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Jhāna Factors and the Hindrances

In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa writes

    For the hindrances are contrary opposites of the jhāna factors: what is meant is that the jhāna factors are incompatible with them, eliminate them, abolish them. And it is said accordingly in the Peṭaka (Peṭakopadesa): 'Concentration is incompatible with lust, happiness with ill will, applied thought with stiffness and torpor, bliss with agitation and worry, and sustained thought with uncertainty.'1 (Vsm IV.86)

To put the information above in tabular form, using the more common translations for the hindrances, we have

Jhāna Factor         Hindrance
vitakka         sloth & torpor
vicāra         doubt
pīti         ill will
sukha         restlessness & remorse
ekaggatā         sense desire

But there are serious problems with making such a correspondence. In the first place, as we saw in the chapter in Right Concentration on the 1st Jhāna, there is no ekaggatā factor for the first jhāna. We actually found that even talking in terms of jhāna factors is misleading and not useful – but ignoring that for the moment, we really have only four factors for the first jhāna and five hindrances!

It is true that even as early as the very late sutta composition period, a fifth factor of cittekaggatā was introduced, so allowing for that, does this correspondence make any sense? As we saw in the chapter in Right Concentration on Vitakka & Vicāra, both of these words just mean "thinking." Does thinking really counteract sloth & torpor and doubt? There is no obvious way that thinking overcomes sloth & torpor unless perhaps what you are thinking of inspires you to practice. But that is not what is being said here. And if there is doubt present, thinking is just as likely to lead to even more doubt rather than suppress it. So again this teaching makes no sense in light of the actual meaning of the words for the first two jhāna factors.

But if we ignore the sutta meaning of vitakka & vicāra and go with their later redefinition as "initial attention" and "sustained attention" does this correspondence make any sense?

Initial attention on the meditation object does indeed overcome laziness about beginning to meditate. However, it certainly does not often overcome sleepiness, which is usually categorized under sloth & torpor. Ignoring this last bit, we can give this correspondence a passing mark.

It is said then that sustained attention overcomes doubt. Well – yes, of course. And sustained attention also overcomes ill will, restlessness & remorse, and sense desire. This is exactly what generating access concentration is all about. Does this mean we should give this correspondence an A++++ since it overcomes 4 of the 5 hindrances? Given this, why bother with the remaining correspondences? But we'll have a look at them as well.

Pīti is said to overcome ill will. Yes, strong pīti pretty much drives everything else out of the mind except sukha. Doesn't that mean it counteracts all 5 hindrances? It certainly does a better job of counteracting sleepiness than initial attention. Do we give this correspondence an A+++++?

Sukha is said to counteract restlessness & remorse. But it also even more obviously counteracts sense desire and ill-will. And when sukha is strong, what is there to doubt? Looks like another A++++ since it overcomes 4 of the 5 hindrances.

And ekaggatā – that's like super sustained attention. It overcomes all of the hindrances – another A+++++.

So what does the table look like now that we aren't limited to an artificial one-to-one correspondence?

Jhāna Factor         Hindrance
vitakka         sloth & torpor
vicāra         sense desire, ill will, restlessness & remorse, doubt
pīti         sloth & torpor, sense desire, ill will, restlessness & remorse, doubt
sukha         sense desire, ill will, restlessness & remorse, doubt
ekaggatā         sloth & torpor, sense desire, ill will, restlessness & remorse, doubt

It this useful? Is it even memorable?

Actually the whole exercise of making a correspondence between the 5 jhāna factors (if there actually were 5 and the notion of factors was useful) and the 5 hindrances is rather misleading. All of the hindrances must be overcome in order to enter the first jhāna; any hindrance can block all of the factors; the pīti and sukha can't arise until all of the hindrances are suppressed.

We humans are pattern matching machines. Unfortunately we sometimes match patterns when there is no reason to do so. It is indeed important to know about the hindrances and how to deal with them. But having gotten them out of the way by entering access concentration, there is no need to think about or even know about the qualities of the first jhāna – just focus on a pleasant sensation and the jhāna will come and find you. Then afterward you can analyze what happened to see if the experience you had did indeed have the qualities of the first jhāna.

1. Vsm IV.86, page 135. Buddhaghosa ascribes the passage he cites in support of the correspondence to the "Peṭaka," but it cannot be traced anywhere in the present Tipitaka, nor in the exegetical work named Peṭakopadesa.

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