So, when I talk about the jhanas what the heck am I talking about? Actually, I could write a blog or two (or twenty) about ‘what is jhana’ and not even scratch the surface. The short answer is that the jhanas are eight meditative states of increasing concentration. They aren’t just found in Buddhism but in every major religion. All of the jhanic states are full of pleasure and this makes them subject to a great deal of mistrust. In Buddhism, the first four are just labeled one to four but they can be described as Rapture, Joy, Contentment, and Neither Pleasure nor Pain. The last four are given names, “The Sphere of Infinite Space,” “The Sphere of Infinite Consciousness,” “‘The Void,” and “Neither Perception nor Non-Perception.” All of them are filled with non-sensual pleasure. As you go from one to eight, the pleasure becomes more subtle, more peaceful, and counter-intuitively, more appealing. Experiencing this is actually one of the deep insights that lead to freedom, since if increasing peace is increasingly pleasurable, how pleasurable must be the ultimate peace, Nibbāna?
Given how wonderful the jhanas are, why does it seem that in nearly every discussion I have about the jhanas with Convert Buddhists the “you can get addicted to the jhanas” meme comes up. My main (Convert Buddhist) teacher (who practices in the Burmese lineage) constantly warns me not to become addicted to jhana.
Why? Well, have you heard of Puritanism? In the U.S. pleasure is only okay if it is illicit. And the only thing better than illicit pleasure is pleasure that can get you a jail term if you are caught indulging in it. So when the Buddha says throughout the suttas to “enjoy non-sensual pleasure…bath your body in it,” something deep in the American psyche rebels. A spiritual path that embraces pleasure…that doesn’t make sense. We should beat the sin out of ourselves (and everyone else, whether they like or not). But the Buddha’s embrace of pleasure — non-sensual pleasure, and that ‘non’ in front of ‘sensual’ is so very important — is arguably one of the two key insights of the Buddha (the other being his linking of intention and karma). But Puritanism isn’t the only reason. Below I’ll present a short history of Burmese Buddhism and the experience of many U.S. teachers as wounded healers. But Puritanism is the big one.
Let me explain some of the biases and understandings that inform my position. I believe that, as the Buddha originally taught the path, jhana practice was considered right-concentration, a fundamental part of the path to emancipation. This is backed up by extensive textual analysis of the Pali Canon done by Ajahn Sujato, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Ayya Khema, Leigh Brasington, Bhante G. and others. I do not know if mastery of jhana is a necessary condition for awakening, or that jhana practice is even the best way. It is entirely possible, in the thousands of years since the Buddha’s death, that better methods have been discovered. But I do believe jhana practice is just as valid as the other forms of practice which have arisen and for those inclined to jhana, it greatly enhances the Eightfold path.
Is isn’t just Convert Buddhists who fear pleasure. The Buddha practiced severe austerities in order to “punish” his body into letting go of the defilements In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta, MN 36, the Buddha discusses the time just before his awakening. In this sutta, he remembered entering the first jhana as a child and the great, natural pleasure that arose within him. He said the following (as translated Thanissaro Bhikkhu, emphasis by the author):
I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening? ‘ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’ I thought: ‘So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?’ I thought: ‘I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but that pleasure is not easy to achieve with a body so extremely emaciated. Suppose I were to take some solid food: some rice and porridge.’ So I took some solid food: some rice and porridge. …
So when I had taken solid food and regained strength, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities…I entered and remained in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.
Awakening and freedom only arose after the Buddha embraced non-sensual pleasure. The Buddha said that “they were the path.” He stopped beating the sin out of himself.
Now, what does it mean to be “addicted” to the jhanas? Jhanas are reached by letting go. Letting go the five hindrances, letting go of the sensual world. Is being attached to this type of pleasure a bad thing? Is this even addiction, or is it a great help in achieving mental and spiritual health?
Does the Buddha himself have anything to say about this issue? Luckily for us he did. Here are his words from the Pasadika Sutta (DN 29.24), as translated by Maurice Walshe:
There are, Cunda, these four kinds of life devoted to pleasure which are entirely conducive to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to tranquility, to realization, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. What are they? Firstly, a monk, detached from all sense-desires, detached from unwholesome mental states, enters and remains in the first Jhana…(repeated for all four material Jhanas)…
These are the four kinds of life devoted to pleasure which are entirely conducive to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to tranquility, to realization, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. So if the wanderers from the other sects should say that the followers of the Sakyan are addicted to these four forms of pleasure-seeking, they should be told: “Yes”, for they would be speaking correctly about you, they would not be slandering you with false or untrue statements.
To paraphrase the Buddha, he said “Hey, let them call us addicted. We’ll laugh all the way to Nibbāna.”
Distrust of the Jhanas is not restricted to the U.S. Many schools of Buddhism appear to not teach jhana practice at all. But in the Convert Buddhist world of the U.S., in addition to I Puritanism, I believe there are two additional reasons. The first is the history of Burmese Buddhism before the tradition came to the U.S.
The Buddhism we learned from the Burmese, which informs many of the branches of Convert Buddhism (IMS, Spirit Rock, my own lineage through Ruth Denison, etc.), is a recent cultural artifact. It arose in response to the colonization of Burma by western powers and the resulting influx of Christian missionaries. This influx threatened the position and very existence of Burmese Buddhism. In response Buddhist practice was “rationalized.” Ritual was removed and science was used to justify the practice. The purpose was to make Buddhism more understandable and sympathetic to the western world.
During this time, within Burmese society the relationship between the laity and and Monastic Sangha started to change. The laity was successful in challenging the convention that they should constrain themselves to “making merit.” Lay practitioners began transforming the goal of their practice from making merit to stream-entry, which in the Pali Canon is the first stage of awakening. They did this by using Vipassana (as they defined it, and definitely not jhana) mediation. Stream-entry is a powerful place to be. Even though not fully awakened, a person who has experienced a path moment is no longer subject to rebirth in a lower plane (including the animal realm) and is guaranteed to achieve full awakening within a handful of lifetimes.
In addition, during this time there was a “cult” of Alchemists in Burma. These Alchemists arose out of pre-Buddhist religions and their practice was centered around achieving physical immortality. As Buddhism became more powerful in Burma, the Alchemists began to identify themselves as Buddhists. They justified their practices by saying they wanted to extend their lifetimes to be present when the next Buddha arose. This group used the jhanas in their attempt to to make themselves immortal. This cult also instigated a failed rebellion against the occupying western powers. I don’t know for certain, but I would not be surprised if the Alchemists gave jhana practice a bad name within the Burmese tradition. (I recommend Race and Religion in American Buddhism, by Joesph Cheah, chapters 2 and 3 for more information how Burmese Buddhism and Burmese meditation practices came to the U.S.).
The second factor in “jhana fear” is very specific to the U.S. Many of our convert Buddhist teachers were “wounded” and have used Buddhism to help heal themselves, sometimes from addiction. These teachers are very aware of the power of addiction to sensual pleasure and the harm it causes. Many of these teachers have never experienced the jhanas. They have heard how powerful the pleasure is, but don’t understand how this pleasure arises out of letting go, out of leaving behind aversion and greed. Non-sensuality.
So why can’t we just let go of sensual pleasure and go directly to Nibbāna? Well, there are probably people who can. Just not very damn many of them. Most of us need something healthy to cling to while we slowly work at letting go of sensual pleasure. Only when we have let go of sensuality (non-returner) do we have to work on letting go of the jhanas. Embodied minds need pleasure. And assuming we are reborn, each of us have been seeking it for lifetimes. If you think people can become addicted to jhana, just how addicted do you think you can get the sensual world, especially if ‘you’ have been feeding this addiction for lifetimes – thousands, millions, maybe even billions of years. Therefore the Buddha gave us a raft to cross the river to reach Nibbāna. One of the planks of this raft is called jhana. But in the end, when the other shore is reached, even the raft must be let go. The Buddha, across 2,500+ years of time is doing his darndest to tell us to stop beating the sin out of ourselves (and others). Perhaps it is time for us to hear his message.
May all beings be safe and free from suffering.