Category: Buddhist Meditation
Jhāna (or dhyāna in Sanskrit) is a state of heightened concentration, tranquility, awareness, and meditative skill. It is sometimes translated as “states of absorption” or even “trance states.” In Buddhism, jhāna is so called because it involves focusing intently on an object or because it removes the hindrances to meditation. The Visuddhimagga, a text belonging to Theravada Buddhism, describes it as a state of profound stillness and non-dual consciousness in which the mind becomes momentarily or fully absorbed in the chosen object of meditation.
The Purpose of Jhānas
Jhānas are the main part in the development of Right Concentration in the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. The jhānas were well known before and during the time of the Buddha. His yoga teachers were all familiar with jhānas and they taught him how to attain the eight jhānas. However, the Buddha later found out that there was more to be done when investigating reality than just reaching the jhānic states. More on that later.
Other spiritual traditions have their own versions for these states of jhāna. Christian mystics, shamans, voodoo priests, and tantric yogis, for example, often use altered states of consciousness as tools in their spiritual work. In meditative traditions, like Buddhism, people use the states of jhāna to strengthen and sharpen the mind in order to investigate the nature of reality and to gain higher knowledge. The longer they stay in jhāna, the more powerful their minds become.
Jhānas are also used to suppress the hindrances to meditation. The Buddha mentioned that there are five of these hindrances (sensual desire, anger or ill will, restlessness or worry, sloth or torpor, and skeptical doubt). The jhānas may sometimes allow you to suppress them for days. When this happens, you will feel perfectly clear, mindful, full of compassion, peaceful, and light after the meditation session.
People, nonetheless, sometimes confuse this with enlightenment. The Jhānas do not immediately cause enlightenment, but they do allow you to suppress the Klesas (Mental Defilements). This, in turn, allows you to have a clear mind when you do Vipassana Meditation (insight practice) so as to investigate the Three Marks of Existence and thereby gain Wisdom (Prajñā). Once you have attained wisdom by having experiential and functional knowledge of these defilements, you can then eliminate all of them and then attain Nirvana.
Jhāna and Spiritual Powers
Spiritual powers may be attained at the higher levels of jhāna. It is at advanced jhāna levels that you may be able to see your past lives and even of others. Many of the abilities attributed to Jesus Christ, which you can read in the Bible, will start to make sense once you learn that there are, in fact, methods that will help you attain these forms of spiritual power. Many of these methods and accounts can be found written in Hindu and Buddhist texts. Here’s an example:
Having been one, you become many; having been many, you become one; you appear and vanish; you go unhindered through a wall, through a rampart, through a mountain as though through space; you dive in and out of the earth as though it were water; you walk on water without sinking as though it were earth; seated cross-legged, you travel in space like a bird; with your hand you touch and stroke the moon and sun so powerful and mighty; you exercise mastery with the body as far as the brahma world. (Samyutta Nikaya 12.70)
The Buddha, however, did not allow his followers to publicly exhibit their abilities for specific reasons. Spiritual attainments, he argued, are not to be used for entertainment or for profit because such usage would inflate the ego and would lead to attachment to the sense bases and other unwholesome desires. There is also the risk of losing your privacy since people might start coming to you for various reasons. Some people, for instance, may ask for healing, see if your powers are for real, try to prove you’re a fake, ask you to join a circus, or anything else they may think of doing. The Buddha encouraged the practice of jhāna and the attainment of powers so that his followers may use them to gain wisdom, but not to display them publicly.
How To Reach The States of Jhāna
There is a twofold process in the development of the first state of jhāna. On one hand, the Five Hindrances To Meditation have to be suppressed. On the other, the Five Factors of the First Jhana must be acquired.
|Five Hindrances to Meditation||Five Factors of First Jhana|
|sensual desire (kamacchanda)||one-pointedness (ekaggatā)|
|anger or ill will (byapada)||rapture or joy (pīti)|
|restlessness and worry (uddhacca-kukkucca)||pleasure or happiness (sukha)|
|sloth and torpor (thina-middha)||applied thought (vitakka)|
|doubt (vicikiccha)||sustained thought (vicāra)|
There are forty meditation subjects that you can use to practice Right Concentration. Any of these meditation subjects can allow access to the jhānas, but the common subject for most people who meditate is the breath. When you focus on your meditation subject, the five hindrances to meditation which prevent access to entering the jhānas will be suppressed by the arising of the five factors that compose the first jhāna.
- The first factor is one-pointedness concentration. By maintaining one-pointedness concentration, you will not get distracted by sensual desire.
- Then you will feel rapture or joy, which suppresses the hindrance of anger or ill will.
- The pleasure or happiness that follows suppresses restlessness and worry.
- As you aim very well at your subject, the applied thought gets stronger and this suppresses sloth and torpor.
- As you start to have sustained thought or attention, your doubt about the practice and its results fades away.
For further instructions, please check out my article on how to reach the states of Jhāna.
The Nine Levels of Jhāna
In the Pāli canon the Buddha describes nine progressive states of jhāna. The first four are considered to be meditations of form (rūpa jhānas), the next four are meditations without form (arūpa jhānas), and the last is the complete cessation of all psychomental activity called Nirodha.
|Nine Levels of Jhāna||Description|
|1. Delightful Sensations||(present jhāna factors: one-pointedness, joy, happiness, applied thought, sustained thought): The five hindrances have completely disappeared and intense bliss remains. Only the subtlest of mental movement remains. The ability to form unwholesome intentions ceases.|
|2. Joy||(present jhāna factors: one-pointedness, joy, happiness): All mental movement utterly ceases. There is only bliss. The ability to form wholesome intentions ceases.|
|3. Contentment||(present jhāna factors: one-pointedness, happiness): Joy disappears.|
|4. Utter peacefulness||(present jhāna factor: one-pointedness): Happiness disappears, leading to a state with neither pleasure nor pain, but is actually a subtle form of happiness (more sublime than pīti and sukha). The breath is said to cease temporarily in this state. The fourth jhāna is seen as the beginning of attaining psychic powers.|
|5. Infinity of space||In this state, you discover that there is no object, but only an infinite space, which is empty. This perception motivates the interest of claiming formless jhanas.|
|6. Infinity of consciousness||In this state, it becomes obvious that space has no existence. There is only infinite consciousness.|
|7. Nothingness||In this state, you feel that there is no consciousness, but only nothingness.|
|8. Neither perception nor non-perception||In this state there is very little recognition of what is happening, but you are also not totally unaware of what is happening.|
|9. Cessation (Nirodha)||Complete cessation of all psychomental activity; complete suppression of all samsaric conditionality without, however, "going over" to Nirvana. Can last several days. Nirodha is attained after passing through the four formless absorptions, but only an Arahant can achieve this.|
Fine-Material Jhānas (Rupa Jhānas) – These are the four preceding states in which the mind is focused on a material or mental object. The four fine-material jhānas are: delightful sensations, joy, contentment, and utter peacefulness. According to the Buddha, these states are conducive to a long-lasting sense of pleasure, bliss, and freedom from suffering.
Immaterial or Formless Jhānas (Arūpa Jhānas) - These are the four higher meditative states wherein the mind is not focused on mental objects. They further deepen the element of serenity felt in the first four jhānas. The immaterial or formless jhānas are: infinity of space, infinity of consciousness, nothingness, and neither perception nor non-perception. These jhānas can last for many hours and can empower your mind, making it able to penetrate into the deepest truths of existence.
Cessation (Nirodha) - Once you transcend the eight jhāna, you gain the enlightenment of complete dwelling in emptiness known as cessation (nirodha). This is often called the ninth jhāna. The Buddha often emphasized the attainment of "cessation of feelings and perceptions" rather than stopping short at the dimension of “neither perception nor non-perception." Those who reach cessation (nirodha) enter a state where there is only the most subtle form of perception. They may sometimes appear to be unconscious (like in a very deep sleep) while in this state. The eight and ninth jhanas are not full enlightenment, but very close stepping stones to full awakening. Only those who are very close to being fully enlightened can enter the eighth jhāna and cessation (nirodha).
Jhānas as Access to the Heavenly Realms
As I mentioned previously in my article about the Three Worlds of Existence and The 31 Realms, the heavenly realms are accessible to beings who have reached some level of jhāna. The heavenly realms in Buddhist cosmology is the World of Form (Rūpaloka), which consists of sixteen realms and whose inhabitants (the devas or jhāna-dwelling gods) experience extremely refined degrees of mental pleasure. These realms are possible places of rebirth for those who have mastered any of the first four states of jhāna.
Jhānas are not experiences of great insight, but they do serve a very important role in the path to enlightenment. According to Buddhists, if you can reach a certain level of jhāna, this increases your chances of being re-born to a heavenly plane of existence. If you pass away while meditating at one of the levels of jhāna, you will be reborn to that realm of existence. If you pass away when you are not in a meditation session, but have reached a certain level of jhāna in the past, you can still be reborn to one of those heavenly planes.