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The jhana similes as a tool to advance our practice

I think the jhana similes are very helpful tools that can offer profound guidance to our practice. These visual tools help us to move beyond the limitations of language and tap into other cognitive resources in our brain as we seek to deepen our wisdom. Thinking of these similes as you move through your meditation practice may be helpful. As such, this post is an attempt to summarize some of the different interpretations of the similes. There is also a useful list at Accesstoinsight.org’s Index of Similes and I looked through that to find other sutta references.

I would appreciate your advice as well, so I thought it would be helpful to post this in Discuss&Discover:

1. First jhana: Bath attendant/soap

Just as a skillful bath man or a bath man’s apprentice might heap bath powder in a metal basin and, sprinkling it gradually with water, would knead it until the moisture wets his ball of bath powder, soaks it, and pervades it inside and out, yet the ball itself does not ooze; so too, the bhikkhu makes the rapture and happiness born of seclusion drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the rapture and happiness born of seclusion.

1.1) The concept of spreading happiness all throughout the body is a key message. A prior post in Discuss&Discover provided a body maps image from a recent research article (titled Bodily maps of emotions), which is an interesting way to link that to neuroscience.
1.2) Another angle is that the bath powder is a collection of thousands of bath soap particles–they are brought together by the water into one cohesive object through the “wetness”, just as the jhana experience has that element of bringing together the thousand disparate elements of our mind so that it can be immersed in the object of the jhana practice (such as the breath or metta).
1.3) The bathsoap, not unsurprisingly, is an analogy for cleansing the mind: AN3.70 “And how is the body cleansed through the proper technique? Through the use of scouring balls & bath powder & the appropriate human effort. This is how the body is cleansed through the proper technique. In the same way, the defiled mind is cleansed through the proper technique.”

2. Second jhana: Mountain lake that is nourished by a “cooling fount” from within.

Just as there might be a lake whose waters welled up from below with no inflow from east, west, north, or south, and the lake would not be replenished from time to time by showers of rain, then the cool fount of water welling up in the lake would make the cool water drench, steep, fill, and pervade the lake, so that there would be no part of the whole lake that is not pervaded by cool water; so too, the bhikkhu makes the rapture and happiness born of concentration drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the rapture and happiness born of concentration.

This one was a bit more challenging, and perhaps you may have some additional insights.
2.1) A calm lake or water often used as an analogy for a calm mind (iti3.050-099) “But the wise person who, through direct knowledge of Dhamma, gnosis of Dhamma, grows still & unperturbed like a lake unruffled by wind.” The Attadanda sutta (snp.4.15; one of my favorites) also mentions this: I call greed a ‘great flood’; hunger, a swift current. Preoccupations are ripples"
2.2) I believe the description of a stream from within emphasizes the internal nature of the source of pleasure
2.3) The mention of “no inflow from east, west, north, or south” was confusing, but perhaps that refers to the sense doors or the five aggregates. In the second jhana, one does not rely on the sense doors or aggregates for nourishment/happiness.

3. Third jhana: Lotus flowers

Just as, in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses that are born and grow in the water might thrive immersed in the water without rising out of it, and cool water would drench, steep, fill, and pervade them to their tips and their roots, so that there would be no part of those lotuses that would not be pervaded by cool water; so too, the bhikkhu makes the happiness divested of rapture drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the happiness divested of rapture.

We’ve had a prior discussion of this: How do you interpret the lotus analogy for the third jhana? Several lovely photos of lotuses immersed in water were posted by helpful commentators here. Some additional thoughts:
3.1) Lotuses of different colors are used to refer to different types of ascetics in AN 4.88
3.2) The cool water of a lotus pond may be analagous to the Buddha’s teachings in AN 5.194: "Suppose there was a lotus pond with clear, sweet, cool water, clean, with smooth banks, delightful. Then along comes a person struggling in the oppressive heat, weary, thirsty, and parched. They’d plunge into the lotus pond to bathe and drink. And all their stress, weariness, and heat exhaustion would die down. In the same way, when you hear the ascetic Gotama’s teaching—whatever it may be, whether statements, songs, discussions, or amazing stories—then all your stress, weariness, and exhaustion die down.”
3.3) The different colors have also been used when describing other beings in MN26: “Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses — born & growing in the water — might flourish while immersed in the water, without rising up from the water; some might stand at an even level with the water; while some might rise up from the water and stand without being smeared by the water — so too, surveying the world with the eye of an Awakened One, I saw beings with little dust in their eyes”
3.4) It prefaces the concept that the jhana states are not ideal and also need to be abandoned in AN 10.081: “Just as a red, blue, or white lotus born in the water and growing in the water, rises up above the water and stands with no water adhering to it, in the same way the Tathagata — freed, dissociated, & released from these ten things — dwells with unrestricted awareness.” Also here in MN152: “Just as drops of water roll off a gently sloping lotus leaf & do not remain there, that is how quickly, how rapidly, how easily, no matter what it refers to, the arisen agreeable thing… disagreeable thing… agreeable & disagreeable thing ceases, and equanimity takes its stance”
3.5) As an analogy for the five aggregates in SN22.089: "“It’s just like the scent of a blue, red, or white lotus: If someone were to call it the scent of a petal or the scent of the color or the scent of a filament, would he be speaking correctly?”
“No, friend.”
“Then how would he describe it if he were describing it correctly?”
“As the scent of the flower: That’s how he would describe it if he were describing it correctly.”
“In the same way, friends, it’s not that I say ‘I am form,’ nor do I say ‘I am other than form.’ It’s not that I say, ‘I am feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness,’”

4. Fourth jhana: White cloth

Just as a man might be sitting covered from the head down with a white cloth, so that there would be no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the white cloth; so too, the bhikkhu sits pervading this body with a pure bright mind, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the pure bright mind.

4.1) A dirty cloth is used to refer to a mind sullied by the five lower fetters in SN22.089: “Just like a cloth, dirty & stained: Its owners give it over to a washerman, who scrubs it with salt earth or lye or cow-dung and then rinses it in clear water”. Also MN7 has an image of a dirty cloth for a defiled mind.
4.2 ) The white cloth covering a person also seems like a nimitta, but some would argue that nimittas occur earlier in the jhanas.
4.3) The concept of a white cloth could refer to the non-duality state that exists in the fourth jhana

I’m always curious about parallels in the Chinese Agamas, and I see that these analogies for the jhanas, as described in MN119, exist in MA81. In addition, it appears that the lotus pericope is fairly common in the Nikayas, appearing in DN 2, DN 11, DN 12, MN 39, MN 119, AN 5.28. Thus, clearly it is an important teaching point and hopefully one that you can use as you seek to understand the jhana states in your own practice.

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To provide a balanced view, insight is symbolized by fire in SN 46.53. This sutta states that the application of opposing dynamics is the defining characteristic of the Buddhist path.

"Monks, when wanderers of other sects speak in that way, they should be addressed in this way: ‘Friends, on any occasion when the mind is sluggish, which of the factors of awakening is that the wrong time to develop? Which of the factors of awakening is that the right time to develop? And on any occasion when the mind is restless, which of the factors of awakening is that the wrong time to develop? Which of the factors of awakening is that the right time to develop?’

"Being asked in this way, the wanderers of other sects will be unable to respond and, on top of that, will fall into vexation. Why is that? Because it lies beyond their range. Monks, I don’t see anyone in this cosmos — with its devas, Maras, and Brahmas, with its people with their contemplatives & brahmans, their royalty & commonfolk — who would satisfy the mind with their answer to these questions, aside from the Tathagata, a disciple of the Tathagata, or one who had heard it from them.

[…]

Wanderers of other sects:

"Now, friends, we too teach our disciples in this way: ‘Come, you friends, — abandoning the five hindrances, the corruptions of awareness that weaken discernment — develop the seven factors for awakening as they have come to be.’

“So, friends, what difference, what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there here between Gotama the contemplative and us, when comparing Dhamma teaching with Dhamma teaching, instruction with instruction?”

The sutta says that the strategy of employing opposing elemental dynamics is superior to simple knowledge of abandoning the hindrances and developing the factors of awakening.

There is no non-duality in Theravada, attainments always depend on comparison with opposites (SN 14.11).

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Perhaps we are using the term non-duality in different contexts. When describing that the “white cloth” simile in the fourth jhana referred to non-duality, I meant that the concept of “self” as constructed by the aggregates is the basis for duality–aspects of the world are either self or not part of the self. We seek to move beyond this and understand anatta, that the world is empty of self, and thus there is no duality. Returning to the simile, I mean that parts of the cloth are not different, i.e., no duality, because we embrace anatta.

I think you are using duality to describe the act of comparing opposites as a tool to advance along the path; we must let go of one rung of the ladder to advance to the next, so must contrast the two. This seems to be how SN 14.11 is strutured, with each attainment requiring letting go of the prior one.

“Dhamma and Non-duality,” Bikkhu Bodhi:

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_27.html

Thanks for sharing this interesting article. It helps clarify what you mean by non-duality and I agree that the goal of Buddhism, as described in this article, is not to attain unity with all, but instead the goal is to leave samsara in order to attain nirvana.

I’m interested in exploring if this perspective could be applied to the simile for the fourth jhana, that of a white cloth that covers a person completely. Perhaps we could interpret the state of the fourth jhana as one in which we are separated from samsara? That is, in the fourth jhana, with its upekkha and sati, we are separated from samasara just as a white cloth, covering the entire person, separates that person from the rest of the world.

How do you know you are close or in Jhana? One who is in Jhana, know for themselves. They don’t ask others, am I in Jhana etc.

Check the below formula that I took from DN 10 (also on many other sutta) right after abandonment of five hindrances and entry of 1st jhana:

“Young Brahman, suppose a man were to take a loan and apply it to his business, and his business were to succeed, so that he could pay back his old debts and would have enough money left over to maintain a wife. He would reflect on this, and as a result he would become glad and experience joy.

“Again, young Brahman, suppose a man were to become sick, afflicted, gravely ill, so that he could not enjoy his food and his strength would decline. After some time he would recover from that illness and would enjoy his food and regain his bodily strength. He would reflect on this, and as a result he would become glad and experience joy.

“Again, young Brahman, suppose a man were locked up in a prison. After some time he would be released from prison, safe and secure, with no loss of his possessions. He would reflect on this, and as a result he would become glad and experience joy.

“Again, young Brahman, suppose a man were a slave, without independence, subservient to others, unable to go where he wants. After some time he would be released from slavery and gain his independence; he would no longer be subservient to others but a free man able to go where he wants. He would reflect on this, and as a result he would become glad and experience joy.

“Again, young Brahman, suppose a man with wealth and possessions were travelling along a desert road where food was scarce and dangers were many. After some time he would cross over the desert and arrive safely at a village which is safe and free from danger. He would reflect on this, and as a result he would become glad and experience joy.

“In the same way, young Brahman, when a bhikkhu sees that these five hindrances are unabandoned within himself, he regards that as a debt, as a sickness, as confinement in prison, as slavery, as a desert road.

“But when he sees that these five hindrances have been abandoned within himself, he regards that as freedom from debt, as good health, as release from prison, as freedom from slavery, as a place of safety.

“When he sees that these five hindrances have been abandoned within himself, gladness arises. When he is gladdened, rapture arises. When his mind is filled with rapture, his body becomes tranquil; tranquil in body, he experiences happiness; being happy, his mind reach samadhi.

Having withdrawn from senses desires, and evil states of mind, one enters the First jhana…

The question is: Do you have happiness and joy for 24 hours any day?

Thanks for posting this. I have also found the AccessToInsight index of similes very useful. I often find sutta translations can be cryptic and rather dry but where there is a simile, it just brings the teaching to life.
Are you familiar with the Canadian monk Ajahn Sona’s talks? He has a number of excellent talks on jhana and metta practice where he incorporates these and other similes into his talks. The one that specifically covers the jhana similes is:
Jhāna (5): A Pleasure Not To Be Feared
and the following talk ( Jhana (6): Breath Meditation, In Depth).