The Fourth Jhāna

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.

The Second and Third Jhānas

The Second Jhāna

Subsiding of the Wobble

As the first jhāna deepens, the wobble lessens and the bliss consolidates. One comes to a state where vicāra is still holding on to the bliss with the most subtle of grasping, but this is not enough to cause any instability in the bliss. The bliss doesn’t decrease as a result of vicāra nor does mindfulness seem to move away from the source. The bliss is so strong that vicāra cannot disturb it. Although vicāra is still active there is no longer any vitakka,  no movement of mind back to the source of the bliss. The wobble has gone. this is a jhāna state described in the suttas as without vitakka but with a small measure of vicāra. (MN 128,31; AN VIII,63). It is so close to the second  jhāna that it is usually included in that jhāna.

As the bliss strengthens into immutable stability, there is no purpose for vicāra to hold on anymore. At this point the mind becomes fully confident, enough to let go absolutely. With this final letting go, born of inner confidence in the stability of the bliss, vicāra disappears and one enters the second jhāna proper.

The first feature, then, of the second jhāna described in the suttas is avitakka and avicāra meaning “without vitakka and without vicāra.” In experience, this means that there is no more wobble in the mind. The second feature is ajjhattam sampasādanam meaning “internal confidence.” In experience, this describes the full confidence in the stability of the bliss which is the cause for vicāra to cease.

Perfect One-pointedness of Mind

The third and most recognizable feature of the second jhāna is cetaso ekodibhāvanam or perfect one-pointedness of mind. When there is no longer any wobble, then the mind is like an unwavering rock, more immovable than a mountain and harder than a diamond. Such perfection in unyielding stillness is incredible. The mind stays in the bliss without vibration. This is later recognized as the perfection of the quality called samādhi.

Samādhi is the faculty of attentive silence, and in the second jhāna this attention is sustained on the object without any movement  at all. There is not even the finest oscillation at all. One is fixed, frozen solid fixed with “super glue,” unable even to tremble. All stirrings of mind are gone. There is no greater stillness of mind than this. It is called perfect samādhi , and it remains as a feature not only of this second jhāna but of the higher jhānas as well.

The Bliss Born of Samādhi and the End of All Doing

It is this perfection of samādhi the gives the bliss of the second jhāna its unique taste. The burden that affected the first jhāna, the affliction of movement, has been abandoned, everything stands perfectly still, even the knower. Such absolute stillness transcends the mental pain born of the mind moving, and it reveals the great bliss fuelled by pure samādhi. In the suttas, the bliss of the second jhāna is called the pīti-sukkha born of samādhi (samadhija pīti-sukkha) (DN 9.11). Such bliss is even more pleasurable, hugely so, than the bliss resulting from transcending the world of the five senses. One could not have anticipated such bliss. It is of a totally separate order. After experiencing the second jhāna, having realized two rare “species” of bliss that are extreme, one ponders what other levels of bliss may lie ahead.

Another salient feature of the second jhāna is that all doing, has totally ceased, even the involuntary activity that caused the wobbling has completely vanished, the doer has died. Only when one has experience of the second jhāha can one fully appreciate what is meant by the term “doer” – just as a tadpole can fully appreciate what is meant by the tern “water” only when water disappears during the frog’s first experience on dry land. Not only is the doer gone, it seems as if this apparently essential part of one’s eternal identity has been deleted from experience, What was seemingly obvious turns out to be a mirage, a delusion. One penetrates the illusion of free will using the data from raw experience. The philosopher (Sarte) who proposed “to be is to do” could not have known the second jhāna, where “being” is without any “doing.” These jhānas are weird, and they defy normal experience. But they are real, more real than the world.

Summary of the Second Jhāna

Thus the second jhāna is distinguished by another four collections of factors:

1 + 2. Avitakka-avicāra, ajjhattam sampasadanam:  experienced as the subsiding of the “wobble” from the first jhāna due to internal confidence in the stability of the bliss;

3. Cetaso ekodibhāvam: perfect one-pointedness of mind due to full confidence in the bliss. This is usually experienced as rocklike stillness or the perfection of samādhi;

4. Samādija-pītisukha: being the focus of this jhāna, the supramundane bliss generated by the end of all movement of the mind;

5. The end of all doing: seen as the first time the “doer” has completely gone.

The Third Jhāna

As the stillness of the knower continues, the stillness of the known grows ever more profound. Remember that in jhāna what is known is the image of the mind, and the mind is the knower. First the knower becomes still, then the image, the known, gradually becomes still.

In the first two jhānas this image of the mind is recognizes as a bliss that up until now has been called pīti-sukkha. In the third jhāna, the image of the mind has gone to the next level of stillness, to a very different kind of bliss.

Pīti Has Vanished

Prior to the third jhāna, all bliss had something in common, although it differed in its taste due to the distinguishing causes. That something in common was the combination of pīti plus sukha. Because they were always together, as inseparable as Siamese twins, it was not only pointless, but even impossible to tell them apart. 

It is only after the experience of the third jhāna that one can know what sukha is, and by inference what pīti was. The pīti of the second jhāna seemed more euphoric than anything else. Yet it is now seen as the lesser part of the bliss. Sukha is the more refined part.

Great Mindfulness, Clear Knowing, and Equanimity

With all jhānas, the experiences are next to impossible to describe. The higher the jhāna, however, the more profound the experience and the more difficult it becomes to describe, These states and their language are remote from the world. At a stretch, one may say that the bliss of the third jhāna, the sukha, has a greater sense of ease, is quieter, and is more serene. In the suttas it is accompanied by the features of mindfulness (sati), clear knowing (sampajañña), and equanimity (upekkhā), although these are said in the Anupada Sutta (MN III) to be present in all jhānas. Perhaps these features are emphasized  as qualities of the third jhāna in order to point out that in this very deep jhāna, one is exceptionally mindful, very clear in the knowing, and so still that one looks on without moving which is the root meaning of equanimity (upekkhā).

The Same Rocklike Stillness and Absence of a Doer

The third jhāna retains the perfect samādhi, the rocklike stillness, the absence of a doer, and the inaccessibility from the world of the five sensesaIt is distinguished from the second jhāna by the nature of the bliss, which has soared up to another level and appears as another species of bliss altogether. So much so that the suttas quote the enlightened one’s description of the third jhāna as “abiding in bliss, mindful, just looking on” (DN 9,12).

Summary of the Third Jhāna

Thus the third jhāna has the following features:    

1. The bliss has separated, losing the coarse part that was pīti;

2. The bliss that remains, sukha, exhibits the qualities of great mindfulness, clear knowing, and the sense of just looking on;

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

Continued next week: 13th May 2022