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.
MN Majjhima Nikāya
SN Saṃyutta Nikāya
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.