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The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation
by Bhikkhu Henepola Gunaratana

Chapter 4

The Higher Jhanas


In this chapter we will survey the higher states of jhana. First we will discuss the remaining three jhanas of the fine-material sphere, using the descriptive formulas of the suttas as our starting point and the later literature as our source for the methods of practice that lead to these attainments. Following this we will consider the four meditative states that pertain to the immaterial sphere, which come to be called the immaterial jhanas. Our examination will bring out the dynamic character of the process by which the jhanas are successively achieved. The attainment of the higher jhanas of the fine-material sphere, we will see, involves the successive elimination of the grosser factors and the bringing to prominence of the subtler ones, the attainment of the formless jhanas the replacement of grosser objects with successively more refined objects. From our study it will become clear that the jhanas link together in a graded sequence of development in which the lower serves as basis for the higher and the higher intensifies and purifies states already present in the lower. We will end the chapter with a brief look at the connection between the jhanas and the Buddhist teaching of rebirth.

The Higher Fine-material Jhanas

The formula for the attainment of the second jhana runs as follows:

With the subsiding of applied thought and sustained thought he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without applied thought and sustained thought, and is filled with rapture and happiness born of concentration (M.i,181; Vbh. 245)

The second jhana, like the first, is attained by eliminating the factors to be abandoned and by developing the factors of possession. In this case however, the factors to be abandoned are the two initial factors of the first jhana itself, applied thought and sustained thought; the factors of possession are the three remaining jhana factors, rapture, happiness and one-pointedness. Hence the formula begins "with the subsiding of applied thought and sustained thought," and then mentions the jhana's positive endowments.

After achieving the five kinds of mastery over the first jhana, a meditator who wishes to reach the second jhana should enter the first jhana and contemplate its defects. These are twofold: one, which might be called the defect of proximate corruption, is the nearness of the five hindrances, against which the first jhana provides only a relatively mild safeguard; the other defect, inherent to the first jhana, is its inclusion of applied and sustained thought, which now appear as gross, even as impediments needing to be eliminated to attain the more peaceful and subtle second jhana.

By reflecting upon the second jhana as more tranquil and sublime than the first, the meditator ends his attachment to the first jhana and engages in renewed striving with the aim of reaching the higher stage. He directs his mind to his meditation subject -- which must be one capable of inducing the higher jhanas such as a kasina or the breath -- and resolves to overcome applied and sustained thought. When his practice comes to maturity the two kinds of thought subside and the second jhana arises. In the second jhana only three of the original five jhana factors remain -- rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness. Moreover, with the elimination of the two grosser factors these have acquired a subtler and more peaceful tone. [1]

Besides the main jhana factors, the canonical formula includes several other states in its description of the second jhana. "Internal confidence" (ajjhattamsampasadanam), conveys the twofold meaning of faith and tranquillity. In the first jhana the meditator's faith lacked full clarity and serenity due to "the disturbance created by applied and sustained thought, like water ruffled by ripples and wavelets" (Vism. 157; PP.163). But when applied and sustained thought subside, the mind becomes very peaceful and the meditator's faith acquires fuller confidence.

The formula also mentions unification of mind (cetaso ekodibhavam), which is identified with one-pointedness or concentration. Though present in the first jhana, concentration only gains special mention in connection with the second jhana since it is here that it acquires eminence. In the first jhana concentration was still imperfect, being subject to the disturbing influence of applied and sustained thought. For the same reason this jhana, along with its constituent rapture and happiness, is said to be born of concentration (samadhijam): "It is only this concentration that is quite worthy to be called 'concentration' because of its complete confidence and extreme immobility due to absence of disturbance by applied and sustained thought" (Vism.158; PP.164).

To attain the third jhana the meditator must use the same method he used to ascend from the first jhana to the second. He must master the second jhana in the five ways, enter and emerge from it, and reflect upon its defects. In this case the defect of proximate corruption is the nearness of applied and sustained thought, which threaten to disrupt the serenity of the second jhana; its inherent defect is the presence of rapture, which now appears as a gross factor that should be discarded. Aware of the imperfections in the second jhana, the meditator cultivates indifference towards it and aspires instead for the peace and sublimity of the third jhana, towards the attainment of which he now directs his efforts. When his practice matures he enters the third jhana, which has the two jhana factors that remain when the rapture disappears, happiness and one-pointedness, and which the suttas describe as follows:

With the fading away of rapture, he dwells in equanimity, mindful and discerning; and he experiences in his own person that happiness of which the noble ones say: 'Happily lives he who is equanimous and mindful' -- thus he enters and dwells in the third jhana. (M.i,182; Vbh.245)

The formula indicates that the third jhana contains, besides its two defining factors, three additional components not included among the jhana factors: equanimity, mindfulness and discernment. Equanimity is mentioned twice. The Pali word for equanimity, upekkha, occurs in the texts with a wide range of meanings, the most important being neutral feeling -- that is, feeling which is neither painful nor pleasant -- and the mental quality of inner balance or equipoise called "specific neutrality" (tatramajjhattata -- see Vism.161; PP.167). The equanimity referred to in the formula is a mode of specific neutrality which belongs to the aggregate of mental formations (sankharakkhandha) and thus should not be confused with equanimity as neutral feeling. Though the two are often associated, each can exist independently of the other, and in the third jhana equanimity as specific neutrality co-exists with happiness or pleasant feeling.

The meditator in third jhana is also said to be mindful and discerning, which points to another pair of frequently conjoined mental functions. Mindfulness (sati), in this context, means the remembrance of the meditation object, the constant bearing of the object in mind without allowing it to float away. Discernment (sampajanna) is an aspect of wisdom or understanding which scrutinizes the object and grasps its nature free from delusion. Though these two factors were already present even in the first two jhanas, they are first mentioned only in connection with the third since it is here that their efficacy becomes manifest. The two are needed particularly to avoid a return to rapture. Just as a suckling calf, removed from its mother and left unguarded, again approaches the mother, so the happiness of jhana tends to veer towards rapture, its natural partner, if unguarded by mindfulness and discernment (Dhs. A.219). To prevent this and the consequent loss of the third jhana is the task of mindfulness and discernment.

The attainment of the fourth jhana commences with the aforesaid procedure. In this case the meditator sees that the third jhana is threatened by the proximity of rapture, which is ever ready to swell up again due to its natural affinity with happiness; he also sees that it is inherently defective due to the presence of happiness, a gross factor which provides fuel for clinging. He then contemplates the state where equanimous feeling and one-pointedness subsist together -- the fourth jhana -- as far more peaceful and secure than anything he has so far experienced, and therefore as far more desirable. Taking as his object the same counterpart sign he took for the earlier jhana, he strengthens his efforts in concentration for the purpose of abandoning the gross factor of happiness and entering the higher jhana. When his practice matures the mind enters absorption into the fourth jhana:

With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and has purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. (M.i,182; Vbh.245)

The first part of this formula specifies the conditions for the attainment of this jhana -- also called the neither-painful-nor-pleasant liberation of mind (M.i, 296) -- to be the abandoning of four kinds of feeling incompatible with it, the first two signifying bodily feelings, the latter two the corresponding mental feelings. The formula also introduces several new terms and phrases which have not been encountered previously. First, it mentions a new feeling, neither-pain-nor-pleasure (adukkhamasukha), which remains after the other four feelings have subsided. This kind of feeling also called equanimous or neutral feeling, replaces happiness as the concomitant feeling of the jhana and also figures as one of the jhana factors. Thus this attainment has two jhana factors: neutral feeling and one-pointedness of mind. Previously the ascent from one jhana to the next was marked by the progressive elimination of the coarser jhana factors, but none were added to replace those which were excluded. But now, in the move from the third to the fourth jhana, a substitution occurs, neutral feeling moving in to take the place of happiness.

In addition we also find a new phrase composed of familiar terms, "purity of mindfulness due to equanimity" (upekkhasatiparisuddhi). The Vibhanga explains: "This mindfulness is cleared, purified, clarified by equanimity" (Vbh. 261), and Buddhaghosa adds: "for the mindfulness in this jhana is quite purified, and its purification is effected by equanimity, not by anything else" (Vism.167; PP.174). The equanimity which purifies the mindfulness is not neutral feeling, as might be supposed, but specific neutrality, the sublime impartiality free from attachment and aversion, which also pertains to this jhana. Though both specific neutrality and mindfulness were present in the lower three jhanas, none among these is said to have "purity of mindfulness due to equanimity." The reason is that in the lower jhanas the equanimity present was not purified itself, being overshadowed by opposing states and lacking association with equanimous feeling. It is like a crescent moon which exists by day but cannot be seen because of the sunlight and the bright sky. But in the fourth jhana, where equanimity gains the support of equanimous feeling, it shines forth like the crescent moon at night and purifies mindfulness and the other associated states (Vism. 169; PP.175).

The Immaterial Jhanas

Beyond the four jhanas lie four higher attainments in the scale of concentration, referred to in the suttas as the "peaceful immaterial liberations transcending material form" (santa vimokkha atikammarupe aruppa, M.i,33). In the commentaries they are also called the immaterial jhanas, and while this expression is not found in the suttas it seems appropriate in so far as these states correspond to jhanic levels of consciousness and continue the same process of mental unification initiated by the original four jhanas, now sometimes called the fine-material jhanas. The immaterial jhanas are designated, not by numerical names like their predecessors, but by the names of their objective spheres: the base of boundless space, the base of boundless consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. [2] They receive the designation "immaterial" or " formless" (arupa) because they are achieved by surmounting all perceptions of material form, including the subtle form of the counterpart sign which served as the object of the previous jhanas, and because they are the subjective correlates of the immaterial planes of existence.

Like the fine-material jhanas follow a fixed sequence and must be attained in the order in which they are presented. That is, the meditator who wishes to achieve the immaterial jhanas must begin with the base of boundless space and then proceed step by step up to the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. However, an important difference separates the modes of progress in the two cases. In the case of the fine-material jhanas, the ascent from one jhana to another involves a surmounting of jhana factors. To rise from the first jhana to the second the meditator must eliminate applied thought and sustained thought, to rise from the second to the third he must overcome rapture, and to rise from the third to the fourth he must replace pleasant with neutral feeling. Thus progress involves a reduction and refinement of the jhana factors, from the initial five to the culmination in one-pointedness and neutral feeling.

Once the fourth jhana is reached the jhana factors remain constant, and in higher ascent to the immaterial attainments there is no further elimination of jhana factors. For this reason the formless jhanas, when classified from the perspective of their factorial constitution as is done in the Abhidhamma, are considered modes of the fourth jhana. They are all two-factored jhanas, constituted by one-pointedness and equanimous feeling.

Rather than being determined by a surmounting of factors, the order of the immaterial jhanas is determined by a surmounting of objects. Whereas for the lower jhanas the object can remain constant but the factors must be changed, for the immaterial jhanas the factors remain constant while the objects change. The base of boundless space eliminates the kasina object of the fourth jhana, the base of boundless consciousness surmounts the object of the base of boundless space, the base of nothingness surmounts the object of base of boundless consciousness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception surmounts the objects the object of the base of nothingness.

Because the objects become progressively more subtle at each level, the jhana factors of equanimous feeling and one-pointedness, while remaining constant in nature throughout, become correspondingly more refined in quality. Buddhaghosa illustrates this with a simile of four pieces of cloth of the same measurements, spun by the same person, yet made of thick, thin, thinner and very thin thread respectively (Vism. 339; PP.369). Also, whereas the four lower jhanas can each take a variety of objects -- the ten kasinas, the in-and-out breath, etc. -- and do not stand in any integral relation to these objects, the four immaterial jhanas each take a single object inseparably related to the attainment itself. The first is attained solely with the base of boundless space as object, the second with the base of boundless consciousness, and so forth.

The motivation which initially leads a meditator to seek the immaterial attainments is a clear recognition of the dangers inherent in material existence: it is in virtue of matter that injuries and death by weapons and knives occur that one is afflicted with diseases, subject of hunger and thirst, while none of this takes place on the immaterial planes of existence (M.i,410). Wishing to escape these dangers by taking rebirth in the immaterial planes, the meditator must first attain the four fine-material jhanas and master the fourth jhana with any kasina as object except the omitted space kasina. By this much the meditator has risen above gross matter, but he still has not transcended the subtle material form comprised by the luminous counterpart sign which is the object of his jhana. To reach the formless attainments the meditator, after emerging from the fourth jhana, must consider that even that jhana, as refined as it is, still has an object consisting in material form and thus is distantly connected with gross matter; moreover, it is close to happiness, a factor of the third jhana, and is far coarser than the immaterial states. The meditator sees the base of boundless space, the first immaterial jhana, as more peaceful and sublime than the fourth fine-material jhana and as more safely removed from materiality.

Following these preparatory reflections, the meditator enters the fourth jhana based on a kasina object and extends the counterpart sign of the kasina "to the limit of the world-sphere, or as far as he likes." Then, after emerging from the fourth jhana, he must remove the kasina by attending exclusively to the space it has been made to cover without attending to the kasina itself. Taking as his object the space left after the removal of the kasina, the meditator adverts to it as "boundless space" or simply as "space, space," striking at it with applied and sustained thought. As he cultivates this practice over and over, eventually the consciousness pertaining to the base of boundless space arises with boundless space as its object (Vism. 327-28; PP.355-56).

A meditator who has gained mastery over the base of boundless space, wishing to attain as well the second immaterial jhana, must reflect upon the two defects of the first attainment which are its proximity to the fine-material jhanas and its grossness compared to the base of boundless consciousness. Having in this way developed indifferent to the lower attainment, he must next enter and emerge from the base of boundless space and then fix his attention upon the consciousness that occurred there pervading the boundless space. Since the space taken as the object by the first formless jhana was boundless, the consciousness of that space also involves an aspect of boundlessness, and it is to this boundless consciousness that the aspirant for the next attainment adverts. He is not to attend to it merely as boundless, but as "boundless consciousness" or simply as "consciousness." He continues to cultivate this sign again and again until the consciousness belonging to the base of boundless consciousness arises in absorption taking as its object the boundless consciousness pertaining to the first immaterial state (Vism. 331-32; PP.360-61).

To attain the next formless state, the base of nothingness, the meditator who has mastered the base of boundless consciousness must contemplate its defects in the same twofold manner and advert to the superior peacefulness of the base of nothingness. Without giving any more attention to the base of boundless consciousness, he should "give attention to the present non-existence, voidness, secluded aspect of that same past consciousness belonging to the base consisting of boundless space" (Vism. 333; PP.362). In other words, the meditator is to focus upon the present absence or non-existence of the consciousness belonging to the base of boundless space, adverting to it over and over thus: "There is not, there is not" or "void, void". When his efforts fructify there arises in absorption a consciousness belonging to the base of nothingness, with the non-existence of the consciousness of boundless space as its object. Whereas the second immaterial state relates to the consciousness of boundless space positively, by focusing upon the content of that consciousness and appropriating its boundlessness, the third immaterial state relates to it negatively, by excluding that consciousness from awareness and making the absence or present non-existence of that consciousness its object.

The fourth and final immaterial jhana, the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, is reached through the same preliminary procedure. The meditator can also reflect upon the unsatisfactoriness of perception, thinking: "Perception is a disease, perception is a boil, perception is a dart ... this is peaceful, this is sublime, that is to say, neither-perception-nor-non-perception" (M.ii,231). In this way he ends his attachment to the base of nothingness and strengthens his resolve to attain the next higher stage. He then adverts to the four mental aggregates that constitute the attainment of the base of nothingness -- its feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness -- contemplating them as "peaceful, peaceful," reviewing that base and striking at it with applied and sustained thought. As he does so the hindrances are suppressed, the mind passes through access and enters the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.

This jhana receives its name because, on the one hand, it lacks gross perception with its function of clearly discerning objects, and thus cannot be said to have perception; on the other, it retains a very subtle perception, and thus cannot be said to be without perception. Because all the mental functions are here reduced to the finest and most subtle level, this jhana is also named the attainment with residual formations. At this level the mind has reached the highest possible development in the direction of pure serenity. It has attained the most intense degree of concentration, becoming so refined that consciousness can no longer be described in terms of existence or non-existence. Yet even this attainment, from the Buddhist point of view, is still a mundane state which must finally give way to insight that alone leads to true liberation.

The Jhanas and Rebirth

Buddhism teaches that all sentient beings in whom ignorance and craving still linger are subject to rebirth following death. Their mode of rebirth is determined by their kamma, their volitional action, wholesome kamma issuing in a good rebirth and unwholesome kamma in a bad rebirth. As a kind of wholesome kamma the attainment of jhana can play a key role in the rebirth process, being considered a weighty good kamma which takes precedence over other lesser kammas in determining the future rebirth of the person who attains it.

Buddhist cosmology groups the numerous planes of existence into which rebirth takes place into three broad spheres each of which comprises a number of subsidiary planes. The sense-sphere (kamadhatu) is the field of rebirth for evil deeds and for meritorious deeds falling short of the jhanas; the fine-material sphere (rupadhatu), the field of rebirth for the fine-material jhanas; and the immaterial sphere (arupadhatu), the field of rebirth for the immaterial jhanas.

An unwholesome kamma, should it become determinative of rebirth, will lead to a new existence in one of the four planes of misery belonging to the sense-sphere: the hells, the animal kingdom, the sphere of afflicted spirits, or the host of titans. A wholesome kamma of a subjhanic type produces rebirth in one of the seven happy planes in the sense-sphere, the human world or the six heavenly worlds.

Above the sense-sphere realms are the fine-material realms, into which rebirth is gained only through the attainment of the fine-material jhanas. The sixteen realms in this sphere are hierarchically ordered in correlation with the four jhanas. Those who have practiced the first jhana to a minor degree are reborn in the Realm of the Retinue of Brahma, to a moderate degree in the Realm of the Ministers of Brahma, and to a superior degree in the Realm of the Great Brahma. [3] Similarly, practicing the second jhana to a minor degree brings rebirth in the Realm of Minor Lustre, to a moderate degree in the Realm of Infinite Lustre, and to a superior degree the Realm of Radiant Lustre. [4] Again, practicing the third jhana to a minor degree brings rebirth in the Realm of Minor Aura, to a moderate degree in the Realm of Infinite Aura, and to a superior degree in the Realm of Steady Aura. [5]

Corresponding to the fourth jhana there are seven realms: the Realm of Great Reward, the Realm of Non-percipient Beings, and the five Pure Abodes.[6] With this jhana the rebirth pattern deviates from the former one. It seems that all beings who practice the fourth jhana of the mundane level without reaching any supramundane attainment are reborn in the realm of Great Reward. There is no differentiation by way of inferior, moderate or superior grades of development. The Realm of Non-percipient Beings is reached by those who, after attaining the fourth jhana, then use the power of their meditation to take rebirth with only material bodies; they do not acquire consciousness again until they pass away from this realm. The five Pure Abodes are open only to non-returners (anagamis), noble disciples at the penultimate stage of liberation who have eradicated the fetters binding them to the sense-sphere and thence automatically take rebirth in higher realms, where they attain arahatship and reach final deliverance.

Beyond the fine-material sphere lie the immaterial realms, which are four in number -- the base of boundless space, the base of boundless consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. As should be evident, these are realms of rebirth for those who, without having broken the fetters that bind them to samsara, achieve and master one or another of the four immaterial jhanas. Those mediators who have mastery over a formless attainment at the time of death take rebirth in the appropriate plane, where they abide until the kammic force of the jhana is exhausted. Then they pass away, to take rebirth in some other realm as determined by their accumulated kamma. [7]

[1] Based on the distinction between applied and sustained thought, the Abhidhamma presents a fivefold division of the jhanas obtained by recognizing the sequential rather than simultaneous elimination of the two kinds of thought. On this account a meditator of duller faculties eliminates applied thought first and attains a second jhana with four factors including sustained thought, and a third jhana identical with the second jhana of the fourfold scheme. In contrast a meditator of sharp faculties comprehends quickly the defects of both applied and sustained thought and so eliminates them both at once.
[2] Akasanancayatana, vinnanancayatana, akincannayatana, nevasannana sannayatana
[3] Brahmaparisajja brahmapurohita, maha brahma.
[4] Paritabha, appamanabha, abhassara.
[5] Parittasubha, appamanasubha, subhakinha.
[6] Vehapphala, asannasatta, suddhavasa.
[7] A good summary of Buddhist cosmology and of the connection between kamma and planes of rebirth can be found in Narada, A Manual of Abhidhamma. pp.233-55.


[Title Page] [Contents]
[1. Introduction] [2. Preparation for Jhana]
[3. The First Jhana] [4. The Higher Jhanas]
[5. Jhana & The Supramundane] [6. Jhanas & The Noble Disciples]

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