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

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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).

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Thank you for the compilation of jhana similes uses in other contexts.

I found this thread while looking for opinions-perspectives about the 3rd jhana simile which I also find weird for some reason. The remark in the other post that indicates the balance of growing in the water without surfacing the water is important made me realize that there are contrast statements in the first three similes but not in the 4th. So here that idea is explored a bit. I am not an expert-teacher.

Framework

Lets assume jhana similes have some recurring elements: feature a suffused target, a container, a contrasting statement and an object that executes one or more activities.

  • The first jhana targets powder-soap, the container is a metal basin, there is a contrast statement (sprinkling just enough that it does not ooze), a person is executing the activities (heaping, sprinkling, kneading).

  • The second jhana targets ‘all parts of a lake’, the container is a lake bed, there is a contrast statement (Theres no inflow or rains and yet there is water), a spring inside the lake is executing the activities (welling up).

  • The third jhana targets ‘all parts of lilies’, there seems to be no container, the contrast statement is (born and thrive in the water without rising above it), the surrounding water is executing the activities (drench).

  • The fourth jhana targets ‘all parts of a persons body’, there seems to be no container, there is no contrast statement, the white cloth is executing the activities (covering).

Discussion

Lets assume jhanas are sequential. Discussion on adjacent jhanas:

From the 1st to the 2nd simile: For me the most contrasting thing is how suddenly abstract the simile became. 1) There is no person playing a role (but there is in the 4th) this makes it harder to relate (why was this chosen?). 2) There is an active sprinkling activity in the 1st but the regular showers from time to time are explicitly denied. 3) While the 1st has a lot of active-activities here it seems the only activity is just waiting-allowing for the water to well up. 4) It is unclear to me if well up implies that the lake is filled up during the simile or is already at some level (see below). 5) The main similarity is that water is the material that suffuses in both.

From the 2nd to the 3rd simile: 1) In 3rd there is no explicit container but it could be implied that the container is an unnamed water body since a lake with objects featured in the previous simile (but all other similes pairs are different so probably not). 2) Here it is clear that the water has a level since the plants are born and thrive inside the water. 3) Assuming that the previous simile the water was welling up during the simile here that movement-activity is gone and replaced for the suffusing activity which is less movement-based and is present always. 4) 2nd and 3rd are quite similar in that they share the objective of suffusing objects with water in a water body. But the suffusing is only Around the object for the 3rd. This can also maybe imply that the object is now playing as the containment boundary role?.

From the 3rd to the 4th simile: 1) There is no contrasting statement in 4th, 2) If there is a container it would have to be just space. 3) Water does not play a role anymore and is replaced by a white cloth. 4) A person plays a role in the simile while it was avoided before (3rd simile could have been person underwater). 5) While previous 2 similes all had many objects (lake objects, water plants of many colours) here there is only a clothed man, that’s it. 6) The 3rd and 4th similes are also similar in goal of pervasiveness Around of an object but the objects changed, water-to-plant into cloth-to -body.

I hope these gives some food for thought. For me it is weird that a person is used only in the 1st and 4th simile when other suttas always use persons and these are instructions for people (3rd could be a person immersed in water). Is the fact that the lilies thrive in water important?. I also share the opinion that it seems weird that many colored plants are mentioned in the 3rd simile (why?) if it is a memory aid then why is the other similes say a person, a lake (4th simile could be many persons covered in white cloth). Why is a contrast statement missing in the 4th?.

Thank you for this thoughtful post regarding one interpretation of the jhana similes. It’s interesting how you deconstructed this into different components. I can see some utility to this approach. Some comments:

  1. One challenge with this approach is that it’s emphasis on a specific framework (container, etc.) can make the similes complicated and thus lead us away from the “experiential” element that is so central to Buddhism. That is, the importance of meditating. An interesting comment I recently read was: “in this sense, meditation is an equal opportunity practice: it requires no intellectual skill, no philosophy, no education, and no ability to think clearly. It only requires an ability to first direct attention and then withdraw attention.” Jayarava's Raves: The True History of the Heart Sutra. III There is a robust, engaging philosophical component to Buddhism (2500 years of monastic lineages, and well-intentioned commentaries can do that), but ultimately that takes us away from the key aspect of Buddha’s teaching: personal enlightenment through an experiential practice.

  2. That being said, there is still a role for some degree of logical inquisition. You pose many interesting perspectives on each simile. For example, that “there is no person playing a role” in the second jhana simile, and so on. I would encourage you to make that question an “intentional/directed thought” that you pose either at the beginning of your meditation, or while you are reflecting on the first jhana simile in meditation. You may find that the answers come to you as part of the liberating insights that are so crucial to meditation. I think that each of the comments you make presents an interesting insight into the similes that may or may not be true, but are definitely worthy of your personal exploration as this process will likely deepen your understanding. We should not be offering practice advice in this forum, so I will not comment further in this vein.

  3. A few specific thoughts (that should be taken with a grain of salt, but as you mentioned, can be food for thought)

Your comments about 1st to 2nd simile:

  1. There is no person playing a role (but there is in the 4th) this makes it harder to relate (why was this chosen?)–perhaps to emphasize the letting go of self?
  2. There is an active sprinkling activity in the 1st but the regular showers from time to time are explicitly denied–perhaps because the nature of liberating insights become more and more intermittent/natural as meditation deepens?
  3. While the 1st has a lot of active-activities here it seems the only activity is just waiting-allowing for the water to well up–perhaps to emphasize the passive nature of insight?
  4. It is unclear to me if well up implies that the lake is filled up during the simile or is already at some level (see below)–seems as if it should be somewhat filled up because one has already done the first jhana practice
  5. The main similarity is that water is the material that suffuses in both–this is a nice way of connecting the 1st and 2nd jhana similes, I think

Your comments about 2nd to 3rd simile:

  1. In 3rd there is no explicit container but it could be implied that the container is an unnamed water body since a lake with objects featured in the previous simile (but all other similes pairs are different so probably not)–seems reasonable, and is another nice way to connect similes
  2. Here it is clear that the water has a level since the plants are born and thrive inside the water–the goal of Buddhism is to escape samsara, so the notion of a limit (the limit of samsara) is one possibility
  3. Assuming that the previous simile the water was welling up during the simile here that movement-activity is gone and replaced for the suffusing activity which is less movement-based and is present always–perhaps this implies that the practitioner is entering an equilibrium (the cultivation of equanimity, that will be further developed in the 4th jhana)
  4. 2nd and 3rd are quite similar in that they share the objective of suffusing objects with water in a water body. But the suffusing is only Around the object for the 3rd. This can also maybe imply that the object is now playing as the containment boundary role?–one could argue that in the 4th jhana, with complete equanimity, one no longer has a sense of self/other (this is debatable), so it is logical that the precursor to the 4th jhana (the 3rd jhana) still has some remnance of “object” that has to be perfused

About the 3rd to 4th similes:

  1. There is no contrasting statement in 4th–seems reasonable since one should attain equanimity here,
  2. If there is a container it would have to be just space–seems reasonable as the next step, at least in DN16, are the arupa ayatanas (formless spheres)
  3. Water does not play a role anymore and is replaced by a white cloth–the cloth is an important concept in Buddhism; it is often washed clean by water
  4. A person plays a role in the simile while it was avoided before (3rd simile could have been person underwater)–I agree that is confusing
  5. While previous 2 similes all had many objects (lake objects, water plants of many colours) here there is only a clothed man, that’s it–perhaps because the over-riding sensation in this jhana is perfection of equanimity
  6. The 3rd and 4th similes are also similar in goal of pervasiveness Around of an object but the objects changed, water-to-plant into cloth-to -body–I’m not sure what to make of that.

Ultimately, it is important to also remember that similes have limits to their utility. Still, I am continuously amazed by how helpful the Buddha’s similes are as I go about my day or practice. To imagine that someone could come up with this 2500 years ago, and it still resonates with us, is staggering in its implications.

Thanks for your detailed take on the jhana simile comparisons in this structured format and for the reference to Jayaravas Raves which were new for me.

I share the opinion that this structured format is not the best approach for actual “on the cushion” practice and readers should not read too much into it. The structured framework is just meant to spark discussion and to make the discussion directed (thank you for using the format for answering). Reading your take led to some questions and explorations.

Question:

I am not familiar with the limit of samsara can you elaborate on this: (And what aspect of the simile would correspond to it: the surface of the water or the bottom of the lake?).

Exploration:

Thank you for the observation that the white cloth is used in other suttas meaning purity I did not realize this. I found a sutta where this is mentioned for reference (Vatthupama Sutta; link below because of link limit for new users). In here a dirty cloth is compared with a clean cloth for the purposes of dying with colors.

In here it is also mentioned:

“Just as cloth that is stained and dirty becomes clean and bright with the help of pure water, or just as gold becomes clean and bright with the help of a furnace”

Given that the jhana similes deal with a white cloth, with water, and of all things, with soap it also may suggest that they are meant to be seen as a cleaning activity. It is also interesting to see that a alternative choice for the last jhana simile could have been to purify gold, but this was not chosen for some reason. In Pansadhovaka Sutta a similar but not identical simile strategy as with the 1st jhana simile is followed but with gold as material which makes the alternative realistic.

In Vatthupama Sutta suggests that the reason of purifying the gold is to do something with it. Can a similar conclusion be drawn that for the water based jhana simile? That the purpose of having a white cloth covered man is to paint on it?. But such a purpose is not explicit in the 4th jhana simile. This raises some questions: Is the 4th Jhana meant to be an endpoint or a starting point. Is the 4th jhana not considered 4th jhana the moment something is done on top of it (Is the gold less pure because now something was made with it?). Is the 4th jhana simile described as a blank slate for clarity purposes but when in reality the blank slate is meant more as a more productive workspace because its “clean”?

Thank you for mentioning the alternative simile of gold. It is interesting to wonder why the Buddha did not use gold when discussing the fourth jhana state. Perhaps it is to continue the connection with water that was mentioned in the prior jhana similes. I think another aspect is that the cloth “covers” the meditator. I find this to be a useful image for the all-encompasing (like a covering) mental brightness that one may experience as they try to move through these jhana mental states. Gold is thus possibly not a good choice for the additional reason that it does not lend itself to the image of a meditator being “covered” by it. You also mentioned perhaps “the blank slate is meant more as a more productive workspace because its “clean””–I would agree, and a good example is the sutta you referenced when you mentioned that “a dirty cloth is compared with a clean cloth for the purposes of dying with colors”–the clean cloth, in that sutta, does a better job of taking up the color (i.e., a more productive workspace).

When I mention a “limit” to samsara, I am contrasting it to nibbana, which is described as limitless and unconditioned.

In regards to whether the fourth jhana is an endpoint or starting point, I think that, if attained, it is a place to begin transitioning into an insight practice. The Buddha mentioned that after attaining the fourth jhana, he then began contemplating the nature of existence and gained the insights that led to the Four Noble Truths. The calm mind of the jhanas is the workspace from which we can do the crucial insight practice necessary to address latent tendencies and other factors. In this regard, while I think obviously the fourth jhana may be the goal, any state of samadhi that we can achieve is helpful. There is a lot of debate as to whether one remains in jhana while doing insight practices, or whether one leaves the jhanas–this is probably a question for a more experienced practitioner.

I was reading one of Bhikkhu Nanananda’s talks on Nibbana and I came across this interesting passage he wrote which reminded me of the spring lake simile for the 2nd jhana (from the Mind Stilled: 33 Sermons on Nibbāna by Bhikkhu K. Ñāṇananda):

Craving is a form of thirst and that is why Nibbāna is sometimes called pipāsavinayo , the dispelling of the thirst.[36] To think that the destruction of craving is not sufficient is like trying to give water to one who has already quenched his thirst. But the destruction of craving has been called the highest bliss. One who has quenched his thirst for good, is aware of that blissful experience. When he sees the world running here and there in search of water, he looks within and sees the well-spring of his bliss.

This is interesting because it links the concept of nibbana, craving as thirst and the simile for the second jhana.

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8 posts were split to a new topic: Karma & Jhana- interplay?