[The following essay was written in response to an paper that argued that the jhanas are not an important aspect of the Pali Canon. Unfortunately I do not have a copy of that paper to put up; however, I hope the essay standing by itself will be of some interest. LNB]

Being a Jhana practitioner, I strongly disagree with the arguments and conclusions in your paper concerning the Jhanas and the Pali Cannon. My basic premise is that the descriptions of how to do the Jhanas indeed were not detailed in the earliest layers of the Pali Canon, just as today descriptions of how to drive a car are not detailed in directions for driving from point A to point B.

Jhana practice certainly pre-dates the Buddha. As you point out (page 11 & 13), the suttas make mention of Gotama learning the Jhanas from his two teachers. It is quite likely that Jhana practice was wide spread in India at that time. References by mystics, of that time and later, of the type "I am everything" and "I am everyone" could well be misunderstandings of what's going on in the 5th and 6th Jhanas. Even the nihilism in some traditions may have been "collaborated" by misunderstanding the 7th Jhana. The Jhanas are not really that difficult to learn under proper guidance, but it is also not that difficult to misunderstand what's going on in these altered states of consciousness. It is quite easy to think these Jhanic states are a "big deal", when actually their power comes from the calm and quite mind that arises and that, upon dropping the Jhanic state, can be powerfully directed to examine anything in great detail. I'm certain that what you refer to as "an early attempt to belittle the Jhanic states" is actually a warning against thinking that one has achieved anything truly worthwhile simply by entering these states; that is certainly Gotama's reaction. My own experience was one of "OK, I can do that one, what's next?!" But I also had excellent guidance and previous experiences with altered states of consciousness.

As you point out in your paper (page 2), the omission of what kind of practice was undertaken by those who achieved Arahantship, is very widespread. Possible explanations for this range from it being secret (which is doubtful, since the Buddha is said "to have taught with an open hand") to it being so well known that it was unnecessary to describe the practice(s) at length. A more moderate explanation is that these continued to be oral instructions passed from teacher to student long after the Pali Canon was committed to writing. Evidence for this can be found in the current Tibetan oral instructions where a large body of teaching is "secret" because it is considered not suitable for written instruction simply because the interaction of the student and the teacher is required for the teacher to know exactly at what level the student's understanding is and to know what part of the instructions is most appropriate to teach next. My own experiences in learning (and teaching) the Jhanas certainly reflects this latter pattern. I think this is a reasonable explanation of why the Jhanas are absent from the Sutta-nipata and other very early layers.

The stereotypic formula that re-occurs throughout the first Vagga of the Digha Nikaya is certainly a later formulation. However, I don't think it can be completely tossed simply because it achieved its present form at a late date. Completely tossing it also means tossing the morality practices. And I don't think anyone can present an argument that morality was not an important, even essential, part of the Buddha's teaching. My own belief is that this stereotypic formula was pieced together from a number of references to morality and Samatha practices that were scattered throughout the suttas. A likely place for the origin of a large part of this formula is indeed these 13 suttas where the formula occurs. A textual examination of the three sections on morality shows three distinct styles, even in English - I would guess that the Pali versions' differences in style are even more striking. By rereading each of the 13 suttas and getting a feel for the style at the point where the formula was inserted, perhaps an archeological dig can be made on the formula. My own take upon reading these Suttas with this in mind is as follows:

Sutta 1: This is the likely origin of the small section on morality. By tossing the 2nd and 3rd sections on morality, this sutta has a strong feeling of a coherent style.

Sutta 2: Any morality section in this sutta has been lost, though it is quite possible there was no morality section. This is a good candidate for the origin of the "water-like" descriptions of the Jhanic states. The Sidi's, here and throughout this Vagga, feel like a late addition - as you mention (page 12).

Sutta 3: The style of this sutta is more like the 2nd or 3rd morality sections. The Jhanas are probably a late addition.

Sutta 4: The formula here has probably trampled on earlier layers of morality, concentration and insight which have become lost.

Sutta 5: This certainly had a morality section. The Jhanas seem out of place with the theme of the rest of the sutta.

Sutta 6 & 7: The formula seems to have been thrown in almost at random.

Sutta 8: This might be the place for the origin of the outline of the formula. The many pieces from different places could have been added to what was here, which served as the outline for the whole formula. None of the grosser parts of the formula seem out of place here.

Sutta 9: The morality section seems out of place. This is a likely place for the origin of some of the Jhanic material.

Sutta 10: This is a late sutta which copies material verbatim from earlier works.

Suttas 11 & 12: Again, as in Sutta 4, the formula here has probably trampled on earlier layers of morality, concentration and insight which have become lost.

Sutta 13: There may have been a section on morality; if so it was probably quite small. The first Jhana almost certainly was discussed here since that is the only one mentioned in what we have today. It is interesting to note that Metta practice is an excellent way to enter the first Jhana; yet in this sutta, Metta is entered via the first Jhana!

It seems to me that these later suttas in their earliest forms sometimes contained information about the Jhanas. As the Samatha/Vipassana split occured/grew, the existing material was enlarged to support the Samatha path and the Sidi's were added.

The Jhanas definitely seem tacked onto the end of Sutta 15. However this material came from somewhere where the Jhanic states were considered important and were well understood.

The remaining references (and the one in Sutta 15) do seem to be likely of a later origin. But again they do represent a well understood practice. We have no way of knowing how long these Jhanic practices had been done before the material, as we know it, was incorporated into these suttas. But I would be very wary of claiming that Jhanic practice was not important to the early followers of the Buddha's teaching (as you claim on page 9); it certainly was well developed by the time it was formalized.

My understanding of what the Buddha was teaching is "Cleanup your act, learn to concentrate, use your concentrated mind to gain insight into things as they are." If, as you point out (pages 10 - 12), the earliest formulations of the Jhanas in the Majjhima Nikaya leave out the Sidi's, then what we have follows this pattern exactly.

There are other places in the Pali Canon that show traces of Jhanic practice. For example, both Piti and Sukha are important steps in the Anapanasati Sutta, and Piti and Sukha are the primary factors of the first two Jhanas. One of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment is Piti. These Seven are presented in the Anapanasati Sutta in a graduated path that ends with examining a calm and concentrated mind.

If, as you suggest, there was a split into the Samatha path and the Vipassana path, then it is just as likely that Jhanas were tossed out of the Vipassana teachings as that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness were tossed out of the Samatha teachings. By recombining the teachings from the two paths we can come up with the following possibility for the Buddha's enlightenment:

Gotama left a life of luxury to become a wandering ascetic. He studied with 2 teachers, learning the first 7 Jhanas from the first teacher and the 8th Jhana from the second teacher. He realized that the Jhanas did not lead to higher understanding, in themselves. He left his teachers and practiced alone for some period of time. He used the Jhana practice to concentrate his mind. He used his concentrated mind to probe dependent origination. He took his own mind/body as the ground to examine in probing dependent origination. He achieved a breakthru in consciousness. He was able to articulate the breakthru (the Four Noble Truths) and was able to teach others how to achieve this breakthru for themselves (the Eightfold Path).

The Jhanas are a very useful tool for those who can do them. They lead to a state of mind that is well suited to investigation of things as they are, since it is quite impossible to do them with the ego running rampant. However, if insight practice is not done immediately after leaving the Jhanic state(s), then the Jhanas are a waste of time as far as the spiritual life is concerned.

In conclusion, I just want to point out that 8 Jhanas and a buck will get you through the toll plaza at the Dumbarton bridge.

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