Thread: Jhāna attainments

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    Forums Member ancientbuddhism's Avatar
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    Jhāna attainments

    Tse-fu Kuan’s paper Clarification on Feelings in Buddhist Dhyāna/Jhāna Meditation provides a helpful analysis of states within the contemplative composure of Pāḷi jhāna and Skt. dhyāna systems given in the early texts of the Nikāyas and Āgamas.

    Within the framework of this paper one can easily unpack what is usually so daunting a topic for the practitioner of jhāna or zazen.

    When I was a practitioner of Zen I was taught the ‘just sit’ approach. This taught much more than reading so many manuals on meditation. Later, when I transitioned to Theravāda and looked into the Tathāgata’s teachings on jhāna, I was impressed with how these methods were so similar to what I discovered with zazen and shikantaza.

    With reference to jhāna, once the object of the breath-and-body gives rise to calm of mind and body, jhāna attainment is close. From that still-point of ‘calm of mind and body’ can be discerned a more quiet and rarefied state. If the practitioner lets awareness simply release into this more refined state the pathway of jhāna has begun. Each successive jhāna is met like this.

    Tse-fu Kuan’s paper is a simple read when compared to books on contemplative methods and gives a concise outline of what jhāna is from the standpoint of the early texts.

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    Thanks AB,

    Good to see you again!


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    Looking at possible contemporary descriptions which might be used to describe Jhāna attainments could be interesting. As a first attempt, how would people judge the lyrics of the Pink Floyd track 'Learning to fly'? Especially the final chorus:

    "There’s no sensation to compare with this
    Suspended animation, a state of bliss"
    with the aftermath:
    "Can’t keep my mind from the circling sky
    Tongue-tied and twisted
    Just an earth-bound misfit, I"

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    The exposition by Tse-fu Kuan takes some reading. It includes a thorough comparison of different approaches to meditative states in the main schools of Buddhism, as well as a treatment of jhana references in the Pali Canon and other Buddhist writings.

    What I understand from the paper is that the stages of jhana are common to the different traditions. However they are described and what ever interpretations have been added by generations of teachers, all are referring to the same thing.

    One wonders now whether the early categorization of the four stages of jhana has influenced subsequent generations, so that meditators experience what they expect, or whether the levels of jhana are independent of the individual, only waiting for each meditator to discover them.

    From my own limited experience, I must describe jhana as a slippery fish. The moment I think I have reached the first level, I find it is no longer with me. My meditation instructor told me not to recognise jhana during meditation, only to recollect my experience directly afterwards.

    I thank Ancient Buddhism for his post. I'm going to go back to Tse-fu Kuan's paper and read it again.

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    Forums Member ancientbuddhism's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by woodscooter View Post
    One wonders now whether the early categorization of the four stages of jhana has influenced subsequent generations, so that meditators experience what they expect, or whether the levels of jhana are independent of the individual, only waiting for each meditator to discover them.

    From my own limited experience, I must describe jhana as a slippery fish. The moment I think I have reached the first level, I find it is no longer with me. My meditation instructor told me not to recognise jhana during meditation, only to recollect my experience directly afterwards.
    This is a good point to bring up because I have met many practitioners who even after decades of practice struggle with trying to find or ‘attain’ what they think practice is to give. I think the culprit is comparing the descriptions in books or what teachers and traditions say to one’s own experience in practice.

    I had a good Zen teacher who taught very simple zazen with the imperative to ‘just sit’ and not read books on practice for awhile, later to learn that this strategy had faith that practice would teach and the pitfalls of the ‘painted cakes’ of books and traditions would be avoided.

    With reference to the “slippery fish”. For what it’s worth, when bodily and mental calm associated with the breath is met there is a subtle art for the practitioner to recognise a quieter state to release into. I am not usually a fan of the Visuddhimagga, but it does give some helpful indication on what this means. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for a Vipassanā class where I offered monthly discussions on practice:

    Where the early Pāḷi texts are silent on methods, we can find helpful advice in the later Theravāda compendium on meditation, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) , which refers the practitioner to look for the ‘sign of in and out breathing’ (nimittaṃ assāsapassāsā). In these later texts we find similes for these ‘signs’ or nimitta. One such simile is that of a gong that has been struck. When it is first struck there is a gross sound which follows, followed by a faint sound, and afterward when the sound has ceased altogether, there is the faint sound as the object of consciousness. This is compared to attention to breathing:

    ‘…so too, at first gross in-breaths and out-breaths occur and [consciousness does not become distracted] because the sign of the gross in-breaths and out-breaths is well apprehended, well attended to, well observed; and when the gross in-breaths and out-breaths have ceased, then afterwards faint in-breaths and out-breaths occur and [consciousness does not become distracted] because the sign of the faint in-breaths and out-breaths is well apprehended, well attended to, well observed; and when the faint in-breaths and out-breaths have ceased, then afterwards consciousness does not become distracted because it has the sign of the faint in-breaths and out-breaths as its object.

    That is, the sign of the in and out breaths will become progressively more subtle and quiet, just as with the gong that has been struck “it would go on occurring with the sign of the successively subtler sounds as its object.”
    Once the sign (nimitta) of the breath is attained and revisited with practice it can be met easily, even after months or years of laps in practice.

    With the sign of the breath attained and mastered, one needs only to return to that quality of attention to the breath at each session of practice to again access absorption, much like learning to ride a bicycle. And after all, isn’t a child’s ability to learn to ride a bicycle one of developing peripheral awareness? This also applies to each of the successive absorption-states, as one has retained what one has mastered, so can enter each at will.

    “One easily attains the four Jhānas as he wishes, without pain or difficulty, a pleasant abiding known now.”

    catunnaṃ jhānānaṃ ābhicetasikānaṃ diṭṭhadhammasukhavihārānaṃ nikāmalābhī akicchalābhī akasiralābhī’ – AN. 4.22

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    Your clarification on the 'sign of in and out breathing' and the comparison to the sound of a gong is helpful to me, for one.

    The nimitta was not well explained by my former meditation teacher. He started by stating it was impossible to describe.

    He referred to nimitta as phenomena in the visual field.

    Finally, he likened nimitta to an alpine flower one discovers on a walk. You may pause to appreciate it but then you walk on leaving it to be.

    I think he was describing his own experience, instead of leaving space for me to tread my own path. And there's the downside of discussing or writing about meditation in general. It creates expectations, unless skilfully presented.

    The paper by Tse-fu Kuan, which I have now re-read, does a good job of making comparisons without offering conclusions.

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