I just finished reading Ayya Khema’s autobiography “I Give You My Life”. Amazing book. However, there’s something that stood out to me in particular.
In one chapter, Ayya describes going to see Ven. Naññarama Thera to confirm her Jhana attainments. She says she had been practicing the absorptions for many years at that point. She describes each Jhana from the 1st to the 7th to Ven. Naññarama Thera. She doesn’t actually describe the Jhanas in the book, she just says that she described them in this situation. When she gets to the 8th, she decides that it’s better to make absolutely sure she’s describing it correctly, so she goes through all 8 Jhanas within a matter of minutes. Then she describes the 8th Jhana to the senior monk. After that, her Jhana attainments are confirmed, and she is told that it is her duty to teach these absorptions in the west.
I was quite surprised by this. I’ve never seen a reputable teacher go into this much detail about her Jhana attainments. It’s still not much detail, but it’s a heck of a lot more than I’ve heard from any other teacher of her calibre.
Other threads on the topic of attainment claims seem to conclude that claims of Jhanas are a no-no in general, and especially for monastics. Are there situations where it may be permissible in some form, such as in the case with Ayya Khema? Does it count as an attainment claim if a monastic describes describing the Jhanas to another monastic? Where exactly is the line drawn when it comes to discussing Jhana attainments?
TL;DR Ayya Khema described describing Jhanas to another monastic in her autobiography, and now I’m wondering about the implications of Jhana claims in general.
You may be interested in this retreat she gave in 1991, where she describes the sequence of Jhanas. It is done from the perspective of the suttas, and not from personal experience. I suppose what sets it apart though, is the extent to which she understands the experiences. It gives one confidence that she is speaking from a knowledge base that goes beyond theory. As you will see/hear from her teaching, it is not necessary to describe personal experiences. I believe there is also a very good reason why this is approached in this manner, and individual experiences are kept between teacher and disciple. This is because there is much variance (and proliferation) about mind states, which can lead off into unbeneficial areas. As such, speaking openly to ones skilled and experienced teacher is useful, but not so much in other circumstances.
All the formalized rules in Buddhism are based on actual dynamics, and it’s those that count in the final analysis. One of the main reasons for not talking about jhana is it affects the attainment of it, since it cannot be described at the (lower) verbal level. Sense impressions precede the mental formulation of their more cumbersome verbal descriptions, and jhana is a sense experience of mind. This is illustrated in the Vism. statement about “protecting the sign,” where once concentration has been attained, the nun goes about with downcast eyes and does not engage in conversation. It seems Ayya Khema’s temperament allowed her to engage in a certain amount of disclosure without affecting the ability to enter jhana, just as being a teacher requires an outgoing personality.
The danger of the verbal level and the need for awareness of immediate sense contact:
“Everything comes under the sway of name as a result of man’s urge to familiarize himself with the world. Sorting out, naming and defining things, are practical necessities in ordinary life, since they help us avoid ‘tripping-over,’ just as in the case of one groping in the dark. There is a constant need to re-cognize things and the easiest way of doing it, is by putting a sign on them. While the five senses have their own separate modes of indentation, mind largely relies on the labeling-mode of attaching a name, in the course of its own groping. Since mind partakes of the ‘range’ (visaya) and pasture (gocara) of the other five senses as well (M. I. 295.), its own mode of indentation has a preponderating influence over the rest. Thus, perceptual data of the five external senses, in all their permutations and combinations, finally come to be assigned names and pigeon-holed as ‘things.’ This convenient but superficial indentation beclouds the mind and prevents the immediate understanding of sense-contact (phassa). Its mode of apperception, therefore, is largely a process of ‘imagining’ and ‘figuring-out’ of objects located in the darkness of ignorance, and in its blind groping, the phenomenon of sense-contact as such, hardly receives any serious attention.”—Nanananda, note to SN 1.61
Once awareness at the level of immediate sense contact has been established and joy arises, there would be no inclination to indulge the verbal level.
This is an important point, from the perspective of ‘conditioning’ one’s experiences. Personally, I have come to the conclusion that this is where a lot of ‘wrong Samadhi’ stems from, where individuals are ‘conditioned’ by a specific guru to replicate certain experiences… Eg. Dhammakaya sect/cult. This is to be avoided. Following the Suttas is the best guide, even if it may appear a little frustrating at first
Remember that the Jhanas are quite a way along the Path, and all other factors need to be developed to a significant degree first. The process is quite natural when done in the order described by the Buddha. We get into trouble when chasing ‘attainments’, you can’t ‘make’ them come, and it can actually end up as a hindrance to the process. Follow the Path, enjoy meditation at whatever level, and the higher states will come when they’re ready
Monastics are forbidden to claim/discuss personal attainments with Lay people # Bhūtārocana
Pli Tv Bi Pm Pc 104
A nun who tells an unordained person about her own profound spiritual attainment must confess the offense.
Pli Tv Bi Pm Pj 4
A nun who falsely claims a profound spiritual attainment is expelled.
taken from here
I won’t comment on Ayya Khema’s choices here, except to point out a bit of historical context. In her day, no-one in the English-speaking world was teaching jhanas, it was all vipassana all the time. So she clearly felt the need to bring jhanas into the spotlight.
In addition to the Vinaya rules cited here by Viveka, the other crucial context is that such speech is of a rarified and noble nature, and should only take place in a suitable context.
I’ve been in a monastery where monks were chatting about jhanas while helping themselves to cornflakes. No.
Discussion of deep spiritual states is a solemn and important matter, to be broached respectfully, at the right time and place, with a wise teacher, or between trusted spiritual companions. This is always how its done in the Suttas. The teacher is well aware of both the spiritual tradition, as well as the delicate interplay between spiritual growth and the potential for conceit. The wrong word might destabilize a practitioner, turn them off the path, or set them on the road to denial and ego. The right word might get them enlightened.
This is why an open internet forum is never the right place for such discussions. It’s like someone doing chi kung in a WWE match. Online discussions of advanced states are a fever dream of narcissism and delusion. And if by chance someone with genuine meditation attainments happens upon such a discussion, it is a genuine risk to their development.