The Problem of Language and Direct Experience
What happens when someone reads the discourses about jhana and then compares that with what is described by ancient commentators? Because of the way the language is structured, it can make it seem as though the instruction is either this way or that way, but that it cannot be both. The inflexibility of language itself can get in the way of being able to express the true fluidity of an impermanent experience in flux that is liable to change at any moment. In an effort to define and describe an experience with any accuracy, language and the way it is used can make it seem as though the experience is written in stone, that there are no exceptions.
Yet, when one experiences the continuity of concentration (samadhi
) within the context of absorption attainment and makes a slight averting of the mind from an object to a subject, then how is one to describe such an event? Does the absorption break down the moment the mind changes from object to subject? This might depend upon how the event is perceived by the eye of the beholder. If the mind moves from unification on an object to unification on a subject and concentration remains strong, does that signal something that can be called less absorbed? And if so, by what criteria is it being judged?
All I know is that when I meditate anymore, what I'm more likely to pursue than anything else usually involves contemplation on a subject for purposes of obtaining insight. I may start out paying attention to the breath in order to develop jhana, but once I sense concentration having become established and absorbed, my attention switches to a subject for contemplation. My mind still feels unified on the subject of contemplation, and with strong concentration, it becomes easier for insight to arise during this contemplation.
Among the faculties that I notice during these contemplations are a mind that is incredibly clear, unblemished, malleable, workable, and established in mindfulness. It is able to be directed toward any object or subject whatsoever with relative ease. This sets up the condition for insight to arise. While in this state, I can hear sounds (although I may not avert the mind toward them) and not be bothered by them. Thoughts can surface, but be quickly banished if need be. The mind is extremely obedient to whatever direction it is given to execute. This reflects a mind that has let go of "hankering and fretting for the world." Nothing is disturbing this mind from accomplishing its intended tasks, and it is fully in the present moment, ready to be directed this way or that.
For those wanting a bit more direct confirmation of these abilities (while being established in absorption) from the discourses, we have only to look at the Anupada Sutta
(MN 111) in which the Buddha describes the venerable Sariputta's development of insight when he was training for the attainment of arahantship.
2. ". . . Sariputta has penetrative wisdom. During half a month, bhikkhus, Sariputta had insight into states one by one as they occurred. Now Sariputta's insight into states one by one as they occurred was this:
3. "Here, bhikkhus, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, Sariputta entered upon and abided in the first jhana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained attention, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.
4. "And the states in the first jhana — the applied attention, the sustained attention (examination), the rapture, the pleasure, and the unification of mind; the contact, feeling, perception, volition, and mind; the zeal, decision, energy, mindfulness, equanimity, and attention — these states were defined by him one by one as they occurred; known to him those states arose, known they were present, known they disappeared. He understood thus: 'So indeed, these states, not having been, come into being; having been, they vanish.' Regarding those states, he abided unattracted, unrepelled, independent, detached, free, dissociated, with a mind rid of barriers. He understood: 'There is an escape beyond,' and with the cultivation of that [attainment], he confirmed that there is."
5. "Again, bhikkhus, with the stilling of applied and sustained attention, Sariputta entered and abided in the second jhana, which has self-confidence and singleness of mind without applied and sustained attention, with rapture and pleasure born of concentration.
 The first five states in the list are the jhana factors proper of the first jhana; the following states are additional components each performing their individual functions within jhana. This minute analysis of mental states into their components anticipates the methodology of the Abhidhamma, and it is thus no coincidence that the name of Sariputta is so closely linked with the emergence of the Abhidhamma literature.
 All these terms signify the temporary suppression of the defilements by the power of the jhana, not the full liberation from defilements through their eradication by the highest path, which Ven. Sariputta had yet to attain.
 The "escape beyond" (uttarim nissaranam) here is the next higher attainment, the second jhana.
Of particular note from this passage are the two references to the "birth" of the absorption in the two levels discussed. In the instance of the first jhana, this absorption is said to be "born of seclusion." Seclusion, here, is explicitly stated to include seclusion from unwholesome states (a condition brought on in part by the attainment of jhana and its suppression of the five hindrances) and therefore the practitioner contemplates "ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world." This temporary suppression of defilements and worldly concerns is a crucial component of being able to attain the first jhana. It represents (or heralds) the strengthening of concentration around the object of attention.
In the instance of the second jhana, the absorption is said to be "born of concentration." This has to do with the dropping away of "directed and sustained attention" (vitakka
) as the mind's unification on the remaining factors of the absorption is consumed in the strengthening of concentration, which allows for the dropping of vitakka
. (Anyone who is paying close attention to what is being stated here will find a hint included about how to obtain the first jhana. The hint has to do with the "directing" and "sustaining" of attention. When the significance of this is realized, a practitioner can more readily attain the first jhana.)
In both instances, the point being made is that the strength of concentration needed in order to attain absorption is a crucial element. If that concentration has been previously cultivated and developed within a practitioner's practice, and the mind has been responding to this development and cultivation, then an adept meditator, with ample concentration and mindfulness, is able to simply avert the mind toward the attainment of absorption and accomplish that feat at will, thus to remain there as long as he wishes.
Also, it seems fairly obvious from the above quoted passage that insight can indeed be cultivated and developed from within a given level of jhana. Is the jhana practitioner able to mentally verbalize such insight? I really don't see why not (although perhaps in many instances, the verbalization may be superfluous, and therefore dispensed with, given the quickness of the mind's to ability pick up on non-verbal realizations as they occur). It is therefore not beyond the realm of reason to contemplate that skilled meditators may be able to accomplish quite a bit more than what seems possible judging by what is written in certain quarters, such as the following excerpt from Ajahn Brahm's book: "Furthermore, one should know that during any jhana it is impossible to experience the body (e.g., physical pain), hear a sound from outside, or produce any thought—not even a “good” thought. There is just a clear singleness of perception, an experience of nondual bliss that continues unchanging for a very long time. This is not a trance but a state of heightened awareness. I say this so that you may know for yourself whether what you take to be a jhana is real or imaginary."
The only ideas I agree with here being expressed with regard to the eight absorptions are the references to: "This is not a trance but a state of heightened awareness," and "There is just a clear singleness of perception. . ." If the state that one reaches, which one is attempting to define, can be defined in any way as being a "trance state" it is not jhana. Absorption is not analogous with "altered" states of mind, but rather, as Ajahn Brahm clearly states, with "heightened awareness." Such "heightened awareness" (in my experience) unequivocally includes being aware
that one is
AWARE! Which implies awareness of the body, mind (consciousness), feelings, perceptions, and volitions. However, this is true only for the traditional eight levels of jhana (the four material and the four fine material sense spheres), but not for the ninth jhana (the cessation of perception and feeling). In the case of the ninth jhana, I would have to agree with the severity of the description quoted above by Ajahn Brahm, namely that "it is impossible to experience the body (e.g., physical pain), hear a sound from outside, or produce any thought."
What I hope readers have come away with from this brief exposition is that the experience of absorption should be approached with an open mind (i.e. a mind that has not been preconditioned by conceptions that may or may not be an accurate description of the state). If one has never experienced absorption before (or at least were unaware of having done so), then they have no basis on which to make a comment about it. On the other hand, those who have yet to achieve the full heights to which a mature practice of absorption can take them would do well to reserve commentary (or at least to qualify their commentary if they are unable to confirm certain criteria based upon a still developing practice) until later when, perhaps, they may experience realizations they have yet to experience.
Two things about this subject seem certain: that there will likely continue to be confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the communication of the practice of jhana (at least in certain quarters), and that absorption attainment is a dynamic process, itself open to the same impermanence to which all other phenomena are liable, and therefore not immune from misperception. At least, that's how I perceive it at the moment. As for tomorrow, who knows. . . ?
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV