Jhāna Consciousness by Paul Dennison

I’m about midway through this remarkable new book by Paul Dennison, which reflects his ~60 years of dedicated practice of the samatha techniques of the Yogāvacara tradition he learned from Nai Boonman in the early 60’s.

I’m a little surprised that both this book and the activities of the Samatha Trust in the UK (of which he was a founder) haven’t received any mention here.

A lot of the experiential discussion (not to mention the detailed neuroscientific studies of meditators that comprise more than half the book) are well beyond my “pay grade” but it’s a privilege to read about the subtle and profound way samatha is taught in this tradition.

Practice aside, while Dennison is no firebrand - one wouldn’t expect someone steeped in samatha to exhibit such characteristics! - in his own quiet way he calls out modern vipassanā movements in Thailand and Burma for willfully almost extinguishing samatha practice and in so doing threatening the Dhamma with extinction.

On page 231 he cites Bhikkhu Brahmāli’s quote of this extract from SN 16.13:

“The true Dhamma does not disappear all at once in the way a ship sinks. There are, Kassapa, five detrimental things that lead to the decay and disappearance of the true Dhamma. What are the five. Heere the bhikkhus, the bhikkhunis, the male lay followers, the female lay followers dwell without reverence and deference towards the Teacher…towards the Dhamma…towards the Sangha…towards the training…towards concentration (samādhi). These are the five detrimental things that lead to the decay and disappearance of the Dhamma.”

On subsequent pages he details the “reform” movements in Thailand and Burma starting in 1833 with particular focus on the suppression and devaluation of jhāna by Mahasi Sayadaw and doesn’t hesitate to suggest that these efforts might amount to the pārājika offense of causing a schism in the sangha. I was reminded in reading some passages of Venerable Sujato’s pioneering book “A History of Mindfulness.” One thing’s for sure - Mr. Dennison makes any reader appreciate the preciousness of an approach to practice in which samatha and vipassanā are unified.

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Thanks for highlighting this!

That was Ajahn Brahm’s teacher, was it not?

Well, agitating for a schism is a sanghadisesa, not parajika. And to be guilty, one has to deliberately aim to split the Sangha by teaching what is not the Dhamma. That’s clearly not the case with Vipasanavadins; they may got some things wrong, but there is no doubting their sincerity.

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Thank you Bhante! And I need to apologize as on careful re-reading I misspoke about what Mr. Dennison meant. He says:

"Looking back almost two centuries, the formation of a second sect and ordination line in Thailand in 1833 under the label “reform” was a severe blow to the coherence and identity of the Sangha. Some have even wondered at how that action sits in relation to one of the most serious, pārājika or defeat, offenses in the Vinaya - that of causing a schism in the Sangha. After much reflection over thirty to forty years I believe those events set in motion a near destruction of some of the most valuable and subtle understandings of Buddhist meditation, in particular jhāna meditation.

I am not along in that opinion. Writing about the changing politics of Thailand’s Buddhist elite during the 1950s-1970s in a 2012 article entitled “The Changing Politics of Thailand’s Buddhist Order,” the scholar Duncan McCargo describes the disarray of the Sangha hierarchy in Thailand as being a consequence of Mongkut’s reforms dating back to the 1830’s, resulting in long-standing tensions between the rival Thammayut and Mahānikāy sects and “a dearth of moral and administrative leadership that paralyzed the Thai monkhood and rendered it seemingly incapable of reforming itself.”

He goes on to say that only later did he find out that similar reforms happened in Burma at the same time, partly in response to British colonial rule and Western scientific and Christian missionary influences, with Ledi Sayadaw spearheading much of the response. So while he levels plenty of pointed and well-informed (he even sat a retreat with Mahasi Sayadaw) criticism of vipassanāvada teachers he blames much earlier monastic “reforms” and sees modern Burmese and Thai vipassana as more effect than cause.

I had to look up an article on Nai Boonman in Tricycle magazine to answer your other question and it turns out you’re correct: he was indeed Ajahn Brahm’s jhāna teacher. The whole article is quite fascinating, with Bhikkhu Anandabodhi (aka Namgyal Rinpoche) figuring prominently:

https://tricycle.org/magazine/nai-boonman/

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Thanks for the clarification! It’s great that we have scholars willing to take the time to dig under the surface. What is very clear is that meditation techniques are not some kind of neutral or context-free expression of Dhamma, but very much spring from the needs of the time and place.

As it still is today.