One of the reasons I don't write much about Buddhism or even meditation is that I figure, it's all been written already by people far more capable than I. Another reason is I can see the tendency of such writings to lead to dispute and disagreement; probably better to just stick to writing updates about my latest cave, etc. Anyway, in response to a request that I give an alternative interpretation of jhana, here's a portion of the introduction to Mahasi Sayadaw's book on the Sallekha Sutta, courtesy of aimwell.org:
First Absorption and Conceit
“Cunda, I will tell you about the cause of misconception and conceit in connection with the practice of meditation. Among my disciples, there are some monks who have attained the first absorption that is characterised by joy (pīti) and freedom from sensual desire, hindrances, and discursive thinking.”
Absorption (jhāna)² is the concentration of attention on one single object such as earth, water, in-and -out-breathing, an organ of the body or a corpse. This state of consciousness involving concentration and tranquillity is samatha jhāna. The other kind of absorption is vipassanā jhāna, which has as its object the contemplation and insight-knowledge of the three characteristics: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and insubstantiality.
Attributes of the First Absorption
In the first absorption the meditator is free from sensual desires that always dominate ordinary people and even embarrass the meditators who have not yet developed concentration. The first absorption also ensures freedom from the other four hindrances viz., ill-will, torpor and laziness, restlessness, and worry and doubt. This freedom is enjoyed not only while the meditator in absorption, but also just before and just after his attainment of this state of consciousness.
Freedom from hindrances is followed by joy (pīti) and bliss (sukha). The meditator has an indescribable feeling of ecstasy pervading his whole body. He is completely free from stiffness, tiredness and other physical discomforts.
Thus, besides his freedom from hindrances the meditator has five attributes indicating his absorption in the first absorption — ecstatic joy, intense bliss, very active initial application (vitakka), sustained application (vicāra) and one-pointedness (ekaggatā) or concentration (samādhi). The body of the meditator who has attained the first absorption is motionless, firm, and composed. This state of consciousness may last two or three hours; or it may last the whole day or the whole night. There is no collapsing or swaying of the body. It is a mistake to regard, as some people do, lying or rolling on the floor as a sign of spiritual attainment. These attainments designated by such terms as absorption, path or fruition are “appanajavana,” which we may translate as attainment-impulsion. The Commentaries define it as maintenance and strengthening of bodily postures such as sitting and standing.
Because of the freedom from hindrances and the five varieties of experience that characterise the first absorption, the meditator tends to be elated and conceited. However, in his reply to Cunda, the Buddha says unequivocally that the attainment of the first absorption does not mean the lessening of defilements.
There are grounds for delusion on the part of the meditator who has attained the first absorption. He hopes to have some unusual experience and so if he does have such experience, he tends to be deluded into a false sense of attainment. Some have delusions because they are misguided by incompetent teachers. In the case of some meditators, relative freedom from hindrances, joy, and other experience are satisfying enough to give cause for complacency.
However, this absorption experience is a far cry from the higher insight-knowledge of the three characteristics. It is by no means to be confused with the practice of effacement that helps to lessen defilements. The first absorption can only keep off the defilements, whereas, through the practice of effacement the meditator can eventually remove them, root and branch. Yet, the attainment of this absorption tends to give the meditator the impression of being a Stream-winner or an Arahant. There were bhikkhus subject to such illusions in the time of the Buddha and after his parinibbāna.
Five Hundred Deluded Monks
Once, five hundred monks meditated in the forest according to the instructions of the Buddha. When they became absorbed in jhāna, they found themselves without any defilements and, being convinced of their spiritual attainment, they came to report to the Buddha. At the monastery gate they met the Venerable Ānanda who informed them of the Buddha’s instruction that they should see the Teacher only after visiting the cemetery, so the monks went to the cemetery. It appeared that in those days corpses were left unburied at the cemetery. The corpses to be burnt were apparently in a fresh condition at the time of the monks’ visit. At the sight of the decomposed corpses, the monks were filled with disgust. Yet, they could not help lusting for the bodies of women who had died recently. Only then did they realise that they were not yet completely free from defilements. Then the Buddha emitted divine rays from his abode and gave a discourse. On hearing the discourse, all of the monks became Arahants.
The Story of the Elder Mahānāga
About three or four hundred years after the parinibbāna of the Buddha, in southern Sri Lanka there lived an Arahant called Dhammadinnā. At that time there was an elderly monk named Mahānāga who regarded himself as an Arahant. One day, Dhammadinna went to the elderly monk and asked many questions, which the latter answered easily. Dhammadinnā complimented the monk on his deep wisdom and inquired of him when he first became an Arahant. He said he had been an Arahant for more than sixty years. Did he possess psychic powers? Yes, he did. At the request of his questioner, the monk created a big elephant. Could he now make that elephant trumpet and rush towards him? He resolved accordingly, but as the animal came rushing towards him, he became frightened and was about to run away when Dhammadinnā seized the fringe of his robe and said, “Sir, would an Arahant have any fear?” Only then did Mahānāga know that he was a mere worldling. He meditated in accordance with the instructions of Dhammadinnā and became a real Arahant.
The Story of the Elder Cūḷasuma
The story of another ill-informed meditator monk is told in the Commentary on the Sallekha Sutta. He was called Cūḷasuma and he dwelt at a forest retreat that turned out many Arahants in those days.
Cūḷasuma, too, considered himself an Arahant. At the request of Dhammadinnā, he created a lake and a big lotus flower with a girl dancing and singing sweetly on it. Dhammadinnā told the monk to watch the dancing girl for a moment and went into a room. Then while the monk was watching the girl of his own making, the sensual desire that had been lying dormant for sixteen years began to rear its ugly head. Being disillusioned, the monk meditated according to Dhammadinnā’s instructions and attained real Arahantship.
These stories point to the misconceptions current in ancient India when the Buddhist religion was flourishing. The meditator monks of those days were spiritually advanced and endowed with psychic powers. Their misconception was due to unusual power of concentration. Nowadays, some meditators have illusions without making any spiritual progress. When the meditator who correctly practises gains an insight into the arising and passing away of all mental phenomena, he is overwhelmed with a variety of unusual experiences such as seeing the light, rapture, tranquillity, joy, faith and so forth. In the Visuddhimagga, the meditator is assured of these experiences. If the practice of meditation does not bring about these experiences, the question arises as to whether the method is correct or whether the meditator is lacking in effort. On the other hand, the meditator who has such experiences may overestimate his attainments.
Abiding in Bliss Here and Now
The first absorption is not the practice of effacement that helps to root out the defilements. In the Sallekha Sutta, the Buddha calls it abiding in bliss here and now (ditthadhamma-sukhavihāra). While the meditator is in absorption, the mind is fixed on a single object. With the mind free from all unwholesome distractions, he or she is calm and peaceful. This state may continue for two or three hours.
The Buddha also pointed out how illusion and complacency may arise from the second absorption with its three characteristics — rapture, joy, and one-pointedness, or from the third absorption with its joy and one-pointedness, or from the fourth absorption with its equanimity and one-pointedness. Of course, the second, third, and fourth absorptions are more sublime than the preceding states of consciousness, but they ensure only bliss in the present life, and can by no means be equated with practice of effacement that is designed to eliminate defilements.
Nor can the practice of effacement be equated with the absorptions of unbounded space (ākāsānañcāyatana), unbounded consciousness (viññānañcāyatana), nothingness (ākiñcaññāyatana), and that of neither-perception-nor-non-perception (nevasaññā-nāsaññāyatana), which do not help to overcome defilements. They lead only to peaceful bliss and as such are called peaceful abidings (santavihāra).
Absorption in Insight Meditation
Insight meditation and absorption have some characteristics in common. When the practice of mindfulness is well established at the exploratory stage, i.e. knowledge by comprehension (sammasanañāna), there are initial application (vitakka), sustained application (vicāra), joy (pīti), bliss (sukha), and one-pointedness (ekagattā). Thus, whenever the meditator observes any phenomenon, his insight meditation is somewhat like the first absorption with its five characteristics.
When the meditator gains insight-knowledge of the arising and passing away of all phenomena, he is fully aware of an arising object without initial or sustained application. He has intense joy, bliss, and tranquillity, thus his meditation is somewhat like the second absorption with its three attributes.
The disappearance of the light, and so forth — the corruptions of insight (upakkilesa) — marks an advance in the insight-knowledge of the arising and passing away of phenomena. Then there is no joy, but bliss is very intense. The mind is tranquil and free from distractions. The meditator has the bliss and one-pointedness that are characteristics of the third absorption.
The higher levels of insight-knowledge such as knowledge of dissolution (bhangañāna), wherein the meditator sees only the passing away usually have nothing to do with joy. They are characterised by equanimity and one-pointedness. The former is especially pronounced at the stage of knowledge of equanimity about formations. At this stage the insight meditation is akin to the fourth absorption with its two attributes of equanimity and one-pointedness.
Furthermore, at times the meditator’s whole body disappears, giving him the impression of being in space. At that moment he is like a person absorbed in ākāsānañcāyatana jhāna. At other times, attention is fixed exclusively on consciousness and then the meditator’s state of consciousness resembles viññānañcāyatana jhāna. On occasions, it seems as though he were noting nothingness, a state somewhat like ākiñcaññāyatana jhāna. Sometimes the consciousness may be so transcendental that it becomes non-existent, a state on par with that of nevasaññā-nāsaññāyatana jhāna.
These characteristics that insight meditation has in common with absorption often leads to complacency, which is an obstacle to spiritual progress. In meditation it is necessary to note these unusual experiences and reject them. In the Sallekha Sutta, the Buddha, after pointing out the misleading nature of absorption, proceeds to spell out the practice of effacement that is calculated to root out defilements.
1. An object made for the purpose of meditation such as a disk of clay. (Editor’s note)
2. The word jhāna is often assumed to mean samatha jhāna, and some seem to be quite unaware of the nature of vipassanā jhāna. In this edition I have used the word absorption to avoid this confusion caused by the word jhāna. Both here and later, the Sayādaw explains the distinction between tranquillity (samatha) and insight (vipassanā) meditation at some length. (Editor’s note)