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?”
“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.