First of all, I want to make clear that I am not creating this thread to boast about my experience. What would be the point anyway, no one here knows who I am, and there is no better way to fall off from those mental states than boasting about them, which is why everyone who attains them keeps quiet about it.
So my point is to try to adress the confusion there inevitably is about those 1st jhana factors by confronting theory with experience. This is I believe a somewhat valuable contribution as those who experience the 1st jhana generally rely on a tradition they don't even think of questioning, and those who are in a position to question the tradition generally don't have a lifestyle which is conducive to such attainments.
So I joined a retreat conducted by a monk who teaches in line with the visuddhimagga although I was quite reluctant to follow a teaching based on a book that triggers in me so many doubts, mostly because it contains a few striking contradictions with the suttas, but I did so because that teacher is reputed to be one of the most successful and efficient meditation instructors in the human realm at the present moment.
Prior to that, I was working with anapanassati and my progress was rather slow because it was not the most appropriate object for me given the experiences I had previously in my life. He diagnosed my case and appointed me one of the ten kasinas thanks to which I reached the first jhana within a few days. I want to underline that I have been abstaining from pretty much any sexual activity for the past few years, so it is not something that just fell on me from nowhere. It was the fruit of the successful encounter between a skillful teacher and a receptive student.
So even though I was supposed to focus on my object, I inevitably started confronting my experience with the theory.
According to the abhidhamma and the visuddhimagga, the first jhana is defined as any mental state in which these five factors are present: vitakka, vicara, piti, sukha and ekaggata (Vibh. 569: ‘‘Jhāna’’nti vitakko, vicāro, pīti, sukhaṃ, cittassekaggatā
). Vitakka is taken as meaning "initial application of the mind" (Vibh 565: takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā sammāsaṅkappo
), vicāra "sustained application of the mind" (Vibh 565: cāro vicāro anuvicāro upavicāro cittassa anusandhanatā anupekkhanatā
), and (citass)ekaggata "one-pointedness (of the mind)". Since there is supposed to be ekaggata, which means that the mind is unwaveringly focused on the object, there would be no thoughts in the first jhana. This is already confusing because vitakka DOES mean "thoughts" pretty much everywhere its meaning is clear in the suttas, so in this case we have a situation in which there would be "vitakka" but NO thoughts. Confusing, ugh?
Now, ekaggata does not appear at all in the standard sutta definition of the first jhana: "bhikkhu vivicceva kāmehi, vivicca akusalehi dhammehi, savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati
". Rather, it appears in the definition of the second jhana, under the terms "cetaso ekodibhāva" ("vitakkavicārānaṃ vūpasamā ajjhattaṃ sampasādanaṃ cetaso ekodibhāvaṃ avitakkaṃ avicāraṃ samādhijaṃ pītisukhaṃ dutiyaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati
"), which strongly suggests that ekaggata would rather be a second jhana factor.
And while searching for occurences of vitakka and vicara in the suttas, I have never found any place where it would distinctly mean anything like initial/sustained application of the mind. Instead, I have found many suttas that are dealing with concentration where vitakka clearly means "thought". For example, AN 3.100
clearly talks about adhicitta (the bhikkhu is taken to be adhicittam-anuyutta - "intent on heightened mind", bearing in mind that adhicitta-sikkha ["training in heightened mind"] is defined at AN 3.88
as the attainment of the 4 jhanas) and yet vitakka is spoken of in unequivocal terms as sensual thoughts (kama-vitakka), thoughts of ill-will (byapada-vitakka), thoughts of harmfulness (vihimsa-vitakka), "thoughts of the caste (ñāti-vitakka), thoughts of the home district (janapada-vitakka), thoughts related to not wanting to be despised (anuviññatti-paṭisaññutta vitakka)" and "thoughts of the Dhamma" (dhamma-vitakka).
Another sutta provides strong support for the interpretation according to which even in the context of jhanas, vitakka and vicara still simply relate to thoughts: SN 21.1
('"Noble silence, noble silence," it is said. But what is noble silence?
' Then the thought occurred to me, 'There is the case where a monk, with the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, enters & remains in the second jhāna: rapture & pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. This is called noble silence'
So as I am generally inclined to follow the suttas over other sources, I wanted to review my experience, as to which definition was describing it the most appropriately.
Here are my conclusions:
What the abhidhamma and visuddhimagga and their followers call "access concentration" (upacara-samadhi), and which is defined as a state in which "the five factors are present but not complete yet" corresponds to the sutta first jhana (it is only "absorption concentration", in which the five factors are present in full, which is considered as the full-fledged first jhana in abhidhamma and visuddhimagga). Reviewing my mind according to the sutta description (vivicceva kāmehi, vivicca akusalehi dhammehi, savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ
) this is what I found:
1. "access concentration" is "vivicceva kāmehi
" (detached from sensuality) as whatever sensual perception may still arise in the mind (which is why it is said at AN 9.34
"as he remains there, he is beset with attention to perceptions dealing with sensuality
") such perceptions are nevertheless immediately abandoned without any effort, because the pleasantness derived from piti-sukha is deeper and better than the pleasantness of sensual thoughts, so the mind is able to compare the two, it understands immediately the danger of sensual thoughts and abandons them in order to protect the nicer pleasantness derived from piti-sukha (which is why it said at MN 59
: "whatever pleasure or happiness arises in dependence on these five strands of sensuality, that is called sensual pleasure. Though some might say, 'That is the highest pleasure that beings experience,' I would not grant them that. Why is that? Because there is another pleasure, more extreme & refined than that. And what, Ananda, is another pleasure more extreme & refined than that? There is the case where a monk.. remains in the first jhana. This is another pleasure more extreme & refined than that"
). In other terms, the mind still keeps its hedonist tendency, but at that time it becomes beneficial."
2. it is "vivicca akusalehi dhammehi
" as any perceptions connected with any unwholesome states that may still arise in the mind are similarly immediately abandoned. These two first characteristics of the first jhana are very important, because thanks to them the mind is fully protected against anything that could be harmful, as it is stated at MN 25: ("And where is it that Mara and his following cannot go? Here, quite secluded.. he abides in the first jhana. This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Mara, to have become invisible to the Evil One by depriving Mara’s eye of its opportunity
"). So it is easily underdstandable that the Buddha would emphasize this mental state because it is much easier to reach than the second jhana where thoughts have to disappear, and yet it is a very useful and safe mental state, because the good habits of warding off unwholesome states gets deeply printed and still works after the meditation is over if one doesn't stop the practice for too long (ie. more than 12 hours).
3. it is "savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ
" as there are thoughts and 'wandering-thoughts". The more one gets into them, the weaker the jhana becomes, that is piti-sukha becomes weaker, so generally the mind is not too much attracted towards them. The thing is that the mental pleasantness derived from wholesome thoughts might still attract the mind and divert it from the object, but piti-sukha are still there and sensuality as well as unwholesome states are still quite efficiently warded off. When the concentration becomes better and more focused, piti and sukha increase, so that the pleasantness derived from them becomes stronger than the pleasantness of wholesome thoughts, and the mind abandons them without specific effort to do so because of its underlying hedonist tendency. This is how one reaches the second jhana, and why the second jhana is said to be "samadhijam" (born of concentration).
4. it is "vivekajaṃ
" (I understand viveka here as meaning "detachment") because it arises from the fact that one doesn't cling too strongly to any internal object. I have actually found it a very efficient way to attain or strengthen the first jhana to remember it is "born of detachment" and consequently release any grasping to inner phenomena. If one tries to achieve ekaggata too soon by focusing too strongly, one will start grasping too strongly at inner objects, which will weaken the jhana, and can even make one fall from it, which is why it is said at AN 9.35
: ("there are cases where a monk — foolish, inexperienced, unfamiliar with his pasture, unskilled in being quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, and entering & remaining in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation — doesn't stick with that theme, doesn't develop it, pursue it, or establish himself firmly in it. The thought occurs to him, 'What if I, with the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, were to enter & remain in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance.' He is not able... to enter & remain in the second jhana... The thought occurs to him, 'What if I... were to enter & remain in the first jhana... He is not able... to enter & remain in the first jhana. This is called a monk who has slipped & fallen from both sides"
5. and obviously there is "pīti-sukhaṃ"; to be noted that if there is pain arising for any reason (insect bite or paiin arising from internal causes) the jhana will be weakened and if it becomes too strong it will vanish. On the other hand, the stronger the jhana, the longer on can sit continuously. 2 hours sittings without changing the posture become easy.
Now, here is what the teacher would say about the first jhana: actually ekaggata is reached only in the moment, so one keeps changing from access to absorption concentration. This makes clear that this is the definition of a state that is unstable, uneasy to grasp for the beginner, and it is much easier, more convenient and workable on the practical level to consider the whole thing as the first jhana.
Somehow, the teacher came to know what I was thinking and he eventually admitted that the first jhana with five factors is "a bit confusing".
Now, why this confusion? My opinion is that there has been a time when the abhidhamma was used as a weapon in discussions between sects, and every sect wanted to have in their abhidhamma discriminations that were finer than those introduced by other sects in order to prove that their doctrine was more profound (see quotation below). There are evidences of this tendency towards subtler interpretations in late Pali litterature with a variety of Pali terms, which are explicited in the book "studies in the origins of buddhism" but I am not in a position right now to put a hand on it. So my guess is that this definition has been introduced by unscrupulous people who were not reluctant to edit the contents of the abhidhammma (as well as the suttas - but that is another complex matter that goes beyond the range of this discussion) in order to serve their own immediate and trifle advantage.
There are indications that such people existed in the Sangha at an early stage. The following is extracted from "Buddhist Sects in India" by Nalinaksha Dutt and is about Mahadeva, the reported founder of the Mahasanghika scool, at the time of Asoka, around 150 BE, as related by Paramartha (who was a follower of the Vijñanavada school and one of the most learned translators of Vasumitra's treatise on sects - see p.69): "It is said that Mahadeva fabricated many sutras and authorized his disciples to compose treatises, as they thought fit, and they should also refute the objections raised by their adversaries so that the conservatives, ie. the Sthaviras, might be disposed to admit the authenticity of the Mahayanic tradition. Paramartha seems to be neutral and sophistic on the point. He had recourse to the expedient of conciliating the both the yanas"
- see p.23.
I believe it is probable that these manipulations have taken place at a rather early stage, probably before the creation of the Theravada school, which would explain why the Theravadins would have just accepted these definitions - as they accepted the rest of what was transmitted by the tradition - without questioning them. Once the contradictions had been canonically accepted without being adressed even in the redaction of the visuddhimagga, which has later become a sacred scripture (and Buddhagosa is even strongly believed to have been an arahant - without any kind of evidence available) none would even dare to question the matter. It takes someone who is not a buddhist and is not afraid of looking at these scriptures more objectively and non-dogmatically, to analyse properly the contradiction.
As a support to what I have said here, PTSD says in its definition of vitakka: "Looking at the combn vitakka+vicāra in earlier and later works one comes to the conclusion that they were once used to denote one & the same thing: just thought, thinking, only in an emphatic way (as they are also semantically synonymous), and that one has to take them as one expression, like jānāti passati, without being able to state their difference. With the advance in the Sangha of intensive study of terminology they became distinguished mutually. Vitakka became the inception of mind, or attending, and was no longer applied, as in the Suttas, to thinking in general. The explns of Commentators are mostly of an edifying nature and based more on popular etymology than on natural psychological grounds."