The Buddha’s radical path of jhana


buddha statue

Jhāna — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a strangely controversial topic in Buddhism. I say “strangely,” because it’s rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jhāna so strongly, that there should be anything controversial about deeper meditative absorption.

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).

See also:

“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 jhaāna).” 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 Ālā ra 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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36 Comments. Leave new

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.


    • 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.

  • 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.


    • 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.

  • 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?


    • 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.

      • hi Bodhipaksa,
        I think Buddha told us what exactly he did in the sutta. The point is we add too much. When he talked about being secluded from the world, from the desire, the mind is absent of the five hindrance. That’s the only formula he mentioned in the sutta. he never mentions the mediation object like using breath or something else. (those so-called mindfulness object plays the role of purification of the mind and provide the base for clearly directing the mind to observe ).
        Budda said very straightly: when the mind is absent of the five hindrances, we just need to observe the mind and body in the such state. Then we feel gladness arise from this simple observation of the beautiful mind and body. He said some people will be excited “how beautiful, how beautiful”. Once gladness arises, tranquillity will appear and permeate the whole body, then bodily contentment arises which leads to absorption. This is all he described every time in the middle length sutta. You almost neve see he mentioned: people, please concentrate your mind in the breath. No, this is not what he means. Instead, he said, be mindfull of the breath, not let your mind incline to the world, not let dislike or discontent to go into your mind. Be alert, protect your six senses, in this way, you can get of the five hindrances. That’s enough, just sit down and observe the body and mind when you are absent from the hindrances. There you can see, the sila and the discernment of the body and mind in the wholesome state, leads to the jhana. That’s how the discernment leads to the jhana.

  • 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?

    • 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?

    • 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:

      Metta, Jeff

  • 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 ?

    • 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.

  • What a brilliant solution to this scriptural question. Like Sraddhadipa earlier in the comments, I also followed Analayo’s method in “Compassion and Emptiness” from the four Brahmaviharas into dabbling with the first immaterial sphere. I likewsie felt that at a certain point, as the jhana factors became strong, there was a choice whether to follow those themselves or else to return to the Brahmavihara sequence and on to the immaterial spheres.

    I don’t claim to have really achieved the latter, but several times when I tried my experience was similar to what you describe here, being able to touch with awareness or incorporate all beings that are extended in space, and when getting up and walking outside, the stars seeming to be right there and so on (quite reminiscent of experience with psychedelic drugs decades ago, now that you mention that comparison). This was interesting and encouraging to keep at it, but it did not at all seem to be moving closer to what is described as the actual goal (seeing dependent origination, stopping the construction of a self, etc). I don’t have a teacher to talk about these things with, so your article is incredibly helpful in explaining the place of the immaterial spheres in the teachings as a whole, that they are different in kind from the jhanas, not just jhanas of different number.

  • Thank you for the article Bodhipaksa. Its was very appropriate to a recent discussion I had with someone where they declared that Jhana practice was a dead end. I pointed out that the Buddha exhorts the monks to practice jhana many times in the Suttas. TYhey respond by saying that he rejected jhana as taught by his former teachers.
    Your analysis seems very logical as I was puzzled by this apparent contradiction.
    Your description of Jhana seems more aligned with how it is described on the Visuddhimagga rather than how it is described in the Suttas. I would say that although they are concentrated (steady) they are not focussed on less and less but are actually a whole body experience. There is justification for this interpretation:
    “…even so, the monk permeates… this very body with the rapture & pleasure born of withdrawal. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal….
    …Just as if a man were sitting covered from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; even so, the monk sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness.” MN 119

    • Hi, Alex.

      Yes, for jhana to happen we have to start by being aware of the whole body. In fact that’s how I teach it. In particular we’re aware of the changes that take place all over the body as we breathe in and out.

      So we start off by being aware of 1) whatever mental activity is going on, which is pretty limited by the time we’re in first jhana 2) the body, but especially the energetic flow of the breathing and other forms of piti, and 3) our emotional state, which, when we’re in first jhana, is one of joy.

      In second jhana we tune out thought (or thought stops) and we’re just aware of the piti and joy.

      In third jhana we tune out the body and are just aware of joy.

      In fourth jhana we tune out joy and simply experience a deep sense of peace.

      That’s what I mean by jhana being focused on less and less.

    • Great – thanks for the clarification! Its heartening to know that some teachers understand and teach Jhana practice. Wish I could practice with you and your community some time.

      • Actualy I’m leading a retreat in Scotland in three weeks — but it’s been sold out for months. I will be leading another retreat from 22 July until 2 Aug next year. The retreat will be at Dhanakosa and it’s on the theme of insight meditation. If you contact them you can ask to be put on their mailing list.

  • Great article. I was wondering if you have any practice guidance on the ayatanas? Thanks :-)

    • There are various ways into the ayatanas, but what I’ve found relatively easy and effective is to become aware of both inside and outside sensations at the same time, and to rest in an awareness of both. (Relax the eyes first.) If the mind gravitates toward inside or outside, let go of that activity and come back to rest in this simultaneous inside/outside awareness. While you’re doing this you can also become aware of the perceived boundary between inside and outside. Sit with an awareness of that boundary, and see what happens.

      All the best,

  • This article is the product of a very fertile imagination. That this article describes “jhana” as “narrowing” shows it is wrong. If jhana was “narrow”, how could jhana “allow 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.”

    • It’s interesting that often it’s the Buddhists who comment here (I assume you’re Buddhist from your email handle) are the rudest. I imagine this reflects a kind of tribal battle over who has “the truth.” But here’s a secret. I am not your enemy. I am a fellow-practitioner of the Dharma. As fellow practitioners, perhaps we can learn from the differences in the way we understand Buddhist teachings and practices?

      Anyway, I describe jhana as a “narrowing” because it involves paying more and more attention to less and less. That, I think, can be seen even just by looking at the jhana formula in the suttas. First, thought goes. Then the perception of pleasure/energy in the body goes. Then joy goes, and we’re left with the experience of peace.

      When we examine our experience very closely in jhana, we notice that everything we’re observing is changing. Also, in moving through the jhanas, we’re increasingly experiencing ourselves in terms of intangible and inherently dynamic qualities such as the pleasurable energy of piti, or sukha, or peace.

      So then, perhaps in some moment of idle mind-wandering outside of meditation, the penny drops: everything is change, and there is no possibility of there being a permanent self. Kaboom. The first three fetters have broken.

      Jhana paves the way for insight arising. I don’t know whether insight ever arises in jhana itself. Perhaps it does. But in most people I know where the first three fetters have broken it’s happened outside of meditation. That’s why the contradiction you think you’ve spotted isn’t actually a contradiction.

      I hope that this answers the question you chose to formulate as a criticism.

      • The bottom line is true fellow Dhamma practitioners speak the truth. When in doubt, Dhamma practitioner confirm any doubts with the Noble Sangha. Jhana is not about paying attention to less & less. Jhana may pay less attention to certain sense objects & pay more attention to other sense objects. Insight cannot occur of there is paying attention to “less & less”. Nothing written in the previous post replied to answers any questions because it is false and merely an attempt at theory. In summary, Bodhipaksa is not a teacher.

        • Hi,

          I teach from my experience, not from theory. In jhana there is a progressive narrowing of one’s field of attention, in the sense that various aspects of our experience are progressively tuned out. That’s clear even from the jhana formula in the suttas. This narrowing isn’t experienced as an impoverishment, however, both because there’s an increased sensitivity to what is being paid attention to and because the experience becomes more and more satisfying. So it’s both a narrowing of our field of experience but also an enriching of the quality of that experience. Or as you put it, “Jhana may pay less attention to certain sense objects & pay more attention to other sense objects.”

          Insight cannot occur of there is paying attention to “less & less”.

          You’ve presented no evidence to support this assertion, of course.

  • Regarding the mention that one can experience the arupa jhanas without having reached the first 4 jhanas, here is my own experience: after 6 or 7 years of anapanasati meditation according to the anapanasati sutta and without a teacher, I found the Anguttara Nikaya in the book of the 3 den Sentence: “Space is infinite, consciousness is infinite, space is empty”. And this immediately made sense to me. During the meditation according to the instruction: “feeling the breathing body I will breathe in / out” I noticed that I felt the breath not only in my whole body, but larger than the body, thus opening up a space. (I think I had noticed this regularly before). And now I noticed how this space is unlimited. And then that the space must be in my consciousness and that therefore the consciousness has no limits, and that the space is empty because it is just a construct of consciousness. I reached the first jhanas later. In the sutta the instruction is “I will inhale / exhale and feel bliss”. After meditating for weeks or months in the expectation of suddenly experiencing a spectacular event – which did not happen – it suddenly came to me during the meditation that I was feeling a quiet happiness and had been feeling this for many meditations, when first I do not know. And after I noticed it, it got bigger and bigger. Reading Leigh Brasington’s book many years after this I understood that this is the first jhana and I am also experiencing the other jhanas and can easily go through them in random order and that most of the time it is easy and fast to be in access consciousness.

  • forgot to mention that reading the visuddhimagga had severely confused me, so that for years I was not aware of what happend during my meditation. LB’s book saved me

    • Both the Vsm and LB are wrong. The suttas (MN 14) clearly say the jhana master cannot be tempted by sensuality. This is the test of true jhana attainment.

  • Hi, thank you Bodhipaksa for this post.
    I just wanted to add that there is a wealth of material on accessing the formless realms in a series of talks by Rob Burbea, drawn from a 3 week retreat called ‘Practising the Jhanas’. They are on the Dharmaseed website. If you search under ‘The Fifth Jhana’, ‘The Sixth Jhana’, also Seventh and Eighth, you will find the relevant talks. Interestingly Rob gives two ways in to each of these realms; one by progressing through the jhanas of form; and the other through a particular approach that can go directly to the formless realm – different for each of the realms. He also talks about the potential insight fruits from each of the realms.

    • Thank you, Dayajoti. I’ll explore those talks when I have time.

      In my limited experience of the formless spheres, I’ve got there without going through the jhanas. In fact I’ve found that meditation practices that lead to formless experiences are not conducive to jhana. I’ll be very interested to hear what Rob said about this.

      Incidentally, the scriptures never call the formless meditations “jhanas.” They’re always ayatanas (“spheres”). I follow that convention myself, out of fidelity to what the Buddha taught, and also because calling the ayatanas “jhanas” misleads people into thinking that you have to go through jhana in order to experience them.

  • Thanks for a brilliant post – I followed Leigh’s link here and your work is really clarifying on the relationship between the jhanas and insight. Nice historical detective work! I also did not know it’s possible to access the āyatanas without going through the first jhanas – I will try your instructions!

  • Thank you for the great article! I’m intrigued by your dhyana vs. ayatana discussion.

    I believe I first entered into the ayatanas in 2015 following an “open” 4th dhyana. Some weeks later something changed, and I was able to enter a similar state more directly by using mind itself as the meditation object. However, I thought that these two states would be different: The 6th dhyana vs. a simple absorption on mind.

    I was able to talk with an experienced Triratna order member, and he confirmed that it “could be possible to enter the ayatanas directly”. I was still confused, but at some moment I just stopped worrying. Your article seems to confirm the possibility of direct entry, thank you.

    I found this article after going through your excellent Timelessness meditation in:
    Your focus on balancing the internal vs. external perceptions in spacious awareness seems to be very suitable to enter the ayatanas directly. This is the type of experience you made? You need to have a lot of meditation training, or your mind will wander off immediately…

    Concerning the relative uselessless of the ayatanas: Analayo discusses quite convincingly the relationship between ayatanas and sunyata in “Compassion and Emptiness” based on the Culasunnata sutta. The sutta looks a bit strange to me, it even seems to posit the ayatanas as a precondition for insight. This kind of corresponds to my experience, but you don’t hear this very frequently on the Web.

    I would love to discuss, particularly the relationship between the dhyanic states and ethics. It should be easy to find my email on the Web.


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