Jhana Wars! Pt. 4 Jhana Heavy vs. Jhana Light

Here is the complete jhana series on this blog:

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.

Vitakka/Vicara

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.

See more on jhana-style meditation here and here.

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17 thoughts on “Jhana Wars! Pt. 4 Jhana Heavy vs. Jhana Light

  1. Hi, for someone consider to dedicate to attain jhana and proceed from there to true liberation from rebirth and sufering,do you think a normal life with sensual distraction,work,social distraction etc…is possible at all?(i dont think so,unless with so much good karma from previous lives striving.)

    I have the intention of doing a solo intense retreat to attain what the buddha attain,possibly the 3 knowledges he seen in the night of his awakening(am i aiming too high?)

    If in jhanic state,senses unable to function(eg cant speak),then jhanas trully are altered states of experience.

  2. I’m so glad to see your response. It’s obvious that we are thinking about the same kinds of issues. I think you are right that it is very difficult for lay people to do jhana practice all the way to the end. It’s even hard for monks and nuns! It’s even hard for monks that practiced directly with the Buddha. How much harder is it when most of the time we are working at a stressful job and trying to meditate an hour a day!

    I just got back from a retreat myself. It was so good, so useful, so powerful. But it was also a reminder to be humble in the face of the defilements. They are powerful! The only thing we can do is to strive as diligently and intently as possible. We can control our practice, but not the results.

    Without a doubt the jhanas are altered states of experience/consciousness. But there’s nothing weird about that. A dream is an altered state of consciousness. So is a big fright, or an orgasm, or a state of flow. Sometimes in ordinary life when I’m working diligently, my focus can grow so strong that I don’t have any sense of time or what’s going on around me. Jhanas are just a much more intense version of that experience.

    Good luck with your retreat! Please report back how it went.

  3. Hi thanks for your reply.no,i havent gone on retreat.its still in the intention phase.unable to take long leave from work being the main reason.

    I just dont feel short retreat (few days)will bring any major changes.and i dont feel i have strong foundation to begin with.physical pain,easily worried/distracted mind etc… my mindset is this : no point go for short retreat and go back being the same : slave to worldly life,worry ,desire,anger as before,i want some major changes,or major life altering perspective from retreat.

  4. Imagine this,going for a 1 week retreat.towards the end of the retreat,the mind finally discovers strategy to go deeper into calm,then…retreat ends,go back to world of endless distractions :-c

    1. That is, unfortunately, a likely scenario! But it’s not a bad outcome, if you have realistic expectations. I would advise starting with a daylong retreat, then a long weekend, and only then consider longer and longer retreats. It takes time to accustom the body and mind to longer periods of sitting. In the same way that with a daily practice it’s good to build up over time, it’s good to do the same with retreats. My first 4-day retreat was wonderful! I discovered all kinds of exciting avenues and pathways in the mind that I could explore in my daily practice after the retreat. Just don’t expect to get enlightened over a long weekend! Finding a good, patient teacher is very, very useful as well.

  5. “With the first absorption one has gone beyond Māra’s vision (MN I 159)”

    I don’t necessarily think that it implies Jhana Heavy is the correct one. All it means to me is that Mara understands material pleasure, and the brahma-viharas are a complete mystery to him. He just doesn’t understand that there is anything higher than material pleasure. That in itself says nothing about whether it’s the Heavy or Light Jhanas that is “right”.

    I also think there’s a lot of support of Jhana Light from the suttas. In the Samyutta Nikaya, for instance: “With the fading of rapture, he remains in equanimity, mindful & CLEARLY AWARE, and PHYSICALLY SENSITIVE OF PLEASURE. He enters & remains in the third jhana” (emphasis added). Right there, the Buddha is saying that even in the jhanas, the practitioner is still capable of experiencing sensations.

    Furthermore, take a look at the Anupada Sutta: “Whatever qualities there are in the fourth jhana — a feeling of equanimity, neither pleasure nor pain; an UNCONCERN due to SERENITY OF AWARENESS” (emphasis added). I take this to mean that it’s not the case that he is uncapable of experiencing physical sensations; but that he is UNCONCERNED by them. That is, after all, what “equanimity” means, and points to a Light rather than Heavy interpretation.

    And the case gets even more compelling for Jhana Light: “with the complete transcending of perceptions of [physical] form”. So, the formless jhanas transcend perceptions of form, which, by implication, mean that the lower jhanas did not.

    Also, it is only when the Buddha starts talking about the dimension of perception nor non-perception does he talk about emerging from that attainment and reflecting on its qualities. Again, by implication, in jhanas lower than this, one is capable of discerning what is going on whilst in the jhanas themselves. One doesn’t have to review its qualites from the outside. In other words, it is yet more confirmation that we should think of jhanas in their Light rather than Heavy form.

    1. mcturra2000, Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed response. I especially appreciate that your ground your thinking in the sutras.

      Your understanding of MN I 159 (MN 25.12) is not quite right. It is clearly a reference to jhana, not the brahamviharas. Here is the complete verse as translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

      “And where is it that Māra and his following cannot go? Here, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Māra, to have become invisible to the Evil One by depriving Māra’s eye of its opportunity.”

      Here the jhanas are a protected space from the eye of Mara. You are clearly right that MN I 159 is not a clear cut affirmation of Jhana Heavy. It’s just another piece of evidence.

      Citing the “Samyutta Nikaya” is tricky because it’s a 2000 page text! Fortunately the passage you cite is famous and occurs in several places in the suttas. One of the places is MN 141 which I discuss in depth elsewhere.

      I believe (although I couldn’t totally confirm) the translation you give is from the prominent Jhana Light teacher Leigh Brasington. “Clearly aware” is a theme throughout the suttas and applies equally well to jhana light or heavy. “Physically sensitive of pleasure“ is another matter. There are a number of different translations of “sukhaṁ ca kāyena paṭisaṁvedeti”. The key here is that the phrase does NOT say “physical body”. I just says body. The contention of the Jhana Heavy folks is that it is not referring to the physical body. That is one crux of the argument. I think the important thing to acknowledge is that both sides of the argument have a point here. It is not a slam dunk passage.

      The Anupada Sutta (MN 111) is another sutta that I discuss more deeply later in the series. It follows clearly a form of later sutras where the Buddha stands by nodding his head as a head monk does the talking. I agree that by itself there is a great deal of evidence here for jhana light here, but the fact that it is such an outlier in so many ways that it leaves me unwilling to rest my practice there.

      If you read later in the series, you’ll see that I’m not a doctrinaire Jhana Heavyite. I think there are dangers down both paths. The danger for Jhana Heavy is that deep insights can sometimes be too easily dismissed or overlooked in the pursuit of elusive light jhana. The danger (and I believe the more dangerous danger) for Jhana Light is that a meditator can arouse a little piti and then dramatically overestimate their attainment.

      Whichever way you come down, please hold it lightly. In the very next meditation lie new insights, new peace, and new challenges.

      1. Indeed! I’ve been reading Ajahn Maha Boowa lately who did indeed claim to have reached Nibbana. He has an interesting take that I’m still digesting. Please let me know when you get there!

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