What was Jhāna, really?

Last night, during Uposatha, I took the opportunity to start a book I had been wanting to get into for a while, Reexamining Jhāna: Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology. In it, Grzegorz Polak argues that the Theravada tradition has misinterpreted the role of Jhāna as an optional attainment, when it is in fact presented as necessary for enlightenment in the Sutta Pitaka. According to him, it’s simply a matter of a misinterpretation by later Buddhists, who had difficulty grasping the meditative practice of the Buddha as separate from the Yogic tradition. One compelling piece of evidence is the Sandha Sutta (AN 11:10), in which the Buddha condemns Jhāna practiced as absorption on a single object, leading to the cessation of the senses, etc; and instead, praises Jhāna not dependent on anything.

Also yesterday, I was browsing through the news (not entirely sure that that’s a wholesome activity for Uposatha right now, given the current state of turmoil of the world), and I came across this article on The Guardian about some new research on the effects of LSD on the brain. The researchers confirmed, by looking at fMRI scans of the research subjects, a hypothesis in which psychedelic drugs effectively “bring down” consciousness to the level of raw sensory data, by inhibiting the brain’s previously learned stories about the way the world works. Now, to me, this sounds an awful lot like the description that the Buddha gave about the state of one who has attained Jhāna: that one sees things as they really are, that one makes one’s mind soft and pliable, etc.

Simultaneously, that reminded me of a theory in neuroscience put forth by a researcher named Michael Edward Johnson, in which the brain gradually accumulates energy up to a critical point, and then releases that energy and reorganizes itself in more efficient patterns. According to that theory this is what happens during our day-to-day living, through our accumulated emotional experiences, new lessons learned, etc. And also, importantly, according to him, a plausible hypothesis is that this is precisely what happens in the brain during psychedelic experiences and deep meditation, albeit in a much more accelerated way. He argues that the mechanism through which meditation works is by accumulating sense data and preventing it from being re-interpreted by our usual notions, which results in that critical energy accumulation point being reached, and the brain reconfiguring itself into more blissful states.

Anyways, this is all just a bunch of random thoughts. But putting all of these together does make me feel excited about the validation that neuroscience appears to be giving to the importance of meditation, and it’s easy to feel like some scholar or researcher somewhere is about to make a leap forward in our understanding of the physiological aspects of the teachings of the Buddha.


The main purpose of Samma Samadhi and jhana is to clearly see dependent origination and the defilements. You overcome the 5 hindrances, which shows you what it feels like when the 5 hindrances are not present, then you confirm dependent origination and dependent originated phenomena.

The Buddha often uses the imagery of a bowl of water as a metaphor of the mind. The 5 hindrances are likened to different types of bowls of water (boiling water, murky water, wavy water, etc…) when the 5 hindrances are not present one can see through the water and see things how they really are.

Someone who has proper attention always has their attention on their mind (not breath, and other objects), this is illustrated again with a bowl representing the mind:

The Blessed One said, “Suppose, monks, that a large crowd of people were to come thronging together, saying, ‘The beauty queen! The beauty queen!’ And suppose that the beauty queen were highly accomplished at singing & dancing, so that an even greater crowd would come thronging, saying, ‘The beauty queen is singing! The beauty queen is dancing!’ Then a man would come along, desiring life & shrinking from death, desiring pleasure & abhorring pain. They would say to him, ‘Now look here, mister. You must take this bowl filled to the brim with oil and carry it on your head in between the great crowd & the beauty queen. A man with a raised sword will follow right behind you, and wherever you spill even a drop of oil, right there will he cut off your head.’ Now what do you think, monks? Would that man, not paying attention to the bowl of oil, let himself get distracted outside?”

“No, lord.”

“I have given you this parable to convey a meaning. The meaning is this: The bowl filled to the brim with oil stands for mindfulness immersed in the body. Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will develop mindfulness immersed in the body. We will pursue it, hand it the reins, take it as a basis, steady it, consolidate it, and undertake it well.’ That is how you should train yourselves.”

So to put simply, jhana is the mind unhindered.


This is not possible because science is confined to a description of the various cycles of samsara and doesn’t contain the dhamma perspective and information which allows the escape from that.


But surely how the Dhamma affects the aggregate of form can be studied, wouldn’t you say?

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Science doesn’t speak from a dhamma perspective. For example the goal of psychology is to enable beings to be functioning members of society, not personal emancipaton. In taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha practitioners have to disentangle themselves from ultimate allegiance to science. The Buddhist outlook is a different culture, for example the concept of beginningless and endlessness, putting the focus on the present. There needs to be a separation between conventional and ultimate reality (SN 35.80). This doesn’t mean rejecting conventional reality outright:

“Citta, these are the world’s designations, the world’s expressions, the world’s ways of speaking, the world’s descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping to them.”—DN 9

Conventional reality is a network of institutions arrived at by common consensus and based on the arbitrary assignment of name, whose function is maintenance of the body while it is alive here. Think of the impersonal operations in an ant’s nest, to those ants the functioning of the nest is ultimate, and they will die for it. Conventional reality purports to be ultimate, discounting that is the introduction to insight knowledge.


If it’s a matter of what the goal of science is, then I think coming up with a theory of what meditation does to the mind is perfectly reasonable, imho. Suppose that the original teaching on Jhāna has been lost to time; if we can use science to find out what the early Buddhist practices were, then I think that’s a pretty noble goal, aligning with the Dhamma.

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There is some science, Ven Punnaji was a doctor with a PhD in psychology, he talks about the Amygdala connection to the frontal cortex. The brain has a fast connection from Amygdala to frontal cortex, but not from frontal cortex to the amygdala, this is why it’s hard to control emotional impulses and reactions.

Here’s a video by his student Bro Billy on this topic


this depends whether you believe in sutta jhana or visuddhimagga jhana

Do you think sound can be heard while In jhana ?

Do you think one needs jhana to attain nibbana ?

Only if you can answer those questions you can answer your own “what was jhana, really?” Question

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I think the better way is to attain to Jhanas, to truly know what’s Jhanas.

A tip is to youtube ajahn Brahm Meditation retreat.

Keep on listening to the many years of many meditation retreat, live like a hermit monk, or actually be one.

I have attended Pa-auk’s style retreats, but Ajahn Brahm makes it clear on the method language not just the goal language of attaining to Jhanas. To attain to Jhanas, one has to drop all wanting to attain to Jhanas.


But according to the latest pali scholar like Ven ledi sayadaw who wrote many pali books and tikas like nirruttadipani paramatthadipani,etc there’s no need for jhana to attain enlightenment as momentary concentration alone is enough

This is supported by Ven dhammapala who wrote paramatthamanjusa, a pali commentary to Ven buddhaghosa’s visuddhimagga

Obviously it’s not wise for us to assume we know pali more than these Venerables, and maybe I am wrong but I don’t think all our English bhantes currently can write a tika in English let alone in pali like what Ven ledi and Ven dhammapala did

Now ledi sayadaw especially was known to ever fly during meditation so he is not only a pali scholar he is a legendary master too

But you are right Obviously we need to consider ajahn brahm and his teacher ajahn chah and others too if they can help us during meditation

And If there’s any conflict between our English bhantes and those Venerables I think it’s clear we should side with one who can write pali who understands pali in this case those Venerables, not the English bhantes but of course this is arguable

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There is a lot of misinterpretation that leads to the wrong ideas.

Personally I believe this two hour dhamma talk by Ven Punnaji, is the best dhamma talk I heard in my life, and the closest interpretation of the true dhamma. I highly recommend anyone who seeks to understand the dhamma to watch it closely, and even download it to your hard drive or google drive.


Not sure whether this description is experiential or theoretical, but I can say from personal experience that LSD had a profound effect on the ego as well as sensory data in a way that did not reduce the activity of the ego. LSD is actually considered an enhancer or magnifier of certain emotional aspects of the brain’s function at a certain level.


Hi I was interested in your post. I have a little experience of this however not from the psychedelic side but from a brain injury perspective. What you are describing is the flow of information from one hemisphere of the brain to the other. ‘Normal’ brains operate mainly from the left hemisphere, the thinking doing brain. It inhibits information, at the corpus collosum, from the right hemisphere, the being, here in the moment brain. These hemispheres share many functions but the sense of time and body only exists in the doing, conceptual brain. The sense perception of information is different in each. LSD, DMT and psilocybin dis-inhibit the flow of information, in effect allowing you to experience both sets of information.
If you study this a little further, (Iain McGilchrist and Jill Bolte Taylor) you will begin to understand Jhanas in terms of ‘right brain hemisphere functions.’
People talk of attention as singular but in fact there are 2 main types of attention from each hemisphere at the same time reflected in awareness (the prefrontal cortex). What Sati does is focus the conceptual attention on the object thereby freeing the wide attention span of the right hemisphere. If you gain good control of the narrow focus, ‘phenomena’ should be perceived in the wide attention field as products of the right hemisphere. This is de-centering or re-perceiving as described in clinical mindfulness.
Interestingly it allows one to have subjective and objective experience at the same time. This relates to internal and external and both internal and external experience as seen in the refrain of the Satipatthana sutta. To have right mindfulness and right concentration. Or in the case of psychedelics keeping your head and not getting swept away by phenomena or the horrors.
Look into the use of ‘soma’ in Vedanta. It’s not to get high and trip but to train to keep ones head under the influence thereby attaining a strong mental capacity for mind control.
It’s interesting stuff.
If you are interested in the clinical side look up Robin Carhart-Harris, UCL I think. He is pioneering psychedelic research for depression in the UK. The VA in the US is already using MDMA as love and compassion in a pill to counter PTSD.


This is interesting. Now I’m wondering …

What is the connection between brain and jhana? Indeed is there one?
Does one need a brain to do jhana?
Does a deva have more brain material than a human or less?
Why do some of the deva realms correspond to different jhana attainments?
Could it be that the brain acts like a filter on the mind preventing clear seeing?
Does shutting down the brain result in clear seeing?
Is this why Near Death Experiences are sometimes said to be similar to jhana?

And finally if metabolism does stop in jhana, then the ‘active’ (i.e. neurons firing) brain also presumably stops - see:

Interesting stuff.


It’s the neuron density that matters. Humans have more neural density than whales and elephants despite those animals having larger brains.

Neurons are phosphate based electrical signals, they’re electricity.

So maybe devas have more neural density than humans, but maybe a human like the Buddha can surpass devas in neural density. So the more jhana one develops, the higher the plane, the higher the neural density?

In the end, it’s the mind that matters, and beings in the formless plane are only mind.

All this sums up to the fact that the human brain has the largest number of cortical neurons (about 15 billion), despite the fact that the human brain and cortex are much smaller in size than those of cetaceans and elephants (with 10–12 billion or even fewer cortical neurons).


Hi Stu
Your thinking is narrowing down into a bottleneck. The breakthrough will come when you understand the structure of the brain and it’s functions. In EBT’s think of it in terms of the aggregates especially sanna and sankhara and how the mental factors are mobilized.
Remember past life actions are derived from mental contact giving rise to feeling tone. There is reaction and the life, death cycle. Ignorance conditions kamma - sanna and sankhara. Volition is conditioned. This conditioning is in the form of an array of neutral factors ie the universals and the occasionals which ‘give life to’ and drive an alignment of responses ie unwholesome or wholesome factors.
In terms of the brain there is innate conditioning running the basics of the mind/body function (7 universals). The occasionals are the drivers of action, think of them as executive function. These drivers are not required for trained automatic functions, what in the mindfulness field are called automatic pilot.
When you practice the satipatthanas you are learning to overcome automatic alignments of mental factors (auto pilot/reaction to feeling tone) by cultivating primarily the occasional mental factors, drivers. In this way unwholesome mental factors (reactions, autopilot) can be hijacked and wholesome ones mobilized to occupy the space instead.
Once this is developed the mind opens up rather than shuts down.

You may be surprised to find that there is more brain activity seen in scans. Similar to REM during sleep.
So let’s answer your questions.

Jhanas in terms of phenomena are products of the right hemisphere of the brain. It is purely objective.

It would be better to have a whole brain but the right hemisphere would suffice for jhana phenomena to be experienced. (Read ‘The master and his emissary’ by Iain McGilchrist) People with damage to their left brain hemispheres live in the right brain and experience the jhana phenomena state as an everyday experience.

Devas are products of the right brain, for a fuller understanding read about mental phenomena in Jungian terms, the ‘personal and collective’ unconscious. All the figures from mythology exist as devas in the right hemisphere of the brain.

This corresponds to different functional elements of the right brain. For contrast your left hemisphere has functions for language and speech and memory. Just think in terms of different neural networks.

Clearly seeing, in internal visual terms, is the quality of the visual experience. Clearly knowing is something different altogether, right view. You may want to check your terminology in the question.

Shutting the brain down results in death.

In fact for serious mental and physical trauma you will find the same response. Near death experience in these term relate specifically to ‘seeing’ your relatives only. The visual arena is the same as described in ‘clearly seeing’, it is the quality of the experience.

If metabolism stops you are dead. If the body however becomes calm, metabolism can slow considerably.


Yes… Sort of … From the abstract …

The best fit between brain traits and degrees of intelligence among mammals is reached by a combination of the number of cortical neurons, neuron packing density, interneuronal distance and axonal conduction velocity—factors that determine general information processing capacity (IPC), as reflected by general intelligence.

So also the speed of the electrical impulses (which is different from the flow of electricity) in the axons and also the closeness of the neurons to each other (because that bit is done by chemistry - i.e neurotransmitters and hence much slower). Fascinating.

I’ve known a few Border Collies who were way smarter than me with seemingly smaller brains :grinning:

But is “general intelligence”, the same as ability to jhana?

Or maybe these different types of brain are just different filters on reality? A dog brain has a filter that is inclined towards knowing the world through smell and a human brain is more inclined to knowing the world through sight.

So they have no brains at all and yet their meditation surpass the rupa jhanas?

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Jokingly aside they are smart they are not idiot lol

And What’s interesting is the they are not guaranteed to be non returner except pure abode plane maybe because the pure abode gods do have brain because they are in rupa planes

I think brain has more more to with perception the less the perception ability the less neurons you need, in arupas planes the perception is so subtle thus they don’t need brain

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Hi Rich. Good stuff! :heart:

I am maybe suggesting that: the mind opens up when the brain shuts down.

This of course doesn’t make sense if you equate mind with brain which is the dominant scientific theory at the moment. Having said that, I do note that Anil Seth at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science (which is a just down the road from me), is trying his best to be neutral about this and not equate mind with brain when he speaks these days. He says it’s not necessary to make this assumption to do the science. Good on him!

The EBTs do not equate mind and brain do they? I think that they are at odds with the current cultural understanding of this. What do you think?

Has a meditator in jhana ever had a scan? How would we know, when we can’t get two people to agree on what jhana means? :rofl: :rofl: :rofl:

Yeah, ‘knowing’ is a better translation - Sampajañña

Maybe?? But …


No maybe about it.
Unless of course you think you live beyond the body. ‘Mindful there is a body, feelings, mind and dhammas’ but also mindful there is no self in these or anywhere else. Dukkha anatta.
I think a way not to get confused about the brain on one hand and Buddhist psychology is to consider the brain as a physical bio-mechanism and Buddhist psychology as the phenomena it produces. An analogy would be to think of a building built of bricks (brain), you live in and experience the spaces in between the constructed bricks (psychology) and not in the bricks themselves.

Consider both, one informs the other at the interface. You cannot live in a brick and you cannot build with space. Mindful a building exists and mindful the aggregate material is not the self. Mindful there is space but no self exists in space.