Jhana Wars! Pt. 7 Doing Vipassana During Jhana?

Here is the complete jhana series on this blog:

Bhante G is a treasure of Buddhism. I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with him, taking a long walks and chatting about dhamma. I’ve sat with him, heard his talks, and read his books. I even read his entire doctoral thesis which is, shall we say, stronger in terms of thoroughness than in terms of exciting storytelling.

The question at hand is, as per Bhante G: Should we come out of Jhåna to practice Vipassanå? He comes down firmly on the side of the negative. He believes that a person can do vipassana while in jhana. The standard Theravadan commentarial position is that one needs to come out of jhana and then turn the mind to vipassana practice.

This is not a small point. Many of the debates that I’ve talked about in this series are ultimately not all that critical. For example: how much concentration is required to call it jhana? Well, there is a real debate there, but ultimately the answer is “get your ass back on the cushion.” But now here is an issue that deeply impacts the practice of meditation. If we should be doing vipassana after exiting jhana, then we should do everything possible to deepen our samadhi. And then after (naturally) entering and leave jhana, use that concentration to see the world as it really is. If Bhante G is right, then our definition of jhana must change. It must allow the thinking required to do vipassana. In order to accommodate this investigation, the samadhi can’t be that powerful. By second jhana, even a wisp of thinking is gone, so it might only possibly occur in first jhana.

On the one hand, Bhante G’s ideas are very beautiful. Samatha and vipassana are united in samadhi. The calm of samatha gives space for the investigation of vipassana. Bhante G notes that nowhere in the suttas does it explicitly say that one has to exit jhana to practice vipassana. If you read my series on vipassana, you’ll immediately see some problems with that system, but it is undeniably beautiful.

Piya Tan’s excellent article Samatha and Vipassanā takes these issues on directly. His take is that any particular meditation could tend more toward samatha or vipassana. I think this is a neat technique for bisecting the baby, but it still relies on the idea of vipassana as a meditation method. All it does is shift the emphasis.

Now, all of these problems evaporate if you see samatha and vipassana as the fruits of samadhi bhavana rather that practices in and of themselves. Bhante G says, “It is virtually impossible to find evidence in the Suttas that one should come out of Jhåna to practice Vipassanå.” That is true, but not in the way he believes. There is no evidence that one needs exit jhana to practice vipassana because there just isn’t really any evidence that one should practice vipassana. It is a result of meditation, not a type.

So how does this all work in practice? In your meditation, just do the practice. Fill your consciousness with your subj ectof meditation until the jhanas arise. Let go completely but with mindfulness. The result of that practice (both in jhana and afterward) is samatha AND vipassana. No bisection necessary.

See more on jhana-style meditation here and here.


10 thoughts on “Jhana Wars! Pt. 7 Doing Vipassana During Jhana?

  1. Hello – It is with a deep sense of pleasure that I read this series.

    I met Bhante G. the other day in WV and he told me that I should ignore the ‘bright lights” (dare I say, Nimitthas) and just concentrate on the breathing…

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