The Buddha’s radical path of jhāna

Stone Buddha statueJhāna — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a controversial topic in Buddhism. This should be rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jhāna so strongly. In the Eightfold Path, Right Concentration is consistently defined as the four jhānas. The Buddha said things like “There is no jhāna for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks jhāna.” The jhānas are enumerated over and over again in the Pāli scriptures. They’re also implicit in teachings like the Seven Bojjhaṅgas, the 12 positive nidānas, and the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which mention various of the jhāna factors.

Despite the scriptural importance of jhāna, some teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, have argued that jhāna was something that the Buddha rejected, and that it was smuggled into the suttas after the Buddha’s death:

The Four Form Jhānas and the Four Formless Jhānas are states of meditational concentration which the Buddha practiced with teachers such as Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, and he rejected them as not leading to liberation from suffering. These states of concentration probably found their way back into the sutras around two hundred years after the Buddha passed into mahāparinirvāna. The results of these concentrations are to hide reality from the practitioner, so we can assume that they shouldn’t be considered Right Concentration. (Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, page 29)

The specifics of this objection are interesting because they contain some fundamental misunderstandings, and I’d like to explore in this article the topic of the relationship of the so-called “formless jhānas” (I’ll explain that qualification in due course) to the “jhānas of form,” and the role of these “formless jhānas” in the Buddha’s biography — specifically his training under Ālāra and Uddaka, and the Buddha’s later realization that jhāna was the “path to Awakening.”

First, there’s the assumption that Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha the four jhānas. Now, the Buddha never mentions that he learned or practiced the jhānas with his two teachers. He says that he learned to attain the “sphere of nothingness” (ākiñcañña-āyatana — I prefer “no-thingness” as a translation) from Ālāra Kalama, and the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññānāsañña-āyatana) from Uddaka Ramaputta. (Uddaka had apparently not experienced this himself, and was merely passing on Rama’s teaching).

“But,” many Buddhists will object, “if Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha how to attain these spheres, then they must also have taught the Buddha how to attain jhāna, since these spheres are the seventh and eighth jhānas — part of the four ‘formless jhānas’ that follow on from the four ‘jhānas of form.'” (The first two “formless jhānas” are the sphere of infinite space and the sphere of infinite consciousness.) But this is the very error that I am keen to address.

The suttas never refer to any “formless jhānas.” What are nowadays called the “formless jhānas” are in fact never referred to as jhānas in the scriptures, but are referred to consistently as “āyatanas” or “spheres.” It’s only in the later commentarial tradition that the two lists are presented as one continuous list of “eight jhānas.” They should really be known as “formless spheres.”

Now this is important, because the four formless spheres are in fact not jhānas at all. Many meditators have discovered that it’s possible to experience these formless spheres without having first gone through the jhānas. There has been much confusion for some who have had such experiences, because the assumption that the āyatanas can’t be experienced without first having traversed the jhānas is so prevalent. I am in fact one of the many people who has experienced that confusion.

There are suttas in which there is reference to experiencing the āyatanas without first going through the jhānas. Most people would tend to assume that in these suttas the jhānas are assumed, without being mentioned explicitly, but there’s no need to make that assumption, and experience shows it to be false. Certain forms of meditation predispose to direct experience of the āyatanas. Suttas discussing the six element practice and the divine abidings show those meditations leading directly to the formless spheres. I don’t disagree that it’s possible to reach the āyatanas via the jhānas, but there are other ways.

The fact that it’s possible to reach the formless spheres without going through the jhānas helps us make sense of an important episode in the Buddha’s life. In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta the Buddha described how he intuited, prior to his enlightenment, that jhāna was “the way to Awakening”:

I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhāna, with rapture and joy born from seclusion, accompanied by initial thought and sustained thought. Could that be the way to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the way to Awakening.’

That’s a strong statement. The Buddha had not just a hunch, or an idea, but an actual realization that jhāna is the way to Awakening.

Now, many people have struggled to make sense of this episode. The Buddha had previously attained the seventh and eighth “jhānas” (in reality the third and fourth āyatanas) under Uddaka and Ālāra’s instructions, so how could a memory of first jhāna be so significant in pointing the way to Awakening? All sorts of explanations for this apparent contradiction have been made, but the simplest is one that may be least obvious: that the Buddha had not in fact previously explored the jhānas with Ālāra and Uddaka, and that he had explored the āyatanas through means other than by going through the jhānas. Confusion arises because we’re so conditioned by the commentarial belief that to enter the āyatanas we must first go through the jhānas, that we assume that the Buddha must have had experience of the jhānas.

I see the jhānas and the āyatanas arising in different ways. Jhāna involves paying more and more attention to less and less. In going deeper into jhāna we progressively “tune out” first our thinking, then the pleasurable sensations that arise in the body as we relax, and finally joy. This leaves only one-pointed attention on an object of attention, accompanied by a sense of great peace. Jhāna is a form of progressive simplification — more and more attention being focused on a smaller and smaller subset of our experience.

The āyatanas involve the opposite approach. Rather than “homing in” our attention so that it’s focused on less and less of our experience, we allow our attention to be all-inclusive, excluding nothing from our awareness. Speaking of my own practice, when I enter the āyatanas, what I do is pay full attention to all of my experience: that which arises from within (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) and that which arises from outside (light, sound, space, etc.). I then maintain an awareness of both of these fields of experience, finding a point of balance of inner and outer. AS that balance is maintained, the mind becomes very still. At a certain point, the boundary between “inside” and “outside” is lost, and there is simply a single field of awareness. This process is speeded up if I consciously focus on the supposed boundary between inside and outside. In meditation this boundary is perceived to be very fuzzy, and in fact, the closer you look at it the less it seems to exist. Later, other distinctions are lost as well, and there is a loss of the sense that the body has a three dimensional orientation in space.

In the suttas, all of the entry points to the āyatanas have one thing in common: equanimity. The jhānas culminate in an experience of equanimity; having narrowed down our experience and brought the mind to a state of peace, we then broaden our experience once again and enter the formless spheres. (Or so I am told; I have never entered the formless spheres this way.) The fourth divine abiding is of course equanimity, which is also a springboard to an experience of the āyatanas. And the sutta describing the six element practice says that it beings the mind to equanimity and thus into the āyatanas. The formless spheres can be experienced from any meditation that brings about a state of tranquil equanimity.

The Buddha experienced the formless spheres to the furthest possible extent, but he didn’t manage to become enlightened by so doing. Instead, he intuited, jhāna was a more likely route to spiritual liberation. Why should this be? We can only speculate, but my sense is that the teachings of Ālāra and Uddaka explained the āyatanas in terms of unifying oneself with the wider universe. In the āyatanas, certain discriminative faculties — those that produce a sense of spacial separateness — are progressively shut down. (These faculties are a function of the brain’s parietal lobes, which become less active in non-dual meditation.) This sense of religious union would fit with pre-Buddhist views of there being an atman (Self) that is part of a larger “Brahman” (a cosmic reality). Ālāra and Uddaka may not have used those precise terms, but a sense of unity with the cosmos is a common religious trope, and it’s reasonable to assume that they saw that experience as the desired outcome of practice.

What does jhāna do? What is its function? It allows us to focus in exquisite detail on minute aspects of our experience. And that allows us to see that everything that constitutes the self — or what we take to be the self — is in fact an experience that is changing moment by moment. By repeating this minute examination of our experience, we come to the realization that there is no possibility of there being a separate self that needs to be unified with the cosmos.

The Buddha in fact was fond of saying:

I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering and stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.

Although we would often like the Buddha to be like a modern scientist, in some important respects he wasn’t. He didn’t seem particularly interested in what we would think of “cosmic” questions, and in fact saw them as distractions from the spiritual life. After all, at the Buddha’s time, when it came to questions of whether the universe was finite or infinite, had a beginning or was eternal, etc., there was no possibility of doing more than speculating. These cosmic topics are all matters that the Buddha thought of as being useless subjects for discussion. Rather than indulging in speculation, he preferred to put his attention onto matters where he could have knowledge arising from direct observation. In that regard he did, in an important sense, take a scientific approach. And his work was akin to that of a scientist who finds that in order to understand the nature of stars, we must look at how subatomic particles behave. The way to understand our place in the cosmos, the Buddha was suggesting, is to examine ourselves. And this is what jhāna allows us to do. Jhāna supports insight.

In the Buddha’s view, samatha (the cultivation of the jhānas) and vipassanā (the cultivation of insight) were not mutually exclusive or antagonistic activities, which is how they are sometimes seen today. In the Samaññaphala Sutta, for example, the Buddha describes the practitioner moving deeper into the jhānas and then, “With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.” Jhāna makes it easier for the mind to observe impermanence through minute examination of our experience, and thus makes it easier for insight to arise. Conversely, insight also makes it easier for jhāna to arise, and so he says elsewhere, “There’s no jhāna For one with no wisdom (pañña), No wisdom for one with no jhāna).” Samatha and vipassanā are complementary and synergistic.

If you want to know your place in the universe, it may seem intuitively obvious that you need to reflect on (or speculate on) the universe. So it was a radical departure on the Buddha’s part to withdraw from speculation on the universe, and to turn his attention inwards. It was also a radical departure for him to turn away from the experience of the formless spheres, which bring about a temporary sense of unification of self and cosmos, but which do not entirely remove our self-clinging. It was a massive leap of intuitive wisdom for the Buddha to arrive at the conclusion, “Jhāna is the way to Awakening.”

But why, having failed to gain insight through the āyatanas, should the Buddha have kept them as part of his teaching? Wouldn’t it make more sense to jettison the formless spheres and focus exclusively on the jhānas? I see two possible reasons for him doing this.

First, the assumptions that Ālāra and Uddaka made about the āyatanas (that they were an experience of a permanent self uniting with the universe) may have been the main reason that the Buddha didn’t find them conducive to insight, assuming, as is likely, that he’d picked up on the same assumptions. Stripped of those assumptions, experience of the formless spheres, he may have reckoned, may be more spiritually useful.

Second, the experience of the āyatanas, even if it doesn’t lead directly to insight, does a valuable job in changing our sense of self. Learning that our sense of self is malleable may not directly help us to lose our attachment to that self, but it does help us to loosen such attachments. There can be less grasping after something that is fluid and malleable rather than something that is solid. Experience of the āyatanas helps us to appreciate that our sense of self is not fixed, but can be dramatically different than it normally is. In my own experience, the altered states of self-perception that I experienced in the formless spheres did seem to have a bearing on my later experience of non-self.

A parallel is to be found in that way that experience of psychedelic drugs has brought many people to Dharma practice. Having had the experience that their “normal” sense of reality is just one possible configuration of their experience can lead some to wonder what other modes of perception there might be. Psychedelics have even been used experimentally to help treat anxiety and depression — conditions that tend to involve a very fixed sense of self — sometimes bringing about long-term positive change very rapidly.

So, the Buddha had no formal experience of the jhānas until shortly before his awakening. He had not been trained in the jhānas by Ālāra and Uddaka, although he did have extensive experience of the āyatanas. The intuition that jhāna might be the way to Awakening was the beginning of a process whereby he began to explore his experience in minute detail, learning to observe its impermanence. And it was through this means that he became Awakened.

It’s time to lay aside the notion that the āyatanas are jhānas, and that they can only be experienced by traversing the jhānas. It’s time also to lay aside the very non-traditional notion that the samatha (cultivating the jhānas) and vipassanā (cultivating insight) are mutually antagonistic activities, and to recognize them as synergistic parts of one path.

And lastly, it’s time to recognize the radicalness of the Buddha’s decision to turn his attention away from meditations that lead to an apparent unity of the self with the cosmos, the radicalness of using jhāna to hone the mind into a powerful focused instrument, and even the radicalness of refusing to settle for the blissful and peaceful experiences that arise in jhāna, so that he could enter into a minute examination of the nature of his experience and find that there was, in a sense, no self there.

Rather than jhāna acting to “hide reality from the practitioner,” as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, it is jhāna that allows us to lay reality bare, so that we may attain awakening.

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15 Comments. Leave new

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Leigh Brasington
September 2, 2014 10:04 pm

Right On! What you have written closely matches my experience and my understanding of the jhanas and the immaterial spheres. The one additional thing I would add is that we have no way of knowing when the Buddha learned the 4 jhanas – it might have been from his 2 teachers, it might have been some other time. But for for sure whatever he learned from his 2 teachers he rejected because the 3rd & 4th realms were seen by his teachers as the end of the path. The Buddha was genius enough to recognize both that these 2 states were not what he was seeking AND that nonetheless the jhanas and even the immaterial states we still useful – but only as a warmup exercise for investigating the nature of reality.

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Thanks, Leigh. I very much appreciate your comment.

I think it’s interesting that the Buddha recollects an experience just of (just) first jhana. Perhaps this suggests that he hadn’t otherwise explored the jhanas.

Also, I find it interesting that he describes a childhood experience rather than saying that he remembered some meditative experience he had while training under his teachers. This suggests to me that he probably hadn’t explored the jhanas with Uddaka or Alara.

But we’ll likely never know where he learned the four jhanas. It’s all too easy to concoct stories from the scattered data we have available.

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Randy Burkhart
November 25, 2014 8:28 am

Very astute analysis Bodhipaksa. It really helped clear up some confusions I had regarding why some practitioners reject the Jhanas even though the Buddha held them in such high regard. Thanks.

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ven. bodhipaksa
thank you very much for the insightful analysis
i too was strugling with the apparent contradiction between the remembrance of the childhood experience and the assumption the buddha had practiced the jhanas with his teachers. this is one explanation i didnt think of, which makes great sense! i always felt the jhanas were underestimated within and without the tradition as a vital ingredient of the path. the buddha specifically mentions that disrespecting concentration will be (is already now) a major cause for the decline of the dhamma in the world. i had only a few, albeit powerful, experiences of jhana during retreat, unrepeated thus far for many years…so thank yo again
shai, israel

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Hello Bodhipaksa,
I’m searching for answers with a recent experience. I’ve been practising Vipassana and Samatha regularly these few days and in my latest practice, I felt that I was extremely in tune with my breath, and everything fell into place smoothly. This is when i shifted my awareness from my breath to the now(or emptiness) and slowly I lose all my bodily sensations, I felt that my body was so light as though i’m floating, and following on I start to lose awareness of my surroundings. Emptiness feeling arises and the only bodily sensation that I could feel was my heart pumping. My palms became extremely hot and sweaty. At this point, I tried to contain my fear and persevered, gradually a feeling of infinite space starts to set in, this is where I freaked out and stopped meditating altogether.

Could this be one of the formless spheres you have written in your article, and could you please advice on how to release fear.

Brendan

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Hi, Brendan.

It’s sometimes hard to know what’s going on in another person’s experience. Some states that arise in meditation are so different from how we normally perceive things that it’s hard to describe them. It doesn’t help when the descriptions are contradictory, as yours is. For example you said ” the only bodily sensation that I could feel was my heart pumping.” Then you said “My palms became extremely hot and sweaty.” That’s a bodily sensation. So I don’t have a description that I can rely on.

It’s possible that you were slipping into a formless sphere, but I can’t say for sure. Sorry.

Regarding fear, that’s a huge question. Lovingkindness and mudita are particularly useful for overcoming fear. Mindfulness in daily life helps as well. Reflecting on impermanence helps, as does directly observing impermanence. And repeated exposure to that which scares us can also be helpful. So it may be that if you have a similar experience you’ll feel more at ease with it.

By the way, if you’d like to make a donation to support our work, feel free.

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Hi Ven Bodhipaksa,

I realised that I’ve failed to realise that I’ve bodily sensations as well, thank you for highlighting that. I guess the state was still not matured and the mind was fluctuating in and out. I could not tell for sure either.

Also, thank you for your insightful reply in regards to overcoming fear, I think the methods you mentioned are useful.

Brendan

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I hope the advice turns out to be useful Brendan. No need for the “Venerable,” by the way. My ordination isn’t monastic.

Yes, it’s possible that you were slipping in and out of a formless state, or the beginnings of one. What seems to be going on is that there’s reduced activity in the brain’s parietal lobes, which are responsible for maintaining a sense of orientation and spatial/temporal awareness. As activity there decreases, our normal sense of inside/outside diminishes. Sometimes the change seems to happen rapidly, and other times it’s more gradual, which may have been the case with your experience.

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Dear Bodhipaksa:

Well said and wise, reasonable speculations about why the Buddha might did not learn jhanas from his two teachers. Do you have any idea what kind of specific technique he might use to enter the jhana when he was a child? Or he simply entered by accident? If there is technique, what was that be? If by accident, how could he regained from childhood experiences? Also, it was said that the Buddha passed away in the state of 4th jhana? How did we know it?

Thanks,
Jack

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There’s no way of knowing for sure what the Buddha did to get into jhana when he was a child, Jack. Perhaps he was paying attention to his breathing.

We also don’t know for sure what the Buddha’s experience was when he died, just what tradition says. Would it be possible for an external observer to know that the Buddha was in 4th jhāna? I don’t know that either. It’s not impossible, I suppose, but it may be that in saying the Buddha died in 4th jhāna the tradition was simply emphasizing the Buddha’s self-control and the high regard with which they regarded jhāna experience.

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Dear Bodhipaksha, thanks so much for this thought provoking article. It has really helped me make more sense of an aspect of my experience that has been puzzling me ; the relationship between first 4 Jhanas and the ayatanas…which I was calling formless Jhanas, and their relationship to the arising of insight into the 3 Laksanas. I recognise the first 2 ayatanas in my experience ( and have appreciated Tara Brachs led meditations to access these) l also recognise access concentration and 1st Jhana in my experience but have been puzzled by the link between the 2. This sometimes sets up a conflict at the beginning of the meditation between what practise to do…concentration practice or open awareness practice. I am finding that metta practice in terms of Analayos approach …ie radiating boundless metta is helping me to bridge this sense of conflict. I begin by generating metta and directing it towards individuals for a short time then completely let go of doing anything other than allowing the metta to radiate in all directions. This in itself can lead into the formless spheres. From the formless practice I then find it easier to practise moving into 1st Jhana if I choose and use that as the basis to explore the 3 laksanas. Does that make sense?

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That makes perfect sense, Sraddhadipa. Where can I learn more about Analayo’s approach to metta, and how is it different from the standard 5th stage?

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Sariputta moved through the 4 jhanas, then through the 4 formless spheres, then beyond, to realize final unbinding (nibbana). This is documented in MN111, “One By One As They Occurred.”

Sraddhadipa’s description of using metta to move beyond the 4 jhanas and into the formless spheres is very much in line with this sutta. Bhante Vimalaramsi (abbott of Dhamma Sukha Meditation Center) talks extensively about this in his dhamma talks.

I am not familiar with Analayo but he’s easily found on the web: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhikkhu_Analayo

Metta, Jeff

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That was very interesting. But why would he think of childhood and draw a line straight to an enlightenment that he hadn’t yet discovered ? I know the beauty or ecstasy of childhood is something widely recognised – Wordsworth’s Ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood springs to mind.
But it’s quite a leap from childhood bliss to adult enlightenment isn’t it, especially if the end of the path was something original ?

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I don’t think I’m qualified to explain the Buddha’s thought processes, which he didn’t fully explain. Maybe even he didn’t know. After all, how does creativity happen? The connections take place at an unconscious level, and often only the end result is available to us.

But one thing to note is that jhana experiences are a powerful basis for insight arising, not just because they’re states of concentration (which Gotama had already developed to a high degree) but because our experience of ourselves shifts from the perception of having a solid body to a physical experience characterized by ever-shifting patterns of energy (pleasurable energy, as it happens), and joy (which is perceived as an intangible field pervading the entire body).

Since everything about us is now experienced in terms of change and movement, it’s relatively easy to see through the illusion of our having a solid and fixed self. (Relatively, because getting to the point where we see through our delusions isn’t a trivial matter, although the actual seeing, when it happens, is effortless.)

Anyway, may guess would be that part of the mind of the Buddha-to-be intuited that the way to peace was through dissolving away our sense of solidity and hence undermining our sense of having a fixed self.

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