IanAnd wrote: Finally. Someone (besides Geoff) who makes some sense in this thread.
Well, okay, but it still does not answer the question of what is jhana and jhana practice.
I see a lot of opinions here. Some of them, on both sides, are well grounded. Over all I see all this hand-wringing and to-do with little to show for it.
Solution? Damdifino. For me the Mahasi Sayadaw/U Pandita tradition actually neatly encompasses both side[s]: the Visuddhimagga type of jhana and the sutta type, which it calls the vipassana jhanas. It is not that people should not argue about this, trying to get a handle on it, but one also needs to be cognizant that one's opinions here are just that - opinions. The cushion is over there.
Now that you bring up Mahasi Sayadaw and U Pandita, Tilt, you encourage me to post a comment I wrote the other day, but decided at the last minute not to post because I thought it might be misunderstood. Now, it seems, at least one person will understand it, and from that perhaps others will, however gradually, come to understand it as well. Below is the comment that almost never made it to publication, slightly revised from its original form.
It is unfortunate that people continue to be confused by different writers on the issue of how deep is deep enough when it comes to absorption and the application of insight contemplation. It is threads like this that can only add to the already prolific confusion being spread on the web. And by this last statement I mean to focus mostly on the confusion among new and inexperienced practitioners who are endeavoring to delineate between what is true and what is being exaggerated in the differing instruction.
If people just understood a few simple concepts about absorption and its application with regard to this issue, it might not become such a hot-button topic in Buddhist forums. Unfortunately, people tend to become attached to certain viewpoints (either based on their perception of their own experience or on which method aligns more closely with their own predispositions and ideas) without stopping to fully examine and understand the basic underlying fundamentals involved. I am speaking here in terms of rather broad generalities with regard to these practices rather than of specifics. There's always room to analyze specific practices later.
Although generally speaking and for clarification, I wholly agree with Thanissaro's interpretation of the discourses when he differentiates between two opposing views of absorption, saying that, on the one hand, some see jhana as being "a very intense trance-like state that requires intense staring and shutting out the rest of the world." And on the other hand that this description "sounds nothing like mindfulness at all. But if you look in the Canon where the Buddha describes jhana, that's not the kind of state he's talking about. To be in jhana is to be absorbed, very pleasurably, in the sense of the whole body altogether. A very broad sense of awareness fills the entire body."
Overall I have been meditating for 30 years, but only in the last ten years have I used Buddhist meditation techniques and instruction in the quest for better self-understanding and hence understanding and integration of the Dhamma
taught by Gotama Buddha. So, based on that preface, people can make their own determination as to whether or not there is any merit to my opinions.
By the time I got around to being able to study Buddhism in more depth, I had already been through the ringer with regard to various "spiritual" personalities attempting to "win" my allegiance to their way of viewing things. So, it came as a breath of fresh air to read of a "master" who simply said, "Come and see for yourself what is true about what I teach. You be the judge based upon your direct experience."
What attracted me back to a study of Buddhism some twenty odd years ago was coming across a translated passage from the Kalama Sutta
that I had not heretofor ever come across until that moment. I appreciated the straightforward appeal to one's own sensibilities of discernment and to a teaching that was unbiased in its presentation if you but took the time to understand what was being said over and above what other's opinions (interpretations) about this might have been.
What struck me about the link to an introduction on absorption provided by Modus.Ponens were the similarities and not
the differences being expressed by the various personages under examination. Are there subtle differences in how one approaches this subject? Undoubtedly, there are. But are these differences enough to waste time arguing about? In some cases, perhaps. But generally speaking, possibly not. Simply do what works for you and let go of all the rest.
Not totally unexpected is the approach of two of the monastic personalities mentioned in the link. Both Pa Auk and Ajahn Brahmavamso are presented as proponents of the so-called "Visuddhimagga Jhana" instruction contingent. It should come as little surprise that a monastic teacher would expect more out of his students than a non-monastic teacher might. This is not to say that all monastic teachers follow the same path with regard to their monastic students. Only that these two in particular present the same teaching methodology to both their monastic students and to their non-monastic students. They expect their students to achieve the highest abilities possible to achieve and will not settle for anything less.
On the other side of the fence are five monastic personalities (Ayya Khema, Ven. Amathagavesi, Bhante Gunaratana, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and Bhante Vimalaramsi) who teach a variety of possibilities that their students might aspire to achieve and who seem to endeavor to use any progress possible as a stepping stone to higher achievement. It would seem that the main differences here (between these two schools of monastic teachers) would be in the basic approach that they use in teaching students. One is a bit more lenient than the other with regard to basic attainments, while the lesser of the two still expects his students to eventually measure up.
What they all seem to agree on is that absorption can be an invaluable tool to use when one is attempting to discern and realize the Dhamma
that Gotama taught. The differences in approach generally speak to differences in the kind of students that each are attempting to work with. Just as the Buddha used differing techniques on his own students depending upon the ability of the student, these teachers have learned to use what works for them and to work with those students who find them more engaging than not.
For instance, a person might attend a Pa Auk or Ajahn Bramavamso retreat and not respond very well to the instruction given there. He might subsequently attend a retreat sponsored by Bhante Gunaratana or Thanissaro Bhikkhu and begin to make palpable progress in his practice. Just as likely an outcome is the opposite of this scenario. Someone who could not make progress with the latter retreatant methodology might make better progress with the former. When push comes to shove, the approach that works for one doesn't always work for all. Each student has individualized needs, and differing approaches can oftentimes handle those needs in a positive manner.
As for the basics themselves, they remain the same: absorption calls for a considerable amount of concentration ability to be able to enter at all. It calls for a unification of the mind on an object or a subject. There can be nothing wrong with utilizing differing methods for achieving that concentration ability. Some people respond more positively to practicing the Brahma Viharas for entering absorption while others are able to achieve absorption using the simplicity of concentration on the breath.
Once the correct level of concentration (samadhi
) is achieved, however, there is generally no difference of opinion as to what must come next. The most direct method would be the practice of the instruction given in the Satipatthana Sutta
. In modern times, the difference between those teachers who insist on their students achieving a deep absorption as opposed to those who proposed that a lighter absorption is acceptable for insight practice is no better illustrated than in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition.
Mahasi Sayadaw was keenly aware that his lay students were not always able to attend to their meditation practice with quite the same amount of diligence and determination as his monastic students were, that they were more likely to be distracted by their lay lives and might not always be able to achieve deep levels of absorption. And so he devised a system of training for those students which required an absorption level that was not as deep in its requirements yet was more than adequate for insight work. He wanted to help his lay students make progress from whatever level they were currently at. Any ability at all which allowed the mind to remain concentrated upon a single object or subject for an extended period of time was worth cultivating, in his opinion. And so he was committed to helping his students achieve whatever they could from where they stood.
Having been on both sides of this question myself within my own practice, I can say without any hesitation that deep concentration states help train the mind to more thoroughly remain concentrated (even and especially after
meditation practice, which is a valuable consideration when it comes to the pursuit of realization) than do shallower levels of concentration. I am able to maintain mindfulness and concentration for longer and longer periods of time after
meditation when I take the time to achieve a deeper absorption, than I am when I only achieve the concentration necessary for the practice of insight, which doesn't need to be that deep. If you can remain concentrated for two to five minutes at a time without break or unnoticed break, that is enough time to be able to avert the mind from samatha
practice, and to benefit from such a transition.
(Yet, it should be understood that I am not a proponent of those who teach that only
during meditation is one able to reach certain realizations about the Dhamma
; it is also
possible to reach those realizations outside of
meditation contemplation. The main ingredient that is important in such endeavors is the ability to remain concentrated on the subject
of contemplation long enough for the realizations to arise in the mind. And those realizations can occur either during or
outside of strict sessions of meditation — i.e. during moments of non-meditative contemplation.)
So, does my experience mean that I endorse the necessity for deep states of concentration proposed in such works as the Visuddhimagga
and so-called "visuddhimagga jhanas"? Or that I endorse the level of jhana described in the suttas and so-called "sutta jhanas"? In one sense, it means neither. From my experience there's a place for both in a person's practice. In other words, this argument, from a certain point of view, could be seen as a red herring, only meant to confuse and, in some cases, to discourage practice. Those who are not able to achieve deep levels of absorption need not be discouraged, for it is still possible to achieve awakening with whatever intensity of samadhi
that you have
What I know for sure is that in whatever way you personally can find to be able to enter into absorption, you should use that method to continue to enter into absorption and to improve your abilities at being able to maneuver in that state. Do I think it is necessary that someone be able to achieve deep levels of concentration in order for them to be able to come to the realizations necessary for achieving awakening? I have already answered that. No. I do not. Awakening can be achieved with only a modicum of concentration ability rightly practiced and rightly focused.
Do I think that deep levels of absorption are important for being able to maintain one's practice in mindfulness and concentration? Yes, they can be. And you might think so too if you had experienced what I (and many others) have experienced who have been able to attain deep levels of quietude and the benefits thereof. Do I think that it is possible to work at attaining awakening first, and then, after having attained it, to turn one's attention toward deepening one's experience of absorption? Yes. I see no reason why not. Though I was essentially able to achieve deep levels of absorption during the time before being able to achieve awakening, the greater part of my awakening was achieved during moments of contemplation outside of formal meditation, meaning outside of having attained intense absorption states. It was only afterward that I was able to more easily take advantage of these deep levels and to more fully develop my ability to maneuver within absorption.
This last sentiment can be seen to speak to those who say that it is possible to practice a "dry" insight method (without absorption) as opposed to a "wet" insight method (with absorption) and still be able to achieve awakening. Overall, I think that those who work at achieving insight accompanied by absorption are more likely to be able to hold onto their achievement throughout their lives than those who achieve it without the assistance of absorption who yet also don't work to improve their concentration practice. Samadhi
(absorption) brings so many mental benefits with it as to out weigh any opposing method or tool, which is why the Buddha had so much to say about it in the discourses. Those who practice and achieve mastery over absorption have a much higher probability of achieving awakening than those who are so unfortunate as to not achieve absorption.
To paraphrase a related saying of the Buddha ("But mindfulness, monks, I say is always useful."), deepening one's absorption is always useful. Among other reasons, this is because it helps one to be able to maintain mindfulness (presence of mind, or sati
) for longer and longer periods outside of meditation, which is what is needed for the alleviation of dukkha
and all that word implies.
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV