SuttaCentral

Leigh Brasington and "Jhana-Lite" (Why there is no such thing as "jhāna-lite")

In this presentation of Leigh Brasington, one can see how he directly contradicts the Suttas. He makes incredible claims of having reached what he calls the “eighth jhāna” (i.e., fourth arūpa-jhāna)—all the while saying things like “in eight [eighth jhāna], you might have time for one simple sentence.”

As anyone who has read the Suttas knows, the jhāna factors (jhānanga) of thought-conception (vitakka) and discursive thinking (vicāra) both subside after the first jhāna. It is literally impossible for there to be thought-conception (vitakka) and discursive thinking (vicāra) in the second, third and fourth jhāna, let alone any of the four arūpa-jhāna.

His very words in this presentation of his directly contradict the Suttas. There is no such thing as “jhāna-lite”—as the foremost teacher of it is clearly confused about even basic aspects of jhāna and the Suttas—“jhāna-lite” is but a modern and false “redefining” of jhāna.

EDIT (highly relevant):

Here is something said by Leigh Brasington, in an interview with Insight Journal:

One thing I’ve discovered along the way is that the level of concentration that I get to on a ten-day course or a month-long course or that my students get to is probably not the level the Buddha and his disciples were getting to, because they were doing this practice full-time.

On long retreats, particularly during the two retreats I’ve done with Pa Auk Sayadaw, I was able to get deeply concentrated and then work with the same jhāna states I initially learned from Ayya Khema. The experiences I had during those retreats more closely matched the way they’re described in the suttas.

So then the question becomes, “If what I’m teaching is at a lesser level of concentration than what the Buddha was teaching, is that of any value, or should I just be teaching what he taught?” I’ve decided that, given that I’m working with lay students who come on retreat for ten or twenty days, it’s much more important to teach something that people can actually learn and use than to hold out for something that most people don’t have the time to properly develop. If someone wants to take their concentration to the level the Buddha was teaching, I can help with that as well. Basically, they just have to stay much longer in access concentration before moving into the first jhāna.

Source: https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/jhanas-lucid-dreaming-and-letting-there-be-just-seeing-in-the-seeing/

So, it would appear that Leigh himself says that:

  1. “Jhāna-lite” is different from jhāna described in the Suttas and practiced/taught by the Buddha. AND, that…

  2. “Jhāna-lite” is access-concentration (upacāra-samādhi).

5 Likes

Stock Sutta passage on jhāna—repeated throughout the Tipiṭaka (in this case AN 5.14):

Here, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhāna, which consists of rapture and pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by thought and examination. With the subsiding of thought and examination [avitakkaṃ avicāraṃ], he enters and dwells in the second jhāna, which has internal placidity and unification of mind and consists of rapture and pleasure born of concentration, without thought and examination.

Idha, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati; vitakkavicārānaṃ vūpasamā ajjhattaṃ sampasādanaṃ cetaso ekodibhāvaṃ avitakkaṃ avicāraṃ samādhijaṃ pītisukhaṃ dutiyaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati

—AN 5.14 (transl., Bhikkhu Bodhi)

2 Likes

One of the great misconceptions about meditation, coming from the commentaries more than the suttas, is that the formless spheres are formless jhanas. As far as I’m aware they are never described as jhanas in the suttas. They’re always ayatanas, or spheres.

Following this misconception is another one — that the only way to access the formless spheres is by going through the four jhanas. In fact, it’s possible to access them directly, without going through jhana. There are a number of sutta that describe going into the formless spheres without mentioning jhana.

Your comment seems to be based on those misconceptions, assuming that if the formless spheres are an extension of the jhanas, then they must continue the progression within the jhanas, including the stopping of verbal thought from jhanas two to four. But since the ayatanas are not jhanas, they don’t follow that logic.

8 Likes

I’ve always steered clear of Leigh Brasington. I think it’s an excellent idea to examine what Brasington has to say about Jhana and see if it aligns with the EBTs and have a discussion about it. At the same time, I just read the updated guidelines for this website and I think we can have the discussion and point out his contradictions while being careful to not judge his supposed attainments. Please correct me if I’m wrong!

3 Likes

I also should add that I’m perturbed by the tone of your comments, which I find uncharitable and dismissive. Surely you could have expressed the same doubts about his model without it appearing an attack on his person and his practice?

We’re not even supposed to discuss our own practice here. Maybe there’s a loophole that allows us to trash other people’s practice, but if so that would seem to be a bit of an oversight.

6 Likes

Hi @Bodhipaksa could your please provide some good references if possible? Thanks :pray:

3 Likes

For example MN121:

Furthermore, a mendicant—ignoring the perception of people and the perception of wilderness—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of earth. Their mind becomes eager, confident, settled, and decided in that perception of earth. As a bull’s hide is rid of folds when fully stretched out by a hundred pegs, so too, ignoring the hilly terrain, inaccessible riverlands, stumps and thorns, and rugged mountains, they focus on the oneness dependent on the perception of earth. Their mind becomes eager, confident, settled, and decided in that perception of earth. They understand: ‘Here there is no stress due to the perception of people or the perception of wilderness. There is only this modicum of stress, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of earth.’ They understand: ‘This field of perception is empty of the perception of people. It is empty of the perception of wilderness. There is only this that is not emptiness, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of earth.’ And so they regard it as empty of what is not there, but as to what remains they understand that it is present. That’s how emptiness is born in them—genuine, undistorted, and pure.

Furthermore, a mendicant—ignoring the perception of wilderness and the perception of earth—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of infinite space. Their mind becomes eager, confident, settled, and decided in that perception of the dimension of infinite space. They understand: ‘Here there is no stress due to the perception of wilderness or the perception of earth. There is only this modicum of stress, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of infinite space.’ They understand: ‘This field of perception is empty of the perception of wilderness. It is empty of the perception of earth. There is only this that is not emptiness, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of infinite space.’ And so they regard it as empty of what is not there, but as to what remains they understand that it is present. That’s how emptiness is born in them—genuine, undistorted, and pure.

Furthermore, a mendicant—ignoring the perception of earth and the perception of the dimension of infinite space—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness. Their mind becomes eager, confident, settled, and decided in that perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness. They understand: ‘Here there is no stress due to the perception of earth or the perception of the dimension of infinite space. There is only this modicum of stress, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness.’ They understand: ‘This field of perception is empty of the perception of earth. It is empty of the perception of the dimension of infinite space. There is only this modicum of stress, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness.’ And so they regard it as empty of what is not there, but as to what remains they understand that it is present. That’s how emptiness is born in them—genuine, undistorted, and pure.

8 Likes

Reflecting on the elements is one classic way of entering the formless ayatanas directly. Thanks for the link, Invo! Kasina practice is another way (and some of those involve the elements as well). And I’ve seen a description of going from upekkha bhavana into the formless spheres. I did a survey of this many years ago but I don’t have the references handy. The common factor (including the path through jhana, seems to be starting from a basis of upekkha).

BTW, the formless spheres and the jhanas being accessible separately solves the apparent inconsistency that the Buddha explored the formless spheres with Alara and Uddaka, and then later realized that jhana was the path to awakening. Presumably his two teachers were going straight into the formless spheres, rather than going through the jhanas first.

9 Likes

Let’s then all take a nice, relaxing breath and bring some goodwill back into our minds and online speech :slight_smile:

:slight_smile: :pray: :purple_heart: :pray: :yellow_heart: :pray: :slight_smile:

Another way to evaluate one’s meditation experience might be MN 14:

Sensual pleasures give little gratification and much suffering and distress, and they are all the more full of drawbacks. Even though a noble disciple has clearly seen this with right wisdom, so long as they don’t achieve the rapture and bliss that are apart from sensual pleasures and unskillful qualities [jhanas (arupas too probably)], or something even more peaceful than that, they might still return to sensual pleasures. But when they do achieve that rapture and bliss, or something more peaceful than that, they will not return to sensual pleasures.

[comments in brackets mine]

Whatever meditation system someone is following, they could evaluate it by seeing whether the meditation is working as a substitute for worldly pleasures.

Another aspect is just whether wholesome states of mind are increasing or lessening.

Edit: I.e. if someone is seeing a lot of benefit from their meditation practice, they should probably keep doing what they’re doing regardless of whether it perfectly fits the definitions or not.

Definitions are uncertain, wholesome mind states can be directly experienced :slight_smile:

11 Likes

That’s quite neat: indeed it would be a way to solve that conundrum.

1 Like

Indeed. Regardless of what we think about a person’s ideas, we do not have access to their mind or meditation, and it is uncharitable and unhelpful to speculate.

That would be because they are regularly presented as such in the suttas. Eg. AN 9.31 on anupubbanirodha “gradual cessation”, different aspects of the mind gradually cease as one progresses through the attainments. Or AN 9.32 we have the nine “gradual abidings” in the same sense.

This is a common shorthand for jhana.

Again, jhana by another name. See eg. AN 10.26, the kasinas are described in answer to a question that references jhana.

There are lots of words for the experience we usually call “jhāna” today. Samādhi, āyatana, sampatti, cetovimutti, vihāra, and plenty of others.

This is not a conundrum.

The passage explicitly states that, following the guidance of his teachers, he first mastered samādhi, in the context of the five spiritual faculties, which is elsewhere defined as the four jhanas.

12 Likes

Would you say that the ‘heart’s release by love’ refers to using mettā as a way to enter the jhanas?

I’ve always been a bit confused as to whether the brahmaviharas are meditation states in their own right, something that aids development of samadhi, something to be done after jhanas, or some, all or none of these.

5 Likes

One of our problems is, I think, that we have an overly-“engineering” approach to reading Suttas. And one of the little ironies of this is that such an approach is the root method of the Abhidhamma—for better or for worse. But those who try to ground understanding on a “Sutta only” approach all too often end up simply re-engineering, thinking they can do better. It rarely works out well!

Try not to think of jhanas as a “thing” and whether other “things” are the same “thing”. We’re talking about a spectrum of human meditative experience. Each of the descriptions of meditation in the suttas talk about this experience from a slightly different perspective. Are they all talking about similar kinds of experience? Of course! Are there, nonetheless, important differences in the experiences? Also of course! They are conditioned, and are affected by the things that condition them.

Look more closely at the language used to describe these various experiences. In the gradual training, the jhanas are said to follow from the abandoning of the hindrances (AN 10.99), including the following:

So abhijjhaṁ loke pahāya vigatābhijjhena cetasā viharati …
Giving up desire for the world, they meditate with a heart rid of desire
Byāpādapadosaṁ pahāya abyāpannacitto viharati …
Giving up ill will and malevolence, they meditate with a mind rid of ill will

The meditator then goes on to enter in sequence the 4 jhanas and formless attainments.

Now compare in the context of the brahmaviharas (SN 42.13):

evaṁ vigatābhijjho vigatabyāpādo asammūḷho sampajāno paṭissato mettāsahagatena cetasā
rid of desire, rid of ill will, unconfused, aware, and mindful. They meditate spreading a heart full of love

Now this is just one example which I found in a quick search; there are many other details like this. Clearly the jhanas and the brahmaviharas are described in similar ways.

But it’s not just the fact that the exact same words are used; that’s what an engineer looks for. In this case the words are the same; in other cases, the words are different, and an engineer might take this is a sign of different meaning. Which, in some cases it may be, in some cases not.

The more important thing is that the narrative context is the same. They are telling the same story (or a variation on it). Both these suttas tell the story of a person who first learns what is right and wrong, learns to understand the nature of the Dhamma, who learns and grows spiritually in their own way. And when ready, this spiritual growth prompts the arising of joy and tranquillity, which supports the development of profound meditation and fruits in wisdom and freedom.

Clearly the meditations developed along the way are of a similar nature. Are they exactly the same? Does one fit inside another, or the other inside the one? I mean, generally, sure? Or not? These questions are abhidhammic in nature, and the abhidhammas and commentaries expend a lot of energy to sort them out and define every point. But the Suttas tell us only so much, and human experience is vast and weird and unpredictable.

If we torture a text, we can make it confess anything we want. Better to sit down and have a cup of tea with it, and listen to the story that it wants to tell.

28 Likes

There most certainly isn’t!! Please read the extended FAQ and Guidelines Guide,or click on FAQ under the hamburger menu, if you are in any doubt.

7 Likes

This is interesting, I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s idea of ‘family resemblances’ (instead of looking for the ‘essence’ of something). For example, to consider a different field, when asking the question ‘what is art’ it might not be possible to find a single essence for all of art, and the family resemblances approach is more helpful.

Still, if the boundaries of these experiences are very fluid, it’s a bit difficult to reconcile this with stories of people going for interviews with meditation teachers and the latter assessing whether it was a jhana or not, and if so which jhana it was (1, 2, 3 or 4). Nor with the idea that there’s supposed to be a clear, discrete transition from the first to the second jhana, the second to the third etc. :thinking:

3 Likes

Ahh yes, exactly.

The role of a meditation teacher is to support and guide, not to award trophies. I’ve never in my life told a student, “Yes, you have X jhana!”, and I’d heartily encourage everyone to avoid teachers who do this kind of thing. It’s gauche.

I’m not saying that there aren’t discrete experiences. I’m saying that it’s unreasonable to imagine we can fully and perfectly define and assess the range and scope of people’s experiences based on the limited descriptions found in 2500 year old texts.

The Suttas help us to let go. Jhanas are one of the outcomes of letting go.

9 Likes

You can take anything as a “personal attack.” However, a personal attack (i.e., ad hominem) is criticizing another’s character—in other words, the person themselves—rather than criticizing ideas and content. I don’t do this here, but instead refute his ideas and literal words. I don’t know Leigh, and have nothing against him—but I do have an issue with false claims.

Um, no. The arūpa-jhāna are commonly described in a similar way as the jhānas in the Suttas. Even if they are named āyatana (rather than “arūpa-jhāna”) in the original Pāḷi, to say they aren’t arūpa-jhāna—or even jhāna at all—does not follow any form of logic whatsoever. It’s a complete non sequitur. See Sutta passage below.

(Also, it seems many of your points are beside the issue—due to how Leigh says “eighth jhāna,” it would seem like he himself is of the opinion that the arūpa-jhāna are subsequent to the four rūpa-jhāna.)

Uhh… wow.

Well…, it is the case:

[First jhāna]

  1. Again, bhikkhus, with the stilling of applied and sustained thought, Sāriputta entered and abided in the second jhāna, which has self-confidence and singleness of mind without applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of concentration.

  2. And the states in the second jhāna—the self-confidence, the rapture, the pleasure, and the unification of mind; the con- tact, 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 disap- peared. He understood thus:…and with the cultivation of that [attainment], he confirmed that there is.

  3. Again, bhikkhus, with the fading away as well of rapture, Sāriputta abided in equanimity, and mindful and fully aware, still feeling pleasure with the body, he entered upon and abided in the third jhāna, on account of which noble ones announce: ‘He has a pleasant abiding who has equanimity and is mindful.’

  4. And the states in the third jhāna—the equanimity, the pleasure, the mindfulness, the full awareness, 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:…and with the cultivation of that [attainment], he confirmed that there is.

  5. Again, bhikkhus, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, Sāriputta entered upon and abided in the fourth jhāna, which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness due to equanimity.

  6. And the states in the fourth jhāna—the equanimity, the neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, the mental unconcern due to tranquillity,1050 the purity of mindfulness, 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, [27] known they disappeared. He understood thus:…and with the cultivation of that [attainment], he confirmed that there is.

  7. Again, bhikkhus, with the complete surmounting of perceptions of form, with the disappearance of perceptions of sensory impact, with non-attention to perceptions of diversity, aware that ‘space is infinite,’ Sāriputta entered upon and abided in the base of infinite space.

  8. And the states in the base of infinite space—the perception of the base of infinite space 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:…and with the cultivation of that [attainment], he confirmed that there is.

  9. Again, bhikkhus, by completely surmounting the base of infinite space, aware that ‘consciousness is infinite,’ Sāriputta entered upon and abided in the base of infinite consciousness.

  10. And the states in the base of infinite consciousness—the perception of the base of infinite consciousness 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:…and with the cuttivation of that [attainment], he confirmed that there is. [28]

  11. Again, bhikkhus, by completely surmounting the base of infinite consciousness, aware that ‘there is nothing,’ Sāriputta entered upon and abided in the base of nothingness.

  12. And the states in the base of nothingness—the perception of the base of nothingness 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:…and with the cultivation of that [attainment], he confirmed that there is.

  13. Again, bhikkhus, by completely surmounting the base of nothingness, Sāriputta entered upon and abided in the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.

  14. He emerged mindful from that attainment. Having done so, he contemplated the states that had passed, ceased, and changed, thus: ‘So indeed, these states, not having been, come into being; having been, they vanish.’1051 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.

  15. Again, bhikkhus, by completely surmounting the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, Sāriputta entered upon and abided in the cessation of perception and feeling. And his taints were destroyed by his seeing with wisdom.

  16. He emerged mindful from that attainment. Having done so, he recalled the states that had passed, ceased, and changed, 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 no escape beyond,’ and with the cultivation of that [attainment], he confirmed that there is not.

— MN 111

2 Likes

I fully agree that speculating on others’ states of mind is something that is undesired. However, (in my defense) in the video and post, Leigh’s own words were presented and then contrasted with a Sutta passage—thereby showing the contradiction.

3 Likes

@samseva : your editing in response to the community comments is much appreciated.
Thank you. :pray:

6 Likes

In dn9 you can have sentence while in highest jhana

Dn9
Furthermore, a mendicant, going totally beyond the dimension of infinite consciousness, aware that ‘there is nothing at all’, enters and remains in the dimension of nothingness. The subtle and true perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness that they had previously ceases. At that time they have a subtle and true perception of the dimension of nothingness. That’s how, with training, certain perceptions arise and certain perceptions cease. And this is that training,” said the Buddha.

“Poṭṭhapāda, from the time a mendicant here takes responsibility for their own perception, they proceed from one stage to the next, gradually reaching the peak of perception. Standing on the peak of perception they think, ‘Intentionality is bad for me, it’s better to be free of it. For if I were to intend and choose, these perceptions would cease in me, and other coarser perceptions would arise. Why don’t I neither make a choice nor form an intention?’

1 Like