The First Jhāna

The Wobble (Vitakka and Vicāra)

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

Entering the Jhāna

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

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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.