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The Jhanas – Meditative Absorption
All Dhamma practice should be grounded in the wisdom aspects of the Eightfold Path. This helps in keeping the supportive teachings free of clinging and grasping. Grounded in Right View of understanding that grasping creates the distraction of dukkha, and holding in mind the Right Intention of abandoning all craving will keep Dhamma practice free of expectation and free of grasping after attainments.
From the Samyutta Nikaya 45.8 the Buddha describes the levels of meditative absorption (Jhana) developed with Shamatha-Vipassana meditation. Samadhi is typically translated to mean concentration, but it is more accurate to understand samadhi as un-distracted i.e. the first jhana is “Remaining free of distraction by sensuality and sense contact, remaining free of distraction by unskillful mental qualities, entering and remaining in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from Samadhi, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation (Insight). 
“With a tranquil mind, (shamatha) entering and remaining in the second jhana: rapture and pleasure born of Samadhi, unification of awareness free from directed thought and evaluation, resting in internal assurance. With the fading of rapture, remaining equanimous, mindful and alert, gaining pleasure with the sensation of breathing in the body.
“Entering and remaining in the third jhana, which is equanimous and mindful, a pleasant abiding.
“Abandoning pleasure and pain, due to the renunciation of pleasure and pain, entering and remaining in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain.”
The jhanas are not to be taken as mind states to achieve. The jhanas are simply an explanation of different levels of concentration. Much is made in the modern Buddhist commentaries regarding the importance of achieving these states and the intense effort needed to reach the more “advanced” levels. There is no relative importance to any of these states except to point to the experience of deepening concentration.
The Buddha explained these states to specifically downplay any sense of special achievements associated with the jhanas. They are simply states of mindfulness of deepening concentration that are common experiences to all who engage in whole-hearted development of the Eightfold Path. All that is needed to experience these levels of concentration and absorption is Dhamma practice within the framework of the Eightfold Path.
In the Sallekha Sutta the Buddha points out to Maha-Cunda, one of the senior monks, that he may have been placing too much emphasis on the levels of meditative absorption.
In this sutta, Cunda asked the Buddha if acquiring the absorption of the jhanas would bring final release. The Buddha places the importance of the jhanas as a foundational aspect of the dhamma and then describes the “Right Discipline” developed by the Eightfold Path as the way to develop complete release:
”In the Noble One’s discipline it is not these [attainments] that are called ‘ending clinging’; in the Noble one’s discipline they are called ‘peaceful abidings.’
“But here, Cunda, is how ending clinging should be developed:
- Remain Harmless.
- Abstain from killing living beings.
- Abstain from taking what is not given.
- Abstain from sexual misconduct.
- Abstain from false speech.
- Abstain from hurtful speech.
- Abstain from gossip.
- Abandon ill will.
- Abandon wrong view and develop Right View.
- Abandon wrong intention and develop Right Intention.
- Abandon wrong speech and develop Right Speech.
- Abandon wrong actions and develop Right Actions.
- Abandon wrong livelihood and develop Right Livelihood.
- Abandon wrong mindfulness and develop Right Mindfulness.
- Abandon wrong concentration and develop Right Concentration.
“In this way release from clinging can be accomplished.” (Majjhima Nikaya 8)
In other words, the actual path the Buddha taught is what what many “Modern Buddhists” would consider the more mundane, even archaic aspects of the Eightfold Path and over-emphasize meditative achievement and “mystical” insight.
In the Pancalacanda Sutta the Buddha teaches that jhana, meditative absorption or concentration, is initiated with mindfulness:
“Even in a confining place (an un-awakened mind) it is found, the Dhamma is for the attainment of unbinding. Those who have gained (proper, refined) mindfulness are rightly well-focused” to experience jhana. (Samyutta Nikaya 2.7)
One enters the first level of meditative absorption beginning with the foundations of mindfulness: Being mindful of the breath-in-the-body, being mindful of feelings and thoughts arising and passing away, and being mindful of the present though always impermanent quality of mind the first jhana is entered. As meditation continues and concentration increases the other “levels” of meditative absorption develop and pass away.
In the Atthakangara Sutta a householder, Atthakangara, went to Ananda, the Buddha’s chief attendant, and asked him if there is a single quality where one engaged in the Dhamma would find release. Ananda replied: “When one has quieted the mind through mindfulness (of the breath) and has abandoned sensuality and unskillful qualities one enters and remains in the first jhana. Happiness born from abandonment accompanied by directed thought and reflection. They reflect with mindfulness and understand that this first Jhana is fabricated by intention. (The meditation method) being fabricated the first jhana is impermanent. Motivated by joy for the Dhamma and continuing shamatha-vipassana he goes beyond fabrications.”
“As one continues with mindfulness imbued with good-will they enter the second, the third and then the fourth jhana.” (Samyutta Nikaya 56.11)
The second Jhana is simply a meditative state that is un-directed or un-fabricated. The meditation method has fallen away (temporarily) and one stays in peace and happiness for a period of time. The Third Jhana is a (temporary) state of pervasive happiness and peace without the quality of acknowledgment of happiness and peace. It is a state of equanimity with awareness of an arisen state. The fourth Jhana is a (temporary) state of unwavering equanimity and pure mindfulness.
These levels of concentration are developed as meditation practice deepens. As these are not levels of meditation to achieve or to be held onto, they are fluid states. Each meditation session may include all three or even all four levels of jhana. They are taught simply to be aware of different levels of mindfulness that occur as a result of a wholehearted practice of shamatha-vipassana meditation within the framework of the Eightfold Path.
The Jhanas are ordinary states of mind that through integration of the Eightfold Path develop profound and extra-ordinary peace and refined mindfulness.
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.