SuttaCentral

On the authenticity of modern meditation methods

@Ceisiwr

Yes, as would the Visuddhimagga.

Yes!

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Thanks Gabriel. I am interested in how you conduct your statistical analysis. Could you please describe the steps ? Do you have a database of all the suttas in pali or English ? Does it make an output in excel, etc ?
Or is it simply through the search function of Sutta Central for example ?
Thank you

Thank your for your explanation. :pray: I understand your point and the dangers involved, particularly if they teach wrong view.

However, wouldn’t this depend more on the attitude and motivation of the meditator? What I mean is, if a meditator realizes that they still get angry for example, or perhaps (to refer to your example) feel pride and conceit about their meditation attainments, wouldn’t it become clear that they have not yet completed what needed to be done (to paraphrase a sentence I read in the suttas) and that they need more practice?

In other words, if one is sincerely devoted to practicing the eightfold path and their aim is having a peaceful life (as opposed to attaining some meditation state, in the same spirit as someone in a career wants to obtain a promotion), then what you call your attainments in meditation is perhaps not so important. And perhaps this danger

might not be so real. To take an example, Ayya Khema taught jhanas differently from Ajahn Brahmavamso. Wasn’t what she taught a much more light version of them? Yet many people find her inspiring. What do you think? Do you see a danger in her teachings?

We can even put it more drastically. The student becomes Dhamma:

“I am a son of the Blessed One, born of his breast, born of his mouth, born of the Dhamma, created by the Dhamma, an heir to the Dhamma” (SN 16.11, MN 111, DN 27)

As to this…

There might be some vague canonical answer, but if I tackle it psychologically I could argue that when we experience we usually don’t experience on ‘solid ground’ - 99% is fantasy, hopes, wishes, fears, predictions, plans, interpretations, projections. Maybe we can call these ignorance or asavas.

Now imagine that there are registers in the mind where we can experience something ‘real’, something that is baked in to the hardware of the mind if we direct our attention in a specific way. These treasure boxes would be extremely valuable because they would grant us access to something mentally solid which is not the ever-shifting normal mind. Samadhi could be such a register, but also anicca-sanna for example. Because they would let the mind experience itself, as if instead of being absorbed by the movie you’d go and investigate the screen. A ‘hack’ if you will…

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If you think about how we learn a skill such as cycling, playing a musical instrument etc. the answer is obvious!
I consider Samadhi to be a higher variant of the Flow state of human experience. (this needs more discussion … maybe a separate thread. :thinking: :nerd_face:)
Understanding and practicing the steps of cycling, guitar playing etc. is one thing… that moment when its all assimilated and everything just happens spontaneously and effortlessly, with You and Instrument becoming one is another level altogether… the instrument in this case being the Mind.
:slightly_smiling_face:

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One relevant question is when on the path is jhana necessary. If jhana is needed even for stream-entry, your questions matter even more. However, I find arguments that jhana is not needed for stream-entry and likely not needed for once-return fairly persuasive. Stream-entry in the suttas almost invariably arises in a listener during or after a dhamma talk by the Buddha or one of his disciples (their mind needing, though, to be in a suitably receptive and ready state) and not by going off to do meditation. There is very little in the way of concrete association between the first two path stages in the suttas and jhana. However, there’s much to suggest that jhana is needed for non-return (and by implication arahantship). Bhikkhu Bodhi has a very nice article on all this: The Jhanas and the Lay Disciple According to the Pali Suttas.

On the other hand, the idea that jhana is needed for all path stages is fairly common, e.g. I’ve read arguments by Thanissaro Bhikkhu to this effect. The primary argument in this case is usually based on suttas in the Indriya Samyutta of the SN. There are suttas there ranking the various types of noble disciples (and faith- and Dhamma-followers too) according to their degree of establishment in the five faculties (including the faculty of samadhi), with increasing establishment correlating with increasing advancement on the path. All of these types of disciple are described as having some establishment in these faculties. The argument then goes that faculty of samadhi is jhana. There are certainly suttas that give the four jhana as the definition of samma samadhi. The Bhikkhu Bodhi article above does argue that this is probably too literal a reading.

Analayo’s Definitions of Right Concentration in Comparative Perspective (as just already linked to above by @Erik_ODonnell) above gives an IMO fairly convincing parallel-based argument against this line of reasoning. This fairly tight linkage between samma samadhi and jhana seems to be largely a Pali thing and hence quite possibly a somewhat later development. Taking the parallels into account, it seems there is likely room for non-jhana samma samadhi within the overall samma samadhi umbrella (maybe non-jhanic samma samadhi was more typical for the first two path stages).

My reading is it seems one can probably make quite a bit of progress without jhana: to stream-entry and substantial weakening of the fetters of sensual desire and ill-will. Maybe this progress in turn makes achieving jhana a lot easier. AN9.36 seems to indicate at least first jhana is necessary for non-return and complete elimination of the fetters of sensual desire and ill-will. Though there often seems to be a strong association with the mastery of all four jhanas and non-return. However, I guess with non-return, the hindrances and greed, hatred and delusion must have been weakened enough that mastery of the remaining jhana shouldn’t be at all hard (maybe explaining this close association).

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Interestingly Ajahn Brahm argues in Mindfullness, Bliss, and Beyond that achieving jhana makes it easier to achieve stream-entry otherwise you need an immense amount of faith in the Triple Gem. I’m sure this is tied to the conduct required to achieve stream-entry and jhana being so closely related. I don’t know enough to say it’s different sides to the same coin, but it could be!

IMO AN11.9 sounds very advanced to me (perhaps the absorbed state of an arahant). It seems to be drawing a sharp contrast between “wild colt” (untrained worldling?) and “fine thoroughbred” (arahant?). What about partially-trained or semi-wild horses!? :slight_smile: I’d be a bit slow to draw too sweeping a conclusion about all meditation for all levels from this.

Of the various “jhana war” questions, I think two have most implications for practice.

Regarding the degree of sensory perceptions in jhana, things really don’t seem clear-cut to me from what I’ve heard of the various arguments. I suppose if one thinks all sense perceptions must be excluded, then one implication is that anapanasati practice would probably be viewed as preliminary to jhana.

My personal take is take at least some internal body sense, particularly of breathing, should be present in jhanas 1 to 4. The reasoning that I base this on is that there should be perception/recognition of the various factors and properties of the jhana stages from within those stages (sanna is after all present). Cessation of breathing is described in several places as a property of fourth jhana. Breathing is also described as a thorn to the fourth jhana. I would find it a stretch to think one could be in fourth jhana and not be aware of this cessation of physical breathing (though what exactly that cessation means is another question). MN also describes the bodily formation (kayasankhara) as the breath so to me it makes a lot of sense to think that some awareness of this (and consequently of the first satipatthana) is still there through these states (whatever about external senses). That assumption implies that anapanasati practice should be compatible with jhana also. I don’t think that’s a very unusual view, e.g. even the Visuddhimagga links jhana and anapanasati.

I suppose on the question as to whether one should come out of jhana to do vipassana, there are clear differences in opinion between different teachers (no point pretending there aren’t), e.g. I think Ajahn Brahm’s approach has the meditator coming out of jhana first whereas, for someone like Bhante Gunaratana, the idea is to do vipassana within jhana (see here for his rationale for this view). One can hope these differences are really not significant in terms of outcome. If one uses the metaphor of the final destination being a building in the suburbs of a big city, perhaps one can picture one approach as first driving through the city centre before than heading out to the desired destination, and the other as just taking the ring road around the outskirts of the city. Maybe the routes taken are based on different ideas of which will be faster? Alternatively, I suppose it is still possible that both are just different. :man_shrugging:

There are a very small number of places in the suttas where the meditator does come out of jhana, e.g. at the start of the Udana the Buddha is described as coming out of jhana to contemplate dependent origination in both forward and reverse sequences (also for the progression of the Buddha up and down through the jhanas for his parinibbana). Though perhaps these are special cases. On the other hand, Sariputta’s experiences in MN111 are often used to argue that one doesn’t come out (though there are arguments about the lateness or otherwise of this single sutta).

Mostly, the suttas don’t say anything about this issue. One argument then for the idea that jhana and vipassana are part of an integrated whole is the absence of such mention of them being different (appealing to parsimony). On the other hand, absence of evidence does not necessarily imply evidence of absence.

It has also crossed my mind that the presence of sati and sampajañña as factors in the third jhana and sati in the fourth jhana probably need to be explained in any such theory (either way). Sati implies that in some sense relevant dhamma context has not been forgotten in the third and fourth jhanas. Sampajañña is defined in SN47.35 as:

“And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu exercise clear comprehension? Here, bhikkhus, for a bhikkhu feelings are understood as they arise, understood as they remain present, understood as they pass away. Thoughts are understood as they arise, understood as they remain present, understood as they pass away. Perceptions are understood as they arise, understood as they remain present, understood as they pass away. It is in this way, bhikkhus, that a bhikkhu exercises clear comprehension.

So is something like that happening within the third jhana or should the understanding of sati and sampajañña in this context really be more minimal? Am not sure the suttas really make this very clear. As I’ve said, hopefully this issue ultimately doesn’t matter, but it strikes me as possibly the most significant practical distinction in terms of the various schools of thought and approach to jhana.

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Am not sure. Sounds more like a difference in emphasis to me. No doubt, having jhana is very useful at any point. Maybe this is about the distinction between what is absolutely neccessary and what is helpful. Set the bar too low and some people may end up fooling themselves, but set it too high and some people may end up discouraged and give (and where best to set the bar may differ according to the person).

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About the four pairs of persons, the eight sorts of persons (cattaari purisayugaani a.t.thapurisapuggalaa), it seems the ‘details’ are not found in the SN/SA suttas. This is a question whether the Buddha has taught that idea of stages according to the earliest EBTs.

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I would offer an alternative perspective:
I think all we have in the mind is beliefs and interpretation. But what makes the differences between beliefs is if they lead to contradictions between expectations and reality; those contradictions being the source of dukkha.

Pañña would be the information that is presupposed automatically before intending and acting, but not any kind information, but the one that has been built by contradicting ignorant beliefs (which can be done by following the Eightfold Path) and by making the remaining belief armonic (not contradicting) with reality.

If we accept the premise of the samadhi of a thoroughbred, and also the fact that the Bodhisatta didn’t seem to fund useful neither the state of sphere of nothingness, nor the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, maybe one could infer that jhana would be something that does not need an specific and incremental focus in sense objects, and neither some total shut-down of sañña and vedana.

What are your thoughts one this idea?

I agree, all seems to indicate that. But what I cannot understand entirely is why is jhana necessary, and why couldn’t a once-returner just keep doing whatever s/he was doing to attain those fruits, assuming that s/he didn’t used jhana to achive those stages.

I’ve read some suttas (I cannot remember the exact location) where it is stated that a monastic destroyed the asavas by doing jhana. But how does that happen? If jhanas themselves are what allow to dispel avijja (and not just assisting the mind by calming and focusing it), how does that happen?

I think this last question is fundamental is we accept its premise, because it tell use that we can discard as not useful the kinds if meditation that do not allow directly the development of pañña.

After Jhana one’s faculties are exceptionally clear and bright. Also, after experiencing Jhana and then viewing it with right view afterwards insight is gained into the impermanence of even this high type of bliss and happiness. In turn this will diminish the fetters.

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I’d tend to think that this sutta is referring to an arahant. It reminds me of the following in MN22:

53“And how is the bhikkhu a noble one whose banner is lowered, whose burden is lowered, who is unfettered? Here a bhikkhu has abandoned the conceit ‘I am,’ has cut it off at the root …so that it is no longer subject to future arising. That is how the bhikkhu is a noble one whose banner is lowered, whose burden is lowered, who is unfettered.

54“Bhikkhus, when the gods with Indra, with Brahmā and with Pajāpati seek a bhikkhu who is thus liberated in mind, they do not find anything of which they could say: ‘The consciousness of one thus gone is supported by this.’ Why is that? One thus gone, I say, is untraceable here and now.

That a living arahant is traceless even in this life. All their proliferations are ended (only the case for the final stage of the path) and they can rest in an absorption clinging to absolutely nothing.

You then are bringing in the immaterial absorption. You also mentioned the " shut-down of sañña and vedana". I don’t think these have anything to do with jhana. I suppose I better give my pet theory on the relationship between jhana 1-4 and the immaterial attainments! :slight_smile:

Even following the general scheme in MN44, feeling and perception do not become quiescent or shut down until the tail end of the immaterial attainments or in the cessation of feeling and perception. The immaterial attainments seem mostly to be an optional extra in the suttas. There are also suttas implying that the majority of arahants did not have mastery of these.

The immaterial attainments are never described as jhana. The Buddha seems to have learned these from his teachers Uddaka Rāmaputta and Alara Kalama before he formulated his jhana system. I guess when he learned them the goal was union with Brahma or atman or something similar, which didn’t satisfy him. However, it seems that jhanas 1-4 are not needed to reach these states (Analayo in his Compassion & Emptiness book goes into this a bit; there are some suttas to this effect, linking the last three Brahmaviharas to the first three immaterial attainments; I’ve also seen descriptions where the fourth Brahavihara, equanimity, rather like the equanimity of 4th jhana, can be a launching pad into these states). Jhana doesn’t seem to be the only route into the immaterial attainments, which solves some sequencing issues in the Buddha’s development of jhana. Brahavihara practice seems to have predated the Buddha. I think that the Buddha probably then repurposed these practices (shorn of their atman associations) in his own system (and jhana became another way to get into these). I guess he thought they were useful in weakening the sense of self etc. He did seem to have a lot of respect for this former teachers (they were the first people he thought of when deciding whom to first teach the Dhamma).

Sensual desire is a very powerful force. In biological Darwinian terms, we have evolved for countless generations guided by this reproductive imperative, i.e. sex and reproduction. Our behaviour is guided by ingrained biological pleasure/desire and pain/aversion (boredom too) systems. IMO something powerful is needed to suppress all this, let alone remove such inclinations at the root. One aspect of jhana is to provide a skillful wholesome source of non-carnal spiritual pleasure (later jhana stages are described as beyond pleasure and pain). It strikes that such powerful states would be very useful in working with the fetters of sensual desire and ill-will. I can imagine that experiential insights alone might suffice for earlier fetters. These fourth and fifth fetters seem like really difficult ones to fully suppress or remove (though it seems likely this could be partially done without jhana).

Maybe removing craving and developing pañña are two sides of the same coin with things going both ways? Sometimes removing craving allows pañña to arise and the sometimes the development of pañña cuts off craving? Perhaps the relationship is a bit complex? :man_shrugging: :slight_smile:

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Thanks for this wonderful sutta. I’ve added “wild colt” to the Voice examples.

Basically, the sutta explains that meditating on large, longer-lived impermanent things (e.g., earth) is pointless and arises out of a craving for a longer life of rumination. Being reborn a mountain of earth is pointless because mountains crumble. Oceans evaporate, etc.

The Buddha then explains that one must meditate without dependence. Perceptions appear and disappear, so we meditate aware of the appearing and disappearing of perception, becoming in-dependent of what is perceived:

AN11.9:7.1: “Sandha, for a fine thoroughbred person, the perception of earth has vanished in relation to earth. …

Fortunately, if one’s head explodes from considering the above, simply memorizing and reciting the sutta itself is perfectly fine. Insight emerges with mindful memorizing and reciting.

AN5.26:4.1: Furthermore, it may be that neither the Teacher nor … the mendicant teaches Dhamma. But the mendicant recites the teaching in detail as they learned and memorized it. That mendicant feels inspired by the meaning and the teaching in that Dhamma, no matter how they recite it in detail as they learned and memorized it.

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According to SN 22.5-6 = SA 65; SN 35.99-100, SN 35.159-160 = SA 207, 206, samadhi ‘concentration’ is particularly mentioned as conducive to fully knowing-and-seeing the arising and passing away of the five aggregates, and the impermanence of the sense spheres. Samadhi is identified in the SN/SA suttas as a means to insight (janati, passati) (see pp. 47-8, 88-89; 268-269 in Choong MK, The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism).

As for the practice of samadhi, I think the practice of mindfulness by in- and out- breathing ‘anapanasati’, and the four stations of mindfulness ‘cattaro satipatthana’, shown in the SN/SA suttas are very useful in a practical sense (see pp. 225-227, 215-218 in the above-mentioned book).

Also, for the practice of insight on anatta, one needs to see clearly the connection between anicca, dhkkha and anatta, indicated also in the SN/SA suttas (pp. 52-60, particularly pp. 55-6 in the same book).

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We all love Ven Bodhi, but this essay is way off mark. There’s no difference in meditation between lay and ordained.

Suttas are records of Dhamma teachings, not of private meditation experiences. Such accounts are, moreover, thoroughly unreliable.

What is reliable is the central teachings on the path and meditation, where the Buddha invariably placed jhana in a central role.

Years ago, Ven Brahmali developed an argument based on the definition of samma-samadhi, and I was never very comfortable with it, for exactly this reason. It is brittle. I don’t know if he’d still stand by this today, though.

That’s why my argument in A Swift Pair of Messengers was based on a synthetic and philosophical perspective. You can’t understand the role of samadhi by cherry-picking passages, it has to be seen in the context of the path as a whole.

Oh, absolutely, it is purely personal.

I mean, yes if they realize it. Sadly, though, they often don’t.

There are a variety of ways this happens. Most commonly in the case of people who imagine they have jhanas or stream entry, they can easily explain away anger or conceit, after all, they are not yet fully enlightened.

As the conceit deepens, however, the very existence of these states is hidden. The human ego is extremely good at projection. If someone has narcissistic tendencies when they undertake meditation, they will in all likelihood end up believing in their own spiritual awakening against all evidence. Any issues become projected outside.

And the thing is, as we see demonstrated in the rise of narcissistic fascism in the US today, any monstrosity, no matter how perverse, can be readily externalized, and not only the narcissist, but their followers, just buy it all. Reality drifts further away, and the sole source of truth becomes the ego of the narcissist. Those whose own sense of self-identity is weak, malformed, or corrupt become magnetized and their world is the world of the narcissist’s ego, which becomes their only shared reality.

I haven’t studied her teachings in any detail, but from what little I know, I don’t think what she was teaching was jhanas. Is it dangerous? Who am i to say? I wouldn’t use that kind of language, but I would say it has the potential to lead astray.

The reality is, it is hard to find a reliable source of spiritual guidance in this world. We have to ultimately rely on our own experience and good judgment. Perhaps the most dangerous thing in spiritual life is when one thinks that there is some exterior source of absolute truth, and one’s own path consists merely of subjugating oneself to that.

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There is surely danger in lowering the bar for jhāna, but isn’t the reverse also true? People can get discouraged being told that not only do they not have it, they aren’t even close, even though they can perhaps get the beginnings of pīti to arise.

Is there any basis in the suttas for viewing the jhānas as a spectrum/continuum, where one can go lighter or deeper within a particular jhāna?

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We have it already with samadhi, which has the spectrum of the jhanas. You could also take pamujja as a pre-step to the first Jhana (see Practices leading to samādhi)

The texts are not particularly clear about how exactly to achieve jhana (and maybe this question indeed evades an ostentatious definition) but they are conceptually clear and consistent. It is what it is, and experience shows that most people’s meditation experiences are not life-altering or sustainably liberating in a dhamma sense. Why then to ‘lower the bar’ and give even more people the impression that they experienced something profound when what takes place in most cases is inconsequential neurological fireworks? Especially beginners tend to get overexcited about their experiences anyway, so it makes sense from a teaching perspective to rather err on the careful side.

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I do think so as well. It can lead to a situation like at the time of Buddhaghosa when he wrote that jhanas are incredibly rare, and this had consequences to the present-day with entire traditions such as the Burmese Mahasi/vipasanna movement disregarding the jhanas as necessary. IMO, the risk is to make it taboo. Actually the emphasis on jhanas of modern teachers such as Khema, Brasington, Vimalarasi, and even Bhante Sujato in his early talks, etc was a reaction to this state of affairs.

So there seems to be risks in both directions: Not talking about jhanas or saying they are incredibly rare states only achieved by a few rare monastics undermine faith in the suttas and the value of jhana and samadhi and can be demotivating; while lowering the bar can lead to overestimation of one’s own meditation and slow down spiritual progress.

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