Dharma Questions: The Jhanas

This irregular “Dharma Questions” series deals with “dharma” meaning both the truth of the nature of reality and some Buddhist teachings. Please see this post on the intensions for questioning and not questioning. Amongst other things these questions can be, but not necessarily:

  • thought experiments
  • borderline musings not meant to be answered
  • from laziness of not contemplating or researching them yet

There seem to be plenty of variation on the descriptions of the jhanas (especially surrounding “Nimittas”); the history and backgrounds of the jhanas — which were supposedly established well before the historical Buddha; — as well as some emotional charge surrounding what is and isn’t jhana and how to properly practice the jhanas, or meditative absorption states. And due to encouragement to not mention levels of attainment — for some very valid reasons and some not so valid reasons — it is often challenging to get a bead on sorting what is most legitimate, wise and skillful when delving into the jhanas. Plus there are the Jhanic Factors which are not the same thing as the jhanas.

I’ve only read the books Practicing the Jhanas and Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English so please forgive the lack of substantial research and proper practice with the jhanas (– as well as any and all jhana misrepresentations that I now resolve to abstain from mentioning until more vetting from teachers accomplished in the jhanas –) for the following questions:

  • Are there any connections between the jhana of boundless consciousness and the consciousnesses of the six sense spheres [and the other two consciousnesses mentioned in Mahayana: defiled mental consciousness (kliṣṭamanovijñāna) and the fundamental store-house consciousness (ālāyavijñāna)]?
  • Why no right jhana (as in right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi)? [Update: Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana mentions “right jhana.” Curious if certain suttas mention this exact term and/or if a case is/ can be built from various teachings in the suttas.]
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu on if there’s “Right Jhana” and the Buddha’s instructions for Jhana
  • Did the historical Buddha give detailed teachings on how to properly practice the jhanas? If so, what are the suttas? If not, why not?
  • Why are the formless jhanas also known as The Sphere of ______ ? How can there be a “sphere” of boundless/infinite space if it is boundless/infinite?
  • What are the origin(s) of the jhanas? Are the jhanas part of the organic — so to speak — innate human consciousness? If not, why not? If so, can the jhanas still be considered altered states of consciousness? If not, why not?
  • Why are the lower jhanas structured in the way and in the order they are? Why not more peace before rapture and joy?
  • What is the nature of (a) nimitta? Why and how does it exist/appear and not exist/disappear? Perhaps related, what is the nature of (various types of) light(s)?
  • Is jhana possible using discursive thinking/thoughts as the object? If not, why not, and has it been attempted?
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu on my question about effort involved with vittaka & the relationship with vicara
  • In the Agganna Sutta — The Origin of the World, or the Buddhist human origin story — I remember someone once mentioning second jhana somehow involved. Do any of the jhanas have anything to do with the “realm of streaming radiance” and “as the cosmos expands, sentient beings mostly pass away from that host of radiant deities and come back to this realm. Here they are mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the sky, steadily glorious, and they remain like that for a very long time.”
  • I’ve heard Transcendental Meditation could lead to rebirth in formless realms. If true, what is the basis and explanation for this?
  • Is more than one jhana at a time possible? How quickly can switching between jhanas occur? At what rate(s) can jhana(s) be entered and exited?
  • What enters into and experiences jhana?
  • What all classes of beings can and can’t achieve jhana? Why or why not? How is this known?
  • Can there be more than one nimitta either separately and/or concurrently?
  • What are the effects/results of combining different kasina meditations e.g., perhaps filling limited space with white and light? Can kasinas be combined (to enter jhana)? Why or why not?
  • Could any of the material jhanas be contained/limited/cordoned off/aimed at specific areas of the body (and not other areas of the body)? If so, how would this be possible, and how would this happen/work? If not, why not?
  • Are the jhanas dependent upon and/or only accessible to certain kinds of beings? If so, what kinds of beings; why is this the case and how does this work?
  • In reference to the advanced technique of quickly cycling through the jhanas in non-sequential order(s), (as perhaps a potential, more intermediary stage) would it be advisable to (make a resolve to) (test out) change(ing)/switch(ing) meditation objects to see if the same/current jhana can be maintained?
  • Since the Brahmaviharas are boundless can they go beyond 8th Jhana? If not, why not?
  • Is there a one-size-fits-all nimitta? Why or why not? How?
  • What are (the descriptions of) some common and uncommon nimittas used for/with jhana?
  • Can there be space-or-transistion-between-jhana absorption? Why or why not? Can can this be investigated and known? If investigating and knowing while not in jhana is there significant difference (compared to while transitioning between jhanas) to invalidate such investigation and knowing?
  • How can there be abiding between various jhanas (and how would it be known)? If not possible, why not?
  • If it is not possible to investigate and analyze jhana while in jhana how close can access concentration get to jhana without actually entering jhana?
  • Could the samatha technique of paying attention to the breath on just the edges of the nostrils and upper lip, or the “Ānāpāna spot” originate from the word mukha [as mentioned briefly in this Leigh Brasington event] translated as mouth; face; entrance; opening; front?

“.. let go of the sense realm, and just take some time and keep your eyes half open because you just don’t want to go into your mental sense. Normally if you close your eyes you go into your mind sense, but you don’t want to be engaged with that either. Keep your eyes slightly open and downcast. So you’re not in. You’re not out. You’re sort of poised between the inner and outer world. And it’s light.

And the practice is to steady the attention so it’s not running out. Not running in. Not jumping up and down. Not searching for something. Just poised. And in fact, soothe it by widening it. So you might say the entire visual field, auditory, all the senses — you’re opening the whole lot up internally; that is you’re opening up the sensitivity of awareness but not focusing on any particular object.

. . . You could say your body is like a ballon. As your breathing fills it up sense something lightly expanding. Not holding back; letting it lightly expand.

Then you connect your mind to that. Just by the act of placing your mind — your attention — on that experience. The whole experience. The rhythm. The spaciousness. The quality of it. Not just the sensation but the quality of spaciousness, fluidity, relaxing, with this thread of sensation acting as the trace that you can sense. Don’t get too tight on that one.

It’s really about changing the atmosphere. Perhaps getting a feeling for body which is much more to do with how the breathing shapes it internally. Fluid.

— from Dhamma Stream Guided Meditation – Jhāna is Based on Disengagement by Ajahn Sucitto

Jhana and Nimitta from the suttas and commentaries

Published by josh dippold


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