Jhana Wars! Pt. 5 The Jhana Formula

Here is the complete jhana series on this blog:

In the ancient Buddhist texts, there is a lot of repetition. This is something that you’d expect in an oral text. It’s somewhat similar in Homer. It’s never just “the sea.” It’s always “the wine-dark sea.” In the early scriptures there are a number of these formulae, standard verses that come up again and again with some topic is mentioned. One of the most common is the Jhana Formula. Nearly every time jhana is mentioned, the standard formula is recited. Here it is:

Far from sense pleasures and bad states of mind, I enter and stay in the first jhana. I am blissful and happy, and my mind is thinking and contemplating. When I give up this thinking and contemplating, I enter and stay in the second jhana. My mind is tranquil and unified, blissful and happy.My attention is completely unified. When the blissful feelings fade, I enter and stay in the third jhana. Wise people say, “Here one is mindful, steady, and glad.” When I completely give up all experience of pleasure or pain, I enter and stay in the fourth jhana. Here mindfulness is perfected by equanimity.

This is a very beautiful description of the delights which await someone who devotes themselves to jhana practice. Jhana isn’t a torture that one has to endure to be purified, it is the (second) highest joy on earth. It is the training ground for nibbana, and so is a place of peace and letting go.

While the description is a bit poetic, it is also a list. The formula is a description of what constitutes jhana. Jhana includes:

  • Seclusion from sense pleasures
  • Seclusion from bad states of mind
  • Bliss
  • Happiness
  • Thinking and contemplating

Seclusion from sense pleasures means a literal, physical separation from objects of sensual desire. This includes anything from sex to food to music . But it also includes other kinds of desire, like desire to finish the dishes or scold the annoying kids next door. This is one reason why the Buddha recommended going to the woods or an abandoned hut to do deep meditation. It is free from the distractions that keep the mind from contentment and peace.

Bad states of mind classically include desire, hatred, doubt, restlessness, anxiety, depression, and laziness. I’m sure you could develop your own list. Seclusion here means that you are temporarily free from these things. This is the key to jhana. Being from from these bad states of mind is the sign of jhana, almost synonymous with jhana. How do you achieve this peace? That is the work of Right Mindfulness, Right Effort, and all the other stages of the Eightfold Path.

Bliss is the busy, energetic joy of deep meditation. Read more about piti here. Happiness is a happiness beyond ordinary happiness. It is a deep content sense of pleasure and ease. It is deeper and less energetic than piti. Bliss is almost exhausting after a while. Happiness is a place of utter contentment.

Thinking and contemplating, vitakka-vicara is the topic of the this article in this series. The key points is that thinking and pondering doesn’t mean ordinary discursive thought. It means using the thinking aspect of mind to surmount bad states of mind. For example, using metta to overcome hatred or using samatha-style breath meditation to overcome restlessness and worry.

Each successive jhana is about simplifying and purifying this initial experience. When thinking and pondering fades, bliss comes to the fore. When bliss fades, happiness comes to the fore. And finally, when even happiness fades, what is left is a pure, clean equanimity – the ideal states to see things as they truly are. The basis of true insight.

Still, there are some mysteries here. First, of course, is the inescapable difficulty of describing interior experience. How can you really explain an experience to someone that hasn’t had that experience? How can you talk about something that doesn’t really have words to describe it? For example, I’ve translated “sukkha” as “happy.” This is a perfectly fine translation. Sukkha is actually the opposite of “dukkha”. Dukkha is the term that the Buddha uses in the first of the Four Noble Truths, e.g. “Life includes suffering.” What’s the opposite of suffering? Happiness works. But of course, the happiness of jhana is not quite the happiness of a good meal or of the day’s first cigarette, or of winning the lottery. It is just a different kind of happiness altogether. How do you know if you are experiencing this deep 2nd jhana Sukkha or just plain old happiness?

See more on jhana-style meditation here and here.

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