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