(...) The other day we were talking about the four foundations of
mindfulness in which the Buddha advises monks to practise mindfulness and
proceed towards the attainment of jhanas. From here we will talk a bit
about the samatha and vipassana practices and how to go about
attaining insight and finally, liberation from samsara.
There are two approaches in the practice of meditation. The first approach
is called samatha yanika. Those meditators who follow this
approach practise initially by using concentration, or tranquillity, as a base.
This means they practise pure tranquillity meditations like kasinas, visualisations;
asubhas, meditations on loathsomeness of the body. There are forty such
objects enumerated in the Visuddhimagga. They usually practise until
they have reached an established state: At least to upacara samadhi,
or to any of the jhanas, the blissful absorptions. When they are
established here, they go further and practise vipassana.
The second type of approach is suddha vipassana yanika,
the pure insight practice. Here the meditators do not go through any pure
tranquillity meditation practices; neither going into the respective access
concentration (called upacara jhana) nor the fixed concentration
(called appana jhana). They go directly into the contemplation of
mind and matter. From there they achieve vipassana momentary
concentration which is equivalent to access concentration. Depending on that
concentration they can also achieve magga-phala, enlightenment.
There is another type of approach: The practice where both concentration and
insight are developed. The meditators are not established in either one alone
but they practise alternatingly whenever one is more suitable. Usually people
talk about the first two types, the pure samatha yanika and the
pure vipassana yanika. You find that both these methods have been
taught by the Buddha and his instructions can be found in the Tipitaka
itself. For some the Buddha taught pure samatha methods before going to vipassana.
Others he taught directly the Four Foundations of Mindfulness without going
through the jhanas. There are many cases of both ways in the Tipitaka.
If you ask which one to practise, ideally it is the more you know the
better. It's better when you know all the eight jhanas, as well as all
the magga-phalas. But that would not always be possible. First, you have
to find a suitable teacher who can teach you all these things. Second, of
course, you need the time to do it. There are also different ways to approach
it. Sometimes you may be practising vipassana for a period as we are
doing here. After that, at a suitable time, one can also practise samatha.
Some find that vipassana is good enough. That means they keep on
practising and progressing and they do not need to go into samatha at
all. Certain people find it necessary to go through some degree of samatha
before they go into vipassana. But finally they will have to go to vipassana
if they want to find enlightenment. In any case you have to do a lot of
practice. And you need a lot of time.
Of course the emphasis of the Mahasi tradition is on vipassana. Not
that the teachers are ignorant about the nature of samatha. From what I
gather in Myanmar
we know that many of the teachers can actually teach all the forty objects of samatha.
When I was there many years ago, I asked them, "Why don't you teach me samatha?
I also want to learn samatha." They said: "Vipassana is
more important. After you have established vipassana well then you can
do all the samatha you want." The reason is that most people do not
have so much time to practise. Even if you're a monk, it doesn't mean you have
all the time to practise. You get involved with other things. The important
thing is that while there is the sasana period we learn what we can and
as much as we can in vipassana. From what we understand, the
concentration in an intensive retreat in vipassana is usually able to
carry a person forward for a long time. Therefore, the emphasis here is on vipassana.
As a lay person has even less time than a monk he should practise what is most
important. Also according to our understanding, it is rather difficult to
practise samatha successfully. Moreover, it may take some time if you
are required to attain the jhanas. The object must be suitable and you
also must have the potential.
Now we come to the subject of the jhanas. When you talk of jhana,
it does not necessary mean something that occurs in samatha, pure
tranquillity meditation, alone. It can also be applied to experiences of
concentration within the vipassana meditation. Therefore there are such
things as samatha jhanas, that means the jhanas or the type of
absorptions that occur in pure tranquillity meditations, and vipassana
jhanas, the other type of tranquillity or absorptions that occur in vipassana
What is the general idea behind the word jhana ? Jhana
usually means strong concentration fixed on the object. Here we quote an
excerpt from a book written by Mahasi Sayadaw, The Wheel of Dhamma:
"Jhana means closely observing an object with fixed attention.
Concentrated attention given to a selected object of meditation, such as
breathing for tranquillity concentration, gives rise to samatha jhana,
whereas noting the characteristic nature of mind and body and contemplating on
their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality brings about vipassana
jhana. There are two types of jhanas : samatha jhana and vipassana
jhana. Fixed attention that develops into tranquillity is called samatha
jhana. Contemplating on the three characteristics constitutes vipassana
jhana. There are also three kinds of samadhi (concentration):
momentary, access and absorption concentration."
In another book, Sayadaw U Pandita refers to jhana as the mind
sticking onto the object. It is like taking a wooden rod and poking through a
leaf with it; or sticking it to something soft and then bringing it close to
see what it is. So when the mind fixes on an object, it is like penetrating the
object and going to it, sticking to it. This is the nature of jhana. It
is a fixed, deep concentration.
Depending on how you use it, jhana can refer to different things.
Just as when you say concentration, you can have wrong concentration and right
concentration. It is still concentration. It refers to different experiences.
First we go into the general meaning of samatha concentration and how
it occurs, as mentioned in the text. Here samatha jhana can be divided
into two types. One is upacara jhana or upacara samadhi,
the other one is appana jhana or appana samadhi. In
this usage, jhana and samadhi mean the same thing. Appana
means fixed concentration, that means the mind becomes unified, one with the
object. Upacara means access, that means close to the fixed
We have to understand that upacara samadhi is very wide. There
is a wide level of upacara, access concentration. It covers many
experiences. And it differs with different objects. Generally, we can say a
person reaches upacara samadhi when the five hindrances are
inhibited. That means the concentration goes up to the level where greed,
anger, sloth and torpor, worry and restlessness, and doubts do not arise. When
the concentration has reached up to the level where the five hindrances are
pushed aside (although they may come back after one comes out from the
meditation) one can be said to have attained initial access concentration.
Because the function of putting away the defilements or hindrances is
satisfied, you can, if you want, go into the practice of vipassana and
observe with a sharp and calm mind.
When the hindrances are put aside and are inhibited, it doesn't mean that
the deepest form of access concentration has already been reached. At this
moment of time you may still now and then hear sounds coming and going. At this
point you can still have some idea of the form of the body. For example, if you
are watching the in- and out-breaths and you come to a point where the
hindrances are not there and the mind is very clear and calm. At this stage you
still have some idea of the form of the body. And when sounds come, you can
still hear them, although they may not be loud. At times they may be very loud
or sometimes very blur. This is one lower stage of upacara samadhi.
But one can go further. When you say access concentration is close to
absorption, it doesn't mean access concentration is weak. It can be very
strong. Take for example a person, either he is watching the in- and
out-breaths, or he is mentally chanting 'itipiso...', or he may be doing
metta, spreading loving-kindness to somebody. After some time of
developing the practice with mindfulness, with metta, with awareness,
his mind will become calmer and calmer. When it becomes calmer and calmer he
forgets about everything else. The mind becomes very soft, very quiet and very
concentrated. It will at times become very light. And he forgets about the
body, he won't feel his body at all. He won't be able to hear any sounds at
all. He just knows the mind is very still and quiet either on the breath, or on
sending loving-kindness to a person, or it might be a visualisation, a light
for example. The mind does not move. The mind is very still, very quiet, he
cannot hear anything, he doesn't know where he is. But he still knows that he
is concentrated on the object. And if he wants to think he can; if he doesn't
want to think he can, too. Often, in this stage, the mind is like one who is
floating. It is like being half-asleep. But it is not really sleep. This still
constitutes upacara samadhi, access concentration.
Thus, in the process of developing concentration, after reaching upacara
samadhi where the hindrances have been put aside, one still has to go
much further in the concentration before attaining the actual absorption, samatha
jhana which we call appana jhana. In certain objects, you
can see very clearly that they become finer and finer. Take for example, upacara
samadhi, access concentration just before going into the first jhana
and upacara samadhi just before going into the second jhana.
Both are upacara samadhi but they are different in experience.
And when you go to the third and fourth upacara samadhi, just
before going into third and fourth jhana respectively, it is again
different. The samadhi is finer and more still. The object also becomes
much finer. So there are actually different levels of upacara samadhi
which can be experienced.
We take an example from the kasinas meditative objects like colours,
earth, etc. Let's say someone is doing a type of kasinawater kasina.
Water kasina involves the visualisation of water. Before reaching
absorption there arises what we call a nimitta, a mental sign, called uggaha
nimitta. Uggaha nimitta is the 'grasped object'. That
means it is a direct replica of what you see as water. When you can do that the
mind is already very calm . Usually in this state you cannot be thinking here
and there. This is because when you're thinking here and there you not only see
water, you see other things as well. You may see fish inside the water or you
may even see insects moving about. Sometimes you may see your friend swimming
in the water and if you have craving arising, you may even see ladies swimming
in the water! You may see them very clearly.
When you have the uggaha nimitta you see the water very
clearly but the water may be moving. You see the water moving and the mind
becoming one with the water. It is as if the mind is the water and the water is
the mind. And it can be moving. At that time it is not very close to blissful
absorption yet. It is still some way off. But if the mind can almost be one
with the water and is sticking to the surface of the water, you cannot think of
anything else. You cannot be having the idea of the body or anything. You
cannot be hearing what is outside, you cannot think where you are either. At that
time the nimitta is called uggaha nimitta, grasped object.
It is upacara samadhi but not the one very close to the jhana
yet. From here you can understand that the samatha concentration should
be deep even before getting very close to the jhana.
Now if one is doing the water kasina when the uggaha nimitta
arises, the mind is one with the object as if the mind is the water and the
water is the mind. As the mind at this moment isn't yet completely still there
will be movement. That means the water which is the mind and the mind which is
the water are still moving. At that time you might find that it is a bit
similar to the vipassana experience, but it is not the same. Another
example is when doing the wind kasina, the stage is reached where the
mind is like the wind and the wind is like the mindthe mind could be moving as
if the wind is blowing. It is a bit like vipassana rising and falling,
wind going up and down. But if you're sharp enough you know it is not the same.
As you progress and the concentration deepens, any movements within the
object will stop, it will become very still. The mind which is the water and
the water which is the mind become very still and very clear, completely
transparent. Very bright. At that point the mind will approach a stage which is
extremely clear and extremely bright. When that happens excitement sometimes
comes up and the concentration is broken. At that point the mind goes into what
we call patibhaga nimitta, the 'mirror image', which is
very purified. This is now much closer to blissful absorption, first jhana.
But still it is not yet absorption .
You will find that the process of upacara samadhi just before
entering the first jhana or a matter of fact, the third or fourth jhana,
differs in its fineness. For example, when going to first jhana it is
like water moving and the mind is the water and the water is the mind. Then
just before entering the first jhana, the water may be like a very clear
round pool of water. But if you go to higher jhanas it will occur in
finer stages. It becomes not just water moving but very fine droplets, like a
mist, floating about. And just before entering the absorption (jhana)
the object becomes very fine, pinpoint drops and you know that those pinpoint
drops are moisture. So it is very much finer. The mind is also much finer and
This upacara samadhi can last long. You can sit for hours. It
seems that people can sit for days. But it is still only upacara samadhi.
In samatha you get very peaceful and very good experiences. There is no doubt
about that. One can never say anything bad about samatha meditations.
One can only praise samatha meditations. Only that they have to be
properly learned, otherwise it can give rise to some problems.
At this level of upacara samadhi, because it is so peaceful
and quiet, so happy and joyful, many things can happen. And because it is not
so fixed like in appana (fixed concentration) it can sometimes lapse.
Being so peaceful, it can lapse into sleep. For example, once when I was doing samatha
the mind was very quiet and I knew I was sitting. I thought I had sat for five
minutes only and was aware all the time, but when I turned to look at the clock
it was already a few hours later. Either the sitting was very peaceful or that
I could have fallen asleep. At times it's so peaceful and the mind so subtle
that there is not much difference being aware or not being aware. It is just
like you closing your eyes for a while only and already a few hours could have
passed. In this type of samadhi it is very easy to slip off into sleep
and you actually go into very, very deep sleep. And when you come out, if
you're not careful, you may even think that it was nibbana. Because you
may say it was cessation altogether, it was like you've gone to a void, there
was nothing there. Or, you may think it was jhana, first absorption. But
actually it was sleep. There is nothing wrong with sleep. Only when you start
getting attached to it then problems come.
Besides sleeping there are other things that can happen. For example, at times
there may be very strong joy that makes you feel like you are floating. Lots of
joy and lightness may envelope one's mind and body and make them seem to
disappear. When you come back to your senses you may recall, 'Oh! You've gone
to a very peaceful and blissful state'. That is not jhana. It is still a
kind of upacara, a kind of being completely enveloped in joy or
happiness. Again, if you're not careful, you can get attached to it as nibbana
or as jhana. There is nothing wrong with that bliss or that
peacefulness. It is only when the attachment arises that problems follow. And
it is very easy to get attached to such things.
In this access concentration for certain people, and certain types of
meditation, a lot of nimittas arise. There arise what we call 'visions'
or 'visualised images'. It may be things that you have seen before. It may be
just nonsense. It may be, what they say, things from the past lives. It may be
just fantasies. But usually the objects are quite clear because the mind is
calm and peaceful. Especially in the beginning, they are very clear and nice.
In fact some of them may be true. But inexperienced persons cannot
differentiate so well as the concentration is not really deep yet. Little,
subtle defilements quickly arise with visual images. And if you start to get
attached to it: "I've psychic powers"; "I've divine eyes";
"I can see my past lives", "in my past life I was king of
India", "in my past life I was emperor in China", then troubles
arise. If you don't get attached, then they are just mental images that arise.
There is nothing wrong with that, they will come and go. They may just be
impressions from anywhere. But once attachment or fear arises, these images
will not stop, they'll keep on continuing and continuing. Until finally you get
total hallucinations. Therefore if you are into samatha meditations you
are not encouraged to go into this at all until you have complete mastery over
the mind, until you are one hundred percent sure whether these images are real
or not. From here you may see that upacara samadhi is not just
simple experience but actually covers a range of experiences.
There will come a point when the concentration is developed deep enough to
enter what we call appana samadhi, the blissful absorptions, or
fixed concentration. When this happens the mind changes into a different level,
called rupavacara, the form-sphere. It is a jhanic sphere. This
type of mind is totally cut off from what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch.
In fact it also cuts off from the normal type of thinking and awareness. It has
been described by some people as a kind of deep sleep. But they know very
clearly how they sink into the object and get completely absorbed in it. Once
the mind absorbed into the object, they are completely unconscious at that
time. But when they come out they will know the nature of the state of mind
that has just passed and also the object that they were attending to. So even
if you enter into the first absorption for one second you will know that for
that one second you were completely unconscious. Only when you come out are you
aware of the blissful state of jhana during that one second. Even if you
go in for half a second you will know that for half a second you are completely
cut off from the whole sensual sphere. Only when you come out from this half a
second of concentration will you know how the state of mind was.
When you go into absorption there occurs a completely different level of
consciousness. Therefore if you're meditating and that you may forget the form
of the body, no thoughts and the mind is very still and blissfulthat is still
not appananot the first samatha jhana. But that doesn't mean it's
bad, it's still a good and peaceful state of mind.
It is very clear that in the absorption you are mindful. And sooner or later
you may know after emerging, the nature of the object as going into absorption
means that your mind is absorbed in the object. When the mind is completely
absorbed in the object you know what the object is! Of course there are certain
types of samatha meditation where the objects are very abstract. And
when you first enter into jhana they may not be very clear, because they
are very abstract objects that last only a very short time. But when you go in
constantly and you go up to the third and fourth jhana they should be
clear as well.
In certain meditations, like the kasinas and also the breathing
meditation, anapana, where the object before absorption is very clear
and bright, the object in which you are absorbed in is also very clear. As in
the example of the water kasina and the access concentration of water kasina
before the first absorption, it may be a completely clear pool of water which
is very still. When you are entering into the absorption, it is like sinking
into the wateras if you are diving and finally in the water. When in the water
you don't know anything. But once out of the water you know how the mind was,
how you were while under water, so to speak. This is a very clear and blissful
experience, but you know how clear and blissful only when you come out of it.
For these types of absorption there are four rupa jhanas, that
means there are four levels and each is different in character. In the suttas
it is very clearly said that they differ in terms of jhana factors, called
jhanangas. These are cetasikas, certain states of mind that are present
and which play an important part in the respective jhana, absorption.
For example in the first jhana the factors involved are: vitakka,
vicara, piti, sukha, ekaggata. Vitakka is
'initial application'. Initial application is the force of the mind which
brings it to the object. This is a mental force. Vicara, sustained
application, is the force of the mind that is keeping it on the object, and is
again a mental force, something like an energy. Piti is joy or interest.
Sukha is a very happy feeling. And ekaggata is one-pointedness,
that means when the mind is as if one with the object. These mental factors
which are present in the first jhana play an important part.
But it does not mean that when you have these five factors you have the
first jhana. Even if you don't have any concentration these five mental
factors are already there. When you think of food, when you miss very much your
food, or your 'Penang Laksa' there are also these five factors present ,
because the mind keeps running to the Laksa, it stays on it thinking 'how nice
if I have Laksa', and then after that when you think of the Laksa you have joy
'when I had Laksa it was so nice, I was enjoying myself' and you feel very happy
also and the mind is actually as if you could taste the Laksa, then these five
factors are there but it is more like wrong concentration, greed.
You must know what the five jhana factors are to understand the
jhanas. You must know at least something about Abhidhamma before you can
have a clearer idea. These five factors actually describe a type of
consciousness, a type of mind. When you know what factors are present you know
what jhana you are in. For example, in the first jhana you have
all the five factors involved. In the second jhana, you don't have the
initial and sustained application, you have only joy, happiness and
one-pointedness. In the third jhana, you have only happiness and
one-pointedness. In the fourth jhana, you have only equanimity and
one-pointedness. From the description I've given on the absorptions you definitely
cannot know it while you are in the jhana. While you are in
these absorptions it is like you are in deep sleep, you are in a state deeper
than deep sleepso how can you know while in it? You know it only before you
go in, because before you enter it will be clear which factors are stronger
and which are weaker and have to disappear, or after emerging,
through making of proper resolutions to reflect on the factors present. We will
not go into this because it is not part of our topic.
What I want is to give you a good idea of what access concentration and what
actually fixed concentration is in what we call pure samatha jhana, when
we talk about first, second, third and fourth jhana as samatha jhana.
According to our experience it is important to have a certain degree of
understanding. It is because of a lack of this type of understanding that wrong
views arise. You find that in the Brahmajala Sutta, the discourse
on wrong views, a large extent of wrong views do not come through thinking or
philosophies, they come from meditative experiences. Because people hold on to
their meditative experiences as something which is true and good but which in
reality is very false, it gives rise to many types of wrong views. For example,
one of them is dittha dhamma nibbana dittha dhamma vada. Nibbana
you understand, dittha dhamma is a present state, vada is a view.
This is the view regarding the present state as nibbana. For example if
a person gets attached to the jhana as nibbana then he goes into
wrong views. Of course there is nobody who can argue with him because he thinks
"I have experienced it and you not". At certain times entering into jhana
is as if going into a void, the object becomes so subtle that it is very easy
to fall into false views if one does not have a proper teacher. Even before
going to the blissful absorptions one can experience many subtle states which
can be misunderstood.
Therefore tonight's talk is to give you an idea so that you do not get
attached to these experiences. If you cannot differentiate between upacara
samadhi and appana samadhi, access concentration and fixed
concentration, it's even easier for you to make a mistake between what is nibbana
and what is not nibbana because nibbana is something more subtle
and deeper than jhana. For example, when people are practising
meditation and everybody starts saying, "I've got first jhana,
second jhana, third jhana, fourth jhana, this magga-phala,
that magga-phala", we don't say that they are wrong because we
don't really know what their experiences are, but the fact that they are saying
all these things so easily and so happily makes it obvious that there are
attachments. And you can see sometimes when they say it, they are very proud of
it. If they are actually attached to wrong views it is even worse. We hope that
this will not happen among the Buddhists here.
If a person has really gone through all these practices he will know that it
is not easy to know whether somebody has this jhana or that jhana,
this magga-phala or that magga-phala. One would be very reserved
in making such statements. Therefore, if somebody says all these things too
freely, we don't say directly that he is wrong, we say, be very careful with him,
you may go into wrong views.
A Dhamma talk by Venerable Sujivo
Tribune, Vol 4 No 2, July 1996, Buddhist Wisdom Centre, Malaysia