The short answer is: sort of.
Here is the complete jhana series on this blog:
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 1 What is Jhana Really?
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 2 Is Jhana Really Necessary (hint: yes)
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 3 Did The Buddha Invent Jhana?
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 4 Jhana Heavy vs. Jhana Light
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 5 The Jhana Formula
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 6 The Great Nimitta Debate
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 7 Doing Vipassana During Jhana?
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.