I was recently introduced to the very interesting book "Reexamining Jhana: Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology, written by Grzegorz Polak.
You may have already heard or even read this book as it has been around for a while (since 2011). I was told that Polak is a Buddhist himself, and hence decided to investigate.
In a nutshell, the book message is:
Polak sees a problem in Buddhism with regards to its origins. He understands this problem is not widely recognised among Buddhist and sees it as something that should be taken seriously.
He is of the view that “Early Buddhism was not simply a philosophical doctrine or a set of meditative practices. It was a soteriological system, in which all the above mentioned constituents were linked in an organic way and only in this connection, they gained their true meaning”
In the specific case of Theravada he sees “fundamental discrepancies between the orthodox Theravāda doctrine (summarized in his view in the Visuddhimagga), and the earliest available teachings supposedly delivered by the Buddha, which are contained in the Suttapitaka of the Pāli Canon.” He also understands “major internal discrepancies are also present in the Suttapitaka itself.”
Furthermore, he narrows to the topic of controversies “connected with the status and the role of the meditative state known as ‘jhāna’.”
In chapter 1 he presents what he calls the “jhāna controversy”, which sets the stage for the rest of the book. In this first chapter he does as well
- seek to gauge earliness of specific jhana-related suttas;
- presents the view that early buddhist jhanas did not imply the cessation of senses and brings to the spotlight two suttas: the MN38 and the AN11.9
- links the method of meditation criticized by the Buddha in the AN11.9 with yogic meditation
- makes the point that early Buddhist jhāna was not originally a yogic type of meditation, and was in direct opposition to yoga
- he goes on and questions which sutta contains the original account of the boddhisatta’s road to awakening and points to the MN85 as being the true account, and hence a trustworthy source for understanding of the place and idea of jhana of early buddhism
- He also discards the MN26, questioning specifically the doctrinal relevance this sutta gives to the state of cessation of perception and feeling (saññāvedayitanirodha)
In the first half of chapter 2 he focuses mostly on questioning the relevance of the jhana / meditation systems/modes taught/described in the Visuddhimagga:
- he rules out kasina as having anything to do with jhana
- he questions the relevance of nimittas saying that most of arguments for it are supported by a misinterpretation of the SN 47.8, and calls the SN22.49 to support this understanding.
- he does as well point that the vitakka vicara of the Visudhimagga has little to do with the vitakka vicara of the suttas, and point similar issues with the relationship of jhana factors and the nivaranas
- most importantly, he draws the thesis that somehow the anapanasati that ended up encoded in the Visudhimagga (and possibly was practiced by the time of its compilation) had become a “yogic meditation technique”
- and that the state of cessation of perception and feeling only gained relevance because the original meaning of jhana had been lost sometime in time.
In the second half of chapter 2 he goes on and question how authentic can the meditative traditions of the Theravada be considered:
- he suggest that a meditation tradition in Theravada was lost and what is found nowadays is mostly traceable to the nineteenth century
- and this has much to do with the understanding the essence of Dhamma (and any hope to fulfill the path) would have been lost by the the fifth century after the Buddha’s passing away, as propheticised in AN8.53 and DN26
In my view, the most promising element of his conclusion chapter (“Perspectives”) is found in these paragraphs:
I will attempt to investigate the early Buddhist notion of liberating insight/ knowledge, conveyed through various terms such as: paññā, aññā, ñānadassanā, vipassanā.
I believe that the early Buddhist did not see liberating insight as a psychological phenomenon that takes place on the ‘field of consciousness’, ‘inside the mind’; that psychological phenomenon of ‘understanding’ is something that we can experience, be aware of.
Liberating insight was not seen as some sort of deliberately undertaken activity or as a form of conscious, active thinking. Such a view is a misconception, a theoretical proliferation, if we are to use an early Buddhist term.
One can only speak properly about liberating insight in connection to its effects; without them, liberating knowledge is an empty word. If one no longer clings to the objects of the six senses, no longer reacts to them with attachment or aversion, then we may say that he has achieved full insight into their impermanent nature.
He also has some very interesting view on the proper understanding of the satipatthana formula:
What is then the meaning of the four satipatthānas?
I will attempt to show, that this formula was supposed to denote four different aspects of the same practice: six-fold body as the field of practice (kāyānupassanā), vēdanas caused by the contact of the senses with their respective objects as the ultimate objects of contemplation (vedanānupassanā), the changed mind-states connected with this practice (cittānupassanā) and the progress from the nīvaran. as towards the bojjhangas (dhammānupassanā).
Each anupassanā was described in the terms of successive stages of progress in meditation. In addition to that, an additional general formula was applied to each of the satipatthānas stating that one should arrive at the stage ‘there is kāya/vedanā/citta/dhamma’ and that this vision leads to liberation through non-clinging.
On the other hand, I think that picking the meditation manual of a modern yoga guru (Swami Rama) to support his view that the painful practices of the boddhisatta described in the suttas were yogic and not Jain practices is a little tricky.
We know that sallekhana or santhara is a established practice of the Jains up to the point the gradual abandonment of water and food, culminating with the giving away of breathing.
If you search youtube for these words you may even watch a video of a Jain elder doing it and then being worshiped as a arihanta / arahant. I am very confident it was this practice that the boddhisatta pursued and almost resulted in his death!
I searched SuttaCentral’s Discourse and apparently no one has previously mentioned this author or his hypothesis.
Hence I start this post aiming at discussing his thesis / findings. Unfortunately, the book is not freely available. Aware of copyrights, I will avoid as much as possible overquote his work and hope others have already got access to the book.
As well, I wonder whether this could be an opportunity of inviting Polak himself to join the conversation here and walk us through the highlights of his understanding and hints of what may have been the jhana practice of early Buddhism.