprehension. Thus in jhāna not only is there no sense of time but also there is no comprehension of what is going on. At the time, one will not even know which jhāna one is in. All one knows is great bliss, unmoving, unchanging, for unknown lengths of time.

Afterward,  when one has emerged from the jhāna, such consummate one-pointedness of consciousness  falls  apart.  With  the  weakening  of  one-pointedness,  perspective  reemerges,  and  the mind  has  the  ability  to  move  again.  The  mind  has  regained  the  space  needed  to  compare  and comprehend. Ordinary consciousness has returned. Having just emerged from a jhāna, it is the usual practice to look back at what has happened and review the jhāna experience. The jhānas are such powerful events that they leave an indelible record in one’s memory store. In fact, one will never forget them as long as one lives. They are easy to recall with perfect retention. One comprehends the details of what happened in the jhāna, and one knows which of the jhānas it was. Moreover, data obtained from reviewing a jhāna form the basis of the insight that leads to enlightenment.

Another strange quality that distinguishes jhāna from all other experience is that within jhāna, all the five senses are totally shut down. One cannot see, hear, smell, taste or feel touch. One cannot hear a crow cawing or a person coughing. Even if there were a thunderclap nearby, it wouldn’t be heard in a jhāna. If someone tapped you on the shoulder or picked you up and let you down, in jhāna you cannot know this. The mind in jhāna is so completely shut off from these five senses that they cannot break in.

A lay disciple once told me how, completely by chance, he had fallen into a deep jhāna while meditating at home. His wife thought he had died and sent for an ambulance. He was rushed to hospital in a loud wail of sirens. In the emergency room, no heartbeat registered on the ECG and no brain activity was seen by the ECG . So the doctor on duty put defibrillators on his chest to reactivate his heart. Even though he was being bounced up an down on the hospital bed throughout the force of the electrical shocks, he didn’t feel a thing. When he emerged from the jhāna in the emergency room, perfectly all right, he had no knowledge of how he had got there, nothing of ambulances, and sirens, nothing of body-jerking defibrillators. All that long time he was in jhāna, he was filly aware, but only of bliss. This is an example of what is meant by the five senses shutting down within the experience of jhāna.

Summary of the Landmarks of All Jhānas

It is helpful to know, then, that within a jhāna:

1. There is no possibility of thought;

2. No decision- making process is available;

3. There is no perception of time;

4. Consciousness is nondual, making comprehension inaccessible;

5. Yet one is very, very aware but only of bliss that doesn’t move;

6. The five senses are fully shut off, and only the sixth sense, mind, is in operation.

These are the features of jhāna. So during a deep meditation, if one wonders if it is jhāna or not, one can be certain it is not. No such thinking can exist within the stillness of jhāna. These features will only be recognized upon emergence from a jhāna, using reviewing mindfulness once the mind can move again.

Continued next week 29 April 2022

Entering the Jhāna

POSTCARD#467: When the nimitta is stable and radiant, then one is at the entrance to jhāna. One must train oneself to wait patiently here, maintaining the stillness and non-doing until the causes or conditions are ready for the transition into jhāna. At this stage, however, some meditators make the mistake of disturbing the process by peeking at the edge of the nimitta.

Once the nimitta is stable and bright, one might become interested in its shape or size. Is it circular or oblong? Are the edges precise or ill-defined?

Is it small or is it big? When one looks at the edge, mindfulness loses its one-pointedness. The edge is the place of duality, of inside and outside. And duality is the opposite of one-pointedness. If one looks at the edge, the nimitta will become unsettled and may even disappear. One should keep mindfulness on the very center of the nimitta, away from the edge, until any perception of edge vanishes into the nonduality of one-pointedness.

Similarly, if one attempts to expand or contract the nimitta, then one will also be sacrificing the essential one-pointedness. Expansion and contraction involve the perception of size, and that involves awareness of the edge of the nimitta and the space that lies beyond. Again one is falling back into the trap of duality and loss of one-pointedness through this unprofitable expanding and contracting.

So when the nimitta is stable and bright, you must be patient. Don’t move. One is building up the jhāna factors of pīti-sukha and one-pointedness. When they are built to sufficient power, they will unfold into jhāna by themselves. An oft-quoted passage from the suttas, often erroneously translated to imply the existence of an original mind, is relevant here. The passage is from the Aṅguttara Nikāya 8.

This mind, O monks, is luminous, but it is defiled by adventitious defilements. The uninstructed worldling does not understand this as it really is; therefore for him there is no mental development.

This mind, O monks, is luminous, and it is freed from adventitious defilements. The instructed noble disciple understands this as it really is; therefore for him there is mental development. (AN I,6,1-2)

At the stage of the beautiful and stable nimitta, it is the nimitta that is radiant and incredibly luminous. And the nimitta, as already explained, is an image of the mind. When one experiences such a nimitta, one recognizes it as the luminous (or radiant) mind of the Aṅguttara passage above. This nimitta is radiant because the mind has been freed from the “adventitious defilements,” which mean the five hindrances. Then one understands that this nimitta—this luminous mind freed of the five hindrances—is the doorway into jhāna, then one truly understands what is meant by “mental development.”

When the nimitta is radiant and stable, then its energy builds up moment by moment. It is like adding peace upon peace upon peace, until the peace becomes huge! As the peace becomes huge, the pītisukha becomes huge, and the nimitta grows in luminosity. If one can maintain the one- pointedness here by keeping one’s focus on the very center of the nimitta, the power will reach a critical level. One will feel as if the knower is being drawn into the nimitta, that one is falling into the most glorious bliss. Alternatively, one may feel that the nimitta approaches until it envelops the knower, swallowing one up in cosmic ecstasy. One is entering jhāna.

Yo-Yo Jhāna

It sometimes happens that when inexperienced meditators fall into a nimitta, they immediately bounce back to where they began. I call this a “yo-yo jhāna,” after the children’s toy. It isn’t a real jhāna because it doesn’t last long enough, but it is so close. It is the enemy I identified above, excitement, that causes mindfulness to bounce back from jhāna. Such a reaction is quite understandable since the bliss that one experiences when falling into the nimitta is greater joy than one can ever imagine. One may have thought that the best sexual orgasm was something nice, but now one discovers that it is trivial compared to the bliss of these jhānas. Even after a yo-yo jhāna, one often bursts into tears of happiness, crying at the most wonderful experience by far of one’s whole life. So it is understandable that novice meditators first experience yo-yo jhānas. After all, it takes a lot of training to be able to handle such immensely strong bliss. And it takes a lot of wisdom to let go of excitement when one of the great prizes of spiritual life is theirs for the taking.

For those who are old enough to remember the game of snakes and ladders, the simple children’s board game played with dice, they will remember the most dangerous square to land on is the square just before the goal. The ninety-ninth square holds the head of the longest of snakes. If you land on the hundredth square you win. But if you land on the ninety-ninth square, you fall down the snake to its tail, right back at the beginning. A yo-yo jhāna is like landing on the ninety-ninth square. You are very close to winning the game and entering a jhāna, but you fall just a little short, land on the snake head of excitement, and slide, or rather bounce, right back to the start.

Even so, yo-yo jhānas are so close to the real thing that they are not to be sneered at. In the yo-yo jhāna one experiences incredible bliss and transports of joy. It makes one feel as high as a weather balloon for hours, without a care in the world and with so much energy that one can hardly sleep. The experience is the greatest in one’s life. It will change you. Through a little more training and wise reflection on one’s experiences, you will be able to fall into the nimitta, or be enveloped by it, without bouncing out. Then you have entered the amazing world of jhāna.

Continued next week: April 22, 2022

Image details:

810px-Gandhara,_periodo_kushan,_buddha_in_meditazione,_I-IV_sec.JPG

Refers to the Buddhist culture of ancient Gandhāra which was a major center of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent from the 3rd century BCE to approximately 1200 CE. Ancient Gandhāra corresponds to modern day north Pakistan, mainly the Peshawar valley and Potohar plateau as well as Afghanistan’s Jalalabad.

Stabilizing the Nimitta

POSTCARD#466: When the nimitta is very bright, it is also very beautiful. It usually appears unearthly in the depth of its beauty and more wonderful than anything one has ever experienced before. Whatever the color of the nimitta, it is a thousand times richer than anything that can be seen with one’s own eyes. Such awesome beauty will captivate one’s attention, making the nimitta remain. The more beautiful the nimitta, the more likely it is that the nimitta will become stable and not jump about. Thus one of the best methods to stabilize the nimitta, so that it persists a long time, is to shine the nimitta into brilliance, as explained above.

However, some brilliant nimittas still don’t last long. They burst into the mental field of awareness with strong pīti-sukha, but they persist not much longer than a glorious shooting star in a clear night sky. These nimittas have power but lack sufficient stability. In order to stabilize such a nimitta, it is important to know that the two enemies that disperse the nimitta are fear and excitement.

Of the two enemies, fear is more common. These nimittas appear so immense in their sheer power and beauty that one often becomes very afraid. Fear is a natural response to the recognition of something much more powerful than oneself. Moreover, the experience is so unfamiliar that one’s personal security looks seriously threatened. It seems as if one might lose all control. And one will—blissfully so—if one could only let go of the “self” and trust in the nimitta! Then one would experience desire and control overwhelmed by supramundane bliss, and, in consequence, much of what one took to be one’s self would vanish, leaving a real sense of freedom. It is the fear of losing part of one’s ego that is the root cause of alarm when a powerful nimitta appears.

Those who have understood something of the Buddha’s teaching of anattā, that there is no self, will have an easier time transcending this fear and accepting the nimitta. They realize that they have nothing to protect and so can let go of control, trust in the emptiness, and selflessly enjoy the beauty and power. Thus the nimitta settles. Even an intellectual understanding that there is no one in here will help overcome the terror of letting go of the innermost controller. However, those who have no appreciation of the truth of no-self may overcome this fear by substituting the more powerful perception of bliss.

The simile of a child in a swimming pool illustrates this last point. When children who have just learned to walk see a swimming pool for the first time, they are likely to be scared. The unfamiliar environment threatens their security, and they are deeply concerned whether their little bodies can manage in such an un-solid material. They are afraid of losing control. So they put one toe into the water and quickly pull it out. That felt all right. So they place three toes into the water for just a little bit longer. That was okay too. Next they dip a whole foot in, then a whole leg. As the confidence increases and the swimming pool promises to be fun, the anticipation of joy overpowers the fear. The child jumps into the water and immerses itself fully. Then they have such a great time that their parents can hardly get them to leave!

Similarly, when fear arises with the powerful nimitta, it is all one can do to stay there just for an instant. One then reflects how that felt. To say it felt wonderful is an understatement. So the next time one stays longer, and it feels even better. By this gradual method, confidence soon becomes strong and the expectation of joy so dominant that when the awesome nimitta arises, one jumps right in and immerses oneself fully. Moreover, one has such a great time that it is only with great difficulty that anyone can make you come out.

>>>>>> part 2

Another skillful means for overcoming fear at this stage, especially when fear is not too strong, is to perform a little mental ceremony of handing over trust. It is as if one has been the driver of one’s meditation until now, but this is the moment to hand over control to the nimitta. As I suggested in chapter 7, one may imagine handing over a set of keys to the powerful nimitta, the way one allows a trusted friend to take over driving one’s car. With an imaginary gesture of handing over the keys, one transfers control and places full trust in the nimitta. Such a transfer of faith usually leads to a greater stability of the nimitta and its subsequent deepening.

Here again one is placing faith in the knower and withdrawing it from the doer. This is the theme underlying the whole of the meditation path. One trains from the very beginning in passive awareness, that is, the ability to be clearly aware without interfering at all with the object of awareness.

Energy, coupled with faith, flows into the mindfulness and away from activity. When one learns to watch an ordinary object like the breath without meddling, then one’s passive awareness will be challenged by a more seductive object like the beautiful breath. If one passes this test, then the most challenging object of all, the nimitta, will be presented to you as the ultimate test of passive awareness. For if one gets involved with the nimitta and tries to control it however slightly, then one fails the final examination and gets sent back to the beautiful breath for remedial training. The more one meditates, the more one learns to be powerfully mindful while letting go of all doing. When this skill is fully perfected, it is easy to pass the final test and stabilize the nimitta with flawless passive awareness. Again, the simile of the mirror is applicable here. When you look at your reflection in a mirror and the image is moving around, it is because you are not still. It is futile to try to stabilize the image by holding the mirror still. In fact, if you try this, the reflection is apt to move even more. The image in the mirror is moving because the watcher is moving, not the mirror. Only when the watcher is still will the image be still.

The nimitta is in reality a reflection of the mind, an image of that which knows. When this reflection, this nimitta, moves back and forth, it is futile trying to stabilize the nimitta by holding the nimitta still. The nimitta is moving because that which is watching the nimitta is moving. When this is understood, one focuses on that which knows, letting it come to stillness. When that which knows doesn’t move, then neither does the nimitta.

The other enemy of the nimitta’s stability is excitement or exhilaration, what I have called the “wow!” response. When there is success in the meditation and amazing things happen, then the meditator can get very excited, especially when a wonderful nimitta first appears, more radiant than the sun and more beautiful than exquisite flowers! On such occasions

it is common for the mind to say “wow!” Unfortunately, the nimitta immediately withdraws and may be reluctant to return for a very long time, even months. In order to avoid such a calamity, one should bear in mind Ajahn Chah’s famous simile of the still forest pool, which I described in detail in chapter 7.

In this simile the forest pool represents the mind, and the forest monk sitting near its edge stands for mindfulness. When mindfulness is still, then animals like the beautiful breath and pīti-sukha come out from their jungle to play by the mind’s edge. Mindfulness must remain still. If it does, then, after the beautiful breath and pīti-sukha have finished their business in the mind, the beautiful, shy nimitta will cautiously emerge to play in the mind. If the nimitta senses the knower thinking “wow!” it will bashfully run back into the jungle, not to re-emerge for a very long time.

So when the powerful and beautiful nimittas appear, watch with the stillness of an Ajahn Chah, sitting absolutely motionless by the remote forest lake. Then one will watch this strange and wonderful nimitta make merry in the mind for a very long time, until it is ready to take one into jhāna.

Continues next week on 15th April 2022

Shining Up the Nimitta

POSTCARD#465: In chapter 7, I first introduced the simile of the mirror. It is a far-reaching insight to realize that this nimitta is actually an image of one’s mind. Just as one sees an image of one’s face when one looks in a mirror, one sees an image of one’s mind in the profound stillness of this meditation stage.

So when the nimitta appears dull, or even dirty, it means that one’s mind is dull, even dirty! Usually, this is because one has been lacking in virtue recently; possibly one was angry, or maybe self-centered. At this stage of meditation, one is looking directly at one’s mind and there is no opportunity for deceit. One always sees the mind as it truly is. So, if one’s nimitta appears dull and stained, then one should clean up one’s act in daily life. One should take moral precepts, speak only kindly, practice more  generosity, and be selfless in service. This stage of meditation when

nimittas appear makes it abundantly clear that virtue is an essential ingredient for success in meditation.

Having taught many meditation retreats over the years, I have noticed that the meditators who have the easiest progress and most sensational results are those who we would call pure-hearted. They are the people who are joyously generous, whose nature would never allow them to harm another being, who are soft-spoken, gentle, and very happy. Their beautiful lifestyle gives them a beautiful mind. And their beautiful mind supports their virtuous lifestyle. Then, when they reach this stage of the meditation and their mind is revealed in the image of a nimitta, it is so brilliant and pure that it leads them easily to jhāna. It demonstrates that one cannot lead a heedless and self-indulgent lifestyle and have easy success in one’s meditation. On the other hand, purifying one’s conduct and developing compassion prepare the mind for meditation. The best remedy, then, for shining up a dull or dirty nimitta is to purify one’s conduct outside the meditation.

That being said, if one’s conduct in daily life isn’t too outrageous, one can shine up the dirty nimitta in the meditation itself. This is achieved by focusing the attention on the center of the nimitta. Most areas of the nimitta may appear dull, but the very center of the nimitta is always the brightest and purest part. It is the soft center of an otherwise stiff and unworkable nimitta. As one focuses on the center, it expands like a balloon to produce a second nimitta, purer and brighter. One looks into the very center of this second nimitta, the spot where it is the brightest of all, and that balloons into a third nimitta, even purer and brighter. Gazing into the center effectively shines up the nimitta. One continues in this way until the nimitta is beautifully brilliant.

When, in life, one has developed a strong fault-finding mind, obsessively picking out what’s wrong in this and that, then one will find it almost impossible to pick out the beautiful center of a dull nimitta and focus attention thereon. One has become so conditioned to pick out the blemishes in things that it goes against the grain to ignore all the dull and dirty areas of a nimitta to focus exclusively on the beautiful center. This demonstrates once again how unskillful attitudes in life can prevent success in deep meditation. When one develops a more forgiving attitude to life, when one becomes more embracing of the duality of good and bad—not being a negative obsessive nor a positive excessive but a balanced acceptive—then not only can one see the beauty in mistakes, but one can also see the beautiful center in a dull and dirty nimitta.

It is essential to have a bright and luminous nimitta to take one through to jhāna. A dull and dirty one is like an old, beat-up car that will break down on the journey. The dull nimitta, when not made to shine, usually vanishes after some time. So if one is unable to shine up the nimitta, then go back to the beautiful breath and build up more energy there. Generate greater pīti- sukha, huge happiness and joy, along with the breath. Then, next time the breath disappears and a nimitta arises, it will be not dull but beautiful and luminous. In effect, one has shined up the nimitta in the stage of the beautiful breath.

Continued next week: Friday 8th April 2022

Suitable Nimitta and Useless Nimitta

POSTCARD#464: It is very helpful to cultivate nimittas of the sort perceived as a  light. These  “light  nimittas”  are  the  best  vehicle  for  transporting  the  meditator  into  the  jhānas. However, it is just possible, but rarely done, to enter a jhāna by using “feeling nimittas” instead. By this I mean that one sees no light in the mind but instead experiences a feeling of bliss in the mind. It is important to note that the sense of touch (the last of the five senses) has been transcended and such a feeling of bliss is experienced completely by the mind sense. It is a pure mental object again, but perceived as relating closely to a physical feeling of bliss. This is a bona fide nimitta. But it is much more difficult to work with such a nimitta to gain access into jhāna, though it is not impossible. For these reasons, it is recommended to cultivate the light nimitta if one aspires for the jhāna.

There are some visual nimittas that are of no use on the path into jhāna. It is helpful to identify these “useless” nimittas so that one will waste no time with them.

Sometimes whole scenes can appear clearly in the mind. There might be landscapes, buildings, and people, familiar or strange. Such visions might be fascinating to watch, but they are of little use. Moreover, they are meaningless, and one should certainly not mistake them as some revelation of truth. Experience shows that visions arising at this stage are notoriously deceptive and completely untrustworthy. If one likes to waste time, one can linger on them a while. But the recommended thing to do is to remove all interest and go back to the beautiful breath. Such complex nimittas are merely a reflection  of  an  overcomplicated  mind.  The  mind  should  have  been  calmed  into  simplicity  much more effectively before letting go of the breath. When one sustains the attention on the beautiful breath, uninterrupted  for  long  periods  of  time,  then  one  is  training  in  simplicity.  Then  when  the breath disappears, a simple unified nimitta arises, one that is suitable for progress.

A less elaborate nimitta, which is still overcomplicated, can be called the “firework nimitta.” As the name suggests this consists of many bursts of light at the same time, even of different colours. Again, this firework nimitta is a sign that the mind is still too complicated and very unstable. If one wants, one can enjoy the sideshow for a short time, but one should not waste too much time there. One should ignore all the razzle-dazzle, return to the breath, and develop more one-pointedness and calm.

The next type of nimitta can be called the “shy nimitta,” a single pure light that flashes up quickly then disappears. After a few minutes it flashes up again. Each time it lasts only a second or two. Such a nimitta is much more encouraging. Its simplicity shows that the mind is one-pointed. Its power is a sign that pītisukha is strong but its inability to remain after breaking through into consciousness show that the level of calm is not quite enough. Instead, one patiently waits, developing more calm, allowing the mind to become more receptive to the very shy nimitta. As will be explained later, at greater length, this nimitta disappears because the mind overreacts to its arrival, usually with excitement or fear. By establishing a solid calm and having the confidence to not react at all, the shy nimitta returns and stays longer each time. Soon, such a nimitta loses its shyness and, feeling accepted in the mind’s calmness, remains a long time. One should attempt this approach first. But if the nimitta continues being shy and shows no sign of remaining longer, then one should return to the beautiful breath and ignore it. When one has built more tranquillity of mind with the beautiful breath, then one can return to the shy nimitta to see if it will establish itself this time.

Another type of nimitta is the “point nimitta,” a simple and powerful light but ever so small, which persists many seconds. This nimitta can be very useful. It shows that one-pointedness is excellent, calm is sufficient, but pīti-sukha is still a bit lacking. All one needs to do is gently look deeper into the point nimitta, letting mindfulness zero in. Then it appears as if one’s awareness comes closer to this nimitta and its size starts to increase. As it expands a little, one should keep one’s focus on the center, not on the edges or beyond the edges. By maintaining the mind’s focus sharply on the center of the point nimitta, it increases in power and grows in pīti-sukha. Soon the point nimitta unfolds into the best nimitta of all.

The best nimitta, the one most suitable for jhāna, begins by resembling the full moon at midnight in a sky free of clouds. It rises unhurried when the beautiful breath softly disappears. It takes three or four seconds to establish its presence and settle down, remaining still and very beautiful before the mind’s eye. As it remains without effort it grows brighter, more luminous. Soon it appears brighter than the sun at midday, radiating bliss. It becomes by far the most beautiful thing one has ever seen. Its beauty and power will often feel unbearable. One wonders whether one can take so much bliss of such extreme power. But one can. There’s no limit to the bliss one can feel. Then the nimitta explodes, drowning one in even more bliss, or one dives into the center of the radiating ecstasy. If one remains there, it is jhāna.

Continued next week: 1st April 2022

The Nimitta: The Home Stretch into Jhāna

Hong Hien Tu temple. Buddha statue (Credit: BSIP SA / Alamy Stock Photo)

Editor’s note: Readers will have noticed the text for the post titled: The Home Stretch into Jhāna dated March 18 2022 is a repeat of the previous post dated: March 11 2022. My apologies for this error. The text below is the intended post for March 18 and continues in sequence from March 11 2022.

When the nimitta does not appear

POSTCARD#463: For some, when the breath disappears, the nimitta doesn’t happen. No lights appear in their mind. Instead,  they  are  left  with  a  deep  feeling  of  peace,  of  emptiness,  of  nothing.  This  can  be  a  very beneficial  state  and  should  not  be  belittled,  but  it  is  not  jhāna.  Moreover,  it  lacks  the  power  to proceed any further. It is a cul-de-sac, and a refined one at that, but it is incapable of being developed further. There are a number of methods to bypass this state, generate the causes for nimitta, and go deeper into the jhānas.


The  state  above  arises  because  one  did  not  cultivate  sufficient  pītisukha  along  with  the  breath. There  was  not  enough  delight  when  the  breath  disappeared,  so  mindfulness  had  no  clear  mental object of beauty on which to settle. Understanding this, one needs to put more value on developing delight when one is watching the breath, and cultivating that delight until it becomes a strong sense of beauty. For example, you may regard the breath as an old and well-loved friend who brings you joy, and that joy lets you look on the breath as beautiful. Whatever skillful means one employs, by paying careful attention to the beauty alongside the breath, the beauty will blossom. What one pays attention to usually grows.


In the previous chapter, one was cautioned not to be afraid to delight in meditation. I regard this exhortation as so important that I repeat it here almost word for word: Do not be afraid to delight in meditation. Too many meditators dismiss happiness, thinking it unimportant or believing that they don’t  deserve  such  delight.  Happiness  in  meditation  is  important,  and  you  deserve  to  bliss  out! Blissing  out  on  the  meditation  object  is  an  essential  part  of  the  path.  So  when  delight  does  arise alongside the breath, you should cherish it and guard it accordingly.


Another reason for the nimitta not arising is that one hasn’t invested enough energy into the knower. As explained in the previous chapter, delight is generated by letting energy to flow into the knower. Usually, most of our mental energy gets lost in the doing, that is, in planning, remembering, controlling and thinking. If one would only redirect one’s energy away from the doer and give it all to the knower, to attentiveness, then one’s mind would become brightened and energized with delight. When there is lots of delight, strong pītisukha, then after the breath disappears the nimitta appears. So maybe the reason why a nimitta doesn’t appear is that one has devoted too much energy to controlling and not enough to knowing.


However, if the breath has disappeared but still no nimitta arises, then one must be careful not to fall into discontent. Discontent will wither any pītisukha already there and urge the mind into restlessness. Thus discontent will make the arising of a nimitta even more unlikely. So one must be patient and seek the remedy in becoming aware of contentment and letting it consolidate. Just through paying attention to contentment, it usually deepens. As contentment grows stronger, delight will arise. As delight grows in power, the nimitta  appears.


Another useful method to arouse the nimitta when the breath disappears, is to focus more sharply in the resent moment. Present-moment awareness is the very first stage of this method of meditation. It should have been established at the beginning, but in practice, as the meditation progresses and one pays attention to other things, the present-moment awareness can become a little sloppy. It may be that one’s mindfulness has become smeared around the present moment instead of being precisely focused. By noticing this as a problem, it is very easy to adjust the focus of mindfulness to be knife-edged in the centre of now. Like adjusting the lens of a telescope, the slightly blurred image becomes very sharp. When the attention is sharply focused in the present moment it experiences more power. Pītisukha comes with the sharpening of focus and the nimitta soon follows as well.
Continued next week: 25th March 2022