Finally, thanks to @daverupa for posting Ven. Anālayo’s work From Grasping to Emptiness — Excursions into the Thought-world of the Pāli Discourses II [PDF] (which is very good).
Notes: I have added MN 64 in brackets, where it was mentioned, but without the Sutta number. I also added a relevant passage of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of MN 64 at the end of the post—which describes the possibility of attaining Nibbāna from the first jhāna alone—since, while MN 64 is quoted a bit earlier in Ven. Anālayo’s work, this is not discussed.
There is also an important part, with specifications regarding the first jhāna in relation to the other three (with a quote from Ven. Anālayo), also at the end of the post.
Do keep in mind that this is based on Ven. Anālayo’s findings. While he is a highly credible and trustworthy source, a thorough investation of the topic and the presented information would also require reading the Suttas referenced.
- Only the first jhāna is needed for attaining Nibbāna. [however, quite important, do read annotation 1.] 1
Since some discourses describe the gaining of full awakening based on the first absorption (see MN I 350; MN I 435; AN IV 422 and AN V 343), it would follow that not all four absorptions have to be developed to win full awakening. All four absorptions would however be needed to gain the threefold higher knowledge (tevijjā).
- Sammā-samādhi includes other aspects other than jhāna.
Another definition of right concentration, found in a few discourses, does not mention the absorptions (see DN II 217; MN III 71; SN V 21 and AN IV 40). One of these discourses is the Mahācattārīsaka-sutta, a discourse which defines right concentration as unification of the mind (cittassekaggatā) developed in interdependence with the other seven path-factors (MN III 71). This definition highlights the fact that in order for concentration to become ‘right’ concentration, it needs to be developed as part of the noble eightfold path.
Judging from other discourses, the expression ‘unification of the mind’ is not confined to absorption concentration, since the same expression occurs in relation to walking and standing (AN II 14) or to listening to the Dhamma (AN III 175), activities which would not be compatible with absorption attainment. This suggests that this second definition of ‘right concentration’ would also include levels of samādhi that have not yet reached the depth of absorption concentration. In fact, the formulation of this second definition makes it clear that the decisive factor qualifying concentration as ‘right’ is not merely the depth of concentration achieved, but the purpose for which concentration is employed.
A similar nuance underlies the qualification sammā, ‘right’, which literally means “togetherness”, or to be “connected in one”. This thus indicates that the criterion for describing concentration as sammā, as ‘right’, is whether it is developed ‘together’ with the other factors of the noble eightfold path. Of central importance here is the presence of right view, as the forerunner of the whole path, without whose implementation concentration can never be reckoned sammā.
- Jhāna is not required for attaining Stream-Entry.
According to numerous discourses (e.g. AN III 423), the development of the path factor of ‘right concentration’ is indispensable for eradicating the fetters and gaining awakening. This brings up the question whether it is necessary to develop samādhi to the level of absorption in order to attain any of the four stages of awakening.
Concerning stream-entry, the qualities mentioned in the discourses as essential for the realization of stream-entry do not stipulate the ability to attain absorption (cf. SN V 410). Nor is such an ability included among the qualities that are characteristic of a stream-enterer subsequent to realization (cf. e.g. SN V 357). A necessary condition for winning stream-entry is a state of mind completely free from the five hindrances (AN III 63). Such a removal, however, can take place during walking meditation (It 118) or while listening to the Dhamma (SN V 95). This indicates that the ability to gain absorption concentration would not be required for stream-entry.
- Jhāna might not be needed for the attainment of Once-Return, although this being inconclusive.
The same seems to apply to the realization of once-return. Once-returners are so called because they will be reborn only once again in “this world”, i.e. the sensual realm. On the other hand, those who have developed the ability to attain absorption are not going to return to “this world” in their next life (AN II 126), but will be reborn in a higher heavenly sphere (i.e. the form realm or the immaterial realm).
This certainly does not imply that a once-returner cannot have absorption attainments. But if all once-returners were absorption attainers, the very concept of a ‘once-returner’ would be superfluous, since not a single once-returner would ever return ‘to this world’. That once-returners do indeed come back to ‘this world’ is documented in passages that report the rebirth of once-returners in the Tusita realm (AN III 348 and AN V 138).
Hence, although some once-returners may have attained absorption, this does not appear to have been the rule. The same then evidently holds for stream-enterers, in fact the most advanced out of a listing of stream-enterers, the “one-seeder”, will be reborn in the human world (AN IV 380), not in a higher heavenly sphere.
- The first jhāna is needed for attaining Non-Return.
When considering the realization of non-return, however, the situation seems to be different. Some discourses point out that the non-returner, in contrast to the once-returner, has fulfilled the development of concentration (AN I 232 and AN IV 380). This indicates that the difference between the two is related to differing levels of concentrative ability. Other discourses relate progress towards the higher two stages of the path, non-returning and full awakening, to having had the experience of the first or higher absorptions.
A particularly explicit statement can be found in the Mahā-mālukya-sutta [MN 64], according to which it is impossible to overcome the five higher fetters without undertaking the path required for such overcoming, and this path is contemplation of an absorption experience from an insight perspective (MN I 435). Without having attained absorption, such contemplation can obviously not be undertaken.
- Jhāna is needed for attaining Nibbāna. [the first jhāna according to MN 64] 2
The need for the absorptions in order to be able to reach full awakening is also stipulated in the Sekha-sutta (MN I 357). The same position is reflected in the opening section of a discourse that describes various approaches to full awakening, which are invariably based on the experience of absorption or an immaterial attainment (AN IV 422).
While the first jhāna might be thought as the easier jhāna, being the initial jhāna, it seems to not be how jhāna works—getting into jhāna is the difficult part, while progressing to higher jhānas, when one is already in jhāna, is of lesser difficulty. Meaning, that out of the four jhānas, the one that will require a lot of the effort is the first jhāna.
Here is a part from Ven. Anālayo’s From Grasping to Emptiness (p. 123):
Another significant indication related to the nature of absorption can also be gathered from the Upakkilesa-sutta. According to its account, before his awakening the Buddha had to make quite an effort in order to overcome a whole series of obstructions until he was able to attain the first absorption (MN III 157). This suggests the first absorption to be a state of mind reached only after prolonged practice and requiring considerable meditative expertise.
This impression is confirmed by turning to the cases of Anuruddha and Mahāmoggallāna. In the case of each of these two chief disciples the personal intervention of the Buddha was required for them to be able to attain and stabilize the first absorption (MN III 157 and SN IV 263). If Anuruddha and Mahāmoggallāna, who later on were reckoned as outstanding among the Buddha’s disciples for their concentrative abilities (AN I 23), had such difficulties, then it can safely be concluded that the first absorption stands for a level of concentration that requires considerable meditative training.
MN 64, Mahāmālukya Sutta — The Greater Discourse to Mālunkyāputta
(transl. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
This Sutta indicates that Nibbāna can be attained from the first jhāna.
“And what, Ānanda, is the path, the way to the abandoning of the five lower fetters? Here, with seclusion from the acquisitions, with the abandoning of unwholesome states, with the complete tranquillization of bodily inertia, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.
“Whatever exists therein of material form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness, he sees those states as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumour, as a barb, as a calamity, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as void, as not self. He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element thus: ‘This is the peaceful, this is the sublime, that is, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna.’ If he is steady in that, he attains the destruction of the taints. But if he does not attain the destruction of the taints because of that desire for the Dhamma, that delight in the Dhamma, then with the destruction of the five lower fetters he becomes one due to reappear spontaneously in the Pure Abodes and there attain final Nibbāna without ever returning from that world. This is the path, the way to the abandoning of the five lower fetters.