I have wanted to respond to your comments about jhāna, but only now have I got around to it.
I’ll just get straight into it. You say that, “ven. thanissaro … gives a pretty convincing argument that sound being a ‘thorn’ in first jhana does NOT mean that there can’t be hearing in first jhana.”
I don’t agree with this. Ajahn Thanissaro makes a series of assertions that do not, in fact, lead to the conclusion he draws. He starts off by saying that a thorn is said by Buddhaghosa to be “something whose presence destroys what it pierces.” He then goes on to propose an alternative understanding – “An interpretation of ‘thorn’ that consistently fits all ten items in the list, however, would be that ‘thorn’ means something that creates difficulties for what it touches” – which I largely agree with, but with some important provisos and nuances. AT also uses the narrative context to bolster his argument. His understanding of this context seems right but, as far as I can see, he draws the wrong conclusions from it.
To start with I do not think it is accurate to say that a “thorn” “creates difficulties for what it touches”. This is already a loaded expression that skews the rest of the argument. If something “creates difficulties,” it is implied that it is an obstacle but not an insuperable one. This, however, needs to be shown rather than assumed. It is quite conceivable, for instance, that the degree of ‘thorniness’ is not the same in all ten situations. And a careful analysis – as I intend to show – actually requires such a nuanced reading. Similarly “for what it touches” also has an inbuilt assumption that skews the debate, for it is not at all clear that the thorn actually touches what it hinders, but quite possibly that it just stops it from happening.
That Ajahn Thanissaro gets it wrong becomes clear when he applies his description of a thorn to specific instances. He states, “thus to say that directed thought and evaluation is a thorn for the second jhana means that these mental activities make it difficult to enter or remain in the second jhana”. But this is incorrect. Vitakka and vicāra (his “directed thought and evaluation”) are specifically said not to exist in the second jhāna. This means they have to be abandoned prior to entry, and if they re-arise after the entry, then one has already left the attainment. In other words, these two factors of the first jhāna cannot exist in the second jhāna. (AT’s actual wording is quite ambiguous, but regardless it is misleading.) When he then states, based on this flawed argument, that this means “noise is a thorn for the first jhana simply means that noise makes it difficult to enter or remain there,” he is drawing a conclusion that is unwarranted. In fact, basing himself on the precedent of the second jhāna, the only logical conclusion is that noise is incompatible with the first jhāna, and that this is the meaning of ‘thorn’, at least in this case. As so often, we should be careful with being too quick to dismiss the understanding of the commentaries.
So what about AT’s other argument that, “if ‘thorn’ were to mean something that cannot be present without destroying what it pierces, then nearness to women would automatically destroy a man’s celibacy, or a show would destroy one’s guarding of the senses, which isn’t true in either case”? This seems reasonable enough, and that is why I said the word ‘thorn’ does not seem to have an entirely consistent meaning in this sutta. The Buddha is grouping a number of different situations into one sutta, and it seems to me that strict consistency in the use of ‘thorn’ is not required. The Buddha, I believe, was first and foremost practical; he used language in a pragmatic manner, not with absolute mathematical consistency. If he had tried to be absolutely consistent, I suspect he would have failed. In other words, as so often, it is the context that clarifies the details.
If I am right that the word ‘thorn’ is not used with absolute consistency, then the question remains as to how it is used in the context of the first jhāna. It seems to me that here, as is usually the case, the jhānas belong together as a group, and thorn thus needs to be understood in the same way for all four. This is because the jhānas are all ‘states’ of a certain duration – this is implied by the fact that one enters and emerges from them and remains in them according to predetermined length, etc. (And yes, these qualities of jhāna are mentioned in the EBTs, e.g. in the Jhāna-saṃyutta, SN34, and AN6.24+AN6.63+AN7.40+AN7.41.) Such states lose their meaning if all sorts of things can be experienced within them, since their boundaries are no longer clear. Whether one is in jhāna or not becomes quite arbitrary, which is borne out of the many disagreements in debates on this topic. When you are not in jhāna, however, boundaries are far more blurry (what are the precise limits of ‘shows’ and ‘nearness to women’?), and I suspect this may be one reason why ‘thorn’, too, has a slightly less precise meaning in these contexts.
As for the narrative context, AT says, “had he wanted to make the point that noise cannot be heard in the first jhana, he would have criticized them for going to the trouble of leaving the first monastery, and recommended that if they wanted to escape the disturbance of noise, they should have entered the first jhana and dwelled comfortably there instead.” This argument does not hold if we regard noise as a hindrance to entry to the first jhāna, which it fairly obvious is, regardless of how one interprets it. In this case AT has trapped himself in an untenable position because of his narrow definition of ‘thorn’ as “something that creates difficulties for what it touches,” implying that the thorn is only relevant after one has attained jhāna. I can only conclude that AT’s argument fails.
Ok, Frank, now let me respond to some of the points you make about SN40.1. You state, “so in 2nd jhana, you have perception and attention to vitakka (thought), basically the beginnings of, but not a fully formed thought,” and you seem to base this on the phrase iminā vihārena viharato “(while in) that dwelling.” Again, it seems to me that you are trying to squeeze too much meaning out of the Pali. The meaning of phrases like iminā vihārena viharato are simply not that precise. The phrase recurs in MN122, where the meaning is quite elliptic and means something like “at the general time I was practising such a state”. (E.g.: Ayaṃ kho panānanda, vihāro tathāgatena abhisambuddho yadidaṃ sabbanimittānaṃ amanasikārā ajjhattaṃ suññataṃ upasampajja viharituṃ. Tatra ce, ānanda, tathāgataṃ iminā vihārena viharantaṃ bhavanti upasaṅkamitāro bhikkhū bhikkhuniyo upāsakā … uyyojanikapaṭisaṃyuttaṃyeva kathaṃ kattā hoti, “And, Ānanda, this attainment has been discovered by the Tathāgata, that is, to enter upon and remain in internal emptiness, because of the non-attention to all objects. If in regard to this, the Tathāgata is remaining in this attainment, and people approach him, whether monks, nuns, lay followers … then (the Tathāgata) speaks words connected with dismissal.”) Here it seems clear, at least to me, that the dismissal of people doers not happen while the Tathāgata is in the described state, but during the general period of time he is involved in the practise of it.
At SN40.1 the meaning seems to be more precise than this, but the point is that the expression is more flexible than you seem to allow for. Since we know that the second jhāna is defined, at least in part, by the absence of vitakka and vicāra, it only stands to reason that as soon as these arise in your mind you are out of the attainment. The same argument holds for the first jhāna and sensuality. In this case the argument is perhaps even stronger: in all cases you have to abandon sensuality (the five hindrances) to enter jhāna and it is, as you would know, vivcc’eva kāmehi (which, by the way, means much more than simply abandoning the hindrance).
You then say, “clearly what vism. and ajahn brahm define for their first jhana has a much greater difficulty than what the buddha is asking for. … he just disenfranchised 99 percent of the population.” But this is missing the point. The point is that we need to interpret the suttas correctly, otherwise there is absolutely no way we will reach the goal. Should we also make Awakening easier to achieve, by interpreting it in novel ways, or should we be as realistic as possible about what it entails? If ending saṃsāra is as important as the Buddha says, we would be doing a great disservice to everyone by misinterpreting what he is trying to say. When you get to the jhānas, you are next door to Awakening. The jhānas and the stages of Awakening are frequently grouped together in the suttas. They form a group of phenomena that are otherworldly. Once you start looking at the Buddha’s description of the jhānas in this light, it is no wonder that they demand a lot of perseverance and commitment to attain. But anyone can do it with the right attitude. This is not about disenfranchising, but exactly the opposite. You want to give people the real deal. If people get led up the garden path, that’s disenfranchising.
“They give up”. Well, they shouldn’t. This just means their commitment isn’t there, or they are looking in the wrong place. People often focus too much on meditation and forget about the factors that enable meditation. A holistic approach to the path is required. I have no doubt that anyone can do it. And no, I don’t think the Mahāsi movement is the answer. I know too many people who have been in that system and who were told they had attainments, but later realised it was nothing of the sort. If the student doubts his own attainment, what does that say about the method or the teacher?
I have no idea whether we will ever see eye-to-eye on this, but the argument is still worthwhile, I think. At least for now!