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The First Jhana as an assimilated Jain Meditation Practice

To recall, the culmination of Buddhist meditation or Samādhi is typically described as having four progressive stages, the Jhānas. The first Jhāna has four factors: thought (vitakka), investigation (vicāra), rapture (pīti), and happiness (sukha). Generally, the Buddhist tradition assumes that the Jhānas are a novel contribution of the Buddha (see for a further discussion Arbel 2016).

In SN 41.8 Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta – commonly known as the Jain master and Buddha’s contemporary Mahāvīra – claims that there is no avitakka avicāra samādhi, i.e. a state of meditation without thought and investigation, and that it would be like catching the wind in a net. Mahāvīra doesn’t mention a Samādhi with thought and investigation, but the plausible implication of his incredulous comment is that he is very familiar with its practice, or at the very least knows of other religious professionals who practice it. What Buddhist texts call the ‘first Jhāna’ would, therefore, be no Buddhist invention at all but a meditation practice available to other ascetic practitioners as well.

Why should we assume that Jains practiced a meditation with thought and investigation? Arbel (2016, 34) observes that of the Buddhist meditation vocabulary only vitakka and vicāra appear in ancient Jain texts. The Jain Tattvārtha Sūtra, describing different kinds of dhyāna (Pāli Jhāna), says in sutras 9.43-44 that vitarka (Pāli vitakka) is scriptural knowledge (śruta) and that vicāra is a shifting between the object, its word, and its activity (Tatia 1994, 242). In 9.42 it also states, however, that there is meditation without vicāra. It has not been sufficiently researched how old the ancient Jain literature is, but this could be another hint that meditation with vitakka and vicāra were common among ascetics of the Buddha’s time.

This interpretation also shines light on a story in MN 36, MN 85, and MN 100 according to which the later-to-be Buddha experienced a state of rapture with thought and investigation, i.e. the first Jhāna. While the commentaries say that Gotama was still a boy at that time (Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi 1995, 1230) nothing in the actual sutta confirms that he was that young – it merely mentions that at that time his father was off working. The story also doesn’t claim that his state was a novel discovery. In fact, there would be nothing unusual about a young man in his mid-twenties with great spiritual talent to have spoken to wandering ascetics on their alms-round, inquiring about their practices and then applying them successfully.

In short, the first Jhāna could well have been an already available meditation practice incorporated by early Buddhism into its fourfold framework of Samādhi. And indeed, there is already established precedence for a very similar incorporation: a well-known part of Gotama’s biography is that early in his spiritual quest he learned from two teachers the so-called ‘formless realms’ – abstract meditation states with hardly any mental content at all (see Rai, 2017). And these ‘formless realms’ became part of Buddhist meditation, with the standard passages usually starting progressing from the four Jhānas to the four Formless Realms.

I want to highlight more aspects from Buddhist sources that the first Jhāna was not regarded that highly, which could be a consequence of an assimilation. As it is well known, the Noble Eightfold Path culminates in the eighth limb of Samādhi, which then again is described with the four Jhānas. But when we look at the standard descriptions of the Jhānas the term samādhi actually only appears in the second Jhāna: The first Jhāna is ‘born out of separation’ (vivekaja), and the second out of Samādhi (samādhija). Which means that the last limb of the Noble Eightfold Path is actually named after the second Jhāna – which again could be a hint that this is where the contribution of the Buddha was seen.

Another sutta might emphasize exactly this point. Snp 1.1, verse 7 (translation Bodhi) says:

“One whose thoughts (vitakka) have been burned out, entirely well excised internally: that bhikkhu gives up the here and the beyond as a serpent sheds its old worn-out skin.”

The implication of this verse is that the transcendence of vitakka (which could allude to the second Jhāna) would result in or lead to liberation. This claim is repeated in a parallel to this verse, in Udāna 6-7: Subhūtisuttaṁ (translation Ānandajoti):

“For he who has dispelled thoughts (vitakka), Totally cut (them) off within himself without remainder, | Perceiving the formless (nibbāna), beyond the shackle, Having overcome the four yokes - he surely does not come (to birth again).”

A text possibly critical of the first Jhāna is a poem that appears in the early Suttanipāta, in Snp 5.13, v. 1109 (also in SN 1.64). In this early material different Brahmin masters present their questions to the Buddha. And in the verse in question Udaya asks the Buddha what keeps the world in bondage. In his answer the Buddha identifies as the culprits some elements of the ‘first Jhāna’, namely thought and investigation (vitakka and vicāra), next to delight (nandi), which in this context could be a misguided version of the Jhāna factor pīti. A possible reading of this verse is, therefore, that the meditation practice of other traditions essentially leaves the system of existential bondage intact since they investigate (vicāra) the wrong Dharma (vitakka) and as a consequence get lost in delight (nandi) – the latter, however, doesn’t sound like a reference to Jain practitioners who were seen as ascetics who embrace pain in their practice.

In the end I cannot claim that there is hard proof for the hypothesis that the first Jhāna is actually an assimilation from a shared spiritual practice of the Buddha’s time. But there is enough supportive circumstantial evidence in order to keep the idea in the back of our mind when contemplating the Buddhist Jhānas.

Abbreviations

MN Majjhima Nikāya
SN Saṃyutta Nikāya
Snp Suttanipāta

References

Ānandajoti, B. (2008). Udāna. Exalted Utterances. Revised version 2.2. Available Online: https://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/Texts-and-Translations/Udana/Exalted-Utterances.pdf

Arbel, K. (2016). Early Buddhist Meditation. London & New York: Routledge.

Bodhi, B. (Trans.). (2017). The Suttanipāta. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.

Ñāṇamoli, B. & Bodhi, B. (Trans.). (1995). The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Rai, S. (2017). The Curious Case of the Formless Attainments. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Universities, 6(2), 70-82.

Tatia, N. (Trans.). (1994). That which is. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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This is incorrect. Generally in Theravada it is known the Buddha-to-be practised jhana under the guidance of teachers and found it lacking.

“There is a range of common terminology and common descriptions of the meditative states that are seen as the foundation of meditation practice in both Hindu Yoga and Buddhism. Many scholars have noted that the concepts of dhyana and samādhi - technical terms describing stages of meditative absorption – are common to meditative practices in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Most notable in this context is the relationship between the system of four Buddhist dhyana states (Pali: jhana) and the samprajnata samadhi states of Classical Yoga.”—Wikipedia

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The formless realms are not called Jhanas in the suttas

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In MN26, the Buddha’s two former teachers are said to have attained samādhi. What sense do you think this term carries in this context? How do you think it compares to the samādhi as taught by the Buddha?

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We don’t know more than what the texts say, i.e. their practice of formless meditations. And I assume that the sutta calls that their ‘samadhi’. Whether they called it ‘samadhi’ themselves, or just the sutta applying the samadhi-label to it, we can’t tell.

[Edit: at least samādhi is not a pre-Buddhist Vedic term. It’s either pre-Buddhist Prakrit or Buddhist in origin]

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In this book the author spends quite a bit of time comparing Jain and Buddhist styles of meditation. One of the things he points out is that the Buddhist rupa jhanas, as described in the early suttas, are quite unique when compared to how meditation is described in Jain texts from the same time. One of the big differences is that the Buddhist rupa jhanas have blissful states (piti and sukha) as defining characteristics. Contemporary Jain texts mention nothing about blissful states when discussing meditation. Actually, he argues that the rupa jhanas are uniquely Buddhist. If I have time later, I’ll paste some quotes from his book where he discusses this. That book is very good, by the way. I highly recommend it.

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Bronkhorst has done a lot of excellent work. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but that’s no issue. First of all, please draw the connections a bit more precisely - I refer only to the first jhana, not to all rupa jhanas.

It is clear that joy and happiness are not standard parts of Jain meditation. Yet, happiness is no complete stranger to Jain practice.

From the Uttrajjhaya:
1.15: “Subdue your Self, for the Self is difficult to subdue ; if your Self is subdued, you will be happy in this world and in the next.”

9.14: “Happy are we, happy live we who call nothing our own”

(and there are several more examples)

The term for happy here is suh which also means gladness. I don’t know if there is a connection to sukha.

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Yes, and to be precise ;), we’re not talking about if the Jain path results in happiness, or speaks of happiness in general, but about meditation.

From the book:

When we compare what we learned about non-Buddhist meditation with this description of the Buddhist Four Dhyånas (which is standard, and recurs numerous times in the Buddhist canon; see Schmithausen, 1981: 203-04), we notice many differences. The one that is emphasized by the author of the Original Mahasaccaka Sutra is that Buddhist meditation is a pleasant experience, accompanied by joy (piti) and bliss (sukha), or bliss alone, in all but its highest stages, whereas non-Buddhist meditation is not described as pleasurable.

I don’t either, honestly. But he provides a nice overview of the state of meditation in India around the time of the Buddha.

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Fascinating!

Here’s a sutta that steps back from jhana in particular to embrace a consideration of the whole progression of practice as a methodology to be applied again and again in ever subtler contexts:

AN8.63:2.2: ‘I will develop the heart’s release by love. I’ll cultivate it, make it my vehicle and my basis, keep it up, consolidate it, and properly implement it.’
AN8.63:2.3: That’s how you should train.
AN8.63:3.1: When this immersion is well developed and cultivated in this way, you should develop it while placing the mind and keeping it connected. You should develop it without placing the mind, but just keeping it connected. You should develop it without placing the mind or keeping it connected. You should develop it with rapture. You should develop it without rapture. You should develop it with pleasure. You should develop it with equanimity.

AN8.63 is significant in that we see the progression from placing the mind to not placing the mind in multiple contexts. Also apparent in the progression is the gradual relinquishment of intention. So another way to think about your premise is that the innovation of the Buddha may have started in his exploration of the consequences of relinquishing intention itself.

AN9.41:8.4: Then I thought,
AN9.41:8.5: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason why my mind isn’t eager to stop placing the mind, and not confident, settled, and decided about it? Why don’t I see it as peaceful?’
AN9.41:8.6: Then I thought,
AN9.41:8.7: ‘I haven’t seen the drawbacks of placing the mind, and so I haven’t cultivated that. I haven’t realized the benefits of not placing the mind, and so I haven’t developed that.
AN9.41:8.8: That’s why my mind isn’t eager to stop placing the mind, and not confident, settled, and decided about it. And it’s why I don’t see it as peaceful.’
AN9.41:8.9: Then I thought,
AN9.41:8.10: ‘Suppose that, seeing the drawbacks of placing the mind, I were to cultivate that. And suppose that, realizing the benefits of not placing the mind, I were to develop that. It’s possible that my mind would be eager to stop placing the mind; it would be confident, settled, and decided about it. And I would see it as peaceful.’

Note that where others pursued esoteric immersive attainments (i.e., “place the mind better”), the Buddha sought peace of mind, an end to suffering. The tools were the same, but the goal differed.

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It’s interesting because of the Buddha’s reflection of his experience as a child under the rose apple tree. He reflects on this meditative condition and not those he practiced after leaving the household life. Basically, he didn’t find any fault in that pleasure but the others were somehow lacking (?). :man_shrugging:

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The Buddha used this term as usual to harness an already held image in the mind of the public, and he was from the warrior class. This indicates endurance and perseverance are held in high regard as applied to the middle stage of the practice (MN 70).

"The word [ārya](https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Arya_(Buddhism&action=edit&redlink=1) (Pāli: ariya), in the sense of “noble” or “exalted”, is very frequently used in Buddhist texts to designate a spiritual warrior or hero, which use this term much more often than Hindu or Jain texts. Buddha’s Dharma and Vinaya are the ariyassa dhammavinayo. The Four Noble Truths are called the catvāry āryasatyāni (Sanskrit) or cattāri ariyasaccāni (Pali). The Noble Eightfold Path is called the āryamārga (Sanskrit, also āryāṣṭāṅgikamārga) or ariyamagga (Pāli).

“In Buddhist texts, the ārya pudgala (Pali: ariyapuggala, “noble person”) are those who have the Buddhist śīla (Pāli sīla, meaning “virtue”) and who have reached a certain level of spiritual advancement on the Buddhist path, mainly one of the four levels of awakening”—Wikipedia

Am I the only one that has found that passage…jarring? It just seems to come out of nowhere. I mean, the Buddha led a life of total hedonism before encountering the Four Messengers, then spent years intensely practicing a variety of meditations with different teachers, then one day just remembered, “Oh, hey, once when I was a kid I entered the 1st jhana. Funny, I forgot all about that. Maybe I should try that.” Maybe some commentary tries to make that fit into the larger narrative of the Buddha’s life, but it really stands out. So, I guess that might indicate that it comes from a much earlier narrative, and was sandwiched into a later one, or is a later addition.

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That’s a good point. Meditation teachers sometimes point out that a Jhana experience is a game-changer in life, a formative experience. The inconsistency you point out just shows how much myths have amended the Buddha’s biography. Apart from text-critical work we often have no other means but plausibility…

How plausible is it that someone can live in complete hedonism without ever seeing someone sick, or mysteriously disappearing (i.e. dead)? What did they tell the prince - “your grandpa went for cigarettes and never returned”? No that must be myth to large extent.

But also the rose-tree episode (again, the sutta doesn’t say that he was a boy, merely that his father was off working). It’s more plausible that he learned some basic dhamma from meditators and then applied it, rather then spontaneously going into Samadhi. Even though that seems to be possible as well, when we look at the story of Ramana Maharshi.

When there is myth-building even around Churchill or Ozzy Osbourne it makes sense that even early on (inconsistent) myths developed around the Buddha.

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Lol, good point.

Tan Ajahns Piak and Dun, disciples of Luang Por Cha, each have stories about past life practice manifesting unexpectedly in this life. There’s a well-known story of Tan Ajahn Piak who, when still a layman and visiting a monastery, sat down in his kuti and fell into a samadhi all night. It was so deep he didn’t even know about the terrible thunderstorm that happened during the night. Tan Ajahn Dun has also talked about how when he was a university student he had asubha visions. There are a few stories, but in one he was riding a bus, thought about something (possibly a girl a school he thought was cute or career plans), and everyone one on the bus suddenly turned into corpses and exploded. He experienced a deep sense of dispassion and gave up any idea of pursuing the girl or interest in a worldly career. If the story about the Buddha falling into the 1st jhana was framed in that way, I’d find it more believable.

Anyway, this is pretty off-topic. So I’ll leave it here.

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You’re not alone. Here’s an essay on the topic I brought up a while back:

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Also how jhana is talked about by Ajahn Brahm. How much of a transformative episode it is in ones life. Interestingly, I also recall a story by AB about someone who was a heroine addict. They experienced what Ajahn Brahm took to be a jhana from the persons account. Anyways, even after the experience of this uttari manusa dhamma, they went back to using again. Although it’s an extreme case, I can see how one might move on in life without holding onto this.

There’s so much myth/legend to tease out (shoutout to Ajahn Sujato’s work on the matter).

Another interesting matter I’ll point out (sorry, it’ll be vaguely so because I don’t have the exact references) is the bodhisatta’s relinquishment of hindrances when he was still a householder. Passages that seem to coroborate the idea that the Buddha was a non-returner.

Of course, these are all things that I’m parroting from people like Bhante Sujato, Ajahn Brahm, and Ajahn Brahmali. Snippets from this or that talk of which I’ve managed to remember a fraction.

Edit: I apologize, I realize this is off topic from the OP.

This is an interesting essay. I have found in my research that Jain meditation system has a first-jhana-like (and a half of second-jhana-like) attainment in this book:

There we see sukla dhyana has 4 types, the first two are:

  1. Prithakatva vitarka savichari, wich is similiar to first jhana in Buddhist meditative attainment (concentration with vitarka/vitakka and vichari/vicara)

  2. Ekatva vitarka nirvichari, which is similiar to a half to second jhana in Buddhist based on suttas or exactly second jhana in Abhidhamma system (concentration with vitarka/vitakka but without vichari/vicara)

I think this explains why Nigantha Nattaputta in SN 41.8 cannot accept there is a concentration without vitakka and without vicara.

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Problem is that it all goes back to one source only, the Tattvārtha Sūtra 9.40ff. It’s not like in the suttas where we have hundreds of references to Jhana, Samadhi, anussati, etc. It’s just one passage in the whole of ancient Jain literature. Which is not nothing, and a very interesting trace, but we cannot build too much certainty on that.

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Do we know where that sutra falls timewise?

Bronkhorst in his paper “On the chronology of the Tattvārtha Sūtra and some early commentaries” comes to the conclusion that it is “Composed in all probability some time between 150 and 350 A.D.” (p. 27).

As usual, this estimate does not refer to the ideas in the text but refers to the text as a whole. Also in his paper he bases his conclusion on the affiliation of the text with a certain Jain sect - which is an educated guess of his, but otherwise not clearly established. Still, he worked on the question, and that’s his conclusion.

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