Jhana Wars! Pt. 3 Did The Buddha Invent Jhana?

The short answer is: sort of.

Here is the complete jhana series on this blog:

First let me say that I’m drawing heavily on Piya Tan’s fantastic article The Buddha Discovered Dhyana. From one point of view, it doesn’t really matter. If jhana is just a spiritual technology that the Buddha used, great! It’s not like his ethics were original to the Buddha. His ethics are near universal, but they are still an important part of the path. Still, it’s interesting to consider whether the Buddha invented jhana for this reason: some teachers say that jhana isn’t really that important. It’s just a small part of the path but isn’t really the special sauce of Buddhist practice. Other claim that the Buddha invented jhana and that by itself it is the culminating factor of Buddhist practice, the discovery that led to liberation.

According to the Buddhavamsa, our Buddha is actually the 27th Buddha. In that case, each of the previous Buddhas also mastered jhana, so our Buddha didn’t invent it in that sense. Still, by the time of Siddhata Gotama, the knowledge of the previous Buddhas was lost. Now, it should be said that the Buddhavamsa is a very late teaching and should be taken with a grain of salt.

In any case, what is more interesting to us is whether the Boddhisatta learned jhana meditation from other spiritual traditions or whether he invented it himself.

There is evidence that people were doing something they called jhana (dhyana) before the Buddha, but the historical evidence seems to me that before the time of the Buddha meditation was something more like worship, or perhaps states of concentration arising from reciting holy texts. It was around the time of the Buddha that meditation was codified and brought into its first flowering.

Interestingly, as far as I can tell, the only evidence anywhere that people were doing deep meditation before the Buddha comes from the suttas themselves. The Buddha went and studied with two teachers before his enlightenment, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. Under Alara Kalama he mastered the base of nothingness, and under Uddaka Ramaputta the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. As an aside, Uddaka Ramaputta never achieved it himself, but rather his father had. He simply carried on in his father’s name.

In any case, it was the Buddha that first carefully codified the practice and put it at the heart of his teachings. In any case, he was the spiritual genius that put jhana practice at the heart of his teachings and codified the techniques used from his time to today. So he certainly didn’t invent meditation, but he did perfect the teaching and put it in its place in the practice.

See more on jhana-style meditation here and here.

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11 thoughts on “Jhana Wars! Pt. 3 Did The Buddha Invent Jhana?

  1. Actually, my own pet theory, which is likely to be controversial, is that traditional Indian practises at the time of the Buddha were Jhana Heavy, but that the Buddha discovered that there was another type of jhana; the “light” jhanas.

    So, the theory would go that the practise of heavy jhanas was known well before the Buddha’s time, and the kind of jhanas that made a reappearance in the Visuddhimagga, which is a commentorial work. So we see two camps today: the Light Camp, who are basing their practise on the suttas, and the Heavy Camp, who are basing their practise on the Visuddimagga.

    There are non-Buddhist brahmins practising these “heavy” jhanas even today. I saw a documentary on the telly the other day about an Indian brahmin. He had renounced sensual pleasure, and noted that the bliss of meditation excelled sensory enjoyment. I think he thought of his experiences as attaining one with the Attman, or something. And, actually, he’s probably right! On death, it seems likely to me that he will be born in a brahmaloka according to whatever level of jhana he was able to attain.

    The Light Jhanas, I contend, have insight and serenity “yoked together”. There’s no separate serenity and/or vipassana path for him, as the lightness of the jhana means he has an awareness in the moment and is able to see that feelings arising from contact are not giving rise to craving, and, consequently, suffering. This gives the jhanas their “delicious” flavour, and an understanding of Dependent Origination and varying depths of understanding as to what it means to be “free”. I think that’s why the Buddha says that he who has jhana is close to nibbana.

    That’s just my take on it, anyway.

    With metta 🙂

    1. Interesting theory. You are definitely right that there were serious meditators doing jhana before the Buddha. He learned the jhanas, including the formless jhanas, from his teachers. But he continued to do and teach all 9 meditative attainments after his enlightenment.

      You are dead wrong to say that Jhana Light=suttas and Jhana Heavy=commentaries. That kind of comment is a sort of cruel way of trying to discredit very serious practitioners. Both understandings have support in the suttas. And neither are directly contradicted either. Which leads me to believe that it simply wasn’t an issue at that time as it is now.

      On the other hand, you are absolutely right that vipassana and samatha are part of a single practice. The combination of right understanding with deep meditation is the path the Buddha taught.

      I also think you are right on to say that deep meditation+view of atman was exactly the practice that the Buddha was taught and had to overcome. This is why he spent so much time teaching anatta. The deep practitioners around him were doing jhana but failing to achieve liberation because their misunderstanding of the nature of self was getting in the way. It was only when the Buddha put aside this wrong view that he was able to break through to liberation.

      On the other hand, I know of no place where he said, “You’re meditating too deeply! That’s the problem!” To the contrary he was constantly encouraging the monks to strive on in their jhana. How deep is deep enough? I’ve yet to meet the layperson for which meditating too deeply is a problem.

  2. J.M.,

    Very interesting article. Maybe you would be kind enough to help me understand something:

    “Under Alara Kalama he mastered the base of nothingness, and under Uddaka Ramaputta the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.”

    I have the impression that many people assume that since Alara Kalama taught the Buddha the “7th Arupa-Jhana-base-o’-nothingness”–and Uddaka Ramaputta taught the “8th Arupa-Jhana-neither-perception-nor-non-perception”. They assume these teachers taught him ALL of the other Jhanas (i.e. the rupa-jhanas also). The assumption being: Alara Kalama had mastered and taught #’s 1 – 7 and Uddaka Ramaputta had mastered and taught 1 – 8. But isn’t this only an assumption? It is not mentioned that Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta practiced the normal #1-4 Jhanas, correct?

    There seems to be a bias from insight/Vipassana folks to assuming the Jhanas were well known at the time of the Buddha – and not a unique discovery.

    After all the Arupa-Jhanas are not listed as Jhanas in the Sutta-pitika but only in the commentaries. (correct?) It seems that if the Buddha felt that the formless attainments were closely related to the “form Jhanas”(#1-4) he would have called them Jhanas also or arupa-Jhanas from the get-go? …and not left that classification to be made by later authors.

    If the Buddha knew all about Jhana from other folks then his practice of Jhana is less distinct and important. (After all — everyone was doing it! we are told — it’s old hat). Then his big deal is his discovery of i.e. insight/Vipassana meditation (new meditation technology! Not that lame old Jhana everyone and there mother is practicing). However, if the Buddha’s teachers were clueless about Jhana (but skilled in a few formless attainments only) then the discovery of Jhana itself is one of the Buddhas key insights(pun!).

    I may be quite confused, so your thoughts are greatly appreciated. (Apologies if you answered this question elsewhere).

    Best, Luke

    1. Luke, Sorry for the delay in answering. Busy week. I talked about the topic here and here. You are absolutely right that it is assumed but not clearly stated that the Buddha learned the rupa jhanas as well as the arura jhanas from his teachers (my spell check keeps trying to turn “arupa jhanas” into “rupee jeans”). While it is only an assumption, it’s not an unreasonable assumption. While the Buddha taught meditation in a way that is far more sophisticated that earlier teachings, it seems pretty clear that earlier teachers were teaching jhanas. Evens the Upanishads teach a similar form of meditation. Besides, the underlying factors for the formless jhanas are the same for the form jhanas. In other words, it’s a pretty weird thing to consistently achieve the formless jhanas without ever achieving the lower jhanas.

      While it’s true that the formless “jhanas” are not referred to jhanas in the suttas but rather as “formless attainments”, but it’s clear that they form part of a spectrum. Both the sutras and commentaries are unanimous that they are not necessarily for Liberation.

      My understanding is that while the Buddha did not invent jhana, he also did not invent Vipassana. But rather, Liberation comes from the combination or Right Understanding and Right Samadhi (along with the other factors of The Path). Insight comes based on those factors. There is no practice of insight, really. It’s like practicing success. You don’t practice success, but success can come form preparation and hard work.

      That said, I may be wrong. There is some lack of detail here in the sutras that has fueled speculation over the millennia. All we can do is practice the path, which definitely includes both samadhi and contemplation of annicca.

      Thanks again for the question.

  3. “In other words, it’s a pretty weird thing to consistently achieve the formless jhanas without ever achieving the lower jhanas.”

    As was pointed out in an earlier post, the commentaries were the first to call the immaterial attainments “arupa jhanas.”. You don’t actually have to go through the rupa jhanas to get to the formless states. That is the whole point of this sutta:

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.106.than.html

    You can induce formless states directly by holding to certain perceptual viewpoints (interestingly enough, not-self, ” neti-neti” like viewpoints). This is borne out in the accounts of several modern non-Buddhist contemplatives (I.e. Ramana Maharshi & Nisargadatta Maharaj). Check out my Amazon review of Nisargadatta’s book for more info:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1V0WTZF6OSTIF/ref=cm_cr_pr_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0893860468

    1. Thanks very much for the post. You’ve definitely given me some wonderful food for thought. That said, I don’t agree that the sutta you shared says what you claim it does. My reading is:
      Verse 3 refers to Right Effort. I overcome hindrances by practicing joy.
      Verse 4 refers to Body Meditation, particularly the meditation on the elements discussed in the Satipatthana Sutta and other places.
      Verse 5 refers to the meditation on Impermanence, again discussed in the Satipatthana Sutta.
      Only then does the sutta start talking about the Arupa jhanas. So while it may the case that the arupas are separate, this sutta does not state or even imply it. Indeed, it implies a directionality from Right Effort to Mindfulness on the Body to Mindfulness on the Arupas.

      I also want to slightly quibble with your statement that you can achieve jhana by “holding to” certain viewpoints. I think I know what you mean, but I just wanted to reinforce that it isn’t simply declaring, “I believe in this” or “I believe in that”. The Buddha was steadfastly opposed to this type of practice. Instead the practice is to contemplate the teachings as a subject for meditation, not unlike the breath.

      Again, thanks for your comments, and I hope to hear back from you soon.

      1. I think you’ve misunderstood me. My point is rather subtle. You won’t really understand what I’m talking about unless you read The Paradox of Becoming by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and The Origin of Buddhist Meditation by Alexander Wynne (and then read the accounts by Nisargadatta, Bernadette Roberts, Franklin- Merrell Wolff, etc.).

        “The Buddha was steadfastly opposed to this type of practice”

        You’re wrong on this. The Noble Eightfold Path for instance is something that you do cling to and develop until you’re ready to abandon it as the raft simile illustrates.

      2. It’s an interesting experience to have a conversation in 4 month increments!

        I have indeed read the Thanissaro and the Wynne (which is especially interesting). You are right that we are meant to develop the Eightfold Path until the moment of liberation, and the fourth Satipatthana is all about using the teachings as a subject of meditation. But that is a far cry from saying that holding to beliefs is a good strategy for developing jhana. It may be than non-Buddhists teach that holding to teachings is the way to go, but I would not call this samma-samadhi.

        Here’s a little quote from the Attakavagga, Sn 4.13, Maha-viyuha Sutta: The Great Array (Thanissaro’s translation): “The brahman, evaluating, isn’t involved with conjurings, doesn’t follow views, isn’t tied even to knowledge.”

      3. “But that is a far cry from saying that holding to beliefs is a good strategy for developing jhana. ”

        That’s precisely my point. The “arupa” spheres are not called jhanas in the suttas. I’m making the point that there are modern day Alara Kalamas & Uddaka Ramaputtas who are clinging to certain ideas that are getting them stuck in arupas. You can see this in Nisargadatta, etc.

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