A Critique of Brahmavamso’s “The Jhanas”
During the 60th anniversary conference of the WFB in Colombo, I happened to meet and spend part of a day with Venerable Brahmavamso, the British monk who has caused such a stir in Thailand and around the world with his Bhikkhuni ordination. This was the second time we met, and my thoughts remain unchanged; he seems like a nice guy, unassuming and polite, clearly knowledgeable and experienced enough to offer advice and direction.
The problem I’ve always had with him, as is often the case in such matters, is with his teachings. Now, clearly we have different ideas on how to practice meditation, I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with is what seems clearly to be a distortion of the Buddha’s teaching in order to support his own way of teaching.
Immediately upon meeting him this time, one of his disciples handed me a book of his, titled “The Jhanas”. I sat down and began to skim through it, not expecting much that I could relate to, but interested nonetheless in learning more about his ideas.
The reason I didn’t expect to find much I could relate to going into the small booklet is because I don’t agree with this notion that the word “jhāna” implies some special, exclusive entity. To me, it clearly means, simply, “meditation”. The Mahāsaccaka Sutta, the very sutta Brahmavamso cites as proof that “the only time in his life that [the Buddha] had experienced any Jhāna was as a young boy,” (pg. 6) actually describes even some of the Bodhisatta’s tortuous austerities as jhāna:
“tassa mayhaṃ, aggivessana, etadahosi — ‘yaṃnūnāhaṃ appāṇakaṃyeva jhānaṃ jhāyeyya’nti. so kho ahaṃ, aggivessana, mukhato ca nāsato ca assāsapassāse uparundhiṃ. tassa mayhaṃ, aggivessana, mukhato ca nāsato ca assāsapassāsesu uparuddhesu kaṇṇasotehi vātānaṃ nikkhamantānaṃ adhimatto saddo hoti.”
“Then, Aggivessana, I had this thought — ‘what if I were to meditate (jhāyeyya) on the non-breathing meditation (jhānaṃ)?’ At that, Aggivessana, I held back the in-and-out breathing of the mouth and nose. Then, Aggivessana, holding back the in-and-out breathing of the mouth and nose, there was a great amount of noise of pressure going out from my ears.”
Now, it might seem odd that the Buddha would state that “the only time” he had experienced jhāna before the night of his enlightenment was as a child and then go on to say that holding his breath was a practice of jhāna. Fortunately for us, the words “the only time” are not used by the Buddha, and were added by Brahmavamso himself. The passage in question goes:
“tassa mayhaṃ, aggivessana, etadahosi — ‘abhijānāmi kho panāhaṃ pitu sakkassa kammante sītāya jambucchāyāya nisinno vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharitā. siyā nu kho eso maggo bodhāyā’ti?”
“Then, Aggivessana, I had this thought — ‘I can clearly recall how I, sitting in the shade of the rose-apple tree while my Sakyan father was working, secluded from sensuality, secluded from unwholesome dhammas, entered the first jhāna, accompanied by investigation and contemplation, born of seclusion, with rapture and happiness. What if that is the path to enlightenment?’”
There is no mention of it being the only time the Bodhisatta had entered this particular meditative state. Indeed, in the next paragraph, the Buddha seems to be quite familiar with it, stating as he does:
“tassa mayhaṃ, aggivessana, etadahosi — ‘na kho taṃ sukaraṃ sukhaṃ adhigantuṃ evaṃ adhimattakasimānaṃ pattakāyena, yaṃnūnāhaṃ oḷārikaṃ āhāraṃ āhāreyyaṃ odanakummāsa’nti.”
“Then, Aggivessana, I had this though — ‘That refined happiness is not easily reached by a body so extremely emaciated; what if I were to eat the gross food of rice and curries?”
Besides showing that Brahmavamso is incorrect in his statement about the Bodhisatta having had a single prior experience of jhāna, these passages offer clear insight into what sort of definition the Buddha himself gave to the word Jhana. Such was the understanding I went into this booklet with, but it was nonetheless quite disappointing to read such errors as I’ve pointed out above.
The error mentioned above is important. It shows that one cannot take the word jhāna as referring to an exclusive entity with a specific meaning. It means “meditation”, or perhaps “trance” or “absorbtion”. This becomes even more important when we look at the context of Brahmavamso’s statement about the first jhāna experience. He is using the fact (now proven to be fiction) of the Bodhisatta’s only jhāna experience having occurred in his youth as proof that the meditations taught by Alara and Udaka and perfected by the Bodhisatta “could not have been connected with jhāna” (p. 6). As I have shown, however, even holding one’s breath can be a sort of jhāna; it is clearly plain-and-simple dogmatism to say that because they weren’t Buddhist, Alara and Udaka weren’t practicing Jhāna.
It seems, though I am not so bold as to make a statement either way, that the Bodhisatta, in considering his childhood experience of the first jhāna, was simply reflecting on the indulgence in meditative bliss at that time, and how that indulgence was not dangerous. This realization led him to decide that there was no need to avoid happiness by torturing himself.
This, at least, is more in line with the rest of the Buddha’s teachings on the rūpa and arūpa jhānas, wherein it is quite clear that the states taught by Alara and Udaka come only after attainment of the rest of the jhānas. And, seriously, does anyone really believe that one could enter into “the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception” without some sort of seclusion from sensuality?
The point of the Buddha’s words on not being afraid of the bliss that comes from jhāna, of course, is that he had missed something important. Previously, he had dismissed such meditative states as merely leading to transcendental attainments (i.e. arūpa jhānas). Now, he thought, what if I were to use them for the purpose of developing focused contemplation of reality and enlightenment? When we step back from our preconceived notions of what jhāna might be, I think we can clearly see that, rather than being some exclusively Buddhist attainment, jhāna simply refers to meditative focus or samādhi, and so it is unwarranted to claim that what Alara and Udaka taught “could not have been connected with Jhāna”, not to mention going against the whole Theravadin commentatorial tradition and Abhidhamma.
This may seem like nit-picking to those who are not familiar with the disagreement in question here. Again, the disagreement is one thing, and no cause for writing such a post as this; distorting the facts to mislead people into thinking your argument superior, however, is another. You see, one of the arguments I would use against placing too much importance on “The Jhānas” is the fact that they are not particularly Buddhist. Which is simply to say that Hindu meditators have been realizing states like the young Bodhisatta, Alara, and Rāma (Udaka’s teacher) for as long as anyone can remember, and are still to this day practicing them, ostensibly without any proper Buddhist attainment of enlightenment following therefrom. An explanation of why and how that is would do much to shed light on this subject.
According to Brahmavamso, the Buddha “rediscovered” jhāna, as the “culminating” point of the the eightfold noble path (p. 7). If this were so, then the Bodhisatta attained the culmination of the eightfold noble path at the age of five, which of course he didn’t.
The next section was entitled “Can One be Attached to Jhāna?” This was interesting, as I vaguely recalled a sutta which stated precisely that the danger of jhāna was that one could become attached to it.
Brahmavamso starts by reminding us that we should not be afraid of jhāna. He quotes MN 66 – “it is not to be feared.” But if you read on in this sutta, you will come to the following for each of the jhānas, including, incidentally, the ones taught by Alara and Udaka, which, incidentally, come after the other jhānas:
“idampi kho ahaṃ, udāyi, ‘anala’nti vadāmi, ‘pajahathā’ti vadāmi, ‘samatikkamathā’ti vadāmi.”
“Even this, Udayi, is not enough, I say. Abandon it, I say. Go beyond it, I say.”
Even the jhānas must be abandoned. In that case, how can they be the culmination of the eightfold noble path? There are answers to such questions, but I don’t think you will find them in this booklet.
He then warns against any teacher who “in spite of this clear advice from the Buddha Himself, … discourage[s] Jhāna on the grounds that one can become attached to Jhāna and so never become Enlightened” (p. 7). I can’t personally imagine anyone arguing that the Buddhist jhānas are a hindrance to Enlightenment, but I can see how attachment to them might be, given the Buddha’s “clear advice” that the jhānas should be abandoned. If it weren’t possible to cling to them, why would the Buddha encourage us to abandon them? Brahmavamso says:
“Simply put, Jhāna states are stages of letting go. One cannot be attached to letting go. Just as one cannot be imprisoned by freedom” (p. 8).
That passage was the last I read, as it really seemed over the top. Nowhere that I know of does the Buddha say that jhāna states are stages of letting go. As far as I can see, they are a form of suppression (vikkhambhanappahāna, cp PsM 220.127.116.11), useful in focusing one’s attention on a specific object that will either allow for deeper absorption and temporary suppression of defilements or for lasting insight and understanding, depending on whether the object of attention is conceptual or ultimately real. This distinction is made quite clear throughout the Buddha’s teaching, as in the Sallekha Sutta, where the Buddha says:
“ṭhānaṃ kho panetaṃ, cunda, vijjati yaṃ idhekacco bhikkhu vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja vihareyya. tassa evamassa — ‘sallekhena viharāmī’ti. na kho panete, cunda, ariyassa vinaye sallekhā vuccanti. diṭṭhadhammasukhavihārā ete ariyassa vinaye vuccanti.”
“It may be found to occur, Cunda, that a certain bhikkhu in this religion, secluded from sensuality, secluded from unwholesome dhammas, should enter and settle in the first jhāna, accompanied by investigation and contemplation, born of seclusion, with rapture and happiness. Then, he might think thus — ‘I am dwelling in the cutting-off’. But in this discipline of the noble ones, Cunda, that is not called cutting-off. That is called ‘dwelling in happiness in the present moment’ in this discipline of the noble ones.”
And nowhere does Brahmavamso give backing to his statement that jhānas are stages of letting go. This was the main impetus in deciding to critique his book, and so I made plan to research the sutta I remembered as explaining the danger of attaching to jhāna and write a response to this, the first part of Brahmavamso’s work.
But I’ve been busy finding a place to live, so for the next three months, I kept the book with me, waiting for a suitable time. Finally, today I sat down and looked the sutta up in the DPR. I knew it had something to do with the relationship between jhāna and vedanā. A search for “vedana” and “jhāna” in the Majjhima Nikāya brought up the sutta I was thinking of, a famous one, the Mahādukkhakkhandha Sutta (MN 13). It is not as explicit as I remember it, but here’s how it goes. First, the Buddha asks “ko ca, bhikkhave, vedanānaṃ assādo?” “And what, o bhikkhus, is the enjoyment that comes from sensations?” Then he replies that it is the four rūpa-jhānas, since they lead to “abyābajjha” or “freedom from affliction”, which he says is the highest sensation.
Then he immediately states:
“ko ca, bhikkhave, vedanānaṃ ādīnavo? yaṃ, bhikkhave, vedanā aniccā dukkhā vipariṇāmadhammā — ayaṃ vedanānaṃ ādīnavo.
“kiñca, bhikkhave, vedanānaṃ nissaraṇaṃ? yo, bhikkhave, vedanāsu chandarāgavinayo, chandarāgappahānaṃ — idaṃ vedanānaṃ nissaraṇaṃ.
“And what, o bhikkhus, is the danger of sensations? That sensations are, o bhikkhus, impermanent, suffering and of a nature to change — this is the danger of sensations.”
“And what, o bhikkhus, is the escape from feelings? The leaving behind of desire and passion, the abandoning of desire and passion — this is the escape from feelings.”
It doesn’t really matter to me whether this says, as I think it does, that even the jhānas, associated as they are with sensations, can be a cause for desire and passion; Brahmavamso himself seems to me to be a good example, along with all of those meditating yogis in India, of someone who has let his attachment to jhāna color his perception. Again, I don’t mind that he has a different method of practice for realizing enlightenment, I just can’t let such things be printed unchallenged.
I didn’t read the rest of the book, it looks like it gets into practical details from there on in. He should have just started there, and maybe I would have read it, even though the next chapter is entitled “The Beautiful Breath”.
On the last page (p. 65), he quotes the Buddha from Dhp. 372, as his group of teachers are wont to do in support of their views, translating all the words except jhāna, which he not only doesn’t translate, but capitalizes as throughout the book:
natthi jhānaṃ apaññassa
There is no Jhāna without wisdom
paññā natthi ajhāyato
There is no wisdom without Jhāna
yamhi jhānañca paññā ca
But for one with both Jhāna and wisdom
sa ve nibbānasantike..
They are in the presence of Nibbāna.
He doesn’t translate Nibbāna either, but I think that’s to be excused, given the difficulty therein. No such difficulty exists, however, with the word jhāna. Indeed, this stanza shows the problem with his argument; jhāna, like paññā, should be taken as a quality, not an entity, and translated as such. “There is no absorption without wisdom” might be suited to the context, in a literal translation. The problem, of course, is this is a Dhammapada verse and, like all Dhammapada verses, it should not be taken as literal statement of doctrine like the suttas. The Dhammapada is poetry. The last two lines make it quite clear, as far as I can see, that all the Buddha is saying here is that if you meditate without wisdom, it is not true meditation, and if you have wisdom but don’t meditate, it is not true wisdom. But if you meditate with wisdom, you are close to freedom (Nibbāna).
And in the words of Forrest Gump, “that’s all I have to say about that.”