Richard Shankman: You seem to teach a form of jhana that is much more
readily accessed than that taught by many other teachers.
Leigh Brasington: We don't really know for certain what the Buddha was teaching as jhanas, although I strongly suspect that the Buddha was teaching deeper concentration than I do. Over time I have learned that there are a number of different methods. The methods generally have two things you can optimize -- but only one at a time. The first is the ease of accessibility and the other is the depth of concentration. So if the question is, why am I teaching what 1 am teaching as the jhanas, I would say that the level at which I teach them seems to be the level at which laypeople can 'learn them and use them effectively. In other words, I'm giving up some of the depth of concentration for case of learning. Given that lay people are going on ten-day, two-week, maybe month-long retreats, what
can be taught in that period of time that can enhance students' practice
by enhancing their concentration?
RS: It sounds as though you are saying that there can be a range of depth
of samadhi associated with any given jhana state. That what constitutes
jhana is only partially the strength of concentration, but more the other
LB: That's right. Although it would be good If' students were learning the jhanas at a deeper level, I'm not going to say, "Well, since you can’t do it at value 100, we’re going to dismiss anything you do at value 50 or 25.”
It turns out that any amount of concentration as a warm-up to insight is helpful. And given that students are stumbling into states that have the jhana factors and that they are generally stumbling in at approximately the level of concentration at which I'm teaching, it seems like it's a natural level to teach to laypeople. If someone wants to learn the jhanas at a deeper level, then they are going to need to dedicate more time to working with the jhanas, such as finding a long-term intensive retreat environment.
My hunch is that the level of concentration that the Buddha was teaching cannot be achieved on a retreat of less than a month and, furthermore, cannot be achieved in forty-five-minute sitting periods: My own experience has shown me depths of concentration that do more closely match the experiences described in the suttas, but these can only be attained with long sitting periods of three or four hours, and on a long retreat of a month or more.
RS: Why do you think there's so much disagreement about what the jhanas are and how they are taught?
LB: Partially, it's because there are three major sources of jhana material, all of which are incomplete. There are the suttas in which the descriptions of the jhanas are very simple. There is no-how-to in the suttas, thus leaving them open for quite a broad range of interpretation. Since Pali is not even a currently spoken language, many questions cannot be definitively answered. For example, what does "vitakka" really mean in the context of the jhanas? This leads to people interpreting this sparse material in different, yet internally consistent ways.
A second source is the Abhidhamma, which interprets the jhanas differently from what you find in the suttas. There you find a scheme of five Jhanas covering the same territory as covered by four jhanas in the suttas. Finally, you have the Visuddhimagga, which gives quite a different interpretation from what you find in the suttas; a much deeper level of concentration is being taught.
So we have different schemes in the literature, and it depends to some extent on where someone is learning the jhanas, whom they're learning them from, and what literature is being used in that tradition. This material has been preserved for up to 2,500 years, with people making little tweaks along the way and not necessarily communicating with one another, and that has also led to different interpretations.
RS: Could you outline basically how you understand what those differences are?
LB: In the suttas, the jhanas are described most of the time using a standard formula. The standard formula for the first jhana has four factors one-pointedness is not mentioned. There are just the four factors of vitakka, vicara, piti, and sukha.
The formula for the second jhana indicates that the vitakka and vicara fall away, and they're replaced with inner tranquility and oneness of mind; so now the concentration comes in and the piti and sukha continue. Thus the suttas describe four factors for the second jhana as well.
The third jhana says one remains imperturbable, mindful, and clearly aware. Imperturbability, mindfulness, and clear awareness have come into play, although what is not specifically mentioned is when they arrived. They're just there. The formula indicates that the piti goes away and the sukha remains; there is no specific mention of the tranquility or the oneness of mind, so since they aren't said to go away, one assumes that they remain, So you actually have many mare factors for the third jhana.
The shift to the fourth jhana is to a place beyond pleasure and pain, beyond gladness and sadness; so one arrives at a neutral mind-state. The sukha is obviously gone, since the pleasure has gone away.
When you look at this description, it's not really a factor-based description. The whole idea of a factor-based description probably comes from the Abhidhamma, where they started breaking things into pieces and analyzing them in a great deal of detail.
Now, there are a few suttas, perhaps three, where you can find five factors for the first jhana, where one-pointedness is introduced as a fifth factor, But these are in the minority, for sure, and tend to be what is referred to as "later suttas." On the whole, the jhanas are described quite differently in the suttas than in the later literature.
The word jhana means "to meditate," so when the Buddha tells his monks, "There are empty huts, roots of trees, go meditate," he's saying "go jhana.” Everybody was doing jhana. If you look at the Visuddhimagga, the description of the states has reached a point of extreme concentration. In fact, it gives the odds that only one in one hundred million, at best, can reach absorption. But in the suttas, you find large numbers of people becoming absorbed.
What's being talked about in the Visuddhimagga are very deep states of concentration. The definition of what constitutes a jhana has, in a thousand year period, progressed to a much deeper state.
We might ask how this happened. Think about who was preserving the Buddha's teaching during these thousand years. It's a bunch of guys hanging out in the woods -- no TV, no women. They've got just their minds to work with. And so they start working on the jhanas, And if somebody can take it a little bit deeper, obviously he's doing it "better." The natural human tendency is, "Well, if! can do it better than you are doing it, I'm doing it the right way, and I'll teach you to do it my way."
So I would guess that over time jhana evolved from pretty serious states of concentration to the extreme states that we find preserved in the Visuddhimagga. The Abhidhamma seems to be somewhere in between, but obviously getting very, very deep during that period, since people were able to see their mind-moments and so forth. THE EXPERIENCE OF SAMADHI by Richard Shankman, 2008, pgs 156-9.