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.

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:


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.

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

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

Mind Contemplation

POSTCARD#459: Bangkok: Editor’s note, continuing with our text “Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond” by Ajahn Brahm. This section is the study of the Four Foundations Of Mindfulness, which Ajahn refers to as the Four Focuses of Mindfulness.

This  third  focus  of  mindfulness,  observing  the  citta  or  mind  consciousness,  is  one  of  the  most difficult  to  practice.  Most  people’s  meditation  is  not  developed  sufficiently  to  even  see  mind consciousness.  Mind  consciousness  is  like  an  emperor  covered  from  head  to  toe  in  five  thick garments: his boots go up to his knees; his trousers go from his waist to his calves; a tunic stretches from his neck to his thighs and along his arms to his wrists; gloves cover his hands and forearms; and a helmet covers all of his head. Being so completely covered, the emperor cannot be seen. In the same way, mind consciousness is so completely clothed by the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch that you cannot see it underneath.

To see the emperor, you have to remove his clothes. In the same way, to see the citta, you have to remove the five external senses. It is the task of the jhāna to remove the five senses and reveal the citta. Thus you cannot even start to practice this third focus of mindfulness until you have experienced a jhāna. For how can you contemplate citta when you haven’t really experienced it? It would be like contemplating the emperor when all you can see are his (or her?) clothes.

Investigating the nature of citta is also like investigating the nature of gold. Before chemists even begin to test the material, they must ensure that the sample of gold is purified of all other elements and that what they have is 100 percent pure gold. Similarly before you begin to investigate the nature of citta you have to ensure that this mind consciousness if purified from all other types of consciousness, i.e., that the five external sense-consciousnesses have been abandoned. Again, this can only be done after emerging from a jhāna. Then superpower mindfulness takes the jhāna experience just past, a sustained experience of the citta set apart from the five sense, as its object of investigation. Only in this way will the truth be seen, that the citta is anatta, that mind consciousness is subject to arising and passing, that is it “me’, or “mine”, nor a self, that it is neither God nor cosmic-consciousness – that is just citta, a flame burning because of fuel.

Where the Citta Goes After Enlightenment

A flame depends on fuel. The word for “fuel” in Pali is upādāna. A candle flame depends on heat, wax, and a wick. If any one of those three “fuels” disappears, then the flame ceases. If a wind takes away the heat, the flame ceases. And if the wax is used up, the flame ceases. Once the flame ceases, it doesn’t go anywhere. There is no heaven where all good flames go to flicker for eternity. Nor does the flame merge with a comic transcendent Flame. It just ceases, that’s all. In Pali the word for a flame “going out” is nibbāna.

The citta too depends on fuel. The suttas say that citta depends on nama-rupa (body and objects of mind) and when nāma-rūpa ceases, the citta completely ceases (SN 47.42). It goes out. It “nibbānas”. It doesn’t go anywhere, it just cease to exist. Interestingly, the two famous bhikkhunīs Kisāgotamī and Pațācārā became fully enlightened when they saw the flame of a lamp go out (Dhp 275; Thig116).

The Nature of Citta

When you sustain superpower mindfulness on the pure citta, the nature of all types of consciousness reveals itself. You see consciousness not as a smoothly flowing process, but as a series of discrete, isolated events. Consciousness may be compared to a stretch of sand on a beach. Superficially, the sand looks continuous over several hundred metres. But after you investigate it closely, you discover it is made up of discrete, isolated particles of silicate. There are empty spaces between each particle of sand, with no essential sandiness flowing in the gap between any two particles. In the same way, that which we take to be the flow of consciousness is clearly seen to be a series of discrete events with nothing flowing in between.

Another analogy is the fruit salad analogy. Suppose on a plate there is an apple. You clearly see this apple completely disappear and in its place appears a coconut. Then the coconut vanishes and in its place appears another apple. Then the second apple vanishes and another coconut is there. That vanishes and a banana appears, only to vanish when another coconut manifests on the plate, then another banana, coconut, apple, coconut mango, coconut, lemon, coconut and so on. As soon as one fruit vanishes then a moment later a completely new fruit appears. They are all fruits but completely different varieties, with no two fruits the same. Moreover, no connecting fruit-essence flows from one fruit to the next. In this analogy the apple stands for an event in eye-consciousness, the banana for an incident of nose-consciousness, the mango for taste consciousness, the lemon for body consciousness, and the coconut for mind consciousness. Each moment  of consciousness is discrete, with nothing flowing from one moment to the next.

Mind consciousness, the “coconut,” appears after every other species of consciousness and thereby gives the illusion of sameness to every conscious experience. To the average person, there is a quality in seeing that is also found in hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. We can call that quality “knowing.” However, with superpower mindfulness, you will discern that this knowing is not part of seeing, hearing, and so on, but arises a moment after each type of sense consciousness. Moreover, this knowing has vanished when, for example, eye consciousness is occurring. And eye consciousness has vanished when knowing (mind consciousness) is occurring. In the simile of the fruit salad, there can’t be an apple and a coconut on the plate at the same time.

That Which Knows Is Not Self

Contemplating consciousness in this way—seeing it as a series of discrete, isolated events with no thing  continuing  from  one  moment  to  the  next—undermines  the  illusion  that  there  is  a  knower, constantly present, which is always there to receive the experience of the world. You are unravelling the last refuge of the illusion of a self. Previously, it may have seemed so obvious to you that “I am the one who knows.” But what seems obvious is often wrong. Now you see it as just a “knowing,” as mind  consciousness,  like  the  coconut  that  is  sometimes  there  and  sometimes  not.  Citta  is  just  a natural phenomenon, subject to ceasing. It cannot be me, mine, or a self. That which knows, citta, is finally understood as anattā.

Satipaṭṭhāna, as noted above, is practiced for the purpose of realizing anattā—no-self. The two last resorts of the illusion of a self or soul are the knower and the doer. If you identify with anything as the essential “you,” it will be one or both of these. You assume that you are that which does or that which  knows.  These  two  deep-seated,  long-held  delusions  are  what  stand  between  you  and enlightenment.  See  through  these  illusions  once,  and  you  are  a  stream  winner.  See  through  these illusions every time, and you are an arahant.

Continued next week 25 February 2022 with “Mind Object contemplation”

Review of the Five Hindrances

Image Source: Monk Pillars

POSTCARD#456: Bangkok: The suttas say that one practices satipaṭṭhāna “having temporarily abandoned the five hindrances.” That means that a prerequisite for the practice of satipaṭṭhāna is the abandoning of the five hindrances first! MN 68,6:“not attaining a jhāna, the five hindrances invade one’s mind and remain. Attaining a jhāna, the five hindrances do not invade the mind and remain.”) Anyone who has experienced a jhāna knows that after emerging, one’s mindfulness is so powerful and so easy to sustain. This is the result of the five hindrances being absent.

Editors note: Continuing from last week with our review of the Five Hindrance, please note 1. sensory desire kāmma-cchanda was included there, but for convenience’s sake we have included it here also.

1. sensory desire kāmma-cchanda

 The compound kāmma-cchanda means ‘delight, interest, involvement with the world of the five senses. At the start of your meditation, place the mind beyond the reach of the five senses by returning to present-moment awareness [chapter 1, stage one, print copy, page 7]. Most if not all of our past and future is occupied with the affairs of the five senses. Through achieving present-moment awareness, we cut off most of the kāmma-cchanda. [see also: silent present-moment awareness – stage two, print copy, page 11]

 2. ill will (vyāpāda).

The  usual understanding of this second hindrance is anger toward another person. But it is more likely to be toward yourself or even toward the meditation object.

Ill will towards yourself can manifest as not allowing yourself to bliss out. There are many people who have deep guilt complexes. This is mostly a Western trait because of the way most of us have been brought up. Guilt and punishment are inseparable in our culture and in our minds. Punishment may be denying ourselves some kind of pleasure, happiness or freedom. People in the West just keep on seeking punishment. It’s crazy!

Goodwill Toward Yourself

Give  yourself  a  break, do  some  loving-kindness  meditation [Page 34 Print copy. Key in: Loving Kindness in the WordPress search box]. Say  to yourself, “The door to my heart is open to all of me. I allow myself happiness. I allow myself peace. I have goodwill toward myself, enough goodwill to let myself become peaceful and to bliss out on this meditation.”

3. sloth and torpor (thinā-middhā)

I’m sure we know it all too well through our experience of meditation. We sit in meditation and don’t really know what  we  are  watching,  whether  it’s  the  present  moment,  silence,  the  breath,  or  whatever.  This  is because the mind is dull. It’s as if there are no lights turned on inside. It’s all gray and blurry.

Making Peace with Sloth and Torpor

The  most  profound  and  effective  way  of  overcoming  sloth  and  torpor  is  to  make  peace  with  the dullness and stop fighting it! When I was a young monk in the forest monasteries in Thailand and became sleepy during the 3:15 A.M. sitting, I would struggle like hell to overpower the dullness. I would usually fail. But when I did succeed in overcoming my sleepiness, restlessness would replace it. So I would calm down the restlessness and fall back into sloth and torpor.

The Knower and the Doer

It  took  many  years  to understand what was going on. The knower is the passive half of the mind that simply receives information. The doer is the active half that responds with evaluating, thinking, and controlling. The knower and the doer share the same source of mental energy. Thus, when you are doing a lot, when you have a busy lifestyle and are struggling to get on, the doer consumes most of your mental energy, leaving only a pittance for the knower. When the knower is starved of mental energy you experience dullness.

4. Restlessness and Remorse (udhaccha-kukkccha)

The main component of this hindrance is restlessness of mind. But first let me briefly address the matter of remorse. Remorse is the result of hurtful things that you may have done or said. In other words, it is a result of bad conduct. If any remorse comes up in meditation, instead of dwelling on it, you should forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. The wise are not people who never make mistakes, but those who forgive themselves and learn from their mistakes. Some people have so much remorse that they think they can never become enlightened.


Whether we find joy or not depends on the way we train our perception. It’s within our power to change the way we look at things. We can look at a glass of water and perceive it as very beautiful, or we can think of it as ordinary. In meditation, we can see the breath as dull and routine, or we can see it as very beautiful and unique. If we look upon the breath as something of great value, then we won’t get restless. We won’t go around looking for something else.

That’s what restlessness is, going around looking for something else to do, something else to think about, somewhere else to go—anywhere but here and now. Restlessness is one of the major hindrances, along with sensory desire. Restlessness makes it so hard to sit still for very long.

Contentment  is  the  opposite  of  a  fault finding mind. You should  develop  the  perception  of contentment with whatever you have, wherever you are, as much as you can. Beware of finding fault in your meditation, that  thought  is  the  very  cause  of restlessness. It doesn’t matter how the meditation is going, be absolutely content with it and it will go deeper. If you’re dissatisfied with your progress, then you’re only making it worse. So learn to be content with the present moment. Forget about jhānas, just be content to be here and now, in this moment.

Watch the silence and be content to be silent. If you’re truly content, you don’t need to say anything. Don’t most inner conversations take the form of complaining, attempting to change things, or wanting to do something else? Or escaping into the world of thoughts and ideas? Thinking indicates a lack of contentment. If you’re truly contented, then you’re still and quiet. See if you can deepen your contentment, because it is the antidote for restlessness.

5. doubt (vicikiccā)

Doubt can be toward the teaching, about the teacher, or toward yourself.

Doubt can also be directed toward what you are experiencing now: “What
is this? Is this jhāna? Is this present-moment awareness?” Such doubts are hindrances. They are inappropriate during meditation.

If while meditating the thought “Is this jhāna?” arises, then it cannot be jhāna! Thoughts like that can’t come up within these deep states of stillness. Only afterward, when you review those states, can you look back and say, “Ah, that was a jhāna.” If you get into any difficulty in your meditation stop, and rather than think “Is this a jhāna”, ask yourself, “Which of the hindrances is this?”

[Below are the five hindrances in the usual order in which the Buddha lists them:

1. sensory desire (kāmma-cchanda)

2. ill will (vyāpāda)

3. sloth and torpor (thinā-middhā)

4. restlessness and remorse (udhaccha-kukkccha)

5. doubt (vicikiccā)]

Continued next week 4th February 2022

The Importance of Jhāna for Satipaṭṭhāna

POSTCARD#455: Bangkok: If mindfulness is like a light, meditation brightens that light. When I (the author) was a young monk at Wat Pa Nanachat in Northeast Thailand, I became quite peaceful by doing walking meditation in the hall. I would walk with my gaze on a spot on the concrete floor some two meters ahead. Then I had to stop. I couldn’t believe it, but the dull concrete surface began to open up into a picture of magnificent beauty. The various shades of gray and the texture suddenly appeared as the most beautiful picture I had ever seen. I thought of cutting out that section and sending it to the Tate Gallery in London. It was a work of art. An hour or two later, it was just a boring, ordinary piece of concrete again. What had  happened,  and  this  may  have  happened  to  you,  is  that  I  had  a  short  experience  of  “power mindfulness.” In power mindfulness, the mind is like a megawatt searchlight, enabling you to see so much deeper into what you are gazing at. Ordinary concrete becomes a masterpiece. A blade of grass literally  shimmers  with  the  most  delightful  and  brilliant  shades  of  fluorescent  green.  A  twig metamorphoses into a boundless universe of shape, color, and structure. The petty becomes profound and the humdrum becomes heavenly under the sparkling energy of power mindfulness.

What is happening is that the five hindrances are being abandoned. When they are gone the experience is like seeing through a windshield that has been cleaned of grime and dust, or hearing through ears that at last are unclogged of wax, or reflecting with a mind released from its fog. When you know the difference between power mindfulness and weak mindfulness as a personal experience, not a mere idea, then you will understand the necessity of jhāna prior to satipaṭṭhāna.

Jhāna generates “superpower” mindfulness. If power mindfulness is like a megawatt searchlight, then jhāna-generated superpower mindfulness like a terawatt  sun.

The Thousand-Petaled Lotus simile is used in this way because there are a thousand or so levels of reality to uncover. The practice of meditation takes many hours of sitting, uncovering many deep layers of delusion and wrong  ideas  about  yourself  and  the  world.  When  the  Buddha  taught  that  the  root  cause  of suffering  is  avijjā,  or  delusion,  he  did  not  say  that  it  would  be  easy  to  uncover.  Avijjā  is uncovered, as it were, in layers, like the opening of the lotus petals.

Recall that a lotus closes all of its petals at night. In the morning the first rays of the sun begin to warm the lotus. This is the trigger for the lotus to open its petals. It takes a long time, many minutes for the warmth to build up enough for the first layer of petals to open. Once the outermost petals are opened, the warmth of the sun can shine on the next layer of petals, and after a few moments of uninterrupted light they too open up. This allows the next layer to receive warmth the warmth and soon it opens up in turn. A thousand-petaled lotus requires a very strong sun sustained for a very long time to open every petal and reveal the famed jewel at its heart.

 In satipaṭṭhāna, the thousand-petaled lotus is a simile for this body-mind, that is, “you” – or whatever you like to call that which is sitting somewhere right now reading this page. The sun is a simile for mindfulness. You have to sustain power-mindfulness for a very long time on this body-mind to allow the innermost petals to open up. If the five hindrances are there, no insight happens, just as when there are clouds or mist, the sun cannot warm the lotus.

[Editor’s note: Here the author reviews the five hindrances, “obstacles that you will  meet  in  your  meditation  and  that  you  should  learn  to  overcome.” Key in: The Five Hindrances in the search box in the WordPress app. Then: The Second Hindrance, etc.] These  obstacles  to  deep meditation  are  called  in  the  Pāli  language  nīvarana.  Literally  that  means  “closing  a  door”  or “obstructing  entering  into  something,”  and  this  is  exactly  what  the  hindrances  do.  They  stop  you from entering into the deep absorption states, jhānas. They also obstruct or weaken wisdom and strengthen delusion.

These are the five hindrances in the usual order in which the Buddha lists them:

1. sensory desire (kāmma-cchanda)

2. ill will (vyāpāda)

3. sloth and torpor (thinā-middhā)

4. restlessness and remorse (udhaccha-kukkccha)

5. doubt (vicikiccā)

Basically, these five hindrances stand between you and enlightenment. When you know them, you have a good chance of overcoming them. If you have not achieved the jhānas yet, it means you have not fully understood these five hindrances. If you have gotten into such deep states, then you have overcome the hindrances. It’s as simple as that.

The Five Hindrances

1. sensory desire kāmma-cchanda – the compound kāmma-cchanda means ‘delight, interest, involvement with the world of the five senses. At the start of your meditation, place the mind beyond the reach of the five senses by returning to present-moment awareness [chapter 1, stage one, print copy, page 7]. Most if not all of our past and future is occupied with the affairs of the five senses. Through achieving present-moment awareness we cut off most of the kāmma-cchanda. [see also: silent present-moment awareness – stage two, print copy, page 11]

Continued next week, Friday 28th January 2022, with the review of the five hindrances

The last Three Steps

The Fourteenth Step: Reflecting on Fading Away of Things.

POSTCARD#454: If reflections on anicca fail to work, there is virāga, the fading away of things—sometimes called dispassion. It has this dual meaning, but I usually prefer the meaning “fading away.” This is when things just disappear. You’ve seen many things disappear when you enter jhāna—some of which were so close to you that you assumed that they were an essential part of your identity. They are all gone in jhāna. You’re experiencing the fading away of your self.

The Fifteenth Step: Reflecting on Cessation

The third reflection after emerging from a jhāna should be on nirodha, or cessation. Something that was once there has now completely disappeared. It has ended, gone, and its place is now empty! Such emptiness can be known only in deep meditation. So much of the universe that you thought was essential has ceased, and you’re in a completely different space. Cessation is also the third noble truth. The end of suffering is called cessation. The cause of that cessation is letting go. You’ve actually let go. Dukkha, suffering, has ended—most of it anyway, 99 percent. And what’s left? What’s the opposite of dukkha? Sukha. The ending of suffering is happiness. That’s why you should reflect that these jhānas are the most blissful experience you’ve ever felt in your existence. And if you’ve got a little bit of wisdom or intelligence, you will see that the bliss arises because so much dukkha has ceased.

You experience happiness and you know the cause. Imagine that you had a migraine headache for many, many months and someone gave you a new medicine that had just been invented, saying it works for some but not for everybody. So you take it and find that it works for you. Your migraine has gone! How would you feel? You’d be high as a kite. You’d be blissed out! Sometimes you’d be crying with happiness. The ending of pain is happiness. Why is it that schoolchildren feel so happy when they finish their end-of-year school exams? It is because a lot of suffering has just ended. So often, the happiness in the world is just a measure of how much suffering preceded it. When you finally pay off the mortgage on your house, you feel so happy; all the pain of working for months and years to pay it off is gone.

The Sixteenth Step: Reflecting on Letting Go, Abandoning

The last of the reflections in the Ānāpānasati Sutta is on this beautiful word paṭinissagga, “letting go, abandoning.” In this context paṭinissagga is giving away not what’s “out there” but what’s “in here.” Many times people regard Buddhism as being unworldly, giving away what’s out there. But paṭinissagga is the letting go of the inner world, the letting go of the doer and even the knower. If you look very carefully, you’ll see that what has been happening in jhāna is not only letting go of the external world but also letting go of the internal world, especially letting go of the doer, the will, the controller. This insight gives rise to so much happiness, so much purity, so much freedom, so much bliss. You’ve found the path to the ending of suffering. That is how the Buddha described ānāpānasati. It’s a complete practice that starts with just sitting down in a quiet place, on a comfortable seat, mindful of what’s in front of you and just watching the breath. Step by step—in steps that you know are within your ability—you reach these profound and blissful states called jhāna. When you emerge from them, you have any one of these four things to contemplate: anicca, the impermanence or uncertainty of things; virāga, the fading away of things; nirodha, cessation of self; and paṭinissagga, letting go of all that’s “in here.” And if you reflect upon those things after the experience of jhāna, then something is going to happen. I often say that jhāna is the gunpowder and reflection is the match. If you put the two together, then there’s going to be a bang somewhere. It’s only a matter of time.

 May you all experience those beautiful bangs called enlightenment!

The Twelfth and Thirteenth Steps

The Twelfth Step: Freeing the Mind

POSTCARD#453: The twelfth step in ānāpānasati is called vimocayaṁ cittaṁ, “freeing the mind.” Here, you have an experience that you might describe afterward in two different ways, depending upon your perspective. Either you find yourself sinking or diving into the nimitta, or the nimitta with its brilliant light and ecstatic feeling completely envelops you. You don’t do this. It just happens as the natural result of letting go of all doing.

You enter the jhāna through liberating the mind. The jhānas, the Buddha said, are stages of freedom (vimokkha) (DN 15,35). Vimokkha is the same word used to describe someone who is released from jail and walks free. You may know it from the Sanskrit moksha which has the same meaning. The mind is now free. That is, free from the body and the five senses. I’m not saying the mind is floating somewhere in an out-of-body experience. You are not located in space anymore, because all experiences of space are dependent on the five senses. Here the mind is free from all of that. You’re not at all sensitive to what’s happening with the body. You’re unable to hear anything, unable to say anything. You’re blissed out yet fully mindful, still, stable as a rock. These are signs of the mind being freed. This experience becomes one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful experience, of your life.

If you get a few of these jhānas, you usually want to become a monk or a nun. The world will have less attraction for you. Relationships, the arts, music and movies, sex, fame, wealth, and so on all seem so unimportant and unattractive when compared to jhānas and the bliss of the freed mind. But there is much more than just the bliss. There is also the philosophical profundity of the experience. When you’ve spent hours in a jhāna, you can call yourself a mystic, if you like. You’ve had an experience that in all religious traditions is called a mystical experience—something far from the ordinary. The Buddha called it uttari-manussa-dhamma (MN 31,10), something that surpasses ordinary human experience. He called it the mind “gone to greatness” (mahā-ggata). He also considered the happiness of jhāna so similar to enlightenment happiness that he named it sambodhi sukha (MN 66,21). It’s a place where defilements cannot reach. So this is where Māra—the Buddhist devil—cannot reach you. You’re awakened and free during this time.

So if you develop these stages, the first twelve steps of ānāpānasati, they will lead you into jhāna.

Emerging from a Jhāna

The last four steps in the Ānāpānasati Sutta relate to the meditator who has just emerged from a jhāna. After you emerge from your first experience of jhāna you can’t help but think, “Wow, what was that?” So the first thing you should do is review the jhāna. Investigate that experience, though you will struggle to give it words. Ask yourself, How did it arise? What special thing did I do? What did it feel like in jhāna? Why did it feel like that? How do I feel now? Why is it so blissful? All these reflections will give rise to deep insight.

You’ll find that the best two words to describe why jhāna happened are “letting go.” You’ve really let go for the first time. Not letting go of what you’re attached to, but letting go of the thing doing the attaching. You’ve let go of the doer. You’ve let go of the self. It’s a difficult thing for the self to let go of the self, but through these methodical stages you’ve actually done it. And it’s bliss.

So, having reflected on the experience, you either take up satipaṭṭhāna (the focuses of mindfulness) or just go directly to the last four stages of ānāpānasati.

The Thirteenth Step: Reflecting on Impermanence

The first reflection is on anicca, usually translated as impermanence but meaning much more than this. Its opposite, nicca, is the Pāli word used to describe a thing that is regular or constant. For instance, in the Vinaya a regular supply of alms food, say from a disciple who brings food to a monastery every Tuesday, is called nicca food (Vin II,4,4,6). When that which was once constant stops, that’s anicca. What’s important to reflect upon after the deep experiences of meditation is that there was something that was so constant that you never noticed it—this thing we call a “self.” In jhāna, it disappeared! Notice that. Noticing it will convince you of the truth of no-self (anattā) so deeply that it’s very likely to give rise to the experience of stream winning.

Continued next week: 14 January 2022