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?
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 8 The Immaterial Attainments
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 9 What Should My Expectations Really Be?
There is considerable controversy in the Theravadan world as to how difficult it is to achieve jhana. This controversy is sometimes jokingly referred to as Jhana Heavy vs. Jhana Light. Jhana Light means that something like half of a group in a 10 day retreat should be able to achieve jhana. Still no small thing, but not exactly Mt. Everest. Bhante Sujato joking refers to this kind of jhana as Banana Jhana (it rhymes better with an Australian accent). Jhana Heavy is something that can only be achieved by someone with either amazing kamma or with incredibly intense practice. Nothing less than total dedication. Only a tiny fraction of lay people could ever hope to achieve Jhana Heavy.
So just how difficult is it to get into jhana? Bhikkhu Analayo in From Grasping to Emptiness wrote (note that the jhanas are sometimes translated as Absorptions):
Another significant indication related to the nature of absorption can also be gathered from the Upakkilesa-sutta. According to its account, before his awakening the Buddha had to make quite an effort in order to overcome a whole series of obstructions until he was able to attain the first absorption (MN III 157). This suggests the first absorption to be a state of mind reached only after prolonged practice and requiring considerable meditative expertise.
This impression is confirmed by turning to the cases of Anuruddha and Mahāmoggallāna. In the case of each of these two chief disciples the personal intervention of the Buddha was required for them to be able to attain and stabilize the first absorption (MN III 157 and SN IV 263). If Anuruddha and Mahāmoggallāna, who later on were reckoned as outstanding among the Buddha’s disciples for their concentrative abilities (AN I 23), had such difficulties, then it can safely be concluded that the first absorption stands for a level of concentration that requires considerable meditative training.
Later in From Grasping to Emptiness Bhikkhu Analayo points out that according to the suttas:
…during the first absorption it is impossible to speak (SN IV 217), and the hearing of sounds is an obstruction to its attainment (AN V 135). With the first absorption one has gone beyond Māra’s vision (MN I 159), having reached the end of the world of the senses (AN IV 430). These passages confirm that the first absorption is indeed a state during which the mind is “absorbed” in deep concentration.
This to me is not a slam dunk case for Jhana Heavy, but it is pretty compelling.
By the way, if you listen to most meditators, especially monastics, you might notice that they rarely come out and say, “Well, I’ve done fourth jhana and it’s like this.” The reason is that monks and nuns are not allowed to discuss their meditative attainments with laypeople. It is right there in the monastic code. So they either discuss it in general terms or just refer to the suttas. There is no such rule about lay people, but it is still probably better not to blab about your interior states to just anyone. Keep it for teachers or very close dhamma friends. That’s my policy.
One important debate here is the meaning of Vitakka and Vicara. First, a dictionary definition:
Vitakka: Directed thought. In meditation, vitakka is the mental factor by which one’s attention is applied to the chosen meditation object. Vitakka and its companion factor vicāra reach full maturity upon the development of the first level of jhāna.
Vicara: Evaluation; sustained thought. In meditation, vicāra is the mental factor that allows one’s attention to shift and move about in relation to the chosen meditation object. Vicāra and its companion factor vitakka reach full maturity upon the development of the first level of jhāna.
-from Access to Insight
As I was working on this I found a newer article by the great Buddhist teacher and scholar Bhante Sujato on his blog: Why Vitakka Doesn’t Mean Thinking in Jhana.
Here’s the short version: in normal speech, Vitakka means directed thought and Vicara means sustained thought. I direct my mind to think about this blog post, then I hold my attention to the work of thinking about this blog post. These terms are used this way many times in the suttas.
In Bhikkhu Ñánamoli’s translation of the Visudimagga, the are explained like this: “Applied thought is like the hand that grips firmly and sustained thought is like the hand that rubs, when one grips a tarnished metal dish firmly with one hand and rubs it with powder and oil and a woollen pad with the other hand. Likewise, when a potter has spun his wheel with a stroke on the stick and is making a dish, his supporting hand is like applied thought andhis hand that moves back and forth is like sustained thought. Likewise, when one is drawing a circle, the pin that stays fixed down in the centre is like applied thought, which directs onto the object, and the pin that revolves round it is like sustained thought, which continuously presses.
Where things get tricky, is that Vitakka-Vicara are two of the factors of the first jhana.
The jhanas are deep, profound states of concentration. They are the culmination of the eightfold path, and the perfection of mindfulness. So it seems strange to some that the first jhana includes “thinking and evaluating”. So there is controversy. Some just say, “Well, I guess that means that you can think in first jhana.” Others say, “It just means that there is a little leftover of this kind of mental activity.” For others, such as Bhante Sujato, the vitakka-vicara in this context just means mental effort, not the normal kind of thinking we do day to day. Still others say that vitakka-vicara in this context means a certain kind of refined thinking: namely, thoughts of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
In either case, by the second jhana vitakka-vicara are gone, and bliss has come to the fore.
One final word on the matter: it is impossible to know another person’s state of mind. If someone tells you they’ve achieve all 8 jhanas and can go to any one at will, it’s best to listen with equanimity. Maybe they have. If so, there’s no need for envy. Maybe they haven’t. In which case it’s not your place to point it out. How could you ever know anyway? It’s of course a huge hindrance to practice to overestimate your own attainments. But hey, until liberation there’s more left for all of us to do.
So what should my expectations really be? Is it reasonable to expect to get to jhana by meditating 20 minutes a day? Well, it’s certainly possible. The Buddha-To-Be fell into jhana without even trying as a child. Other people have reported similar experiences.
Still, it’s not the norm. Monks working with the Buddha himself have struggled to achieve jhana. While some teachers claim that large percentages of their students can achieve jhana in a 10 day retreat, I doubt it. It’s easy to fool yourself into believe that you have achieve high attainments, especially when a respected teacher is assuring you that you are. I think mostly they experience some jhana factors without the full experience. That’s ok, as long as they keep working to deepen their experience, but I don’t think their teachers are doing them any favors, ultimately.
What would this look like in practice? Let’s say you’re sitting, and you begin to experience jhana factors:
- a relaxed, focused mind
- peace, ease, tranquility
- bliss, joy, rapture
What do you do? Some teachers say, “Shake it off and get back to the business of seeing things as temporary, painful, and without essence.” Not the Buddha! Other say, “Congratulations, you’re done!” Please, don’t have that attitude. Instead, keep doing the practice that you have been doing. Dance with them what brung you, as they say in Texas, and see if those jhana factors intensify. Trust the practice, and it will bring you to the doorstep of liberation.