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Abhidhamma Jhānas


The first book of the Pali Abhidhamma, the Dhammasaṅgaṇī,1 initially describes in Chapter II the four jhānas much the same as found in the Anupada Sutta at MN 111 – i.e., with a host of additional factors besides the qualities given in the usual sutta descriptions of the jhānas.2 It then describes a fivefold system of jhānas that cover the same states as the sutta fourfold system but with the addition of a new jhāna (call it jhāna 1.5) between the first and second jhānas.3 The factors of jhāna 1.5 are the same as for the first jhāna except that vitakka has subsided and yet vicāra remains. Jhāna 1.5 is said to be born of concentration – which is the same as the second jhāna. The first, third, fourth and fifth jhānas of the fivefold system correspond exactly to the first, second, third and fourth jhānas of the fourfold system mentioned on the previous pages of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī.

The method for entering the jhānas in both the fourfold and fivefold systems is via "earth-gazing."4 Earth-gazing is inserted into the actual description of each of the jhānas – e.g., "Quite secluded from sense pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, by earth-gazing, one enters and dwells in the first jhāna, ...." Earth-gazing refers to using the earth kasiṇa as the access method. A kasiṇa is a colored disk, with the particular color and/or properties specified according to the type of kasiṇa. The earth kasiṇa, for instance, is a red-brown disk made of earth or clay (or another medium producing similar color and texture). The Visuddhimagga gives copious information about making and using an earth kasiṇa5 and that information is in accord with what is described in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī.

Then Chapter II of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī goes on to describe the Four Modes of Progress, the Four Objects of Thought, the Sixteenfold Combinations of the previous two, The Remaining Seven Artifices, The Stations of Mastery and The First Three Deliverances. It concludes with a section on the jhānas and the brahma-vihāras and on the jhānas and foulness (stages of decay of a corpse). It is all rather cryptic and is more clearly explained in the Visuddhimagga – not that you should ever get the idea that the Visuddhimagga is a paragon of clarity!

Chapter III is about the Four Formless Jhānas and again closely matches what is found in MN 111. However the usual description of these immaterial jhānas is expanded by sandwiching in the sutta description of the fourth jhāna between the usual sutta description of an immaterial jhāna and the enumeration of the multitude of factors of that immaterial jhāna. By the time of the Abhidhamma, the formless jhānas were thought of as modes of the fourth jhāna. This enabled the Gradual Training to now contain all eight jhānas – the formless ones now assumed to be implicitly referred to when the fourth jhāna is mentioned.

What is interesting is that every description of each of the eight jhānas starts with the phrase "When, that he may attain to the heavens of Form [or Formlessness], he cultivates the way thereto, and ..." – with the usual description of each jhāna inserted at the "...". It seems that by the time of the Abhidhamma, the jhānas were seen as a way to guarantee rebirth in one of the higher heavens – one of the Heavens of Form with mastery of the Rūpa Jhānas or one of the Formless Heavens with mastery of the Arūpa Jhānas. In fact Chapter IV of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī is all about the relationship of the jhānas and the heavens. This next life emphasis is a quite striking difference from the emphasis in the Gradual Training of the suttas where the Rūpa Jhānas are used to generate a concentrated, bright, wieldy mind which is used to gain the insight necessary for liberation in this life.

Chapter V of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī introduces the concept of the supermundane jhānas. In the suttas, the jhānas are always considered mundane – that is, they have their causes and conditions and are impermanent, not ultimately satisfying, and are empty of any inherent existence. In the Abhidhamma the four rūpa and four arūpa jhānas are still considered mundane, but the path and fruit moments of awakening are introduced in Chapter V and are called supermundane jhānas. This overloading of the term "jhāna" serves no modern purpose except to generate confusion. The word "jhāna" literally means "meditation." It comes from the verb jhāyati which means "to meditate." But the path and fruit moments are not types/styles/forms of meditation – they are momentary experiences that result from meditating.


The chapter on the jhānas in the Vibhaṅga opens with a very nice two page summary of the Gradual Training, very close to what is described in detail in the early chapters of the book Right Concentration. The rūpa jhānas are described in the usual sutta fourfold way; this would be expected since this section is titled "Analysis According to the Discourses."
6 Then follows in excruciating detail the definitions of all the important words in the summary. Vitakka & vicāra seem to mean both "thinking and examining" and "initial and sustained attention." Pīti is described as mental – excited elation; sukha is described undoubtedly as mental – ease and pleasure; no mention is made of any physical manifestation for either of them. The detailed definitions of the arūpa jhānas span two pages yet manage to provide virtually no additional information about these states beyond what is found in the suttas.7

Then follows a section titled "Analysis According to the Abhidhamma."8 This opens with a rehashing of the fourfold rūpa jhānas and the arūpa jhānas as explained in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī with its emphasis on rebirth in the corresponding heavenly realms. It continues with a cryptic discussion of the supermundane jhānas and concludes with a section that teaches how the jhānas are sometimes good and sometimes neither-good-nor-bad and never a cause for bewailing. Interestingly, only the fourfold scheme for the rūpa jhānas seems to be mentioned in the Vibhaṅga.


The Puggalapaññatti seems to mention the jhānas only once, and in a way that corresponds to the central part of the Gradual Training:
9 – abandoning the hindrances; moving through the four rūpa jhānas; using the concentrated, bright, wieldy, mind to bring an end to the three āsavas.


The Kathāvatthu – "Points of Controversy" – answers several points of controversy regarding the jhānas:

    Q: Do we pass immediately from one jhāna to the next or is there an intermediate non-jhānic state?
    A: No intermediate state. [Though I would say it depends – if you move intentionally, there is a brief, intermediate non-jhānic state; if the transition happens automatically, there is no intermediate non-jhānic state.]
    Q: Is there a jhāna 1.5?
    A: No. [Interesting! Especially seeing that the Dhammasaṅgaṇī describes such a state.]
    Q: Can you hear sounds in jhāna?
    A: No. [This appears to be the origin of this misunderstanding. The argument is quite suspect, but does indicate that by the time the Kathāvatthu was composed, the understanding of the jhānas had shifted to absorption deep enough to block out all sound.]
    Q: Does one who enjoys jhāna and desires jhāna, have that jhāna as the object of desire?
    A: No? [The arguments actually are confusing and inconclusive.]

Although the remaining books of the Abhidhamma may have additional information on the jhānas, I am not familiar with them and can provide no further information. But hopefully the above gives you some sense of how the jhānas evolved after the Buddha's death. We can clearly see the following:

  • A fivefold scheme for the jhānas was created by inserting a new state between the first and second jhāna. This was only possible after the Pali phrase "vitakka and vicāra" had lost its meaning of just "thinking" and had taken on the separate meanings of "initial application" and "sustained attention" respectively. This probably arose when the first jhāna became a more absorbed state than described in the suttas – witness the inclusion of one-pointedness as a factor of the first jhāna late in the sutta composition period (i.e., MN 43.19 & MN 111.4).

  • Kasiṇa practice had become more important by the time of the composition of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī. This too would indicate a deepening of concentration relative to the suttas, where kasiṇas are mentioned in very few suttas and then only listed.11

  • The immaterial jhānas came to be regarded as modes of the fourth jhāna.

  • Emphasis shifted somewhat from using the jhānas to obtain a mind suited for insight practice to attaining rebirth in one of the heavenly realm corresponding to one of the jhānas.

  • The concept of the supermundane jhānas was introduced.

  • Various controversies surrounding jhāna practice were resolved – usually in terms of deeper concentration. However, seemingly the fivefold jhāna scheme was later rejected.

1. Translated from the Pali by C.A.F. Rhys Davids as Buddhist Psychological Ethics, (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1900).
2. Dhs, 1900, pp 40-47.
3. Dhs, 1900, pp 47-48.
4. Paṭhavīkasinaṃ – i.e., the earth kasiṇa.
5. Vsm IV.24-26, p. 118f
6. Vbh, 1969, pp 319-320.
7. Ibid, pp 342-343.
8. Ibid, pp 344ff
9. Pp, 1922, p. 94.
10. Kath, 1915, pp 327ff, pp 277f.
11. DN, MN 77.24, AN 1.455-464, AN 10.25, 26 & 29.

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