Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

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Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby Ben » Tue Oct 20, 2009 8:38 pm

Hi all

Inspired by Sudarsha's post on the jhana thread in the meditation forum, I thought it would be useful to compare and contrast the salient attributes and observations of jhana in the suttas, the commentaries (particularly the vissudhimagga) and the Abhidhamma (or Abhidhamma commentaries).

sudarsha wrote:I don't know how to set up a new thread or rename this one, but I think thereductor's initial question: viewtopic.php?f=17&t=2410 deserves much more attention. Can we work out clarity of understanding about "jhana" in different terms only relying upon the words of the oldest parts of the Pali Canon? Can we talk about jhana as if it were as "real" and ordinary as any other part of our practise, liberating it as a concept from conceptual limitations or the Visuddhimagga's limitations??????


I have placed the thread in the Classical section so that we can focus exclusively on the early textual evidence rather than a focus on personal experience.
Kind regards

Ben
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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby BlackBird » Tue Oct 20, 2009 9:25 pm

Hi Ben

Here's an essay by Leigh Brasington called 'Interpretation of the Jhanas' which might provide some content to muse over:
http://www.leighb.com/jhanantp.htm

You might already have read it, I don't know.

Metta
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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby retrofuturist » Tue Oct 20, 2009 9:51 pm

Greetings,

The first thing that comes to mind is the difference between the four jhana classification of the suttas, and the five jhana classification of the commentaries. I forget, off the top of my head which sutta jhana is split into 2 in the commentaries. I suspect it's the 2nd.

Metta,
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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby AdvaitaJ » Wed Oct 21, 2009 12:59 am

BlackBird wrote:Here's an essay by Leigh Brasington called 'Interpretation of the Jhanas' which might provide some content to muse over:
http://www.leighb.com/jhanantp.htm

Buried within that link (thanks, BlackBird!) is a broken link to a most revealing and helpful essay called The Mystery of the Breath Nimitta Or The Case of the Missing Simile by a Bhikku Sona in Canada. I found the document at the following URL. It has some very helpful potential explanations of some of the discrepancies (and resulting confusion). http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma/nimitta.html

Regards: AdvaitaJ
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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby Sudarsha » Wed Oct 21, 2009 1:22 am

Thanks, AdvaitaJ, for a more accessible link to Ajahn Sona's very useful essay.

I attended a teaching session with Leigh Brasington here in Toronto. I was surprised at how easy he made at least the first jhana seem. My own experience is that, yes, settling down, becoming content and tranquil is indeed a matter of no effort. I must research to see if Leigh has any audio guided meditations in this respect. However, I also feel very strongly that just settling down, just becoming content, just becoming tranquil is neither sufficient nor anything other than a potential trap: sort of like deciding to take a cruise ship to see the Mediterranean but getting off to sightsee at the first island and going no further.

As I read the Buddha's words, I see only one specific kind of "what to do" and that is let go. Otherwise, why would the Buddha have pointed us in the direction of understanding everything as only impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless? I wonder if when the commentaries were put together and the material of the Visuddhimagga was catalogued - perhaps by that time already just a faint, vague kind of ego had crept into the teachings of the most charismatic of the elders? :shrug:

I do not know. At some point the message seemed to shift from "let go" to "like this" ... and I am fully aware that I am completely out of my depth with respect to any of the scholarship I should probably take much more seriously ... in my university daze, we called it scholarshit and thought we were being ever so very clever. After all, in the Buddha's time there were only two baskets of the Teaching ... actually, no writing had been done, so there were really no baskets, but only two parts: Dhamma and vinaya. The whole idea of abhidhamma seems to have crept in later as if, perhaps, some of the elders failed to notice that no further explanations were necessary as the Buddha had already explained everything. I'm demonstrating my profound ignorance of the abhidhamma material, teased out of the Dhamma and vinaya, which I know is of extraordinary value to us today.

:thinking:
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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Oct 21, 2009 1:49 am

Since this is the Classical section it's not clear to me how to proceed with this particular discussion, since "Classically" we'd consider the Commentaries to be Canonical, unless they contradicted the Suttas (which Ven Sona actually suggests is the case, at least for the Visuddhimagga, but presumably the discussion in the Visuddhimagga is based on the Canonical Commentaries).

However, it's interesting that Ajahn Brahm, who claims to place much more weight on the Suttas than the Commentaries, describes the nimittas and jhanas in a way that is quite consistent with the Visuddhimagga (See "Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond", AKA "Happiness Through Meditation" pdf of some of it here: http://www.bswa.org/zencart/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=187).

Stage Six:
Experiencing the Beautiful Nimitta

This sixth stage is achieved when one lets go of the body, thought, and
the five senses (including the awareness of the breath) so completely that
only a beautiful mental sign, a nimitta, remains.

This pure mental object is a real object in the landscape of the mind
(citta), and when it appears for the first time, it is extremely strange.One
simply has not experienced anything like it before. Nevertheless, the
mental activity we call perception searches through its memory bank of
life experiences for something even a little bit similar. For most meditators,
this disembodied beauty, this mental joy, is perceived as a beautiful
light. Some see a white light, some a golden star, some a blue pearl, and
so on. But it is not a light. The eyes are closed, and the sight consciousness
has long been turned off. It is the mind consciousness freed for the
first time from the world of the five senses. It is like the full moon—
here standing for the radiant mind, coming out from behind the clouds—
here standing for the world of the five senses. It is the mind manifesting
—it is not a light,but for most it appears as a light. It is perceived as a light
because this imperfect description is the best that perception can offer.


On the other hand, another Sutta emphasier, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, paints a very different picture in "Wings to Awakening", agreeing with Ven. Sona.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/auth ... ml#part3-f
Part of the controversy over this question may be explained by the fact that the commentarial literature defines jhana in terms that bear little resemblance to the canonical description. The Path of Purification — the cornerstone of the commentarial system — takes as its paradigm for meditation practice a method called kasina, in which one stares at an external object until the image of the object is imprinted in one's mind. The image then gives rise to a countersign that is said to indicate the attainment of threshold concentration, a necessary prelude to jhana. The text then tries to fit all other meditation methods into the mold of kasina practice, so that they too give rise to countersigns, but even by its own admission, breath meditation does not fit well into the mold: with other methods, the stronger one's focus, the more vivid the object and the closer it is to producing a sign and countersign; but with the breath, the stronger one's focus, the harder the object is to detect. As a result, the text states that only Buddhas and Buddhas' sons find the breath a congenial focal point for attaining jhana.

None of these assertions have any support in the Canon. Although a practice called kasina is mentioned tangentially in some of the discourses, the only point where it is described in any detail [MN 121; MFU, pp. 82-85] makes no mention of staring at an object or gaining a countersign. If breath meditation were congenial only to Buddhas and their sons, there seems little reason for the Buddha to have taught it so frequently and to such a wide variety of people. If the arising of a countersign were essential to the attainment of jhana, one would expect it to be included in the steps of breath meditation and in the graphic analogies used to describe jhana, but it isn't. Some Theravadins insist that questioning the commentaries is a sign of disrespect for the tradition, but it seems to be a sign of greater disrespect for the Buddha — or the compilers of the Canon — to assume that he or they would have left out something absolutely essential to the practice.

All of these points seem to indicate that what jhana means in the commentaries is something quite different from what it means in the Canon. Because of this difference we can say that the commentaries are right in viewing their type of jhana as unnecessary for Awakening, but Awakening cannot occur without the attainment of jhana in the canonical sense.

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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby Ben » Wed Oct 21, 2009 4:54 am

ok, so what I am hearing is that this thread is better placed elsewhere...
"Only those who take to meditation with good intentions can be assured of success. With the development of the purity and the power of the mind backed by the insight into the ultimate truth of nature, one might be able to do a lot of things in the right direction for the benefit of mankind."

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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby Sudarsha » Wed Oct 21, 2009 7:49 pm

HI, Ben

Where to put it??? I think it is an "absolute" that experience and "writing" go hand in glove. Which is the hand and which the glove may not always be clear. But, at least in my experience, commentary and experience, sutta and experience, sutta and commentary - are inseparable; I cannot fathom one without the other (although I am less likely to fathom commentary than almost anything else).

I was contemplating, earlier, the "scholar" who knows everything about Michelangelo da Caravaggio, but has never bothered to look at one of the paintings. Upon seeing one it might be entirely probably that he would dismiss it as not something as good as he knows Caravaggio could do. I have known at least one ordained and active teacher who sort of dismissed meditation and another (who took ordination under Ajahn Chah) who outright said that we don't need to do jhana!

As experience from sitting grows, I increasingly find that I tend to want to rewrite (in the margin) how many authors explain things. I do not feel they are wrong; but I clearly feel they are not explaining my experiences, at least not the way I understand them ... but I also am aware that I cannot simply set out to have the experiences they describe - I can only strive to assure that I am following the directions laid down by the Buddha and then try to understand what happens as a result.

I do not know if this is at all meaningful or helpful with respect to where this thread should be located. I am convinced, however, that experience and explanation have to inform one another.
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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby Ben » Wed Oct 21, 2009 8:04 pm

Hi Sudarsha
I moved the thread from the Classical to the General Theravada to accomodate many different perspectives on jhana, including personal experience. I wrongly assumed that you were interested in a purely textual analysis of the ancient literature - which is what the Classical section is for. In this forum you will be able to engage in some textual analysis of the early texts, provide your own personal experience as well as provide your own insights and those of others.
kind regards

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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby Sudarsha » Wed Oct 21, 2009 8:47 pm

Thanks, Ben

I want to apologize for being unclear and causing some disruption in the smooth flow of things.
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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby Ben » Wed Oct 21, 2009 8:55 pm

No problem, Sudarsha!
With that. let's return to the subject of jhana!
metta

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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby Sudarsha » Wed Oct 21, 2009 11:04 pm

Thanks, Ben

I am thinking of one of Thanissaro Bhikkhu's essays (One Tool among Many http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/onetool.html). I remember very clearly the first time I read this and felt very surprised that the Buddha wasn't teaching two separate things or two different things. I read this soon after a very senior monastic said flat out that we didn't bother about jhana. I suppose there's nothing like being told not to do something or not to be curious about something! Because that now seems a turning point in my practise.

I'm trying to put together for my own reference an outline of what I have learnt and from whom and then shuffle that into what I consider a reasonable and pragmatic order ... which of course can only be the order most reasonable temporary working order for me. Going back to material I have already mentioned, it seems that one has to begin by intellectually understanding what "mindfulness" is all about without becoming like the expert on Caravaggio who never looked at a Caravaggio painting! Then, one should develop full mindfulness/awareness of breathing. Here Larry Rosenberg was very helpful in teaching me (Breath by Breath) about belly breathing. Up until that point, after many years of meditation, I was still meditating without actually fully relaxing, letting go physically.

Then, of course, the other factors of satipatthana need to be intellectually understood (and some of the standard definitions simply do not work for me and I have littered much marginal space in texts with micrographia explaining to myself why this or that word chosen by the author isn't the choice I would have made).

Here is where I was very surprised to find my thinking converting from thinking that vipassana and insight meditation were the key to penetrating the mystery of samsara! This was my detour through the paths of Mahamudra and Dzogchen until it dawned on me (and maybe that's a signal to get out'cher red flags???) that it wasn't about vipassana and insight at all, but about simply being aware of awareness, aware of mindfulness until there was just mindfulness.

I often wonder how many words of his own two teachers the Buddha was repeating when he defined samma samadhi. I have do doubt that he understood precisely what he was saying/teaching and his immediate followers did, as well. Yet, and here's a difficulty I am wrestling with, did the elders remember the words long after their direct association with direct experience was not so clearly understood?

I don't know how, in any way, to articulate my present experience. I only know that, as far as I think I am able at this time (yep, I have hedging down to a near science) to portray it, it is flowing from my understanding of the Buddha's words: master breathing awareness, apply that awareness to the four foundations of awareness, let go, always let go. Letting go is facilitated by the intellectual understanding that all things lack permanency, that all things are incapable of proving anything but transitory notions of satisfaction and no one and no thing possess anything that can be interpreted as an immutable essence.

I am, at this point, content that I am experience jhana/dhyana. I only know, at this time, that I should persist in letting go.

Does this make any useful sense at all?

corrections, a swat, smack up side the head, suggestions ... it's all good, all welcome
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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Oct 21, 2009 11:17 pm

Hi Sudarsha,
Sudarsha wrote: I remember very clearly the first time I read this and felt very surprised that the Buddha wasn't teaching two separate things or two different things. I read this soon after a very senior monastic said flat out that we didn't bother about jhana.

Though the practise I do is not oriented towards jhana, my teachers have never been negative about developing high degrees of concentration. Their only warning is that when I find myself in a blissful or equanimous state I should be sure to remain conscious of the bliss, equanimity, etc.

Which agrees with your statement:
Sudarsha wrote:I only know, at this time, that I should persist in letting go.

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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby AdvaitaJ » Thu Oct 22, 2009 12:20 am

Sudarsha,

I don't know if your last post was specifically for Ben or not, but...oh well, here goes anyway.

I agree with what (I think :thumbsup: ) you said, especially the part about letting go. I've had similar thoughts lately, but along the lines of there being a predisposition among some of us to "over complicate" things or "over think" the situation. Though hard to do, it does seem that the basics are straightforward; clinging leads to suffering. With regards to the subject of this thread, jhana, the things I've read always reiterate its usefulness for furthering the practice and all caution against viewing jhana as an end unto itself.

Regards: AdvaitaJ
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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby BlackBird » Thu Oct 22, 2009 12:29 am

Good postings :goodpost:
They make for good reading.
Thank you all.

:anjali:
"And so, because this Teaching is so different from what Westerners are accustomed to, they will try to adapt the Teaching to their own framework. What they need to learn to do is not to adapt the Teaching to their own point of view but to adapt their own point of view to the Teaching. This is called saddhá, or faith, and it means giving oneself to the Teaching even if the Teaching is contrary to one’s own preconceived notions of the way things are."- Ven Bodhesako

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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby pt1 » Thu Oct 22, 2009 1:22 am

retrofuturist wrote:I forget, off the top of my head which sutta jhana is split into 2 in the commentaries.


Hi retro,

In abhidhamma the first two jhanas equal to the first jhana in the suttas (all the other jhanas are the same in both) - while in the suttas the transition from first to second jhana happens by abandoning vitakka (initial application/applied thinking) and vicara (sustained application/sustained thinking) together, in abhidhamma the transition from first to second jhana happens by abandoning vitakka only, and then from second jhana to third jhana by abandoning vicara only. Though I think it is acknowledged that both vitakka and vicara may be abandoned at the same time. So, there's no real difference, just a different theoretical classification so to speak.

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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby Ben » Thu Oct 22, 2009 1:29 am

Hi AJ
AdvaitaJ wrote:I don't know if your last post was specifically for Ben or not, but...oh well, here goes anyway.

You are most welcome here, so please feel free to contribute!
metta

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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby Sudarsha » Thu Oct 22, 2009 4:31 am

mikenz66 wrote:Hi Sudarsha,

Though the practise I do is not oriented towards jhana, my teachers have never been negative about developing high degrees of concentration. Their only warning is that when I find myself in a blissful or equanimous state I should be sure to remain conscious of the bliss, equanimity, etc.
Mike


Absolutely, Mike. Yet, human nature is so incredible. We think we completely understand the three poisons of imagined permanence, happiness and self and then turn around and get hung up on some impermanent, unsatisfactory and un-self idea or experience or notion. :popcorn:

Earlier I said "[...]a very senior monastic said flat out that we didn't bother about jhana." - His meaning was clear from other things he said. He had meant that in his learnèd opinion we simply were not able to do jhana. As I remember it, the teacher intimated that no one knows how, that the Buddha never said, like a map doesn't tell you how to drive a car. (It was much later that I found that the Buddha had been fairly clear about the "how to" of jhana.) There was, as well, a suggestion of "anymore" as if things in the here and now simply didn't support anything like that. So much for learnèd teachers! I am, at this time much more inclined to think that we don't have to concern ourselves with "how do I go about practising jhana" because if we follow the Buddha's instructions, if we practise in the manner he outlined, jhana will be the natural result.

As AdvaitaJ suggested ( » 21 Oct 2009 20:20 ) (and I am paraphrasing somewhat), I think that we simply set our sights on maintaining mindfulness right in front of us. My current practise is imagining/returning to my mindfulness out in front where eyes, ears, nose, mouth sort of converge, as if I were examining a spot in the palm of my hand. It's seemingly very concrete, at least at the start of the sitting. Then, I cut through the discursive array of thought to that mindfulness (Dzogchen trekcho, no big deal, we all do it, especially when someone comes up behind us and yells BOO!) - then the only thing is continually letting go from a state of increasing focus and mindfulness.

But I also understand "parimukhaṁ satiṁ upaṭṭhapetvā" as making mindfulness primary, uppermost and the focus of our practise. Perhaps the Buddha also intended this double meaning. Although my access to Pali is relatively primitive, again and again scholars like Richard Gombrich remind me that the Buddha enjoyed puns. You can say quite a lot with a pun that is otherwise difficult to express.

The more I think about it, the most obscure idea we might hear in the beginning is "letting go" and, much latter, the simplest, most rudimentary thing we actually do is "letting go". Curious. The Tibetans have a saying that the preliminaries are more important than the actual practices. I don't necessarily agree, but sometimes the simplest things we do can become profoundly important. Maybe we have to go through all the preliminary stuff, then try to master the practices before we can understand the simplest elements of the Dhamma. Experience often teaches us how to make good decisions, but we only get experience through a process that so often includes some really dumb decisions. How can it be different in our practise of the Dhamma? Sometimes we make the most rudimentarily off the wall decisions about practise, association, dedication and, only after a long while does some decent kamma kick in and we say,"ah" and try for a do-over ... obviously speaking from many years of not particularly on the ball experiences.

AdvaitaJ also said caution against viewing jhana as an end unto itself which I think is very much in line with my image of the Mediterranean cruise. Caution yourself not to get off the boat, not to get infatuated with the charming islands (didn't I read that somewhere in Homer?), not to be sidetracked.

Just let go. Don't revere jhana as the highest achievement, but as a tool for more letting go.
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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby mikenz66 » Thu Oct 22, 2009 4:36 am

Greetings Sudarsha,

Sorry, I guess I misunderstood what you said earlier:
Sudarsha wrote:His meaning was clear from other things he said. He had meant that in his learnèd opinion we simply were not able to do jhana.

Yes, that's a different issue. Certaintly there are some who think that it is impossible or almost impossible at this time, some who think it is very difficult, and some who think it is quite easy. Of course, it seems to depend somewhat on which definition of jhana one uses.

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Re: Jhana: sutta v commentary v abhidhamma

Postby IanAnd » Thu Oct 22, 2009 6:53 am

Sudarsha wrote:I am, at this time much more inclined to think that we don't have to concern ourselves with "how do I go about practicing jhana" because if we follow the Buddha's instructions, if we practice in the manner he outlined, jhana will be the natural result....
Agreed. And, I speak from experience and insight into this matter. Insight that can only be gained through diligent practice and patience.

Just let go. Don't revere jhana as the highest achievement, but as a tool for more letting go.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in the Wings to Awakening passage that was quoted, is quite correct when he asserted that: "If breath meditation were congenial only to Buddhas and their sons, there seems little reason for the Buddha to have taught it so frequently and to such a wide variety of people."

The suttas provide several clues as to what absorption is (see MN 36 and the story of the rose apple tree) and how the Buddha used it for gaining insight and calm, or calm and insight, or both in tandem. Some people tend to make too big a deal about what absorption is. It is not as difficult a state to attain as they would have others believe. Once you have an idea what he is talking about when he says: "...quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unwholesome mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation...," then you will know that absorption is a common (although perhaps infrequent, if not intentionally pursued) state that one can enter with the proper prerequisites in place.

It was while reading this brief experience of the rose apple tree that I had a sudden intuitive realization about what the Buddha was talking about. I recalled, when as a child myself, having had similar experiences with becoming mentally absorbed in various occurrences. It could happen as a result of the simplest of occurrences, like when I was just listening to someone speak, when the mind is at ease and in a restful but alert state, I could become absorbed in the sound of the words alone or even the meaning of the words if what was being said was that fascinating. The same thing could occur when reading a particularly interesting passage in a book, or observing a pleasant scene in nature. Just about any pleasant event or occurrence will do. It just has to be something that your mind relates to.

In the case of jhana absorption, one can bring it on by fabricating a pleasant event. One of the early ways I did this was by recalling the sensation created when I would swing in one of those long chain and leather seated swings. The up swing and the back swing were usually quite long, giving the impression (when I was young) of being able to fly. This created a pleasant sensation in my head. On the forward swing and the back swing I would feel a kind of pleasant pressure in the center of my forehead. Using the recollection of this sensation when meditating, I could bring myself into the first jhana quite easily by imaging the incoming breath as the back swing and the out going breath as the forward swinging motion. And from there I could set forth to deepen the absorption by creating a feedback loop of the pleasant sensation just by paying bare attention to the in and out breathing which took place effortlessly, which would take me directly into the second jhana. From there, to get to the third and fourth jhana, it was only a matter of calming the mind even more, so that the breath became even more slight and barely there at all.

I would just caution people, in the beginning at least, not to be too concerned with being able to identify the jhana factors right away: vitakka (directed thought or attention) and vicara (examination or evaluation), piti (rapture or elation), sukha (joy, pleasure, or happiness) and ekaggata (unification of the mind on the object of meditation). Just focus on getting into the absorption through the entry point of whatever pleasant sensation that you choose. The establishment of sampajjana (clear comprehension or clear knowing) can come later, as the mind becomes more used to entering this state and clear seeing develops on its own. Otherwise, one could spoil the entry or the sustaining of the absorption by working too hard to identify the jhana factors. Just let it happen, and be glad that it is happening.

Later, as the mind becomes more used to being able to enter absorption, concentration becomes strengthened and clear seeing begins to occur on its own. When the mind becomes established, workable, and malleable, having gained imperturbability, it is then that one is able to direct the mind toward knowing and seeing.
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV
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