Jhana Wars! Pt. 2 Is Jhana Really Necessary (hint: yes)

Here is the complete jhana series on this blog:

You will find no shortage of meditation teachers than downplay the importance of jhanas or even dismiss them out of hand. But what did the Buddha say about the matter? He called jhana “a pleasant abiding here and how” and  “a taste of nibanna” and “a pleasure surpassing all sensual pleasures.” Sound pretty good so far.

So did the Buddha do jhanas? Heck yeah. Here is his description of his day.

In the morning, I take my bowl and robe and go into the village to beg for food. After my meal, I go into the woods, and gather some grass and leaves to sit on. I sit with legs crossed and a straight back and arouse mindfulness. Then, far from sense pleasures and bad states of mind, I do jhana.

-AN 3.63

But did he encourage his followers to do jhana? Check. In every other sutta in the canon the Buddha is encouraging, practically begging his monks to go and do jhana. One such example, repeated often: “Here are roots of trees, here are empty huts – practice jhana! Do not be negligent! Do not regret it later!”

So with this in mind, why on earth would any teacher claim that jhanas are not that important? I don’t think the argument for deeply following the Buddhist path without jhana can really seriously be considered. I think it was only possible in the past because fewer people had access to good translations of the actual teachings of the Buddha. Into this vacuum stepped many teachers that didn’t really understand the ancient teachings themselves. In particular, some Vipassana teachers couldn’t find a way to bodge jhana into their teachings, so the just dismissed it.

I called this series Jhana Wars because there is still substantial disagreement about jhana in Theravada practice. The question now has shifted to “how deep does my meditation need to be to qualify as jhana?” I’ll talk about this much more in part 4 of this series, but just a word now. The Revenge of Vipassana has emerged that tries a different tactic for marginalizing jhana practice. The idea is to define down what jhana means. Instead of a profoundly deep practice, it is just normal relaxing, happiness, and concentration. This is nonsense. The jhanas are power, subtle, and for most people very difficult. There is just no shortcut in Buddhist practice.

There is one final argument for dismissing jhana. I don’t think it holds up, but at least I understand it. Here’s the idea. Most of the teachings given in the West are meditation teachers teaching lay practitioners. The reality is that very few lay practitioners will achieve jhana (at least jhana heavy…see Part 4). So then why emphasize something that will only lead to heartbreak when your 10 day meditation retreat doesn’t end with jhana? Reserve deep teachings like jhana for the monks and nuns who have the time, training, and commitment to make it happen.

I agree with the first part of this argument: it’s unlikely for most people to achieve jhana. But that hardly means that we should skip the subject. Its important for people to understand the level of commitment and attainment that are really required for liberation. And when did secret teachings ever help anybody? I believe that truth and transparency are always the best option. The laity can get profound benefit from meditation, even jhana meditation, without ever actually achieving jhana.

See more on jhana-style meditation here and here.

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2 thoughts on “Jhana Wars! Pt. 2 Is Jhana Really Necessary (hint: yes)

  1. I find your thoughts on jhana most interesting, but to me the central problem in Buddhism is confusing practice (magga) with attainment (phala). The practice of mindfulness and meditation (Sati) leads to attainment (phala). Among the attainments (phala) are the bliss, joy and ecstasy of jhana; and intuitive, revelatory insight of vipassana. So, neither jhana nor vipassana are practices (magga) in the suttas. They are attainments (phala).

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