The Gateway to Nirvana — Jhana

The Buddha — Luoyang, China (Photograph by me, May 2017)

TL;DR

Jhana or a concentrated state of mind is the instrument used to investigate the nature of reality and understand the cause of suffering and sever the bondage to the causal cycle of Samsara to attain complete freedom a.k.a Nirvana

Introduction

In this article I would like to discuss Jhanas from a neutral scientific point of view. I believe the practice of Jhanas has immense scientific value in understanding the phenomenon that is the human Mind. Some of the insights that can be gathered through the practice can make life more meaningful, happy and relaxed.

It is to be noted that I would not be getting into a how to? guide for the practice of Jhanas but would try my best to explain What? Jhanas are. Mainly, because the practice needs a setting, at least in the beginning.

It is like learning to swim, no amount of reading about it can lead to actual ability to Swim. The setting required is mostly a secluded place with access to a teacher and fellow practitioners and supporting infrastructure where one can get all one’s basic needs fulfilled without having to speak or any other form of interaction.

Such meditation centers are available throughout the world. One such center where I practiced is run by S.N. Goenka. If one would want to choose a center I would recommend one of the centers that are run by this teacher. There is no fee and it is run through volunteering and donations.

A State of Mind

Our life is experienced as a succession of states of Mind regardless of us being aware or unaware of it. While reading this article perhaps you are experiencing a state of applied attention. When eating delicious food your mind is in a state of Happiness. After finishing a meal your mind may be in a state of contentment. A few moments later a state of sleepiness.

States of mind can be positive, negative or neutral. If one has had a good meal for example the mind in a state of contentment, happiness etc. When one comes in contact with things one hates or the people whom one hates there is a feeling of anger, resentment, hatred etc. Similarly, when walks by in the street or is driving past an ordinary landscape there is a neutral state of mind.

It is not too far fetched to say that these states of mind seem to occur out of our control. Using an analogy of a corporation, it seems like external factors have the majority controlling stake in one’s state of mind.

(I chose to use State of mind rather than state of consciousness so that I am more accurately aligned to the prevailing Buddhist Psychology view where consciousness is one of the constituent of the Mind)

Altered States of Mind

We all do dumb shit when we are fucked up!

— Mike Tyson, The Hangover

Many of us have experienced altered states of Mind. One of the most widespread socially accepted altered state of Mind is being drunk. This state also has certain key characteristics like low level of inhibition, reduced response time, lower cognitive performance, euphoria etc. Similarly Coffee also can alter our state of Mind, a post-caffeine state of Mind is characterized by higher ability to concentrate, feeling more awake, mild euphoria etc.

The above are some of the few examples of the myriad number of mind altering substances that are prevalent in our current society. Some of the key conclusions that can be drawn are:

  1. There are a large number of possible states of Mind
  2. Although the precise state description varies among individuals, these states of Mind have certain key common characteristics
  3. Altering our state of mind alters our perception of phenomenon

You cannot see! you only Perceive!

Suppose you are in a garden and are enjoying the pink cherry blossoms in their full splendor, you are filled with joy! At the same time you happen to meet a person who is blind from birth. You want to share this joy with her. You explain to her in great detail the beautiful scene in front of you. Then she asks you, ‘what do you mean by pink?’ How can you explain the color pink to a blind person?

Well, on further investigation you will find that it is not only impossible to explain colors to blind people but what you call pink may look like how green looks to you for another person. Both of you agree on the label of pink but are perceiving two completely different things. How can you see if another person sees exactly what you see? It is impossible. We are trapped in a cell made up of our own perceptions.

Everything we see, touch, smell, hear, taste are perceived based on our own state of mind at that moment. For example, when you are tired and exhausted from a long day at work and you hear a song that is full of energy and elation, you may find it annoying. The very same song becomes enjoyable when you are in a state of excited happiness.

We have all experienced the gains and losses the states of our and other people’s minds causes at some point in our lives. Writing an important exam in a focused state of mind helps us perform better than expected while we may under perform when our mind is disturbed.

This applies to our so called endeavor of Rational Thinking. No matter how many checks and balances are put in place to remove personal biases from the process of Rational Thinking and decision making, biases always creep up.

The only way one can practice this endeavor is to remove or silence the mental factor of perception to be able to see a non ego-centric view of reality as it truly is. This process of consciously controlling the factor of perception is the goal of the practice of Jhana which is the first step on the path to Nirvana.

Zen — Chan — Jhana

Starting off from the root Sanskrit word Dhyana, there are multiple derivations — Zen in Japanese, Chan in Chinese and Jhana in Pali. Given the abundance of source literature in Pali, which is the vernacular used during the period of the Buddha, we will use the term Jhana in this article.

Jhana roughly translates ‘to meditate’. In practice, however it is more apt to refer to it as a state of mind that is attained through conscious practice. More precisely a concentrated state of mind.

There are 8 Jhanas levels, each progressively more deeper in concentration than the other, they are distinct in their nature and the kind of experience. The 8 Jhanas are classified at a high level into two categories, the Material Jhanas and the Immaterial Jhanas. There are 4 Material Jhanas and 4 Immaterial Jhanas.

First Jhana

I can describe this Jhana through firsthand experience. I have since corroborated my experience with literature and a few other practitioners as well. If one’s mind is secluded from noise (the noise of thoughts) and is focused regardless of the object, the First Jhana arises spontaneously.

It starts out as a mild sensation of pleasure on some part of the body. It is on the face in my case. It is on the hands for others. The location does not matter as long as one recognizes this pleasant feeling.

The recognition of this pleasant feeling after several hours or even days of meditation in case of a beginner creates a feeling of joy which increases the pleasure experienced on the body in intensity and dimension. This is a positive feedback loop and it is fragile.

If one indulges in interpreting this feeling then it collapses and in case one is too attached it may also lead to some amount of disappointment. On the other hand if this positive feedback loop is allowed to go on, then like all feedback mechanisms it grown exponentially and explodes into a state of near overpowering bliss.

It can reach levels that a beginner would have never even experienced in one’s life, not even sexual orgasm comes close. I cannot comment on drugs but the literature of experiences from other practitioners portrays this experience as a lightning bolt of intense pleasure.

Second Jhana

Think of it as the post orgasmic bliss, the Japanese in fact have a very specific word for post-copulatory bliss -kenja.

In the Buddhist scriptures the analogy used is the situation of a traveler lost in the desert and is almost dying of thirst. Suddenly the traveler gazes upon an oasis in the distance which gives them rapturous joy, this is the First Jhana.

When the traveler reaches the banks of the pond fed by the deep underground Spring, one is free from worries and is in a state of satiation that his quest for water is over. This is the closest feeling to describe the second Jhana. If the first is a lightning bolt then the second is rolling thunder in the distance.

Third Jhana

If one could describe the third Jhana in a word then it is Contentment. It is a state of Contentment , Satisfaction, Wishlessness. One is still happy but this is more subtle, its like getting something you always wanted and after the passing of the initial happiness there is the feeling of not needing anything else.

Continuing our analogy of the traveler, the feeling of the third Jhana is like entering the cool desert pond, drinking the water to one’s heart’s content.

Fourth Jhana

The fourth Jhana is a state of quiet stillness. After letting go the pleasure of contentment, there is a state of neutral mindedness, the simile used is the feeling of slowly sinking to the bottom of a still lake and staying there.

The fourth Jhana is often described as an exponential leap from the third both in the kind of experience and also in the level of concentration achieved.

Continuing the analogy of the traveler after experiencing contentment of drinking the water they comes ashore and rests under the shade of a tree. The state of mind is that of neither craving nor aversion. There is a sort of neutral static in the mind, a kind of peace. This neutrality or equanimity is the characteristic of this Jhanic state.

As I lack any personal experience in this I will have to rely on literature. The Literature talks about the practitioner experiencing seeing a bright light. It is described as sitting outdoors in the sun with a white cloth covering ones face.

One scientific speculation for this effect which is felt universally or almost universally by practitioners is the fact that with the calming of the visual cortex, the white light is a kind of static, also experienced by people who are near death i.e. the near death experiences of seeing a bright light as described by several people who have experienced this state.

(I have italicized seeing above to mean that one is aware of the visual nature of the experience as experienced by the whole body.)

Fifth Jhana

The Fifth Jhana is the first immaterial Jhana. The Fifth and the subsequent Jhanas are called immaterial because the experience is said to be nothing that can be experienced in the material world. It is for this reason that our analogy of the weary traveler satiated by the desert spring ends.

The Fifth Jhana is the experience of Infinite Space. It is the experience rather than the seeing of space visually. A more appropriate description would be boundless or edge less space. Practitioners describe that the awareness of space starts out very small but expands rapidly into Infinity.

I think experiencing the sphere of infinite space must be truly mind boggling, truly life changing.

Sixth Jhana

Within the vast emptiness of Infinite Space experienced in the Fifth Jhana one becomes aware of the conscious observer. The consciousness of the observer rapidly expands to fill the infinite space to create the experience of infinite consciousness, the state of the Sixth Jhana.

Practitioners report being able to observe other consciousnesses in this realm. It is speculated that this is the end game of the bhakti movement where the atman and paramatman merger concepts were culminated or brought to fruition.

Seventh Jhana

It can be described in brief as Experiencing zero. In the Fifth Jhana, one experiences Infinite Space with nothing in it.

In the Seventh Jhana, one experiences emptiness all around. In the Sixth Jhana, one experiences infinite consciousness but the fact that the consciousness just exists being conscious of nothing triggers the experience of nothingness or emptiness.

The awareness of the observer is vastly diminished with only a tiny flicker remaining. I speculate if this was the origin of the concept of zero.

Eighth Jhana

A state of no characteristics, a realm of neither perception nor non-perception, there are sparse descriptions and it is probably not describable. I can only speculate that this is a state of Ego-death while being completely aware.

Ninth Jhana

A state and practice that is now lost to the world, it is described as cessation, or extinguishing of all the fires. It is however not the same as Nirvana. Very little is known about this.

Jhana Addiction

Some of the Jhanic states or aspects of Jhanic states can be argued as obtainable without effort, through drug use. It is not the right understanding. Jhanic practice is to make the experience completely willful and controlled. Expert practitioners can go across Jhanas in any given sequence 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–7–6–5–6–7–8…

They can control the intensity levels and the duration which is not possible in a drug induced effect.

Yet another argument could be if Jhanic practice could be abused? Will this lead to Jhana addiction?

The short answer is yes and no.

Like all things, this is a tool, it can be used for both good and bad. I believe that it is most likely that people who have the level of self awareness and self control to gain mastery over the Jhanas can indeed make better judgement calls on the purpose of Jhanas as a means to a goal rather than an end in itself.

Purpose of Jhanic Practice

Before Gautama became the Buddha he studied under two teachers. The first teacher taught him the practice up to the Seventh Jhana and told him that Gautama has achieved the Spiritual Goal while the second teacher taught him the Eighth Jhana and told him that he attained the Spiritual Goal.

Gautama found that there was still a presence of suffering or dissatisfaction however subtle it may be. It was his further investigation into the nature of reality with a state of mind that is concentrated was he able to attain insights that liberated him.

The purpose of the practice of the Jhanas is a means to start investigating the nature of reality through contemplation. So, Jhanas are tools that are useful on the path to Nirvana.

Conclusion

I think of Jhanic Practice as basic fitness required before taking up any sport. If one’s fitness level is couch-potato then it makes sense to take up training in basic fitness before venturing into any sports activity.

But, if one already has a good level of fitness that is obtained through the practice of some other sport or even through winning the genetic lottery then one could potentially ignore basic fitness and take up any sport.

It is to be noted that being an expert in basic physical fitness and spending all of one’s time on it will not lead to success in any sport. Fitness is only a prerequisite and not an end in itself.

If one has a mind that is wieldy and is not dis-tractable with very high ability to perceive things as they are rather than based on prior experience. Then, one could theoretically go straight into the investigation of reality as experienced from moment to moment and obtain insights that would eventually lead to the understood experience that is Nirvana.

However, I believe the Jhanas are useful tools that can improve the depth and quality of insights and also add the factor of wholesome joy all along the path of Nirvana.

Further reading : The Suttas, Right Concentration by Leigh Brasington, Samatha, Jhana and Vipassana by Hyusoo Jeon.

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Laks Vajjhala

Laks Vajjhala

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