My “Jhāna” Story

My Jhāna Story

I got into the Buddhist meditation circle in 1995. At that time, I was in the Burmese Mahasi tradition. So enthusiastic I was that I went for meditation retreats twice a year and tried as much as I could to cultivate awareness in daily life.

A few years later, I was introduced to the concept of jhāna. I was told that it’s a state of mental absorption achieved by concentrating on the breath until it produces a mental image of light which one then focuses on and gets absorbed into. I was also told that it’s unnecessary for awakening.

Soon after that, I learnt that ‘jhāna’ is part of the Noble Eightfold Path. That means it’s necessary for awakening. So, I was puzzled. I asked around and no one could give me a satisfactory answer.

Fast-forward to 2012. I had become a monk, had understood far more about the Buddhist scriptures and meditation, and was writing a book (which is now published titled What You Might Not Know about Jhāna & Samādhi). I had a debate with Bhante Aggacitta over what jhāna actually is. To understand what he thought jhāna was, I decided to tell him an unusual experience I had during my second retreat as a lay person.

“Ah, that’s jhāna lah!” he said.

I had doubts, and rightly so for three reasons:

  1. The experience was what people call a ‘meditation high’. If without wisdom, one can’t help but to crave for more of it, so much so that one can get very mad if one is prevented from having it.

  2. Despite repeated experience, I did not gain any insight or growth in wisdom. This contradicts what the early Buddhist scriptures say jhāna is meant to do.

  3. When practising as taught by Sayadaw U Tejaniya, I’ve had profound insights and growth in wisdom without having such a kind of ‘jhāna’ before, during or after.

So, what actually is jhāna? There’s too much to say to answer this question here. If you’re interested, please read What You Might Not Know about Jhāna & Samādhi:

  • ePub version: Download from MediaFire or Google Drive. (You need an ePub reader to view it.)
  • Printed version: Order it here. (The book is free, but you need to pay for the delivery service.)
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bhante, i found your book a fascinating and convincing read. thank you for taking the time to put it together. i recommend it to anyone seeking to make sense of the various notions of jhana that seem to be forward.

bhante, i don’t know of you’ve read ajahn sona’s essay on nimitta - it’s has some different but, i think, supporting arguments for your observations that come from a more historic angle of how Visd. and Vimm. notions of jhana developed:

The Mystery of the Breath Nimitta, Ajahn Sona

thank you again for your book.

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Thanks. I thought your definition of Jhāna is the same as Bhante Aggacitta’s. It seems that the picture is more complicated than I thought.

Even for the deep Jhāna side, some claimed Ajahn Brahm’s Jhāna is not the same as Pa Auk’s Jhāna.

I only scanned a few pages of your book, but it looks good so far. I use it to introduce people new to the Jhāna wars debate on the pictures of different Jhāna definitions.

Yes, I’ve read that many years ago

Thank you.

I always wondered how there were such irreconcilable views on something quite fundamental like jhanas. Now it makes sense, providing you are right - which I cannot judge.

You’ve read the book?

Yes, I read the whole book.
I have been meditating for a bit more than a year, thus I never tried to understand what jhanas are because it was clear they were far away from my path. Nevertheless, from what I read here and there I was aware of some of the problems you present, such as: in the suttas you can walk and get insight while in jhana, while respected and experienced teachers tell that you must be sit to get into jhana and the insight comes later after exiting.

Things like that (or which is the proper way to attend the breath) made me doubt on the current state of the Buddha understanding in our age. In other traditions, that also regard meditation as key to get out of Samsara, this doesn’t happen, whether they are Buddhists like Chinese Chan or not like Patañjali Yoga. Different teachers may have different approaches but the interpretation of their canon is shared and with no controversy regarding the key points.

To me, your explanations are clear and very well spoken, completely in the line of “they reconcile those who are divided, supporting unity, delighting in harmony, loving harmony, speaking words that promote harmony”.

In the epilogue you wrote

If I were to prolong this work, I may find further—maybe ever more convincing—supporting arguments to add. But I must stop;

It may be off-topic, but I would like to ask you if you have a more complete list of preferred pali-to-english terms translations - even if such choices were not as well presented like the ones you listed in the book.

Bhante, I read your book which I found excellent and refreshing !
I’m wondering if you’re familiar with Ajahn Nanamoli’s and Hillside Hermitage’s approach to jhana ? In some ways it’s akin to yours and in some others quite different, so you might enjoy reading a piece on it. You can read a short essay here :
https://www.hillsidehermitage.org/what-the-jhanas-actually-are/

Thank you Bhante for drawing attention to your book. It is an extremely useful summary of the issues.

I was a little disappointed that you did not include a reference to some of Ven Analayo’s recent papers, in particular:
“A Brief History of Buddhist Absorption”, Mindfulness, 2020, 11.3: 571–586.
The final text is not available for free but the draft submitted to the journal is linked to here:  Publications by Bhikkhu Anālayo. Specifically: https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/briefhistoryjhana.pdf.

Ven Analayo paints the same general picture of the various modern opinions about jhāna as you do. However, as you point out in your book (on the basis of his now quite old first book), Ven Analayo has a more traditional view of jhāna than those who coined the terms “sutta jhāna” and “visuddhimagga jhāna”

Ven Analayo’s opinion that there is not a substantial difference in depth of absorption between the jhāna described in the EBTs and the Visuddhimagga is, of course, shared by a number of modern teachers and commentators. This includes, for example, Vens @Sujato and @Brahmali.

However, as you say in your Preface:

I also suggest how we—in facing contradictory teachings on Buddhist meditation—can look at the larger picture and decide for ourselves.

Understanding the terminology being used by modern teachers and commentators is a key first step to doing that. However, I do feel that using the terms “sutta jhāna” and “visuddhimagga jhāna” for the non-absorbed and absorbed interpretations is unfortunate, given that not everyone’s interpretation of “jhāna as described in the suttas” is the non-absorbed one.

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I’ve come to believe it’s very poor terminology, precisely because it creates this false dichotomy that you describe, and because many people are not going to know that the visuddhimagga is the traditional interpretation of the EBTs, so they will think it’s something else or unrelated to the suttas, rather than the collected wisdom of a living tradition dedicated to safeguarding and interpreting the Buddha’s teaching.

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Bhante, I’m currently reading your book and I’m happy to have such a book in my hand ! Thank you so much for your work.

Just one thing for now Bhante.

Could you clarify a point in your book that I don’t understand please ?

You say first that concentrating on eating can’t be taken as a micchā-samādhi as concentrating on eating doesn’t lead to any wrong knowledge or wrong liberation. You say that miccha-samādhi in the Suttas, according to you, covers “a wide range of absorbed states”.

But then a bit further you talk about someone who has well practiced micchā-samādhi taking the example of a sniper or a psychopath.

So if they have a well-practiced micchā-samādhi, they should have also a wrong knowledge and a wrong liberation, right ? So is it the same or is it different from the concentration on eating ?

Or is there a difference between the concentration of sniping and the composure of the sniper ?

Where am I mistaken ?

Please forgive me for my lack of understanding, I’m not very intellectual.

Could you please help me to clarify this point ?