How to get into jhana

A lot of the time in meditation our experience is of distractions relentlessly colonizing our attention. We set off to follow the sensations of the breathing, but after some time we come to realize that we haven’t been paying attention to the breath at all. We realize that we’ve been caught up in some inner drama, or that we’ve been turning over thoughts in the mind. What were we thinking about, exactly? Often it’s hard to say. Our distractions are often dream-like, and as we “awaken” into a more mindful state they often slip away from us, as do our dreams when we wake in the morning. We commit ourselves once more to mindfully observing our experience, but the cycle goes on.

But once in a while, like a blessing, come joy and ease. We find ourselves effortlessly able to stay with our experience. Our distractions are nowhere to be seen. The mind is calm, and we’re deeply happy. We feel alive and vital. This kind of experience is called jhāna (Sanskrit: dhyāna), and it arises when the five hindrances of ill will, sense desire, restlessness and anxiety, sloth and torpor, and doubt have been dispelled. The turbulent emotions that normally fill our consciousness are gone, and we find that the mind is naturally joyful and focused.

There are four levels of jhāna, each one deeper than that preceding it, and collectively they constitute sammā samādhi, or right concentration. Some Buddhist schools place little emphasis on the jhānas, and some teachers dismiss them altogether as non-Buddhist, but any objective look at the earliest Buddhist teachings shows that in the early Buddhist tradition they were regarded as tremendously important, and as indispensable for enlightenment.

So if we’re serious about freeing ourselves and others from suffering, we should be serious about deepening our experience of jhāna. How, then, can we move beyond having jhāna as an experience we sometimes stumble into accidentally, and make it more of a regular occurrence in our meditation? Getting into jhāna is easier than you might think. I’m going to outline an approach that I’ve found to be useful in cultivating jhāna. Before we begin, I’m assuming that outside of your meditation practice you have trained yourself to be reasonably ethical. After all, you meditate with the same mind that you carry around in the rest of your life. My approach is based on an adaptation of the traditional list of jhāna factors that’s found in the suttas (early Buddhist scriptures). In the suttas we find that there are four “jhāna factors” described.

First, there’s pīti, which is often translated as “rapture,” but which is better thought of as physical pleasure and energy. Pīti can manifest as a feeling of ease, warmth, and relaxation, as localized tingling, or as currents of energy flowing in the body. In everyday life, pīti is experienced when we’re startled, or when we listen to arousing music, or when we’re relaxing (e.g. when we’re having a massage).

The second factor is sukha. This is joy. While pīti is physical, sukha is emotional. It’s the emotion that arises when we’re free from the distractions and turbulence of the hindrances, and when the mind is undisturbed by the world around us. Joy is something we’ve all experienced outside of meditation.

The third and fourth jhāna factors are vitakka and vicāra, which are both forms of thought. In the first of the four jhānas, there is still some thinking going on. This is not “monkey-mind,” with our attention leaping from one thought to another on a whim, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. Vitakka is called “initial thought,” and it’s when a thought simply pops — or is dropped — into the mind but doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t start off a train of random thoughts. Initial thoughts may pop into the mind, as when we think “Gosh, this meditation is going well” and we simply leave the thought there without pursuing it. Or we may introduce an initial thought into meditation, as when we drop in the words “May all beings be well” and simply notice what happens. Vicāra is called “sustained thought” and is a mindful train of thought. The counting in the mindfulness of breathing is a form of sustained thought — a series of connected thoughts that doesn’t deviate from its course. The important thing to note about initial and sustained thought is that they’re the kind of thinking we do when the mind is calm.

In my approach to cultivating jhāna, I start with developing the calmness that supports initial and sustained thought. There are many ways to do this, including paying attention to two separate sensations in the body, or paying attention to the outbreath, or paying attention to the movements of the abdomen. All these things tend to quiet the mind. It’s important, in calming the mind, to keep coming back to the sensations in the body, and to let go of any unnecessary tensions, so that the body relaxes.

Once the body begins to relax, pīti (pleasure, energy) tends to arise naturally. The release of tensions from the body is experienced as pleasurable. And as we observe the body, and especially sensitive parts of the body like the hands, we notice a sense of tingling, or of flowing energy.

Sukha (joy) can be encouraged simply by paying attention to pleasure and energy in the body. However we have to simply accept pleasure, and not grasp after it. We can also encourage the arising of joy by smiling, by imbuing our experience with a sense of lovingkindness, and by appreciating the present moment as something miraculous. (There’s nothing like taking our experience for granted for killing joy).

With a calm mind, pleasure and energy in the body, and a mind imbued with joy, jhāna begins to flow naturally. At this point we’re not simply observing the sensations of the breath, but noticing the breath accompanied by the experience of pleasure and joy.

Although it’s not enumerated as a jhāna factor, continuity of awareness becomes a prominent experience at this point. We’re able to stay with our meditation practice quite effortlessly. Our experience is generally very pleasurable at this point, and so the mind has no motivation to go wandering. If calmness, pleasure, and joy are present, but continuity of awareness isn’t yet established, then what is needed is a gentle effort — an effort that seeks to perceive the object of concentration more vividly.

Calmness, pleasure, joy, and continuity of awareness can be regarded as a practical set of jhāna factors, not simply seen as milestones showing us that we’ve reached jhāna (as the traditional jhāna factor list tends to be used) but as tools to help bring jhāna into being. At any point in your meditation you can assess the balance of calmness, pleasure, joy, and continuity of awareness. (You can even give each factor a score out of ten!) If one or more of these factors is less developed than the others, you have a clear sense of what you need to be working on in order to bring jhāna about. Jhāna ceases to be an accident and simply becomes what happens in meditation. And by repeatedly establishing the mind in jhāna you turn your mind into a powerful tool for reflection, and for cultivating insight.

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50 Comments. Leave new

  • just discover this site which is having very useful material for Jhana meditation as taught by Boudhha. the article shed some light on Jhana meditation but it does shows how one can know he or she reached First Jhana or not. i hope great teacher may through some light on this aspect.

    Reply
    • Hi, Ashok.

      You’ll know you’ve reached first jhana when you have a stable experience of being happy, of experiencing the body as energized and pleasurable, and when the mind is relatively calm, with any remaining thoughts no longer taking you away from your direct experience. I stress that this is a stable experience, effortlessly lasting probably for the remainder of the meditation session. It’s as if a change of gear has taken place. There is a definite shift from your normal experience of yourself.

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  • I experienced a long period a year and a half with not many experiences except on 3 or 4 occasions I couldn’t work out if I was sitting or lying and I saw white light and felt no emotions. Then after a very long break I’ve come back to meditation and after a few months encountered the first Jhana which I experienced everyday for 3 months. Now after 10 months doing 3 meditations a day I reach the 3rd Jhana but I only experience this every 4 days the other days I experience nothing but thoughts I have experienced the third Jhana for 4 months. I practice anapanasati but often feel other sensations as well. What meditation would you suggest?

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    • Hi, Mark.

      It sounds like you’re doing fine. There’s no hurry, and no prizes for “best meditator.” You ask for suggestions about what meditation practices you could do, and I’d very much suggest lovingkindness and compassion meditation as a regular part of your practice.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

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  • Bryan Malakou
    June 29, 2020 4:57 am

    Thank you for this guys–very helpful. Ajahn Sona of the Theravadan Forest monastry in BC Canada is giving a seminar every Sunday on jhana meditation on You tube live and recorded. Love the way he teaches. He says you need to almost auto-suggest or induce the feelings of piti and and sukha. Its just practice and training. Date started = 28 June 2020

    Reply
    • Hi, Bryan.

      I was talking about that topic over the last two days, when I was teaching a weekend dhyana workshop at my local Dharma center (by Zoom, of course). I was talking about how we can use “initial thought” as a trigger for certain experiences. For example as I’m setting up for meditation I might say “soft eyes,” which instantly triggers relaxation in the eyes and a state of relaxation and calm. And then I’ll say either “senses wide open” or “open field of attention” and those phrases will direct my attention in an open and receptive way into the body, and to an awareness of the breathing as a whole-body experience. Saying “strength … dignity … softness” (with long pauses to allow for experiential changes) evokes those qualities in a very tangible way.

      It is, I’d agree, almost a form of auto-suggestion.

      Thanks for the info on Ajahn Sona.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

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  • Thank you for your sharing your insight and wisdom on this. It’s nice to learn what to be aware of.

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  • Dear Bodhipaksa, thank you for this website, and thank you to Leigh Brasington and those others who teach about the jhanas. Something that I missed in the way Buddhist meditation is taught in most other places

    I started meditating after the Anapanasati Sutta about 20 years ago. Without a teacher.
    I just went through the briefing in the sutta … He breathes in, watching the whole body, he breathes out …; He breathes in, watching the breathing body … etc.

    Later comes this instruction:
    ‘I shall breathe in experiencing joy’ …; He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing joy …’
    ‘I shall breathe in experiencing bliss’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing bliss
    I had an old translation where instead of joy an old-fashioned expression was used which I did not understand exactly.
    I had the idea that something totally heavenly would happen. But nothing happened. Until one day I found that I felt blissfully happy after watching the breathing body. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was what the Sutta meant. I continued meditating.
    At that time, maybe a little earlier, I had found the triad in the Book of Three from the Pali canon: space is infinite, consciousness is infinite, space is empty.

    That immediately made sense to me and I was able to feel the 3 things clearly in this order. In addition, at some point easrlier when I felt the breathing body (which I had no idea what that was), I suddenly noticed that I was growing over my head as I exhaled. In the following meditations I noticed how the respiratory body became bigger and finally unlimited. Then came the perception of infinite consciousness and empty space. I then continued to meditate and not paying attention to those experiences I did not have the impression that I was getting on.

    One day I, not long ago, read Leigh Brasington’s book and found that he described my experiences exactly, albeit in a different order. since then i meditate the jhanas every day.
    One more note: I had not meditated: I breathe joyfully, I exhale …. Because I did not understand this word in the translation of the sutta. I just proceeded ito bliss.
    Later during  a vipassana retreat my whole body started twitching shortly after I started meditation. The Ajan didn’t seem to know how to interpret it. After a few days, that subsided.
    After reading Leigh’s book, I found that when I meditated joy in the 1st Jhana this tremor came back. But this time it was clear to me what it was. It continued in movements like wanting to jump and dance, an expression of joy.
    It subsides when entering bliss.

    Without the book, I still wouldn’t know what happened to me during meditation.

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  • It was great reading the article…. Actually very much what I needed…. I am also trying to access the jhanas and some continous meditation.. I feel I am able to access the first jhana in almost every sitting. .. And I can end the session with awsome feeling joy….. But when try to pursue beyond that.. My body suddenly starts to get tense my mind racing and body temperature also rises and it becomes uncomfortable…. So I stop the session…. My question is… Is this nature like do I have to go through the discomfort to reach the 2 nd phase… Or am I doing something wrong…. How to go forward with this…. Please guide…. Namaste..??

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    • Sounds like you’re making great progress! But your system needs to get used to being in first jhana before you can go any deeper. The Buddha compared meditators who try to move through the jhanas too fast to a foolish, inexperienced cow who decides to go exploring in the mountains, even though she doesn’t have the skills to do so. She’s just going to get lost. For the cow to explore successfully, she would need to expand her range slowly, gradually getting used to one kind of terrain before moving on a little further.

      What seems to happen is that in first jhana you’ll have moments of second jhana arising and passing away. You need to get used to that so that you don’t go “pursuing” (which is the word you used) that experience and perhaps plunge yourself back into the hindrances. Just get thoroughly used to first jhana, with these little eruptions of second jhana, and then when the time is right second jhana will become established.

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  • Barbara Lenschmidt
    January 16, 2020 10:40 am

    I stumbled into full blast Kensho years ago, but just now have found the time, silence, and motivation to work through the Jhanas.
    I have Lee Brassingtion’s book, but it seems unnecessarily complex, and with just tidbits I seem to be finding much of what you say through solo long sits.
    As far as I can tell the practice is “Great concentration and don’t get attached”. Learn what you can, let go, and move on if there is a “there” there.

    Grace to all of you. It’s not as hard as you think. Once you get in there the hard part is standing up and going back to daily life.

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  • What do you make of the “soft”/”hard” jhana dispute? Some teachers like Ajahn Brahm claim that there cannot be thought or any sense perception even in first jhana. That is a “hard” jhana whereas this page is describing a “soft” first jhana because thought is still present. How deep would you say the meditation needs to be to count as jhana?

    This is sometimes called sutta/commentarial jhana but Brahm claims that the correct interpretation of the suttas is no thought or external perception. Vitakka and vicara are to him instability in the awareness of piti-sukha but not thought.

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    • Obviously I take the “soft” jhana interpretation. It’s how I was taught, and I don’t see anything in he suttas to justify Ajahn Brahm’s interpretation of vitakka/vicara. The Vitakka-Santhana Sutta is about dealing with unskillful thoughts. The Dvedhavitakka Sutta is on the topic of skillful and unskillful thinking. And I can’t remember where it is, but someone (I think Dhammadinna?) describes vitakka as the precursor of speech.

      Also, my experience of the jhanas exactly matches the pattern of “with thinking,” “without thinking, but with more priti,” “joy with no priti,” and then “pure peace.” It would be weird to have a set of experiences match so closely with a description and yet the two things are somehow not not the same.

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    • To answer your question of “how deep.” Basically, all the jhana factors present in a stable way: so the mind is relatively calm with nothing but floaty thoughts that don’t interrupt your mindfulness. The body is at easy and tingly with aliveness. And you’re very content or joyful. And that’s not a fleeting experience that comes for a few breaths and then collapses (which can happen) but stay with you for a good while.

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  • Thank you for explaining about jhana in detail… Now I have an idea… I have been practicing insight practices for years but haven’t tried jhana meditations much…Just with insight practices, my progress over the last 13 years has been very good. I am curious to find out what jhana is all about and how it is going to help me to progress further..

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  • Dear Bodhipaksa, I am so pleased to see that you are still engaged in teaching the dharma of jhana meditation. My own practice is still going well and I do get all of the comments on this thread. May the Force be with you!!

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  • What happens after Jhana?

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    • Good question, Matthew.

      Jhana is part of the path of “unselfing,” as I call it. It helps us to have less ego-centric clinging (you have to let go of grasping to experience jhana). It helps us to see the unsatisfactoriness of our ordinary, conditioned states of mind. It helps reduce our sense of having a solid and fixed self, and helps us experience ourselves more in terms of ever-changing patters of energy. This makes it a perfect accompaniment to vipassana meditation, where we’re investigating the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self of our experience.

      It’s not a question of after jhana, though. Jhana supports vipassana, and vipassana supports jhana. So we can do both at the same time, although traditionally, for very good practical reasons, jhana is meant to be practiced first. In fact there is no after jhana. My understanding is that once full awakening has arisen, there are no longer any hindrances present to the continuous experience of jhana. A permanent state of jhana is how a Buddha experiences him or herself.

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  • I’ve just started (serious) meditation and really don’t like spending time doing something that is wrong. So I’ve been looking at a lot of methods to gain an overall understanding. This article, your aticle, is excellent for just that.
    Thank you!
    p.s. when I get the hang of this maybe I’ll drop by to visit you in NH. I’m in CT several times a year visiting family.

    Reply
  • David Stringer
    April 12, 2015 6:14 am

    Hi Ajay, May I suggest that you check out video recordings of talks by Ajahn Brahm on Youtube. He is one of the leading teachers in the West on Jhana states and meditation. Metta, David.

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  • Astonishing. Stumbling as I have into your writings on the Jana state made me feel as those that came upon the Rosetta Stone … from that point on Egyptian Hieroglyphics became relatively easy. I have practiced Mahayana Buddhism (Tibetan) for twenty years. Though I had apparently experienced the first Jana (almost precisely as you have so amazingly described it), not one of my teachers or other advanced mediators have made any attempt to help me understand the state I had (Jana) and continued to experience for some time. I am sincerely at a loss to see how not explaining this to their students could in any way be helpful: for me it has been anything but helpful.
    I have understood more of my meditation experiences from this single page of your exposition of a true and full Jana state than from anything I have read in twenty years. What is the problem ? Is there held some strange idea that we shouldn’t be too encouraged … or that we should not advance too quickly? In my favor, I knew something was missing and continued to troll through Buddhist literature in the hope of finding some guideposts.
    I have made this longer than it might otherwise have been but attempted to describe my experience in the hope that others that are still in the position I was, will give as much credence to your very generous insights and expositions.
    I cannot thank you enough. AJAY

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    • Hi, Ajay.

      I’m glad this was helpful to you. I’m also puzzled by the reluctance to explain to people what they’re experiencing. I suspect part of it is that many teachers haven’t themselves made the connection between what they experience and what the teachings describe. And there’s a tendency to assume that the teachings point to an almost superhuman degree of concentration and focus; for example, some teachers insist that in first jhana you should be completely unable to sense the outside world at all, which I think makes it seem well-nigh unattainable. Those teachers (and their students) are probably reaching first jhana and not even recognizing it.

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  • So, I’ve been reading these posts and I have some questions. First, I can completely relate with you about how beginner’s mind makes it easier to slip into blissful states. When I first started meditating, I vividly remember how quickly I started having this – quite frankly – scary feeling of absolute pleasure. It was scary because I’d never experienced that before…so, when it started happening, I instinctively drew back from fear of the unknown. Over the past five years, I have learned much more about meditation and I do it more regularly…as often as possible. But I hadn’t had that bliss feeling again – and I think it was because I had “learned” about meditation and had forgotten how to just experience it without any of the expectations I had from what I had learned.
    All that changed this morning. I sat down to meditate, using a technique that I had learned the night before. At some point, after focusing on my breath, I realized that I had achieved access concentration. There was the beginning of a very pleasant, tingly feeling in my hands. The technique suggested that once the meditator noticed the place in the body that was manifesting a sensation of pleasantness, the focus should be subtly shifted to the sensation of pleasantness. Not the part of the body that it was located in, but just the sensation. To be mindful and accepting of it. The technique stated that the feeling of pleasure would begin to grow in intensity. Not all at once, but most likely in fits and spurts at first…and then it would REALLY take off.
    That is EXACTLY what happened today. I went in with no expectations of jhana. I just wanted to simply be and see what happened. Sure enough, my hands started to pleasantly tingle…so, I shifted my attention. I could definitely feel it grow and ebb…at times, I had to go back to the breath to reestablsh the foundations of the pleasant feelings. After some time, I suddenly felt a HUGE sensation of absolute bliss. It felt as though I was spiraling away from the external world and all I knew was physical bliss. All my aches and pains vanished…even the anxiety from my bipolar disorder was completely gone. Then, without even consciously meaning to, a very joyous smile appeared on my face. I couldn’t help it…I HAD to smile. Then, I realized that it wasn’t just physical bliss I was experiencing…my emotions were completely joyous. I was SO happy.
    I don’t know how long it lasted. I didn’t set a timer. (A first.) Of course, it didn’t feel like it lasted nearly long enough, but it lasted until I was ready to stop. So, with a very deep breath of relaxation and happiness, I just opened my eyes. I’m pretty sure about two hours had passed – give or take.
    So, question: What the heck was that?
    Secondly, I’ve noticed today that I am very aware of my aches and pains and to some extent my anxiety seem to be more apparent to me. It’s as if I have a heightened awareness of them that I didn’t have before.
    So, second question: What’s THAT about?

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    • Hi, Jeff.

      Just catching up on the backlog of unmoderated comments that built up while I was on vacation. That certainly sounds like jhana. My recollection was that jhana was more intense in the early days because it was new and unexpected. Over the years it becomes a bit more sedate!

      Your heightened awareness might just be heightened awareness :)

      But it might also be that there’s a degree of “coming down” after the jhana experience. It’s quite common for people to have this kind of peak experience and then in the very next meditation to have a painful time because they desperately want to recreate the pleasure and bliss of the previous sit. That grasping creates dissatisfaction, and prevents jhana from arising. So it may be something like that that’s going on.

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  • Very refreshing to find this site where I can find good discussion and answers in plain english, thanks

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  • I found this page through a link on Dhamma Wheel. A very nice article and good discussions that follow. It’s great to see Sutta Jhana discussed in clear, correct and friendly terms, so that this (IMO important) practice can develop into the mainstream of practice for folks that really want to practice what the Buddha actually taught. Jhana seems to me more challenging than what might be generally understood, but this article is illuminating. Sadhu!

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  • jhanaeducation.com
    February 9, 2013 5:30 am

    These are very profound states and they need that degree of effort. Not immense effort, but that constant effort. So you take your goal and keep it in mind. That is the chandasamadhi and that generates energy to achieve the goal, and it generates the application of the mind onto that goal and the investigation of dhammas which go along with the desire for success. This investigation of the Dhamma is the vimansasamadhi, which is like the investigating and maintaining that demonstrates that the path of samatha is not apart from the path of vipassana. But in order to gain success in meditation you have to use wisdom. You have to use the desire, the energy, the application of the mind and the wisdom faculty generated through vimansa. In order to gain success all of these need to be functioning and need to be maintained throughout the meditation. When I define the word ‘samadhi’ as the sustaining of these things, you can see that if you sustain these iddhipada, these roads to success, these functions of the mind, then your meditation will be successful. If you do not maintain these, that is why the meditation does not succeed – one forgets.

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  • david stringer
    January 16, 2013 3:34 am

    Appamada I hear you, but I think perhaps it would take more “courage”, of a sort, to face life without Buddha’s teachings! Myself, I have never feared going in any direction in my mind, and still do in my exploration of jhana. I tend to follow the Buddha’s direction not to rush things(like a foolish cow) and let higher states come when and as they may. Most of the time I am sure I am only experiencing a very strong “Access” state, but that can last over an hour and then the pitisukha can last several hours more after that, so I’m content with where I’m at for now. There is at least one very very good teacher of Jhana (sutta-style) here in Australia, he is Ajahn Brahm a student of Ajahn Chah. You may access his writing on Google and he has lectures you can listen to on AccesstoInsight.com.
    As Bodhipaksa says, the way to go is to moderate your reading by your own experiences. I feel it’s a given that if you are experiencing pitisukha, and you are “secluded” from sensory perception and thoughts, (ie your awareness has settled one-pointedly upon the breath-nimitta), then you are now in a state of consciousness totally “alien” to normal human consciousness, and so you explore that, you see what results you get from that. If as the Buddha suggests, it is praiseworthy, blameless and conducive to good, then you do it as much as you can!! It can be “read between the lines” in the sutras that the Sangha then spent pretty well all day doing it, after alms-round early in the morning. There is a sutra where Sariputta settles down to do jhana after his alms round, and then it continues, “after his day’s abiding”… and he runs into Ananda who comments upon how bright and fresh Sariputta looks. So I say, do not have any fear. Your mind will naturally seek the jhana state, and so long as your sila is of a fairly high(lay) standard, you will not come to any harm.
    The sutras and commentaries seem to disagree on exactly “when” one should attempt to use Insight, the Buddha’certainly seems to imply that one can look with insight into the Three Marks of Existence, especially anatta, while within the jhana state. Even Ajahn Brahm seems to differ from this in that he feels the re is no movement of awareness within a genuine jhanic state, which would appear correct, however I’m of the opinion that the Buddha is actually referring here to creating a virtual “super-jhanic state” where there is just enough observing going on to ‘see’ the anatta involved in the jhana factors. He refers to ‘as a man standing might look upon a man sitting down’, which implies an objective, over-looking view, but within the jhana state. My interpretation is that the Buddha definitely intended jhana and insight to work hand in hand.

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  • I think it’s very wise to base our understanding mainly on the suttas. The commentarial tradition has to be read very carefully. It’s a synthesis of, at best, meditation manuals from genuine meditative traditions, along with material from a scholastic tradition in which meditation had long been abandoned. And because it’s the scholars who preserved the commentarial tradition, their voice is dominant. There are distortions that creep in, particularly to do with the jhanas. The “standard” list of jhana factors I was taught turns out to differ from what the suttas say. The “formless jhanas” are nowhere called jhanas in the suttas, and can be accessed without going the jhanas. There are no “samatha practices” and “vipassana practices” in the suttas. In the sutta tradition jhana and vipassana are not opposing, but combined. Jhana is attained and then used as the basis of insight. Insight aids the attainment of jhana.

    I do consult the commentaries (Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga) to find what’s of use there, but I give precedence to the suttas (although they have to be read carefully too — they too were curated by the scholars), and read both in the light of actual meditation experience. The interplay of experience, sutta, and commentary can be very creative and productive.

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    • Dear Bodhipaksa,

      Thank you for the clear explanation of the jhana states. I’ve practised Mahasi’s Vipassana meditation since 2004, in a Burmese-run centre in Singapore, noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. So far I have nothing to show for my practice except that I am able to keep myself awake for a full hour of sitting, and I am able to complete a full hour of walking meditation.

      I’ve also been reading regularly the Suttas where Lord Buddha is mentioned as attaining the jhana states. There is no mention of vipassana practice in the sutta from my reading. (I don’t read the commentaries and as Buddha’s discourses are all in plain language I don’t see the need for scholars’ interpretations.)

      Can you write more on the techniques and tips of attaining jhana and maintaining it? Thank you again.

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      • Hi, Francis.

        I don’t know that much about Mahasi’s method, but your practice sounds good as far as it goes. It just sounds unbalanced.

        Traditionally there’s a strong emphasis on developing the brahmaviharas, and this is an essential part of Buddhist practice. You might want to consider practicing metta bhavana to start with, and then karuna bhavana. This is an important complement to any form of mindfulness-based practice, and it also makes jhana easier, because the brahmaviharas promote joy, which is one of the jhana factors.

        Vipassana — in the sense of an awareness of impermanence and non-self — arises quite naturally from jhana as well. Experiencing the body as piti means sensing it not as solid, but in terms of tingling, ever-changing flows of energy. And joy (sukha) has a similar quality. Our being is revealed as less substantial, and so we can realize that there is no place for a permanent and unchanging self to hide. There’s just change. (People often talk about the relationship between jhana and insight in terms of the former giving us the concentration that leads to the latter, which is true, but I’ve found it’s not the main factor.)

        Anyway, I have written (and talked) a lot more about setting up the conditions for jhana to arise (notice the language — it’s not really about attaining, but about allowing). I have an online course that runs each year, and from time to time I run workshops and retreats. It wouldn’t really be possible for me to summarize all that here, though!

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  • The very same thought has occurred to me on several occasions when talking to Theravadan monastic and lay teachers: “they are practicing a seven fold path!”.

    Over the years I have personally tried a variety of different approaches and to be honest I don’t think I’ve found the ‘right method’ completely as there is always room for refinement. One thing which I am confident about though is that the Buddha was Awakened and that he did teach a Noble Eightfold Path. If you reject this as a working basis then you are essentially practicing “something else”.

    In the suttas there were monks who didn’t fully understand the teachings or misinterpreted them. In the intervening centuries the BuddhaDhamma has fallen into neglect and was forgotten and revived on several occasions so it should not come as a surprise that there are multifarious practices and interpretations. The Theravadan Thai forest tradition which was re-established (Ajaan Mun et al) the prominence of meditation as a part of the practice (as opposed to just book learning and precepts) is a relatively recent occurrence in the history of Buddha sasana. It is ironic though that that very same tradition has given rise to present day Ajaans from the same tradition who teach in contradictory ways concerning the relevance of jhana. Another major factor for discrepancies concerning the place and function of jhana is the effect of cultural tradition. This is particularly seen in the Burmese and also to some extent Thai Buddhist traditions which base themselves on the commentarial interpretations as found in the Visuddhimagga.

    Personally I think it takes a degree of courage to try on work with the teachings on there own terms. By teachings I mean the Suttas because of course there are many legitimate and worthy/worthwhile teachings which are not from the suttas. The problem with that approach though is that there are not that many teachers around who are actually teaching jhana as found in the suttas. This is a major problem for a training which traditionally relied (as in the Buddha’s time) on a apprentice/master kind of relationship when undertaking the training. If you are striking out on your own with only the Suttas for guidance is doubtful process in many ways (like going into the jungle with a map and no experienced guide).

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  • Yes Bodhipaksa, I do believe you have hit the nail on the head: I have noticed that much of the dissing of Jhana originates from meditators connected to Insight traditions, particularly Goenka. This is a shame, as no wise Jhana meditator would ever diss insight practise? It almost the beginnings of a “schism” within Western Buddhist thought, and some of the dissing of Jhana, particularly from Western Zen people can get quite nasty (see commentary on, I think, Jhanananda’s web site, Great Western Vehicle).
    Concomittently with this dissing of Jhana, I have had modern Western “Buddhist” teachers tell me that so long as one is practising “Mindfulness” throughout the day, then one is enlightened!! I believe this attitude originates from Dogen’s teaching of “Practise is Enlightenment”. These people conveniently pick and choose just which of the Buddha’s sutras they believe, and it doesn’t suit them to believe in the teachings on Jhana because they doubt their ability to do it, hence they pretend that “mindfulness” itself is enlightenment. Thannisaro Bhikkhu has written a remarkable critique of this bereft kind of Buddhist teaching in two wonderful essays: “Mindfulness Defined” and “Samvega and Pasada”. In the first one above, he points out that Mindfulness cannot be enlightenment because it is conditioned and Nirvana is not. I have even had a well established and well credentialled American Buddhist teacher tell me that the Kalama Sutra implies that we shouldn’t believe all of the sutras, but choose only those which “make sense” to us. So much for faith in the first two of the Three Jewels! (In fact the Sutra tells us to base our beliefs on our experience of a teaching, whether it is good, praiseworthy and leading to happiness — surely all applicable to Jhana?).
    So, do continue your good work of spreading the true Dharma; people who diss Jhana are actually teaching a “7-Fold Path” rather than an “8-Fold Path”, this in turn negates the 4th Noble Truth and thus the whole of the Buddha’s Dharma. Metta, David.

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  • Interesting, I’ve also encountered a surprising amount of this dissing among Buddhists, and I put it down to things like confusion in one’s thinking, jealousy, or anger at being shown one’s own inability.

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    • There’s definitely a strain of “can’t be done, not even going to try, in fact it’s wrong to try” that goes around.

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  • A few people (including David Chapman and Bhikkhu Sujato) have written about how jhana came to be dissed in the Buddhist world. The modern insight meditation tradition, which really dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, regarded jhana as being mystical and unBuddhist, and was looking for something that was purely rational. So out went jhana.

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  • david stringer
    January 14, 2013 6:50 am

    It is so good to read of other Buddhist practitioners experiencing Jhana. I practised Zen (Shikantaza) for 12 years before realising it just wasn’t “doing it” for me, even after 6 week-long retreats or “sesshin” under a wonderful sensei. I thus began studying the Buddha’s own teachings in the sutras and after reading the descriptions of Jhana I very soon found my sits increasing naturally from the usual Zen 35 minutes to an hour and longer. Piti and sukha and a sometimes blinding white “nimitta” became regular friends and now, two years later, I practise 2 hours daily, in addition to trying to stay “mindful” also throughout the day. I am astounded and disappointed that so many “Buddhist” teachers disrespect Jhana (I have personally encountered this) and am sure it is simply because they have not been able to experience it. Once you do, you would never diss it. I have now completely left behind the Mahayana teachings with their heavy North Asian cultural influences, and am completely happy with the the Dharma in the Buddha’s own words. I wish you every success in your goal of disseminating the true Dharma.

    Reply
  • Dear Bodhipaksa,

    Thanks for your reply. I would encourage you to do that exploration as I think you may find it to be of ‘great fruit and great benefit’:) I think the key is to not have preconceptions about what the instructions are saying, which is easier said than done.
    I think the other difficulty that those monks have is that they are burdened with continuing a tradition which is founded on the commentaries (primarily the Visuddhimagga) which is markedly different form what is found in the suttas especially as regards the function and place of jhana.

    Kind regards,
    Appamada

    I think the diffilculty that

    Reply
  • I forgot to mention the reluctance of your monks to comment on jhana. This could be due to a number of reasons. Sometimes people just don’t have experience of the jhanas and so they can’t comment or, in some cases, may be reluctant to admit to their lack of experience.

    Sometimes people don’t want to encourage an attitude of grasping for meditative experience.

    And certain people (usually from an insight meditation background) are anti-jhana.

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  • Yes, I’m familiar with the Anapanasati Sutta although I’ve never used it as a basis for practice. I have noticed the similarities, and it’s heartening to see how the internal dynamics of one’s practice lead to convergence with the tradition. It would be a fun project for me to lay my own approach out alongside the sutta in order to see the similarities and differences.

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  • Hi Bodhipaksa,

    Informative article!

    I think you are on right the track with your explanation of jhana and its purpose in the Buddha-Dhamma practice. What you describe is obviously based on personal experience. Do you know of the Anapanasati Sutta? This is the Buddha’s instructions on how to practice mindfulness of in and out breathing which cultivates jhana. I have tried to talk about jhana/anapanasati with Thervadan monastics but the majoirty are unwilling to talk about it or teach it which I find baffling as it at the core of the Buddhas teaching on meditation.

    As far as your method is concerned I think it is close in some respects to the 16-step method set out the in Anapanasati Sutta. There are some missing/incomplete steps though from your description and I thought you might like to take a look at the Sutta in question to see how it tallies with your method.

    Best regards,
    Appamada

    Reply
  • Hi there, Lovely clear exposition here. Thankyou. I like that you use inclusive language to describe these experiences and not words that create distance and exclusivity.

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    • Thanks, Prajanatha. I’ve been continuing my explorations and should post an updated version. With the help of a slightly refined version of this, many of my students are getting into jhana without much difficulty.

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  • Hi, Kenyon.

    That’s all very interesting. To deal with your questions in reverse order, it’s probably not uncommon to experience jhana at the beginning of our practice and then find that thereafter we don’t experience it again for a long time. In fact this happened to me. Not long after I learned to meditate I had some experiences that I didn’t understand, and which I took to be distractions. Actually, they turned out to be signs that my meditation was on the verge of moving deeper. And then one time I had an experience that was what I didn’t learn until much later was fourth jhana. I knew it was a more refined experience than I’d had before, and when I talked to the person who was teaching me he said it was a greater state of concentration than he’s ever experienced, but evidently he didn’t know what was going on either.

    Suzuki Roshi calls this ‘beginners’ mind.” There’s a really interesting discussion related to this on a Radio Lab podcast on The Placebo Effect (you’ll find it on Google). A young doctor who had learned hypnosis decided to hypnotize away a bad (really bad) case of warts. He was very successful. It turned out, though, that the case wasn’t warts at all, but a completely incurable condition. He reckoned that he had the brash confidence of a young man; not understanding that this was an incurable case, he had no expectation of failure to hold him back. And so somehow he pulled it off.

    Anyway, this happens in meditation as well. It sometimes seems as if the mind resists meditative states, and early on it hasn’t yet learned how to stop you from getting into jhana. It quickly learns, though, and then there’s a long slow climb back to where you were.

    On to the flashing. It’s not entirely familiar to me. In fact I’ve never come across that exactly phenomenon. But it sounds like a visual form of intuition. I find that intuitions are simply communications from one part of the brain to others. Much of our knowledge and information processing goes on outside of conscious awareness, and the results of some of this information processing appears in the mind as “remembering” to do something, or as gut feelings. So you’re in the supermarket, for example, and you’re on the way to the checkout, but have a feeling there’s something you’ve forgotten. You can’t remember consciously what the feeling was, but parts of your brain not accessible to consciousness have stored the memory of that extra item you needed, and have also been monitoring what you’ve already put in the basket. And that part of the mind generates a feeling in order to slow you down. If you pause, you’ll “just remember.” An image of the product, or the sound of the name, will just pop into your mind.

    So I think that’s how intuition works. And I think that’s what’s going on with you, except that your internal communication is taking place via an inner experience of light.

    Meditation changes us — including the brain — in various ways. It helps us be more aware of the body, and of feelings. In other words it helps facilitate communication within the brain and body, and thereby makes us more intuitive. Meditators are better than average at spotting liars, for example.

    How you know to hurry or not to hurry is a mystery. But often we’re picking up on subtle cues that we can’t even identify consciously. I’d imagine that’s what’s going on in your case.

    Reply
  • Kenyon AncientMan McDonald
    October 21, 2011 6:02 am

    Blessings Bodhipaksa,

    The Bahamas, where I live, is a small chain of islands off the coast of Florida, far from any retreat. As a result I have had to get most of my teachings from books and online. Thanks for your guidance. I am like the student you have not met yet.
    My concern is about a flash of light that I have been experiencing for more than ten years now. I am unable to control(call) it, however If I am thinking of something, and I pose a mental question sometimes I would experience a flash of light ranging in brightness from that of a candle flame (or the floating puff of cloud-like smoke that I experience when meditating), to that of a lightening flash in the sky. If it flashes in my right eye, I have come to learn/accept it as positive and if it flashes in my left eye I have come to learn it as negative. An example would be, If I am preparing for an event and I think to myself “I need to hurry”. All of a sudden, a(the) light would just flash in one of my eyes. If it flashed in my left eye I would say 80%(however it seems like 100%) of time my hurrying would have been a waste, due to either the event starting late or it being cancelled. If it flashed in my right eye, and I hurried, 80% of the time my arriving would be just in time for something important, which had I not hurried, I would have unfortunately miss.
    My issue here is that this strange light flashing started about the same time I started to learn meditation. During one of my sitting I experienced something similar to a jhana. The feeling was so enjoyable that I recall smiling to myself, then the feeling went. I had never experience that before and sadly I have not experience it since. Just Once.
    Is it possible to experience a jhana at the very beginning of learning to meditate and find out that after months or years of effort one is unable to re-experience it. And secondly, does anyone know of anyone else with an unexplained ” light flashing issue”?

    Reply
  • Hi
    Thanks for the article on Jhana. I found it quite helpful. Look forward for more such articles.
    metta
    Aniruddha

    Reply
  • Just discovered your site the other day. I have found the posts and techniques so helpful. Thanks for your generosity in sharing this information with the world.

    Reply

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