Jhana Wars! Pt. 1 What is Jhana Really?

This is my first post on what is one of the most important (and debated) topics in Theravada Buddhism.

Here is the complete series:

The jhanas are mentioned over and over again throughout the suttas. The Buddha did jhana on the night of his enlightenment, at the time of his death, and constantly throughout his life. He taught his followers to practice jhana. The last step of the Eightfold Path, Right Samadhi, is defined explicitly as the four jhanas.

But what the heck are the jhanas? That’s somewhat controversial, but here is the basic story: Jhanas are altered states of consciousness. If one diligently practices, you can get to a point where you temporarily get past the hindrances (anger, desire, restless, laziness, and doubt). At this point the mind is so still, bright, and clear that incredible joy and happiness arise. It is an unmistakable and very powerful moment in any practice. We will talk later exactly about how deep and how difficult jhana actually must be to “qualify” as jhana, but it is in any case an incredibly powerful experience.

In the first jhana, the mind is still somewhat active. The technical terms are vitakka and vicara. I will talk about what that means in a later post. In the 2nd jhana the thinking mind is completely stilled and joy is prominent. In the 3rd jhana that joy mellows into happiness. By the fourth jhana that happiness has furthered mellowed into pure equanimity.

Why practice jhana? For one, they feel great. So great, in fact, that they become an alternative, even a vast improvement, to sensual pleasure. When you have access to jhana, you have access to a feeling better than food, better than sex, better even that cable television. Your attachment to these things is loosened when there is a better alternative. And that alternative doesn’t rest on delusion. It is entirely wholesome. Even if jhana is a distant goal for someone just beginning meditation, it is a goal worth having.

The other big reason to practice jhana is that it gives you a taste of nibbana. It is definitely NOT nibbana, but it is powerful enough to give you a taste for more. Jhana gives you a new perspective. That initial taste of nibbana is so powerful, that your drive to practice is intensified, and the rest of your life is put into a new light.

Jhana meditation was given up for dead by the 1970s but has had a big comeback in the last couple of decades. In my series on Vipassana, I talked a lot about why it disappeared (basically Vipassana took over). But now jhana is back, so let’s talk about it.

See more on jhana-style meditation here and here.


4 thoughts on “Jhana Wars! Pt. 1 What is Jhana Really?

  1. Good to find that you have actually experienced jhana, because most people who speak and write about jhana do not seem to have the experience, because for them it is nothing more than a mental projection exercise.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I try not to directly make any kind of claim of attainment on this blog. Monks are forbidden to make such claims to laypeople. Lay people aren’t forbidden, but it seems to me good policy to avoid such things.

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