Understanding the "jhana wars"

I’ve come across many mentions of so-called “jhana wars” in the contemporary Theravada world which I understand to focus on how deep of an absorption is required for a state to be considered jhana in accordance with the Suttas. However, I haven’t explored both sides on this debate or the main lines of argument they respectively use to support their position. Could anyone point me to some readings that could help me better understand the debate? Thanks!!

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There is a 36 page thread on this topic over at DhammaWheel that has gone on for a number of years. Quite a wide range of views to be found there: The Great Jhana Debate - Dhamma Wheel Buddhist Forum

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Lol, well, a few words of advice.

  • Number 1, anyone getting into the trenches of a “jhana war” is neither a practitioner of jhana or a serious scholar.
  • Number 2 … well TBH, number 1 is quite enough.

Recently I’ve been giving five points on how to know what authorities to trust. I’ll share them here, perhaps they will be of help.

  1. Someone who has many years of professional experience in the field.
  2. Someone who has made substantial positive contributions to the field, and is not just an opinion-monger banging on about their own theories.
  3. Someone who has healthy and constructive relationships with colleagues in the field.
  4. Someone who readily admits when they are wrong.
  5. Someone whose point of view you do not always agree with.
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Can you explain why?

Is it not obvious? Someone who has a peaceful mind doesn’t get drawn into disputes and arguments. People who do that, who get obsessed with proving their rightness, do so out of a lack, out of some inner need that is not fulfilled.

There’s a difference between making your case and getting into an argument.

For one who is involved gets embroiled in disputes about teachings—
but how to dispute with the uninvolved? About what?

https://suttacentral.net/snp4.3/en/sujato?layout=plain&reference=none&notes=none&highlight=false&script=latin

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As I understand it, and I don’t, this is a conflict about the extent to which one in jhana is experiencing their body, with some arguing that the body is experienced and others saying that all sense of the body is lost and it is the mind that is experienced. My impression is that this is not a merely “contemporary” issue in Therevada, rather it has been a contentious topic as far back as the 18 schools of early Buddhism, with Sautrantikans for example, being apologists for the “pleasure in the body” school of thought.

I think it is fair to say that there is even evidence for some evolution away from the “jhana formula” towards a more mindfulness based practice even in the pre-sectarian EBT’s themselves, but this is a controversial view that is held, as far as I know, only by me :slight_smile:

Just as a gentle counter argument to @sujato’s points, I found it very useful and intellectually stimulating to explore this controversy when I joined this forum, it forced me to think critically and carefully about my understandings of the texts and my practice, and if it is done in the spirit of collegiate and friendly disagreement then it can be a useful thing to do , IMO.

That said, tempers can become strained and it’s probably best to take it all with a healthy pinch of salt, Buddhism after all is about the transcendence of views, and meditation is certainly something many Buddhists seem to have an unhealthy obsession with :stuck_out_tongue:

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I’m not sure its as obvious as you suggest–yes, needless disputes are unskillful; but, the fundamental question of how deep of concentration is required to qualify as jhana and thus to achieve samma samadhi seems of paramount importance to practice.

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Sure, as did I.

But that wasn’t the question. The question was about “jhana wars”, and that is what I was talking about.

Words matter. Once the people who are taking part in a discussion decide to self-describe their own actions as a “war”, it’s a sign. Sure, I understand it’s meant ironically. But remember the GOAT principle: One who engages in intimate relations with a goat ironically, is still engaging in intimate relations with a goat. (The original version is more colloquial!)

I understand, and I’m not being snarky. But if you ask a better question, you’ll get a better answer.

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The depth of concentration required is precisely deep enough to truly know and see suffering, it’s arising, it’s ceasing and the way to it’s ceasing, which is necessary precisely to the extent that it leads to your disillusionment and dispassion towards phenomenal reality, which should be just to the level required to know and see true freedom.
(a cheeky paraphrase of this)

In all seriousness I do not think it is a stretch to say that the Nikayas consistently explain that none of it matters much except in as much as it leads to the understanding of reality that frees one from distress.

So you might become so concentrated that you have no sense of a physical body at all and transcending the realm even of infinite consciousness dwell in the fabled realm of nothingness, or go even beyond that to the mystical plane of neither perception nor non perception, and still not achieve freedom, ala Uddaka Rāmaputta, or you might just hear impermanence explained and more or less become liberated right then and there like Sariputta.

Asking how “deep” a meditative trance has to be before you understand it properly is like asking how many long divisions a student will have to do before they can do long division, it has a lot less to do with the long divisions and a lot more to do with the student.

anyway,

Metta.

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There are some very loud voices out there on the webs, which is perhaps what Venerable Sujato is referring to. But I think it is fundamentally a good question.

The disagreement is on what defines a state of jhana. It focusses mostly on two things: whether there is any experience of the five bodily senses and whether there is analytical, verbalized thought.

The traditional Theravadin interpretation of the commentaries and I’d say also Abhidhamma is that both these things don’t exist in the jhanas. Some follow this interpretation, either depending on the commentaries or having arrived at that conclusion independently. Others say the commentaries had it wrong, and though they do not agree on what the jhanas are like, they generally agree there is feeling of the body and reasoned thinking in the jhanas. (Broadly these are the two interpretations, but of course some will fall in between, e.g. you can feel the body but not think, for example.)

For the latter, where there is body and reflective thought, you can see Richard Shankman’s - Experience of Samadhi. And recently Venerable Kumara’s book (still in draft, I belief) was discussed here a while ago.

For the former, I’m not aware anybody ever wrote such a book that specifically argues against the other interpretation. There’s bits and pieces here and there, like on Venerable Sujato’s old blog. (You’ll have to google yourself. :wink: )

Much of the discussion hinges on the meaning of kāya, which can mean ‘body’ but also person as in English ‘somebody’. Both Pali Text Society dictionaries, for what it’s worth, suggest the jhana similes to be interpreted as the latter.

That’s the short of it.

I once replied to a question on another forum here: Deep Jhanas vs. Light Jhanas - Dhammaloka Community

And I’ve discussed it once on twice here on suttacentral, but for some reason this topic just seems to get under people’s skin more than others. Could be the way I phrase myself, of course. :blush: Either way, it wasn’t particularly productive so I’ll refrain from going there again.

There was also this video shared once on here.

:smiling_face_with_three_hearts: :melting_face:

Oh, by the way, I actually the question is usually asked the wrong way. Instead of asking what the jhanas are, we should ask ourselves what the hindrances are! Because underestimating the hindrances, that is the real problem, I think we can all agree.

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I recently dug back into the Sutta Pitaka, in order to recalibrate between: information from the Sutta and practical experience. What is quite interesting to explore are the terms kāmasaññā and rūpasaññā.

The Sutta says that kāmasaññā is abandoned upon entering the first rupajhana. Whereas rūpasaññā is only left when it enters the first arupajhana.

Please explore which are kāmasaññā and which are rūpasaññā in our meditation perception.

My guess is that a large percentage of those arguing in this “war” are far from actually cultivating jhana. Wouldn’t it be better to turn away from the screen and keyboard, get under a teacher and find out for oneself what jhana is?

EDIT: By teacher, I would prefer a monastic with direct experience.

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It’s interesting how other traditions approached this. In the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra it is said the 5 sensory consciousness does not occur whilst in Jhāna, yet there is an experience of a fine body. This is explained in terms of the the physical body gaining a representation in the ayavijñāna (storehouse consciousness) and it is this bodily representation which is felt blissfully rather than the actual body. Likewise the Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra argues that the 5 senses are not present in the Jhānas, yet there can be a kind of subtle bodily experience. Venerable Vasumitra explains this in a strange way, by appeal to skilful means. Regardless there seems to be a long history in Buddhism of viewing the Jhānas as being without the 5 senses yet there is some kind of bodily experience, but that bodily experience is not the normal experience of the body. Rather it seems to be more like a kind of nimitta. Here is a summary of how other schools of thought viewed these states. I should note, they sound a bit contradictory at times.

The Abhidharmakośabhāṣya and the *Abhidharmanyāyānusāraśāstra indicate that the orthodoxy of the Sarvāstivāda is that the five sensory consciousnesses do not occur while one is in dhyāna.29 On this basis of this position, the *Mahāvibhāṣā maintains that after attaining dhyāna, one uses perception of the breath for the practice of mindfulness of breathing; that is, a meditator concentrates on perception of the breath to discern in-and-out breath throughout the entire body as a thread through a pearl.30 Vasubandhu, in his Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, also says that the breath flows throughout the whole body like a thread through a pearl, but points out that a meditator is aware of the breath cool or warm, having a benign or malign influence to the body.31 He adopts the position of the Sautrāntika that body-consciousness can occur while one is in dhyāna; hence, breath sensations are suggested as the meditation object for the practice of mindfulness of breathing while one is in dhyāna.32

The Yogācārabhūmi states that a meditator is able to experience bodily pleasant feeling while in dhyāna.33 Sthiramati, in his *Abhidharmasamuccayavyākhyā (Dashengapidamo zajilun 大乘阿毘達磨雜集論), says that the five sensory consciousnesses are not present while one is in dhyāna, but that ālaya-consciousness sustains the body to experience bodily pleasure.34 Vasubandhu and Asvabhāva, in their respective commentaries on the *Mahāyānasaṃgraha, state that there is no arising of the five sensory consciousnesses while one is in dhyāna, but that mind-consciousness depends on the body to experience bodily pleasure through similar body-contact.35 Their interpretation is based on the position of six consciousnesses,36 not eight consciousnesses,37 to discuss bodily feeling. The Yogācārabhūmi does not state whether or not body-consciousness feels pleasure while one is in dhyāna. This treatise simply suggests that breath sensations or tactile sensations are reminiscent of those created by the rubbing of cotton or fluff against one‟s skin to be the meditation object for the practice of mindfulness of breathing

The Yogācārabhūmi and the *Prakaraṇāryavācaśāstra maintain that one is able to hear sounds while in a meditative attainment.209 According to the Yogācārabhūmi, one hears sounds through ear-consciousness while in a meditative attainment; at the same time, one‟s mind-consciousness is still concentrated.210 That is, ear-consciousness perceives sounds first in a meditative attainment, and then mind-consciousness searches for sounds. Because of this searching, the meditator has to emerge from the meditative attainment. If there is no hearing of sounds or active searching for sounds, the meditator will not emerge from the meditative attainment. Therefore, the Yogācārabhūmi insists that it must be the case that one can hear sounds while in a meditative attainment, and not just so when after one emerges from it. Kuiji 窺基 (632-682), in his commentary on the Yogācārabhūmi, indicates that this statement of hearing sounds while in a meditative attainment is for refuting the Sarvāstivāda viewpoint that the five sensory consciousnesses are not present while one is in dhyāna.211

*Abhidharmasamuccayavyākhyā is in terms of “majority” to state that the five sensory consciousnesses do not occur while one is in a meditative attainment.215 Kuiji explains that the “majority” signifies “most people” who maintain that the five sensory consciousnesses do not work while they are in a meditative attainment, and “most sensory consciousnesses” do not act when śrāvakas (hearers) and pratyekabuddhas (selfrealizers) are in a meditative attainment.216 According to Kuiji, when śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas attain and abide in a meditative attainment, only ear-consciousness can arise, not the other four sensory consciousnesses. In contrast, all five sensory consciousnesses can arise when Bodhisattvas are in a meditative attainment.217 Kuiji‟s explanation that śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas are only aware of sounds while in a meditative attainment seems incorrect, but his indication that most meditators do not experience the five sensory objects when in a meditative attainment seems to reflect the mainstream opinion of early Buddhist schools on this issue.

Regarding bodily feeling, the Yogācārins recognize that a meditator experiences bodily pleasure while in dhyāna, but it is not body-consciousness that is aware of bodily pleasure. According to the *Abhidharmasamuccayavyākhyā, Sthiramati says that the five sensory consciousnesses do not occur while one is dhyāna, but that ālaya-consciousness sustains the body to experience bodily pleasure.235 According to Vasubandhu and Asvabhāvas‟ commentaries on the *Mahāyānasaṃgraha, they also state that no five sensory consciousnesses are present while one is in dhyāna, but that mind-consciousness depends on the body to perceive bodily pleasure through similar body-contact.236 Their commentaries stand on the position of six consciousnesses,237 not eight consciousnesses,238 to discuss bodily feeling. Vasubandhu and Asvabhāva explain that dependent on body, mind-consciousness perceives bodily feeling while one is in dhyāna, not in the formless attainments.

Issues in Śamatha and Vipaśyanā: A Comparative Study of Buddhist Meditation

A nimitta like bodily experience shows up in the "Chán fǎ yào jiě (Essential Explanation of The Method of Dhyāna) by Venerable Kumārajīva

Question: How can one recognize the signs of single-mindedness?

Answer: When the mind dwells on an image, the body would be soft, gentle, and blissful. All anger, anxiety, grief, and other afflictive mental dharmas are ceased.174 The mind acquires swift blissfulness never before experienced, which surpasses the five desires. Because the mind is pure without any defilement, the body will shine brightly. It is like a pure and clean mirror [shining] the light externally, or like the shining light of bright pearl that appears, illumines, and manifests in the pure water. After having seen these signs, the cultivator‘s mind is calm, tranquil, joyful, and delightful. It is like a thirsty person, who digs the earth searching for the water. If he sees the moist mud, then he will get the water soon. The cultivator practices in a similar way as such; at the beginning of the practice, it is like digging a dry earth for a longtime without stopping; as he sees the signs of moisture, he knows himself that he will get the water soon. Having known by oneself that one will attain the meditative samādhi soon, one must diligently concentrate, joyfully believe, gather the mind, and move it to enter the deep samādhi. Give rise to the thought that ―I have already cursed the five desires.‖ See those who seek after their desires as extremely detestable, as one sees a dog, who, unable to get good food, chews on stinking manure. According to these various conditions, you should curse desire as a fault. One‘s mind gives rise to sympathize with those who experience the five desires. Their own minds have blissfulness already, but they do not know how to seek for it. Instead, they seek for the external impurity and faulty joyfulness. Throughout day and night, the cultivator should always practice diligently various wholesome dharmas, which support the achievement of meditative samādhi.

Question: What are the marks of attaining the first dhyāna?

Answer: At first, one uses proper mindfulness to admonish and halt five desires. Although one has not attained the ground [of the first dhyāna], the mind is joyful, delightful, soft, harmonious, and gentle; the body has bright light. When one attains the first dhyāna, its mark is that it continuously changes, increases, and excels [than before]. Because the four elements of the Desire Realm spread fully all over the body, which is soft, harmonious, gentle, and joyful signs, and the mind leaves bad desire and unwholesome deed, then the samādhi of single-minded thought can cause one having joy and happiness.183 Forms created in the Form Realm have the feature of bright light. Hence, the cultivator sees the wonderful and bright light emitting from the body internally and externally. The mind of the cultivator changes differently. Within the angry situation, one does not get angry. Within the joyful situation, one does not have [much] joy. The eight kinds of worldly dharmas cannot move the cultivator.184 Faith, respect, shame, and conscience largely change and multiply. As for the clothes, food, and drink, one does not crave and attach to them. One only considers various wholesome deeds and meritorious morality as valuable, and others are worthless. One does not attach to even the five celestial desires, how much more the five impure desires of the secular world. For those who have attained the first dhyāna, these are the features.

Again, when one attains the first dhyāna, the mind is greatly surprised and joyful. As a poor man at last acquires the treasury storage, he is greatly surprised and joyful. He thought that: ―During the beginning, middle, and last watches of the morning, I have cultivated diligently and ascetically the first dhyāna. Now I have attained the good retribution, which is true without falsity. These wonderful and joyful experiences are as such, but other sentient beings are insane, confused, stubborn, and foolish. They are sunk into the impurity and non-blissfulness of five desires. How pitiful they are.‖ The blissfulness of the first dhyāna is spread all over the body internally and externally. As the water soaks into dry earth, it is wet and moist inside and outside. The experience of blissfulness of the Desire Realm cannot spread through the body and mind. The fire of sexual desire and anger in the Desire Realm burns the body. Entering the cooling and blissful pool of first dhyāna is the foremost way in extinguishing the fire of mental afflictions. As when it is too hot, one jumps into the cooling and pure pool. After one has attained the first dhyāna already, one thinks about the original practice of spiritual path or other conditions, namely the samādhi of Buddha name‘s recitation, or the mindfulness of the body‘s impurity, or the contemplation of the loving-kindness mind, or others. Why is that? Utilizing the power of contemplation helps the cultivator to attain the meditative samādhi and again enter deeply. Then, the original contemplations will become many times more pure and clear.

The Dhyāna sutras are usually used to argue that normal 5 sensory consciousness occurs whilst in Jhāna, but I don’t see anything that is normal in the above. It actually sounds quite close to the Visuddhimagga’s access concentration, and the body here is almost nimitta like in nature. This makes me wonder if there really is a divide at all in terms of Jhāna. It seems the differences we are seeing are simply subjective differences in how the mind processes such as refined state. Some don’t experience any kind of body at all, but rather lights or sensations. Others experience some kind of body, but it’s not a normal body they are talking about. It’s a bodily experience Jim, but not as we know it :smile:

Also, this was interesting to note from above

“his [Kuiji] indication that most meditators do not experience the five sensory objects when in a meditative attainment seems to reflect the mainstream opinion of early Buddhist schools on this issue.”

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Which sutta is that? Sounds interesting.

Kāmasaññā refers to the perception associated with desire for the senses, whether direct sense experience, or memories or ideas of such. It’s always driven by desire.

Rūpasaññā refers to the perception of physical phenomena, whether direct sense experience, or memories or ideas of such. In meditation it refers to the “visions” of light or other things seen in the minds’ eye during meditation. These are echoes of the physical experience of light that are created by perception, and in the EBTs are considered to be a subtle aspect of rūpa. Most modern teachers call them nimittas, but this term is not used in this way in the Suttas.

A Buddha or arahant has rūpasaññā but not kāmasaññā.

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Fantastic! you are a veritable font of knowledge @Ceisiwr !

I think that this is the fundamental point for me. To my way of thinking there simply are no experiences that are not embodied experiences in early Buddhism.

“Reverend, I say it’s not possible to know or see or reach the end of the world by traveling to a place where there’s no being born, growing old, dying, passing away, or being reborn.
“‘Yattha kho, āvuso, na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na upapajjati, nāhaṁ taṁ gamanena lokassa antaṁ ñāteyyaṁ daṭṭheyyaṁ patteyyan’ti vadāmi.
But I also say there’s no making an end of suffering without reaching the end of the world.
Na cāhaṁ, āvuso, appatvāva lokassa antaṁ dukkhassa antakiriyaṁ vadāmi.
For it is in this fathom-long carcass with its perception and mind that I describe the world, its origin, its cessation, and the practice that leads to its cessation.
Api cāhaṁ, āvuso, imasmiṁyeva byāmamatte kaḷevare sasaññimhi samanake lokañca paññāpemi lokasamudayañca lokanirodhañca lokanirodhagāminiñca paṭipadanti.
AN4.45

and

Mendicant, if you have the view that the soul and the body are the same thing, there is no living of the spiritual life.
Taṁ jīvaṁ taṁ sarīranti vā, bhikkhu, diṭṭhiyā sati brahmacariyavāso na hoti.
If you have the view that the soul and the body are different things, there is no living of the spiritual life.
Aññaṁ jīvaṁ aññaṁ sarīranti vā, bhikkhu, diṭṭhiyā sati brahmacariyavāso na hoti.
Avoiding these two extremes, the Realized One teaches by the middle way:
Ete te, bhikkhu, ubho ante anupagamma majjhena tathāgato dhammaṁ deseti:
SN12.35

I would also just point out that taking the suttas too literally is almost always the downfall of good sense, for example, there are not “5 senses” but probably somewhere north of 35 in humans that we know about, and the idea that for example you could take a rusty hacksaw and slowly cut off someone’s hand at the wrist while they where in 1st jhana and they simply wouldn’t notice is almost certainly as ridiculous as it sounds.

Metta.

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@Ceisiwr
Please refer to SuttaCentral

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I think that sutta is late:

For someone who has attained the fourth absorption, breathing has ceased.
catutthaṁ jhānaṁ samāpannassa assāsapassāsā niruddhā honti;

To me does not line up with:

Then it occurred to me,
Tassa mayhaṁ, aggivessana, etadahosi:
‘Why don’t I keep practicing the breathless absorption?’
yannūnāhaṁ appāṇakaṁyeva jhānaṁ jhāyeyyan’ti.
So I cut off my breathing through my mouth and nose and ears.
So kho ahaṁ, aggivessana, mukhato ca nāsato ca kaṇṇato ca assāsapassāse uparundhiṁ.
But then strong winds ground my head,
Tassa mayhaṁ, aggivessana, mukhato ca nāsato ca kaṇṇato ca assāsapassāsesu uparuddhesu adhimattā vātā muddhani ūhananti.
like a strong man was drilling into my head with a sharp point.
Seyyathāpi, aggivessana, balavā puriso tiṇhena Sikh arena muddhani abhimattheyya;
evameva kho me, aggivessana, mukhato ca nāsato ca kaṇṇato ca assāsapassāsesu uparuddhesu adhimattā vātā muddhani ūhananti.

From MN36

@josephzizys
In practice they are two very different things. The jhana practiced by the bodhisatta (in MN36) is forcibly holding one’s breath. Whereas in rupajhana-4, sankhara subsides naturally; both mental sankhara and physical sankhara.

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I think that the claim that breath ceases in 4th jhana is only attested at AN9.31 and SN36.11 in the 4 main Nikayas- I think that these are late, composite texts that diverge from the jhana formula as we have it in DN and MN which I take to be in general earlier* than the bulk of SN and AN.

I accept that all this is controversial, especially to people from the Therevada tradition, but hey, they’re not called the jhana “wars” for nothing :slight_smile:

Metta