Sunday, June 21, 2020

Geoff Shatz, measureless mind, disabusing you of wrong ideas of jhana promulgated by late Theravada

Geoff used to have a website, 'measureless mind', based on his detailed study of EBT core principles and practices from his own translations of Pali suttas and early commentaries. 

The link above contains a PDF file that someone scraped from his now defunct website, and another article on jhana. 

This is really priceless and excellent work well worth your time to study carefully. It will help disabuse you of  many fanciful and wrong ideas promulgated by late Theravada, especially on the topics of jhana, samatha, vipassana. 

Here's an excerpt of what he wrote on 'samatha'

Calm Abiding (Samatha)

The sage (muni) who resorts to empty dwellings is excellent, empty of self ... The great sage who goes to an empty place does not move even a hair of the body.
                                                                             —Samyutta Nikaya IV, 6
The practice of calm abiding meditation relates directly to emptiness in the Sutta Pitaka, in that the practitioner is often advised to go to empty places such as a forest, a cemetery, the foot of a tree, or to an empty dwelling, in order to develop their meditation. This is the most literal understanding of emptiness and is purely functional—simply because there are no outstanding distractions in such places, empty places are well suited for developing and unifying the mind. Also in the suttas we find reference to the mind of the meditator being described as an empty place, or 'abode of emptiness' (sunnata-vihara), and it is on this metaphoric level that empty place, or abode of emptiness, or abiding in emptiness, relates directly to calm abiding meditation. In the Pindapataparisuddhi Sutta the Buddha asks Sariputta:
Sariputta, your faculties are bright, and your complexion is pure and clear. In which abode do you now abide much, Sariputta?
Sariputta replied: Venerable Sir, I now abide much in the abode of emptiness (sunnata-vihara).
Good, good, Sariputta. Surely you, Sariputta, now abide much in the abode of great men. For this, Sariputta, is the abode of great men, namely, emptiness (sunnata).
And so the practitioner is to go to an empty place, and then develop the mind into an 'abode of emptiness.' And as the Buddha says here, this is the abode of great men (mahapurisa-vihara). But what exactly is the mind to be emptied of? The Pindapataparisuddhi Sutta goes on to say that such a mind is empty of infatuation (raga), hatred (dosa), delusion (moha), and sensory reactivity (patigha). And such a mind is not to be developed only at the time of meditation—one is to abide in this emptiness during all activities. In this way, emptiness is the abode of great men. So it's clear that the mind abiding in emptiness isn't abiding in a blank or vacant state, rather, it is a calm and clear state which is empty of the above mentioned defilements.
Furthermore, as one progresses in one's practice of calm abiding (abiding in emptiness) and clear seeing (vipassana of empty world) one realizes that the two practices are not separate and distinct, but that calm abiding stabilizes clear seeing, and that clear seeing strengthens calm abiding, to the point where the two practices are so integrated in one's mind that they become one and the same. With this integration, abiding in emptiness is abiding in an empty world, and one realizes that this empty abiding is actually nonabiding. But first things first. Let's take a look at calm abiding meditation.
Calming the Mind: Mindful Breathing (Anapanasati)
Now how is mindfulness of in-&-out breathing developed & pursued so as to be of great fruit, of great benefit?

There is the case where a monk, having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect, and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.
                                                                                                           —Anapanasati Sutta
Calm abiding (samatha) is a process of unifying and centering the mind to calm it down and release it from its habitual discursiveness, and the practice of mindful breathing can help us do just that. Now there's one thing to keep in mind from the outset here, which is that this is not a goal oriented practice, but a practice of softening the judgmental heart-mind so as to begin to settle into the freedom of the unconditioned present. Two qualities essential for calm abiding are those of nonjudgmental  'effortless exertion' and nonstriving 'surrender' to the so-called 'object' of meditation, in this case, the tactile sensation of the breathing process.
Begin by sitting (either on a chair or cross-legged on the floor) with your back straight but not forced or ridged. Next, simplify matters by recognizing that your experience at this time consists of four simple processes: seeing (visual consciousness), hearing (auditory consciousness), tactual sensation (tactile consciousness), and thinking (mental consciousness). And if you gently close your eyes you've simplified your experience to three. Now you can begin to enter into this experience of 'tactual sensation' and specifically, the aspect of that experience related to 'breathing,' so as to begin to unify the mind. In the Anapanasati Sutta, the Buddha gives the first specific instruction regarding mindful breathing as follows:
Breathing in long, he discerns that he is breathing in long; or breathing out long, he discerns that he is breathing out long. Or breathing in short, he discerns that he is breathing in short; or breathing out short, he discerns that he is breathing out short.
Now we can turn to the Patisambhidamagga Commentary on Breathing to see how it explains the initial 'objects' of mindfulness and where we are advised to station our mindful attention. It states:
Sign (nimitta), in-breath, and out-breath, are not objects of a single awareness; one who knows these three phenomena [objects] can thereby obtain development.
[T]he monk sits, having established mindfulness at the nose tip [i.e. nostril area] or on the upper lip ....
And so the suggested 'spot' for the placing of our mindful attention is the nostril area for one breathing through the nose, or the upper lip of the mouth for one, who for whatever reason, is unable to breathe through their nose at this time—if one has a cold for example. (Now because nasal breathing seems to be more effective for establishing mindfulness and thereby calming the mind, I'm going to explain the 'sign' only in terms of nasal breathing, but keep in mind that if you're not able to breathe freely through your nose at any time you can simply locate the 'sign' on the upper lip or general mouth area, and proceed from there.)
The tactile sensation experienced at this 'spot' (i.e. nostril area) is the 'sign,' and as such, is the 'object' of our attention between in-breath and out-breath. This is obviously a fairly small area (the entire 'flat' area at the base of the nose surrounding the nostrils), and the tactual sensation experienced here between in-breath and out-breath is fairly subtle, but the in-breath and out-breath in comparison, are slightly less subtle and are what aids us to remain focused on this spot between breaths. If you have difficulty at first sensing any tactual sensation between in and out-breath that's okay, over time your awareness of this area will increase in sensitivity, and this will no longer be an issue.
And so the tactile sensation experienced at this 'spot' is the 'sign,' and as such, is the 'object' of attention between in-breath and out-breath. Now regarding the'object' of mindfulness, the commentary states that this spot shouldn't be considered as being the unchanging 'object' of a unitary awareness. This is a very skillful way of relating to the breath so as to discern the entire duration of the tactual sensation of the flow of air at the nostril area during the in-breath as one 'object' of one 'awareness;' the entire duration of the tactual sensation of the flow of air at the nostril area during the out-breath as one 'object' of one 'awareness;' and the entire duration of the gap before the next in-breath as one 'object' of one 'awareness,' with the sign of this gap being the bare tactual sensation experienced at the nostril area.
Now the sutta states that the meditator should discern whether an in-breath and out-breath is long or short. The commentary states that here the reference is simply to the relative duration of each breath. The injunction is to simply recognize that each breath is unique—no two breaths have the same duration. The idea here isn't to attempt to control the breath in any way, but to just be a passive observer of the natural involuntary breathing process that is occurring whether on is aware of it or not.
Of course, as soon as that is said one becomes self-conscious and it is impossible to know if the breath is occurring as it usually does as an involuntary process when we aren't aware of it, or if we really are manipulating it in some way. So to remain aware of the basic involuntary process, simply exhale normally, and 'wait' for the next inhalation. Just watch and wait—and sure enough—there it is. Unprompted by you, the breath breathes, reaches its own level of fullness, and naturally exhales again. The entire process is effortless.
This is a very straightforward and direct form of meditation. There is no effort to manipulate the breath in any way. There is no expectation whatsoever of experiencing anything any more 'spectacular,' or 'mystical,' or 'ecstatic' than the bare tactual sensation just described. On doesn't need to attempt to be a 'super-yogi,' in fact any such ridiculous notions that one is going to 'become' something more special than what one already is, is nothing but more samsaric craving (tanha), which is the complete antithesis of the third noble truth—the cessation of suffering. To practice mindful breathing one needs no more than a somewhat calm environment, working lungs, and air, preferably somewhat clean air. These are the only 'paraphernalia' one ever needs to practice the pragmatic meditation that the Buddha taught as 'mindfulness of in and out breathing.' And when practiced over some period of time, this mindfulness of breathing will naturally lead to a unified state of mind called jhana, completely without any added manipulation.
But first things first. When you discern that you are able to stay with these three objects throughout their duration for some period of time (fifteen minutes is an arbitrary but possibly useful guideline—you have to judge for yourself what is right for you), without becoming completely distracted by discursive thinking and thereby losing awareness of the object that is presently occurring, you can expand your sphere of mindful attention to include awareness of the tactual sensation of the entire body as a whole, as experienced from within. But it's important to mention at this juncture, that we're not trying to forcibly suppress discursive thinking so as to remain with our object of mindfulness. Again, attempts at forcible manipulation or suppression are not very helpful, and unless the discursive thoughts that are arising are tainted by one of the hindrances of: impulsive sensual desire, aggression, agitation, laziness/sleepiness, or doubt about the efficacy of practice,  they should simply be left alone, and one should just remain attentive to the tactual sensation of the present object, while ignoring sounds (auditory consciousness) and thoughts (mental consciousness).
Remember what was said at the outset about simplifying your present experience to tactual sensations, sounds, and thoughts, and thereby recognizing that the only sphere that presently interests you is the tactile sphere, and these other two spheres can in no way block or hinder your full awareness of the tactile sphere unless you give them more attention than you do it. (But of course, if hindering thoughts do arise with such force as to keep you from maintaining full awareness of the tactile sphere and attention on the present object within this sphere, then it's suggested that you to take up an appropriate antidote to that hindrance, and thereby intentionally eliminate it.) Continuing on now, with our discussion of the expansion of the tactual 'object' of awareness to include the entire body, the Anapanasati Sutta states:
He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the entire body, and to breathe out sensitive to the entire body.
Simply expand your sphere of attention to include the awareness of the felt-sense of your whole body as you experience it from within, including the tip of the nose, and also the sensation where your body is touching the chair or cushion, and floor. Take a few deep breaths while continuing to experience the total tactile sphere of the entire body as a flowing, unceasing, inner energy field of 'vibration' and 'sensation.' Experience the field/sphere as a vibrational 'whole' without allowing your awareness to 'collapse' by focusing attention on any particular sensation within the felt-sense of the entire sphere. Recognize that the shape of your body represents the shape and expanse of this sphere. Relax into this experience without being either 'for' or 'against' any particular tactual sensation that's arising. Just go deeply into this experience of tactile sensation. When either 'hearing' or 'thinking' arise simply let them go by remaining with this ongoing flux of sensation.
While remaining aware of the entire tactile energy sphere including the nostril area, and without forcing the breath in any way, simply notice a subtle expansion of the whole tactile sphere as the abdomen naturally moves down and outward when you breathe in, and then a very slight deflation as the abdomen moves in and upward when you breathe out. The body's like a three-quarters filled balloon inflating slightly and deflating slightly. The tactile energy sphere is the space inside the balloon. Just remain aware of this natural process as it is occurring. Once again, this is a very straightforward and direct form of meditation. There is no effort to manipulate the breath in any way. And with a little practice, one recognizes that this experience of the entire sphere of tactile body sensation is one of the most rewarding, naturally satisfying, healthful, and serene states of awareness possible. With this simple recognition one naturally chooses to enter into this state as often as possible, and thereby experience this serenity and calm.  In this way calm abiding meditation, very naturally, over time, leads to more and more subtle and refined states of mental tranquility. The Buddha expresses this with the next statement in the Anapanasati Sutta:    
He trains himself to breathe in calming bodily fabrication (the breath), and to breathe out calming bodily fabrication.
And so this is the complete process of calm abiding meditation using the breath as object, with the intentional purpose of attaining the state of jhanic consciousness (jhana-citta). Exactly where calm abiding 'ends' and jhana 'begins' is subjective, and therefore a matter for each meditator to discern for him or her self, although there are some fairly specific mental factors that we can become aware of, which are clear indications of the jhanic state. But before we go on to discuss these mental factors associated with jhana, and the stages of refinement experienced as the mind settles into deeper and deeper stages of jhanic consciousness, it's necessary to define exactly what jhana is and isn't, because there is so much misinformation out there as to just what the Buddha means by 'jhana.'
Jhana (Mental Unification): What It Isn't And What It Is
Calm abiding is the practice of jhana. The two terms are virtually synonymous, the only distinction being that calm abiding is the general practice of  unifying the mind with an 'object' of meditation, and jhana is the state of unification achieved. What jhana isn't, is a state of total absorption wherein all sensory experience ceases. The notion that jhana is a mental state devoid of sensory form perception is a late development in the commentarial literature, and is not stated in the Sutta Pitaka.(5)   This misinterpretation of jhana is based on the commentarial interpretation of certain post Sutta Pitaka notions found in the much later Abhidhamma Pitaka. (Of course, here I'm talking about 'form' jhana, which is the only meditation practice that the Buddha actually called 'jhana.' He also taught formless meditation as an optional development once the meditator was established within the fourth form jhana, but in the Sutta Pitaka formless meditation is never called jhana. Only in the Abhidhamma is it labeled as formless jhana, thus the distinction between 'form' jhana and 'formless' jhana. But here we are only concerned with form jhana.)  
The Patisambhidamagga states that jhana is a skillful (kusala) cause for rebirth on the form sphere plane (rupavacara-bhumi). This is because jhanic meditation includes skillful mental factors (such as piti: happiness, and sukha: pleasantness, etc.), while simultaneously being free of negative emotions (kilesa) which are hindrances (nirvarana) to meditation. And so the mental phenomena of jhanic consciousness (jhana-citta) are called form sphere phenomena (rupavacara-dhamma) because the presence of these skillful mental factors and absence of these unskillful mental factors are the commonly occurring basic components of the mental states of deities within the heavenly sub-planes of the form sphere plane. But the above mentioned post Sutta Pitaka commentarial sources interpret the statement that jhana employs form sphere phenomena (rupavacara-dhamma) and is a cause for rebirth within the form sphere plane (rupavacara-bhumi), as meaning that the meditator who has attained jhana has actually ceased all awareness of their surroundings here on the sensual desire sphere plane (kamavacara-bhumi), and some even go as far as to say that jhana is only correctly attained when the meditator has actually accessed the form sphere planes.
This post Sutta Pitaka commentarial interpretation that jhanic consciousness necessitates the cessation of all awareness of sensory form (i.e. visible form, sound, odor, flavor, and tactile sensation) seems to be based on the erroneous notion that a plane (bhumi) of existence is synonymous (i.e. has a direct one to one correlation with) with a sphere (avacara) of phenomena. For example, as human beings we presently abide on the sensory desire sphere plane (kamavacara-bhumi), and as such, our kammic mental history predisposes us to experiences of mental phenomena connected with negative emotions (kilesa) like sensual desire, anger, and the like, all of which are sensual desire phenomena (kamavacara dhamma). Now, as has already been mentioned, deities who have been reborn on the form sphere plane (as a result of practicing jhana) experience mental phenomena that are for the most part free from these negative emotions, and as such, these mental phenomena are form sphere phenomena (rupavacara dhamma). And because beings of a particular plane predominantly experience mental phenomena associated with that plane, the post canonical commentators seem to conclude that form sphere phenomena as the 'object' of jhanic consciousness can only be experienced when all awareness of the sensual desire sphere plane ceases. That is, they conclude that jhanic consciousness, which is a form sphere phenomenon, can't have any awareness of sensory forms of the desire sphere plane.  
But the Patisambhidamagga is very careful to avoid this direct one to one correlation between plane and sphere. Wherever the text mentions jhana as a form sphere phenomenon it never states that this form sphere phenomenon is dependent upon attaining the form sphere plane or the cessation of the phenomena of the sensual desire sphere plane. The Patisambhidamagga is always careful to state that the only necessary cessation for the attainment of jhana is the cessation of the hindrances (nivarana) of impulsive sensual desire (kama-chanda), anger, restlessness, laziness/drowsiness, doubt, boredom, and ignorance (presumably not the complete cessation of ignorance, or jhana would be an unconditioned phenomenon). The Commentary on Knowledge, verse 462, states:
He terminates the occurrence of the hindrances through the first jhana.
This statement that the attainment of jhana is a result of abandoning the above mentioned seven hindrances is repeated many times throughout the text. The text also clearly states many times that it is only with the attainment of the sphere of infinite space (i.e. arupavacara-dhamma: formless phenomena) that perception of form is abandoned. The same verse goes on to say:
He terminates perception of form, perception of resistance, and perception of diversity through the attainment of the sphere of infinite space.   
And verse 218 clearly states that the only perceptions which hinder or stagnate jhana once it has been attained are perceptions accompanied by sensual desire:
When perception and attention accompanied by sensual desire (kama) visit one possessing the first jhana, that is an inferior [mental] phenomenon. When mindfulness conforming with that [desire] becomes stabilized, that is a phenomenon connected with the stagnation [of jhana].
It doesn't say jhana stagnates as a result of the perception of form (rupa), or the perception of the sensory desire sphere plane (kamavicara-bhumi), or even sensory desire sphere (kamavicara), it just says perception accompanied by kama: desire, which in this context is connected with craving (tanha) and the above mentioned hindrances, especially impulsive sensual desire (kama-chanda). Sensual desire is what hinders jhana, and not perception of forms (unless of course such perception is accompanied by desire). Furthermore, this impractical interpretation of jhana as a state of fixed absorption wherein perception of all sensory form ceases, was certainly not the method of jhana taught by the Buddha, whose meditation instructions were pragmatic and involved no super-yogi techniques found only in much later commentarial literature.
Secondly, regarding what jhana isn't—jhana isn't a state requiring the appearance of any quasi-paranormal mental phenomena before it can be attained. Here I'm referring to the notions of 'learning signs' and 'counterpart signs' which are a part of the fixed concentration method advocated by the same late post canonical commentarial literature that interprets jhana as being a state of total absorption. Nowhere in the Sutta Pitaka, Abhidhamma Pitaka or the Patisambhidamagga is there any mention of the meditation techniques involving 'learning signs,' 'counterpart signs,' or 'fixed concentration,' etc., and the practice that seems to be the basis of  these techniques—kasina meditation—is only explicitly described once in the Sutta Pitaka, MN 121, and in this sutta there is no mention whatsoever of utilizing a kasina disk, or attaining a learning or counterpart sign, or a state of fixed absorption. No mention at all.
And as far as the attainment of jhana taking the breath as object (i.e. anapanasati), the notion that the 'sign' (nimitta) of jhana is dependent upon the appearance of a light or any other prompted or unprompted paranormal mental phenomenon goes back to a misinterpretation of a passage in the Patisambhidamagga. This passage states that the mind of the meditator is "just like the full moon free from cloud ... just as the moon when free from cloud, free from mist, free from smoke and dust, gleams and glows and shines, so too the monk who is delivered from all defilements gleams and glows and shines." The Visuddhimagga, a late commentarial text, then inexplicably literalizes this simile, and concludes that jhana must be preceded by a light, and the author then botches his literary abilities altogether by also stating that the appearance of any mental phenomena resembling a cloud, mist, smoke, etc., can be taken as a sign of the attainment of jhana.(6)     
This whole commentarial misinterpretation could possibly be based on confusing jhana with a type of meditation called 'perception of light' mentioned in the suttas, which according to the Patisambhidamagga can be developed to the point of what is termed the 'divine eye.' But there seems to be little explanation of the practice associated with this 'perception of light' except to say that it can be refined to where the 'day is the same as night and night the same as day.' Now it definitely does occur to some meditators during the course of practice, that they perceive circles of light when meditating with their eyes closed. Years ago I went through a period of such 'perceptions of light' during every sitting. After sitting for fifteen minutes or so (with eyes closed), an orb of beautiful bluish light would appear and increase in size as if it were coming toward me, until it seemingly engulfed me, accompanied by waves of bliss and an expansive opening in the heart-center area which was the most incredibly profound feeling of universal serenity that I've ever experienced, beyond anything I could have ever even imagined prior to this experience. Then another orb of light would appear, seemingly in the 'distance,' and the same process would repeat itself.
I've also heard of other meditators having similar experiences. So this paranormal phenomenon definitely exists, and it was probably experiences such as these which eventually evolved into the commentarial method which states that such appearances are 'signs' of jhana. But this just isn't how jhana is described by the Buddha in the suttas, or in the practice oriented commentarial text—the Patisambhidamagga. There's no mention of such paranormal phenomena as being prerequisites for jhana, and even the elusive practice of the perception of light is only mentioned infrequently, most often as an antidote for the hindrance of sleepiness, and as such, probably refers to the ordinary perception of looking toward the sky or toward a flame when feeling drowsy, as this straightforward perception of brightness naturally stimulates the mind.
As far as I'm concerned the method utilizing techniques involving learning signs and counterpart signs to attain a state of fixed concentration, based as it is on above mentioned elitist definition of jhana as the cessation of sensory form consciousness, is an unskillful way of both teaching meditation and practicing meditation. Experiences such as the perception of paranormal phenomena are in no way necessary for the attainment of stable mental unification which is jhana. And any method which sets up expectations of such mental phenomena is unskillful because it puts demands on the experiential attainment of jhana which are largely beyond the meditators control. This is a major deviation from the pragmatic method taught by the Buddha. Furthermore, this paranormal phenomena method places a false barrier between jhana, interpreted by these commentators as the cessation of all normal sensory form perception, and clear seeing (vipassana), which necessarily involves clearly seeing the impermanent nature of all sensory phenomena. This barrier separating jhana and vipassana is refuted by the Jhana Sutta, which says:
There is the case where a monk, withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, enters & remains in the first jhana: [happiness] & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. He regards whatever phenomena there that are connected with form, feeling, perception, fabrications, & consciousness, as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, an emptiness, not-self.

Here it's obvious that the 'regarding' of the five aggregates as inconstant, etc., is clear seeing (vipassana), and that this clear seeing is occurring during—not after but during—the practice of jhana. Canonical Sutta Pitaka commentarial texts such as the Patisambhidamagga also teach the coupling of calm abiding (samatha) and clear seeing, even though either one may precede the other in order of development and accomplishment, as is stated in the Vijja Sutta, which we looked at on the previous page.
What's even less skillful concerning the false separation of jhana and vipassana, is that the inventors of the 'fixed absorption' method, recognizing that there can be no clear seeing of sensory phenomena in the state that they call 'jhana,' and no doubt because their definition of jhana was so unrealistic for many meditators, then went on to invent a method of 'dry insight' which does away with the practice of jhana altogether. This had the effect of basically reducing the entire Sutta Pitaka to one sutta (the Satipatthana Sutta) that they claimed supported their notions of mindfulness without jhana (the supposed validity of this 'dry vipassana'  is also based on a very dubious interpretation of the Susima Sutta). And so we now have dozens upon dozens of books detailing this one sutta, and extolling the virtues of mindfulness without the development of jhana. This, in my opinion, is a very unskillful approach to both teaching and practice. It is neither practical nor effective for the necessary integration of calm abiding and clear seeing—both of which taken together enable the meditator to stabilize the mind in jhana. This notion that vipassana can proceed without jhana is also refuted by the same Jhana Sutta, which states:
'I tell you, the ending of the mental fermentations depends on the first jhana.' Thus it has been said.
And the result of separating jhana and vipassana into two unrelated practices actually fractures the noble eightfold path without any valid reason for doing so, and as such, is a gross misrepresentation of the homogeneous integrity of the eightfold path as presented in the Sutta Pitaka, where the two jhana factors of calm abiding and clear seeing are mutually conditioning, each serving to strengthen the other when skillfully employed.
And as anyone who has practiced  in a monastic or retreat environment for an extended period of time will attest, to do so without developing the jhana factor of calm abiding is not merely unskillful, it's downright unpleasant. This, I believe, is why some people notice that they have less patience and are more easily agitated after a ten day 'dry vipassana' retreat than they were before the retreat. Surely retreat practice should make one less agitated and not more so. But if the retreatant just sits there, observing whatever arises without any skillful employment of mental unification and the pleasant and tranquil experience such mental unification engenders, then a retreat can be more like torture than meditation. And this, ultimately, is why misinterpreting jhana and then developing a path of dry insight is unskillful and will probably never lead to any stable ongoing experiential discernment. The Buddha, through trial and error, realized for himself that the eightfold path must fully integrate ethical conduct (sila), meditation (samadhi which is jhana), and discernment (panna) for it to be optimally efficacious. Without all three it just doesn't work.
To conclude that jhana, as taught by the Buddha necessitates the cessation of sensory form perception, the appearance of a counterpart sign, and a state of 'fixed samadhi,' one would have to accept one of two propositions: either (A) the Buddha considered these to be secret 'ear-whispered' instructions too esoteric for inclusion in the Sutta Pitaka, or (B) the Buddha was an inept and forgetful meditation instructor who always seemed to leave out these instructions when teaching. If you can't buy either of these two ridiculous ideas then the only remaining option is (C) these methods are the invention of a much later commentarial tradition that had taken a serious departure from the pragmatic experiential teachings recorded in the Sutta Pitaka.  
But to avoid all such erroneous interpretations of Dhamma, the Buddha, shortly before his death, told his followers to check any teachings they hear from even venerated elder monastics against what is stated in the Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka, and if these teachings don't accord with these two Pitakas, then they aren't to be accepted as the authentic Dhamma. He says:
Suppose a monk were to say: "In such and such a place there are many elders who are learned, bearers of the tradition, who know the Dhamma, the Discipline, the code of rules: I have heard and received this from those Bhikkhus, . . . this is the Dhamma, this is the Discipline, this is the Master's teaching", then, Bhikkhus, you should neither approve nor disapprove his words. Then, without approving or disapproving, his words and expressions should be carefully noted and compared with the Suttas and reviewed in the light of the Discipline. If they, on such comparison and review, are found not to conform to the Suttas and the Discipline, the conclusion must be: "Assuredly this is not the word of the Lord Buddha, it has been wrongly understood by this monk", and the matter is to be rejected. But where such comparison and review they are found to conform to the Suttas and the Discipline, the conclusion must be: "Assuredly this is the word of the Lord Buddha, it has been rightly understood by the monk."
                                                                        —Mahaparinibbana Sutta

Notice that on his deathbed he didn't say anything about comparing any later teachings to the authority of the Abhidhamma Pitaka when trying to assess their conformity to the Dhamma. Why is this? Because they Abhidhamma Pitaka didn't yet exist at the time of the Buddha's Parinibbana (~483 BCE). In fact, it wasn't even added to the canon at the second council which transpired ~100 years after his death (~383 BCE), but was only added at the time of the third council (~250 BCE). This means that any notions of planes (bhumis) and therefore, any possible interpretation that jhana means the cessation of sensory form perception because it employs the use of form sphere phenomena (rupavacara-dhamma), wasn't even included in the canonical oral transmission before this time—a full 230 years after the Buddha's death. It's hard to imagine just how long 230 years really is, but suffice to say it's a very long period of time, during which any number of deviations from the Sutta Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka could occur. But even in the Abhidhamma Pitaka and Patisambhidamagga there's no mention whatsoever of counterpart signs (patibhaga-nimitta), or jhana as a state of fixed absorption (appana-samadhi).
And so with that said, we can now discuss what jhana is. And what jhana is, according to the Buddha, is a stable mental state wherein the mind is unified with its 'object.' This state of unification proceeds through four stages of refinement, characterized by progressively greater stability and mental calm. But before the first stage of jhana can be attained, the meditator must be free of the five hindrances of: impulsive sensual desire, anger, restlessness, laziness/sleepiness, and doubt. If any one of these hindrances are present, one must take up an appropriate antidote to eliminate it. This is stated in the Patisambhidamagga (Commentary on Knowledge, verse 518) as follows:
He relinquishes impulsive sensual desires through renunciation ... he relinquishes anger through nonaggression ... he relinquishes laziness and sleepiness through perception of light ... he relinquishes restlessness through non-distraction ... he relinquishes doubt through understanding phenomena.
There are various contemplations which can serve as effective antidotes to these hindrances such as the four meditations we discussed on the previous page. The cemetery contemplation is an antidote for sensual desire in that it instills an attitude of renunciation. And once one has successfully abandoned sensual desire through this contemplation, providing no other hindrances are present, one can proceed to enter the first jhana, where one can continue with the cemetery contemplation, or switch to another object such as the feeling of happiness (piti) one experiences as a result of being free of the hindrances (more on this in a moment).
Loving kindness is the primary antidote for anger, and as such instills an attitude of nonaggression. The perception of light as antidote for sleepiness mentioned in the Patisambhidamagga quote, involves no more than looking toward a light source or going outside into the sunlight. Certainly, the paranormal perceptions of light that we discussed above are in no way necessary antidotes for abandoning sleepiness. The suttas also mention other antidotes for abandoning sleepiness such as stretching and walking around, etc.. As for laziness, which has more to do with lack of motivation than general sleepiness, the contemplation of the uncertainty of the moment of death is a very powerful antidote to re-instill the needed motivation. As for the hindrance of restlessness, mindfulness of breathing is recommended as an antidote. Finally, if doubt about the purpose or efficacy of Dhamma practice arises, one can contemplate phenomena and discern that the Buddha was correct in what he taught, or one can engender an attitude of faith by recollecting the qualities of the Buddha as previously mentioned.
And when there are no hindrances present, we can then proceed to develop the four stages of the jhanic state of consciousness, or what are commonly called 'the four jhanas.'

The State Of Jhana  
The state of jhana is characterized as 'singleness of mind' wherein the mind is unified with the 'object' of meditation. This mental unification with the object of meditation means that awareness completely suffuses the entire object, and that the object itself is regarded as one singular quality. In this way the mind and the quality (object) unite and expand to completely pervade each other. But this in no way means that the object remains fixed in a static state, or that the mind isn't aware of other sensory phenomena besides the object of meditation. In the four jhanic stages the five aggregates are still experienced, but no sensory phenomena distracts the mind from its primary object.     
The Four Stages Of The Jhanic State  
As we have already discussed, the jhanic state progresses through four stages of refinement wherein the mind becomes increasingly calmer and the focus or quality of the object becomes increasingly more subtle. The sign of jhanic attainment is signaled by the presence of various mental factors, all relating to contact (phassa) with the object, and as one's focus on the quality of the object becomes more refined, the coarser of these mental factors begin to fall away and one simply focuses on the more subtle factors that remain. This progression is partly volitional (one intentionally begins to focus on the more refined quality) and partly the spontaneous outcome of the settling of the mind (as the mind becomes more settled it spontaneously abandons the coarser factors). But please remember what was already mentioned above, that the volitional intention required here is very subtle, being a nonjudgmental 'effortless exertion' and a nonstriving 'surrender' to the object. It is an open ended process of 'opening' and 'unifying' and is not goal oriented in any way. Any sort of forceful exertion or desire for a preconceived result is a major hindrance and will bear no fruit.
This is a continuation of what we discussed above pertaining to calming the body fabrication (the breath) as stated in the Anapanasati Sutta. Once awareness of the entire tactile sphere of the body (as sensed from within) has been stabilized and the breath has gone from its usual quality to a more subtle quality as a result of unifying the mind with the tactile sphere, we can begin to change our frame of reference regarding the tactile sensory sphere that is our present 'object' of calm abiding meditation. Now instead of focusing on the bare sensation of tactile form, we can focus on the quality of happiness that mind is experiencing in relation to its settled contact with the tactile sphere. We can begin to notice or be aware of the mental factor of happiness (piti) present as the mind begins to settle into jhana.
first jhana: withdrawal from sensuality and unskillful qualities; happiness; pleasure; directed thought; evaluation. This is stated in the Samadhanga Sutta:
Now what, monks, is five-factored noble right concentration? There is the case where a monk -- quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities -- enters & remains in the first jhana: [happiness] & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. He permeates & pervades, suffuses & fills this very body with the [happiness] & pleasure born from withdrawal. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by [happiness] & pleasure born from withdrawal.

The progression from focusing on the tactile sphere to focusing on the mental factors of 'happiness' (piti) and 'pleasure' (sukha) that are present represents our movement toward and into the jhanic state. As this is a subjective experience, the mental and physical qualities that we're about to discuss will vary somewhat from person to person and from sitting to sitting, but there are some general signposts that we can become aware of to aid the journey from a scattered and discursive mind characterized by seeking, to a settled mind characterized by happiness and well-being, and beyond that, a state of serene tranquility. While the phenomenal factors of happiness and pleasure may seem to be synonymous, there are subtle and distinctive differences that we can become aware of. And as happiness (piti) is the coarser of the two qualities, we first turn our settled attention to it.
Remaining unified with the tactile sensation of the entire body as a whole, regarded as one singular quality, we begin to focus on the mental quality of happiness. This happiness is mental (i.e. not bodily) and is more than just the bare mental feeling (vedana) of pleasantness associated with the contact between the mind and the tactile sensation sphere. The Commentary on Breathing, verse 291, gives various synonyms for happiness (piti) as it pertains to jhana:
Any happiness (piti), delight (pamojja), rejoicing (amodana), joy (pamodana), shining mirth (bhasa pabhasa), bliss (vitti), elation (odagya), satisfaction (attamanta), mental uplift (cittassa), is happiness (piti).
So what we're talking about here is a quality ranging from a sense of satisfaction (openness and ease) on one end of the spectrum, to bliss on the other end of the spectrum. Again, the experience will vary from occasion to occasion and person to person. But whatever the quality is for you individually, it is a direct result of the unification of mind with the tactile sensation sphere. There's nothing necessarily ecstatic or blissful about this natural phenomenon. The mind simply enjoys paying attention to the body and being free from hindrances and worldly concerns. By breathing mindfully, paying attention and surrendering to the whole felt-sense of the body, and thereby allowing the breath to calm itself, a sense of ease, lightness, and happiness spontaneously arises. It's the basic goodness of not being preoccupied by any concerns, which then leads to a sense of openness and joy as the mind continues to settle.
And by intentionally focusing on this open sense of basic goodness, this quality of happiness, the corresponding tactile sensation sphere may begin to intensify into tingling sensations throughout the body (most often the spine and scalp), or the mental happiness itself may open into a sense of either subtle or very profound well-being (the profound type of well-being can feel like passing through an invisible 'membrane' wherein all sense of constriction is simply gone). It may be blissful (colored light can appear before the closed eyelids) or it may just be basically pleasurable 'happiness.' The point here, is to continue to unify mind and body by paying attention and acknowledging the feeling tone of happiness and well-being present, and not trying to manufacture or force something that isn't there. The only volitional component involved over and above attention to the mental factor of happiness present, is to begin 'permeating' and 'pervading' the entire body with this well-being or pleasure or whatever it is, while remaining attentive to what arises:
Just as if a skilled bathman or bathman's apprentice would pour bath powder into a brass basin and knead it together, sprinkling it again & again with water, so that his ball of bath powder -- saturated, moisture-laden, permeated within & without -- would nevertheless not drip; even so, the monk permeates... this very body with the [happiness] & pleasure born of withdrawal. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by [happiness] & pleasure born from withdrawal. This is the first development of the five-factored noble right concentration.

This means that one recognizes that this mental happiness isn't something separate from the awareness of the entirety of the tactile sensation sphere—as happiness pervades the entire mind, it simultaneously permeates the entire body because the mind is aware of the entire body. It's that straightforward. But this is not a state of total absorption. The mental factor of clear comprehension is still very aware of mental phenomena as they arise and cease. As the Buddha says in the Anupada Sutta:
Whatever qualities there are in the first jhana -- applied thought, evaluation, [happiness], pleasure, singleness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness (vl. intent), desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity, & attention -- he ferrets them out one by one. Known to him they arise, known to him they remain, known to him they subside. He discerns, 'So this is how these qualities, not having been, come into play. Having been, they vanish.' He remains unattracted & unrepelled with regard to those qualities, independent, detached, released, dissociated, with an awareness rid of barriers.
And once the  jhanic state is stabilized, one can readily turn one's attention to any external or internal phenomena, and clearly see the three characteristics as they pertain to the five aggregates. The Jhana Sutta states:
There is the case where a monk ... enters & remains in the first jhana .... He regards whatever phenomena there that are connected with form, feeling, perception, fabrications, & consciousness, as inconstant, stressful ... an emptiness, not-self. He turns his mind away from those phenomena, and having done so, inclines his mind to the property of deathlessness: 'This is peace, this is exquisite -- the resolution of all fabrications; the relinquishment of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding.'

And as this quote clearly states, one need progress no further than the first jhana in order to discern phenomena and thereby give rise to an attitude of nonfashioning (atammayata) and incline toward the deathless element (amata dhatu). But of course, if we so desire, we are free to develop jhana to a more refined stage of unification and calm. To do this we simply continue to intentionally focus on the feelings of happiness (piti) and physical and mental well-being (sukha). As we remain focused on these phenomena of the feeling aggregate, directed thought and discursive thinking begin to spontaneously subside, leaving:
second jhana: happiness; pleasure; unification of mind; and internal assurance. Again, from the Samadhanga Sutta:
Furthermore, with the stilling of directed thought & evaluation, he enters & remains in the second jhana: [happiness] & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation -- internal assurance. He permeates & pervades, suffuses & fills this very body with the [happiness] & pleasure born of composure. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by [happiness] & pleasure born of composure.

Here the intentional focus remains on the mental qualities of happiness and pleasantness, but the quality of happiness and pleasurable feeling begins to become more refined as the mind continues to calm itself through unification and composure:
Just like a lake with spring-water welling up from within, having no inflow from east, west, north, or south, and with the skies periodically supplying abundant showers, so that the cool fount of water welling up from within the lake would permeate & pervade, suffuse & fill it with cool waters, there being no part of the lake unpervaded by the cool waters; even so, the monk permeates... this very body with the [happiness] & pleasure born of composure. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by [happiness] & pleasure born of composure. This is the second development of the five-factored noble right concentration.

Here we can begin to shift our attention from the quality of mental happiness to the underlying feeling tone (vedana) of pleasantness (sukha) and well-being that are present. The Commentary on Breathing, verse 317, states:
There are two kinds of pleasure (sukha): bodily pleasure and mental pleasure. What is bodily pleasure? Any bodily well-being, bodily pleasure, well-being and pleasure felt which is produced from body contact, any welcome pleasant feeling produced from body contact, is bodily pleasure. And what is mental pleasure? Any mental well-being, mental pleasure, well-being and pleasure felt which is produced from mental contact, any welcome pleasant feeling produced from mental contact, is mental pleasure.
And so what we're talking about here is the basic bare quality of mental and physical pleasantness and well-being resulting from our unification of mind and body. This is even more basic and straightforward than any sensations of elation of bliss which may or may not be present. We just stay with the quality of well-being without trying to manipulate it in any way. And as we do so, over time, the mental factors associated with discursive thinking will begin to subside as they're not receiving the necessary 'fuel' of ongoing judgments and opinions that they need to sustain their operation. This stilling of discursive thinking is a completely natural process and can't be willed in any way. We just surrender completely to the felt-sense of well-being and allow the path of practice to take its course. Over time—weeks, months, years, decades—the mind settles and lets go of conceptualization during sitting meditation. This is greatly aided by our development of clear seeing and our relinquishment of coarse conditioned mental phenomena which we increasingly realize are only ever a cause of further stress and becoming.
Again, our experience of jhana isn't a state of total absorption. Clear comprehension still 'ferrets out' the same phenomena mentioned above in the Anupada Sutta quote (that same description is given for each jhana, so just keep in mind as you go along, that comprehension remains clear throughout the four jhanas, even though the mind is becoming increasingly unified with the 'object'. Also the same quote from the Jhana Sutta regarding discernment of the three characteristics of the five aggregates, and the injunction to incline toward the deathless, is repeated for each jhanic stage.)
And as we continue to focus on the singular quality of the entire pleasurable felt sense of the body, mental happiness (piti) and mental pleasure (sukha) spontaneously begins to subside, leaving:
third jhana: equanimity; mindfulness; alertness; physical pleasure. The Samadhanga Sutta:
And furthermore, with the fading of [happiness], he remains in equanimity, mindful & alert, and physically sensitive to pleasure. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, 'Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasurable abiding.' He permeates & pervades, suffuses & fills this very body with the pleasure divested of [happiness], so that there is nothing of his entire body unpervaded with pleasure divested of [happiness].

And we continue to focus on the pleasurable felt sense of the entire body:
Just as in a blue-, white-, or red-lotus pond, there may be some of the blue, white, or red lotuses which, born & growing in the water, stay immersed in the water and flourish without standing up out of the water, so that they are permeated & pervaded, suffused & filled with cool water from their roots to their tips, and nothing of those blue, white, or red lotuses would be unpervaded with cool water; even so, the monk permeates... this very body with the pleasure divested of [happiness]. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded with pleasure divested of [happiness]. This is the third development of the five-factored noble right concentration.

What remains at this stage of jhanic unification is simply a feeling of physical well-being, which is still pleasant. At this stage the feeling of mental pleasantness has subsided because discursive thoughts upon which mental pleasantness depends have also subsided. This doesn't necessarily mean that there are never any thoughts arising whatsoever, but that the stream of discursiveness has broken up because the mind has reached a state of unification which it realizes is superior to any state of conceptualizing. The mind basically abandons thoughts at this stage. It has realized something better than habitual thinking.
And finally, as we continue to focus in the same way, any physical pleasure will eventually spontaneously subside, leaving:
fourth jhana: equanimity; mindfulness; neither pleasure nor pain. The Samadhanga Sutta:
And furthermore, with the abandoning of pleasure & stress -- as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress -- he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither-pleasure-nor-pain. He sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness, so that there is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness.

This is the full attainment of jhanic unification regarding form as an object. Just this complete unification of the whole body and pure, bright awareness:
Just as if a man were sitting wrapped from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; even so, the monk sits, permeating his body with a pure, bright awareness. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness. This is the fourth development of the five-factored noble right concentration.

At this point, or indeed at any point after the stabilization of the first jhana, we can take our stabilized attention and apply it to clear seeing and discernment, according to which of the three characteristics we choose to contemplate, and which phenomena we choose to focus upon as our frame of reference. The Samadhanga Sutta continues:
And furthermore, the monk has his theme [i.e. sign: nimitta] of reflection well in hand, well attended to, well pondered, well tuned (well-penetrated) by means of discernment.

Just as if one person were to reflect on another, or a standing person were to reflect on a sitting person, or a sitting person were to reflect on a person lying down; even so, monks, the monk has his theme of reflection well in hand, well attended to, well pondered, well tuned by means of discernment. This is the fifth development of the five-factored noble right concentration.

This, of course, involves clearly seeing conditioned phenomena of body and mind as being impermanent (inconstant), unsatisfactory (stressful), empty of own-nature (an emptiness), and therefore not-self. Again, the Jhana Sutta says:

There is the case where a monk ... enters & remains in the first ... second ... third ... fourth  jhana .... He regards whatever phenomena there that are connected with form, feeling, perception, fabrications, & consciousness, as inconstant, stressful ... an emptiness, not-self. He turns his mind away from those phenomena, and having done so, inclines his mind to the property of deathlessness: 'This is peace, this is exquisite -- the resolution of all fabrications; the relinquishment of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding.'

And this contemplation of conditioned phenomena gives rise to 'knowledge of the regularity of phenomena' (dhamma-thiti-nana), which in turn gives rise to a nonfashioning attitude (atammayata), which allows one to let go of conditioned mind and body altogether, by inclining toward the deathless element (amata-dhatu), and eventually realizing Nibbana (Nibbana-nana).

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