Ven. Sujato’s A Swift Pair of Messengers is a helpful resource in regard to Vipassana/Samatha in the context of the EBTs.
Ven. Sujato’s A Swift Pair of Messengers is a helpful resource in regard to Vipassana/Samatha in the context of the EBTs.
For those interested in the issue of depth of jhana in the EBT, Ven @dhammanando, currently offline for the rains retreat, collected a list of useful SuttaCentral threads on Jhana here: Jhana - Page 3 - Dhamma Wheel
He notes that in these threads we see:
Sylvester, Sujāto and Brahmali (in effect representing the Theravada position as it was at the time of the Third Council), and those of Frank and Silence (in effect representing the position taken at the same council by the Pubbaseliya school).
As at the Third Council, both sides believe their position to be the correct reading of the suttas and neither side is basing its case on later works like the Visuddhimagga.
Hearing sounds in jhāna
It would be swell if you could tell us which ones are those.
Very kind indeed.
I may suggest, e.g., for the practice of samadhi, see pp. 225-227 on mindfulness by in- and out- breathing ‘anapanasati’, and pp. 215-218 on the four stations of mindfulness ‘cattaro satipatthana’; and for the practice of anatta, see pp. 52-60 on seeing things as they really are ‘yathabhutam’, in the following book based on the SN/SA suttas:
The Fundamental Teaching of Early Buddhism by Choong Mun-keat.
Bhikkhu Analyo has a recent paper that discusses jhāna.
Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall. This is a small part of the article that addresses the issue of whether the Visuddhimagga significantly redefined jhāna.
There can be little doubt that the way of developing absorp-
tion meditation described in Theravāda exegesis, in particular
in the important Theravāda path-manual, the Path of
Purification by Buddhaghosa, employs vocabulary unknown
in the early discourses and differs from them in various re-
spects. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the resul-
tant experience must be substantially different from the type of
absorption envisioned in the early discourses.
The assumption that the actual results of such practice dif-
fer substantially finds expression in contrasting the
“Visuddhimagga jhāna,” referring to a type of absorption en-
visaged in Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification, with “sutta
jhāna,” sutta being the Pāli term for “discourse” and here
serving to indicate the type of absorption reflected in the dis-
courses. This involves a change of terminology compared to
the precedent set by Mahāsi Sayādaw. What he designated as
tranquility-absorption, samatha jhāna, now comes under the
heading of Visuddhimagga jhāna, and his insight-absorption,
vipassanā jhāna, is now referred to as sutta jhāna.
A significant difference is that whereas Mahāsi Sayādaw’s
vipassanā jhāna designated the experience of insight medita-
tion as clearly distinct from the type of absorption described in
the early discourses, the corresponding sutta jhāna is now
believed to have been the type of absorption originally taught
by the Buddha. Based on this assumption, Brasington (2015,
p. 165) argued that
It seems after the Buddha’s death, the monks began a
slow process of redefining just what constitutes these
states … When we look at the jhānas as described in the
Abhidhamma, which was composed some one to
two hundred or more years after the Buddha’s death,
what we find being described are states of much deeper
absorption … By the time of the Visuddhimagga, some
eight hundred plus years after the Buddha’s death, the
jhānas had become redefined to such an extent that it
was extremely difficult to learn them … Since the num-
ber of people who could actually attain Visuddhimagga-
style jhānas was quite small, the teaching of jhānas be-
came more and more neglected in favor of ‘dry
insight’—insight meditation without the preliminary
Brasington (2015, p. 167) proposed the following possible
reasons for this development:
My best guess is that the forest monks in the generations
after the Buddha’s death basically had nothing much to
do but sit around and meditate. With this deeply dedi-
cated practice, some of them discovered these deeper
states of absorption but failed to recognize them as not
being what was talked about in the suttas … All this has
had the unfortunate side effects of not only failing to
understand what the Buddha was experiencing and
teaching, but also of redefining jhānic concentration to
such an extreme depth that almost no one could experi-
ence it or use it. The sutta jhānas, which far more people
could attain and use, fell into disfavor and were mostly
The position taken in this way implies that the monks who
lived after the Buddha attained substantially deeper levels of
concentration than the Buddha himself and his personal disci-
ples had ever been able to reach. In other words, abilities in
absorptive concentration gradually increased over the centu-
ries, allowing for the posited development from the shallower
levels of absorptive concentration that the Buddha experi-
enced after a sustained struggle to the much deeper absorp-
tions known by the time of Buddhaghosa. Moreover, whereas
the Buddha and his accomplished monastic disciples had to
strive hard to gain these shallower absorptions, nowadays lay
meditators achieve the same quite easily.
Pace Bhikkhu Analayo, I strongly disagree with this characterization of Samatha jhana as “deeper” than vipassana jhana. Vipassana Jhana is radically deeper, broader and more profound than simply being absorbed for some time.
The problem here is that there are indeed shallow samatha states which some people mistake for vipassana jhana, either when they hear others describing it (“you mean you could still walk around and do stuff?”) or when they themselves experience it (“I feel so different! I must be enlightened!”)
But, make no mistake, real vipassana jhanas are profound, prolonged and earth(ie: delusion)-shattering, much more so than simply falling into some nimita for a while
Even the Visuddhimagga, the proponent of “absorption” jhana, agrees that the “insight knowledges” are higher than samatha! If the Visuddhimagga really thought that absorption was the last part of the path (samma samādhi), they would have put it at the end! Instead, the Vsm’s description of samatha jhana is in the middle! The minute, abhidhammic fine detail at the end is reserved instead for carving up the vipassana jhanas into eleven sub-jhanas. It just calls them vipassana “knowledges” rather than vipassana “jhanas” because it’s slicing them into 11 instead of 4 cuts, that’s all. But it’s absolutely describing the “samma samādhi” jhanas at the end of the Path of Purification.
I’m quite surprised that Bhikkhu Analayo seems to have missed this very basic point: that even the Visuddhimagga doesn’t believe absorption is the “deep” end of the path…
I’d like to read this excerpt from Bhikkhu Analayo in context, to see where he’s going with this, what his ultimate conclusions came to.
I find this discussion very interesting because it reflects the different views and opinions I have heard and read about deep concentration (or stillness?) form different mediators.
Am I correct in understanding that the above is Analyo’s own view? (Or was he just paraphrasing Brasington in the sentence I copied above?)
From my understanding of reading the article, the implication is that the view that “later monks developed deeper states of meditation than the Buddha” is untenable and perhaps even slightly ridiculous.
E.g. from the same article:
The identification of meditation experiences in which some absorption factors are weakly present as full-fledged absorption, in spite of its attraction among prospective disciples, has the net result of potentially foreclosing meditative progress to genuine absorption. This can to some extent be seen reflected in a practical advice offered by Catherine (2008, p. 155): “should you choose to apply the term jhana liberally to states lightly saturated by jhanic factors, please don’t presume such states represent the full potential of jhana.” When meditators, who are only experiencing absorption factors in a state of mind corresponding to what exegetical texts call “access concentration,” believe to have already mastered the four absorptions, this can have the result that they settle for that much instead of deepening their concentration to the level of actual absorption attainment.
I am just learning about meditation but I am not sure this really makes much sense, because meditation becomes very pleasant and besides you loose more or less your ability to choose as you go deep inside, so the idea of someone having a very pleasant experience and choosing (if that is possible) to come out of meditation instead of going deeper is not easy to understand.
The nun Dhammadina explained it this way:
MN44:18.1: “But ma’am, how does someone emerge from the cessation of perception and feeling?”
MN44:18.2: “A mendicant who is emerging from such an attainment does not think: ‘I will emerge from the cessation of perception and feeling’ or ‘I am emerging from the cessation of perception and feeling’ or ‘I have emerged from the cessation of perception and feeling.’ Rather, their mind has been previously developed so as to lead to such a state.”
The path is conditioned by prior intention. As a rock thrown eventually hits the ground, so too does emergence from the deepest meditation happen as conditioned.
Here is another article by Ven. Analayo that might be of interest
Thank you for the sutta reference and the explanation. So the other factors of the eightfold path condition the depth of your samadhi.
In this case too I would say that this danger
is not a real danger. Even if a nun mistakenly believes that she has already mastered the four absorptions, if she still has defilement she will realize it and so she will continue to practice the eightfold path and her meditation will deepen as a consequence. Even if she did not realise that she had defilements because for example they are too subtle, she would still continue to practice the path, and so the meditation will be a consequence of that. In other words, I don’t see how believing or not believing that you have already mastered the absorptions makes much difference to you.
There is the issue of how many lives of additional suffering one requires…
DN28:10.8: The pleasant practice with slow insight is said to be inferior because it’s slow. But the pleasant practice with swift insight is said to be superior both ways: because it’s pleasant and because it’s swift.
good point But actually, come to think of it, believing that you have already mastered the absorptions might actually be beneficial to your practice!! I just thought of that because I remember watching a video with a guided meditation, I think Ajahn Brahmavamso was guiding the meditation and there was an Australian politician with him. Anyway, the Ajahn said: imagine that you are the Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi tree, you have done all that needed to be done, nothing more needs to be accomplished. That was a way to put you in a frame of mind of peace and stillness, because you feel that you don’t need to accomplish anything any more.
So actually believing, even though you are wrong, that you have already attained the jhanas or whatever, is actually good for your meditation, according to this video I’ve seen! It must be in the Youtube vides of the BSWA.
Thank you for these links! I’m having a great time wading through all the material! In fact, I just realized that I’ve spent the last 1 hour glued to the screen… my mind was so engrossed in the discussions, I failed to hear the 15 min Mindfulness interval chimes, completely lost all touch with the sensations in the body (my back is now protesting!) and also with taste (my throat is parched) and smell (is that dinner cooking?)!! No, No - I was not in Jhana.
Which brings me to the notion … why can’t both parties be right in these discussions of Jhana? Perhaps the extent to which bodily sensation switches off just depends on the extent of immersion of the Mind. As common everyday experience shows, the mind is fully capable of switching off various parts of the sensory system as long as it is suitably focussed on something. A suitably strong stimulus might be able to break through the immersion when its shallow… that is why the idea of sound being a ‘thorn’… but not always… hence the way in which the Buddha recounts the way in which he remained oblivious of the lightning. That story has the sense of being something special, not everyday … why would the Buddha recount his experience if every meditating monk in first Jhana routinely became similarly oblivious of loud sound?
Just my two cents… I am still on the fence here!
The SN shows the least overlap of jhana/samadhi and anatta. But in none of these suttas does the Buddha actually teach both frameworks together:
The AN contains four more direct exceptions to the rule:
In the MN it can be expected to find more exceptions because the MN mixes more content from different sources. Overall we have five MN suttas which include some kind of overlap…
wrong immersion right immersion
SN45.12:2.8: There’s feeling conditioned by wrong immersion and by the stilling of wrong immersion, by right immersion and by the stilling of right immersion.
I don’t think Ven Analayo is saying that jhana is more profound than insight (I’m sorry I can’t just post the entire article) he’s simply reflecting on modern discussions of what depth of absorption is actually jhana (as in the thread list from Ven Dhammanando). And I agree that his equating of “sutta jhana” with what Ven Mahasi was pointing to is a little unconvincing. As you say, what is sometimes called “sutta jhana” may well be what you call “shallow samatha states”. My overall impression of his position is that Ven Mahasi’s conclusions are firmly grounded in the texts (which in his case, of course, includes the Commentaries and the Visuddhimagga), but that at least some of the “sutta jhana” ideas are wishful thinking.
Here is the conclusion of the article:
From an overall perspective, it is worthy of note that each of
the positions taken in the course of the development sketched
above has had some unintended side effects. The firm position
taken by traditional monastics in support of the need for ab-
sorption, in their debate with the proponents of dry insight
meditation, has elicited an undermining of the very notion of
what absorption entails. This has and still is of pervasive in-
fluence in meditation circles. As a result, even those sincerely
interested in learning to cultivate absorption are often at a loss
to know who teaches genuine absorption attainment.
The creation of the notion of insight-absorption (vipassanā
jhāna) to defend the validity of dry insight, despite its success
in the debate, has unwittingly triggered the emergence of se-
rious contestants for meditation disciples. The prestigious la-
bel of “absorption,” the supposed intrinsic potential of absorp-
tion to produce insight, and the encouragement for meditators
to cultivate concentrative types of joy and happiness from the
outset result in an attractive presentation that promoters of dry
insight find difficult to compete with.
The identification of meditation experiences in which some
absorption factors are weakly present as full-fledged absorp-
tion, in spite of its attraction among prospective disciples, has
the net result of potentially foreclosing meditative progress to
genuine absorption. This can to some extent be seen reflected
in a practical advice offered by Catherine (2008, p. 155):
“should you choose to apply the term jhana liberally to states
lightly saturated by jhanic factors, please don’t presume such
states represent the full potential of jhana.” When meditators,
who are only experiencing absorption factors in a state of
mind corresponding to what exegetical texts call “access con-
centration,” believe to have already mastered the four absorp-
tions, this can have the result that they settle for that much
instead of deepening their concentration to the level of actual
As for psychological research on meditative experiences,
mentioned at the outset of this article, the historical develop-
ment sketched here implies that there are a range of quite
different experiences promoted under the label of “absorp-
tion” by various practitioners and teachers. It follows that, as
a precondition for any research, there is a need to ascertain
first of all what type of absorption a practitioner claims to have
reached. For example, Yates and Immergut (2015 p. 386) dis-
tinguished absorptions into three types: “whole-body jhānas,”
glossed as “very lite,” “pleasure jhānas,” explained to be
“lite,” and “luminous jhānas,” with the last being of the “deep”
type among these three. Although the terminology employed
is not necessarily ideal, the idea that there are substantially
different types of absorption constructs in current meditation
circles is certainly meaningful and should be taken into ac-
count in future research.
That is Ven Analayo’s paragraph. I italicized the paragraphs he quoted from Brasington.
I think that this is a reasonable approach:
However, I would be inclined to rephrase as:
The important thing is for a practitioner to recognise that they still have defilements, so that they will continue to practice the eightfold path and their meditation will deepen as a consequence. …
Isn’t that just the danger of debate!! Sixty potential minutes on the cushion down the drain.
I wonder this too.
After all there must be some sort of variation among those who are successful (for eg, if both Sayadaw Mahasi and Ajahn Chah were successful in their quests).
If it only comes from attachment to views …