Sunday, February 20, 2011

Last Thoughts on Jhana

The interesting thing about the Buddha's teaching is that no matter how many of his teachings you find that seem to support your own narrow view of the path, someone else will point out another sutta that contradicts it. That's really what this argument is all about - being open-minded enough to accept other interpretations of the dhamma, but not, as the saying goes, so open-minded that your brain falls out.

A good example is the Buddha's teaching on right concentration. I have been lectured again and again that the Buddha taught that right concentration is the four jhanas. Which, by implication, is meant to say only the four Jhanas (capital "J"), and only those of a kind taught by teachers like Venerable Brahmavamso, are right concentration. The problem with this, besides being "a one-sided, dogmatic view", as the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw states (Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta), is that it simply isn't supported by the actual texts. First, where ever the Buddha discusses the four jhanas under the heading of right concentration, he always says, "katamo ca, bhikkhave, sammāsamādhi? idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu...", which means, "and what, monks, is right concentration? Here, o monks, a monk...". Obviously, if this were the only explanation of right concentration to be found in the suttas, one might overlook the loose language and suggest that what the Buddha meant was, "right concentration is the four Jhanas, and only the four Jhanas", even though that should seem overly dogmatic to the most casual of observers.

But, like many other one-sided, dogmatic, blind-elephant-inspecting (see Tittha Sutta) views, it doesn't hold. Take this example from the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta (MN 117):

yā kho, bhikkhave, imehi sattahaṅgehi cittassa ekaggatā parikkhatā -- ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, ariyo sammāsamādhi saupaniso itipi, saparikkhāro itipi.

"Indeed, o monks, whatever oneness of mind is equipped with these seven factors (the other seven path factors) -- this, o monks, is called noble right concentration, together with its requisites, together with its supports."

Another example is the argument I had with the head monk at Sri Sambodhi about what the Buddha taught. He said the Buddha didn't teach to watch the rising and falling of the abdomen, he taught anapanasati. This argument was recently brought to mind by a commenter who sent me a rather critical email, telling me I was embarassing myself, etc., and that "anapanasati, what the Buddha taught, what the Buddha called The Tathagata's dwelling, is not what Mahanasi (sic) teaches".

Mahasi Sayadaw was not so dogmatic as to force a specific object of meditation on anyone. In perfect alignment with the Buddha's teaching, he taught the four foundations of mindfulness. He allowed anyone who wanted to watch the breath at the nostrils, to do so. He himself recommended watching the air element (vayo dhatu) in the stomach, what the Buddha called "kucchisayā vātā" (MN 28), wind in the stomach, out of deference to the commentaries which call anapanasati samatha meditation.

The point is not whether anapanasati or samatha jhana is a good thing. I never questioned that about Brahmavamso's writing, or the Buddha's teaching on the four stages of meditation he called jhana. The point is staying as open-minded as the 2500-year-old tradition of the compilers of the suttas, abhidhamma, and commentaries, who have managed to explain the whole of the Buddha's teaching in a comprehensive whole that allows for a wide diversity of meditation practice and attainment, similar to that found in the stories of the many sorts of arahants one finds in the tipitaka.

So, where does this leave us? I still take issue with six claims made in Brahmavamso's book:

1) that what Alara and Udaka taught could not have been related to jhana (dogmatic)
2) that the Buddha tells us the only time he entered jhana before the night of enlightenment is as a child (false)
3) that one cannot become attached to jhana (speculative)
4) that jhana are stages of letting go (unsupported)
5) that the Buddha rediscovered jhana (unsupported)
6) that jhana is the culmination of the noble eightfold path (unsupported)

Apart from that, I'm willing to accept his interpretation of jhana practice as valid; just as valid as yogis from Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and other traditions.

What I don't accept is people using my weblog as a soapbox for their own views - if you want to tell me something, there's a contact form at the top. Comments are for commenting. If you want to write a rebuttal, there are many free weblog services out there; heck, if you can't find another way to attack me, I'll even host your weblog on my webspace for you to do just that, if it pleases you to do so. But repeatedly pasting long quotes from accesstoinsight into the comments section thinking I haven't read the suttas myself, or writing long and boring arguments about how this teaching suggests this and that teaching suggests that will only get your user deleted and comments erased. That is what I have done here. The great thing about the Internet is the freedom to have your very own soapbox to say (almost) whatever you like, free from hindrance or harassment. Now go find your own soapbox.