In this part, I want to critique what Bhikkhu Analayo has to say about jhana in his book Early Buddhist Meditation Studies. His contention is that any jhana is full absorption and no thought is possible. This requires him to twist and turn the suttas to suit his theory.

My View

Let me summarize my view. I do not believe that the first jhana is easily attained. It takes a deep practice of cultivating mindfulness to reach the first jhana, which is a level of collectedness that is “quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome qualities” (SN 45.8 PMT). But I believe that this “first [stage of] meditation… is accompanied by thought and investigation” (SN 45.8 PMT). And I believe this thought and investigation refers to the very practice of mindfulness layout by the Buddha:

One breathes in mindfully, one breathes out mindfully. “Breathing in a long breath, one understands, ‘I am breathing in a long breath.’ “Breathing out a long breath, one understands, ‘I am breathing out a long breath.’ “Breathing in a short breath, one understands, ‘I am breathing in a short breath.’ “Breathing out a short breath, one understands, ‘I am breathing out a short breath’ (MN 10 Suddhāso).

Notice the quotations. “I am breathing in a long breath,” is a thought. Whether the breath is “long” or “short” is the result of investigating the quality of the breath. And this applies to all four satipatthanas. Which means that mindfulness practice can lead you into the first jhana, but that “thought and investigation are stilled” in order to enter “the second [stage of] meditation” (SN 45.8 PMT).

Please understand that if Bhikkhu Analayo is right, that would mean that the Buddha taught a method of mindfulness that would block a person from entering even the lowest level of jhana. Does this make sense to you? Doesn’t it make more sense that the skillful use of “thought and investigation” would be the very vehicle to bring you into the first jhana and which would produce “the rapture and bliss” you need in order to move into the second jhana?

Absorption

Bhikkhu Analayo entitles the chapter in which he deals with the jhanas “Absorption.” Thus stacking the deck in his favor. But he doesn’t shy away from using the Pali when it suits his needs, for one of his chapters is entitled “Brahmavihara.” Instead of the interpreted translation “absorption”, I argue he should have used the neutral term “jhana.”

I will continue to use the neutral term jhana, even though I believe that it could accurately be translated as “meditation.” And you will see that if you replace absorption with the Pali jhana, Bhikkhu Analayo does not sound so convincing. This is because I believe that half the argument is about the meaning of jhana.

Jhana as a Form of Insight

In this section, Bhikkhu Analayo comments on a passage that says “By means of [the first Jhāna] lust is abandoned; the tendency towards lust does not accompany that” (MN 44 Suddhaso). I agree with him that this is “only a temporary abandoning of sensuality” (111). But I would argue that the suppression of sensuality is exactly what opens the mind to see clearly. The distortions are quieted long enough to see reality as it is. That is why meditation is so important in Buddhism, and why the jhanas facilitate that clear seeing.

Although I agree with him here, we see one of his common maneuvers. If the Pali text doesn’t support his position, he can always refer to another canon’s parallel. In this case, he chooses a Tibetan version. He does so because it “does not use the term ‘underlying tendency’ at all” (110). So what? You have to first show that the Tibetan version is a more accurate reading. Tell me why ‘underlying tendency’ was not in the original. He doesn’t.

There is no evidence that once one leaves the jhanas that the underlying tendencies are permanently removed. So the argument is not needed. Insight is not gained by jhana (meditation) but by sati (mindfulness). But it is by means of jhana that one can reach a state “with pure equanimity and mindfulness” (SN 45.8 PMT). So I agree with Bhikkhu Analayo, “the early Buddhist texts” do not consider jhana “attainment to be in itself productive of liberating insight” (112).

Insight Meditation During Jhana

He now takes up a passage that appears to prove that one practices insight meditation in the first jhana. It says that “a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhāna” and then it gives, in Bhikkhu Analayo own words, “the following instructions” (116).

Here are the instructions on what a practitioner is supposed to do in the first jhana:

Whatever exists therein of material form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness, he sees those states as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumour, as a barb, as a calamity, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as void, as not self. He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element thus: ‘This is the peaceful, this is the sublime, that is, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna.’ If he is steady in that, he attains the destruction of the taints (MN 64 Bodhi).

It is important for our discussion to be clear on what this says. We must be clear that “he sees those states as impermanent” is referring to the five aggregates of “material form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness.” Or as another translation renders it, “Whatever is there of material shape, feeling, perception, the habitual tendencies, consciousness—he beholds these things [just referred to] as impermanent” (MN 64 Horner). And notice that “those states” or “these things” is plural not singular.

It is because Bhikkhu Analayo approaches this text with an agenda that he doesn’t see his blunder when he says that the main point of this passage “is the need to contemplate the impermanent nature of absorption attainment” (117). It is of course wrong. He turned a plural “states” into a singular “absorption attainment.” The context is unambiguous, in the first jhana one sees the impermanent nature of “material form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness.”

But he cannot accept the plain sense of the text, because then his theory of the jhanas would be wrong. If you can practice insight meditation while in the first jhana, then the first jhana would not be total absorption and then “thought and investigation” would be permitted.

He also quotes the Madhyama-agama version which presents a different insight meditation in the first jhana:

In dependence on this attainment, one contemplates the rise and fall of feelings. Having contemplated the rise and fall of feelings in dependence on this attainment and becomes established in it, one will certainly attain the destruction of the influxes (117).

Now, this could be translated as, “Once you have attained the first dhyana, you will be able to observe the rise and fall of feelings.” Which gives a different feel. It is the attainment of the first jhana that allows one to observe the rise and fall of feelings. And again, the object of contemplation is not “absorption attainment” but one of the aggregates.

Bhikkhu Analayo clearly has a problem here. Both passages seem to indicate that insight meditation is taking place during the first jhana. And he is quite aware of the problem. “Either one undertakes such insight contemplation while still being in the attainment, or else one does so retrospectively, after having emerged from the absorption itself but while still being in a mental condition close to it in contemplative depth” (117).

Now since he has already decided that jhana is full absorption that does not allow thinking, he is left with only one option. The texts don’t mean what they clearly say. Nowhere does either passage indicate that the contemplation is taking place “retrospectively.” An important detail to leave out.

But if we look at our texts, it is clear that the contemplation is taking place while in the first jhana. For it says that “Whatever exists therein,” that is, present while in the first jhana. And it is in the first jhana that “He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element” (MN 64 Bodhi). None of this makes any sense unless you are in the first jhana. For you are not going to see “the deathless element” in a regular state of mind.

The Anapada Sutta

He then comes to his biggest problem passage in the Anapada sutta:

Here, monks, secluded from sensuality, secluded from unwholesome phenomena, Sāriputta attains and remains in the first jhāna, which has thought and consideration, and has rapture and pleasure produced by seclusion. The phenomena which are present in the first jhāna – thought, consideration, rapture, pleasure, mental one-pointedness, sense-contact, feeling, recognition, volition, mentality, interest, resolve, energy, mindfulness, equanimity, and attention – are progressively identified by him. These phenomena are known by him as they arise, as they persist, and as they disappear. He understands in this way: ‘It seems that these phenomena were not present, then they manifested; then after being present, they vanished again.’ In regard to those phenomena, he remains unattracted, unrepelled, independent, unattached, released, unbound, with an unrestricted mind. He understands, ‘There is an escape beyond this.’ Practicing that frequently, he knows that there is a further escape (MN 111 Suddhaso).

Here it is clear that “These phenomena are known by him as they arise, as they persist, and as they disappear.” You can’t get any clearer – “known… as they arise” not “retrospectively, after having emerged from the absorption” as Bhikkhu Analayo contends. He even admits that the wording “naturally gives the impression that these are not concerned with states that are past and have ceased, but rather with states that are present” (119).

But you already know that he cannot accept this conclusion. He must either explain it or explain it away. His attachment to the view that jhana is absorption that cannot allow thinking blinds him. Unfortunately, he is a very clever man with lots of knowledge to throw at any interpretation he does not agree with.

So how does he deal with the Anapada sutta? He says, “The description of the mental-factor analysis in the Anapada-sutta shows signs of having undergone some later expansion in line with evolving Adhidarma thought, evident in the apparent expansion of the listing of some mental factors” (119). But this is a red herring because in his footnote he says that the “added portion appears to be the following part of the list of mental factors: ‘contact, feeling, perception, volition, mind, desire, determination, energy, mindfulness, equipoise, attention’” (119-120).

This has nothing to do with the part that says, “These phenomena are known by him as they arise, as they persist, and as they disappear.” Which is the part that contradicts his theory. But the irony is almost funny. He basically says that we should disregard these additions because they are “later expansion in line with evolving Adhidarma thought,” and yet the interpretation of vitakka-vicārā as initial and sustained application is straight from the same Adhidarma he disregards.

Then Bhikkhu Analayo returns to the passage where it says concerning Sariputta: “These phenomena are known by him as they arise, as they persist, and as they disappear” (MN 111 Suddhaso). Then he lays his cards on the table:

To cultivate such awareness of these mental qualities arising and disappearing while being in an absorption is impossible, because the very presence of these qualities is required for there to be an absorption in the first place and for it to continue being a state of absorption (121).

It doesn’t seem to occur to him that maybe he has misunderstood what jhana is. That it might have levels of concentration from collectedness of mind all the way up to full absorption. The first jhana only requires a level of concentration where one is “secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states” (SN 45.8 Bodhi).

Our passages says that “The phenomena which are present in the first jhāna… are progressively identified by him” (MN 111 Suddhaso). It is clear that the identification is happening “in the first jhāna” with “phenomena which are present.” Again, there is nothing about them being identified retroactively. An important detail to be left out of every single sutta in the entire Pali canon. You can’t add in details just to suit your theory.

I also object to his translation: “The states in the first absorption were determined by him one by one” (120). Again, jhana does not mean absorption. But even here it is clear that these states “were determined by him” while he was “in the first absorption.” But notice Bhikkhu Analayo’s use of the past tense – “were.” Bhikkhu Suddhaso’s translation renders it, “The phenomena which are present in the first jhāna… are progressively identified by him.” Notice the present tense – “are.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as, “And the states in the first jhana…. These states were defined by him one by one as they occurred.” Notice that he identifies them “as they occurred.” Not retroactively in some never mentioned post-jhana contemplation.

To return to his statement that “the very presence of these qualities is required for there to be an absorption in the first place and for it to continue being a state of absorption” (121). Where does it say that? It doesn’t. And he is wrong, even about absorption, which is the fourth jhana. As the Buddha said, “Giving up pleasure and pain, and ending former happiness and sadness, they enter and remain in the fourth [stage of] meditation, without pleasure or pain, with pure equanimity and mindfulness. This is called right concentration” (SN 45.8 PMT).

Please note that the fourth jhana, which is true absorption, one is “without pleasure.” And yet Bhikkhu Analayo claims that “the very presence of these qualities is required for there to be an absorption in the first place and for it to continue being a state of absorption” (121). Look at the list of qualities that are “required for there to be an absorption.” They are “thought, consideration, rapture, pleasure, mental one-pointedness, sense-contact, feeling, recognition, volition, mentality, interest, resolve, energy, mindfulness, equanimity, and attention” (MN 111 Suddhaso).

The fourth jhana is “without pleasure” but Bhikkhu Analayo says that pleasure “is required for there to be an absorption.” And “thought” doesn’t mean thought according to him, it means “[sustained] application.” And, to use his translation, do you really have “contact, feeling, perception, volition, mind, desire” in an absorption? Are all of these really “required for there to be an absorption in the first place and for it to continue being a state of absorption”?

Anything that doesn’t fit his theory he is ready to “set aside as not forming the backdrop of the early discourses” (121). It doesn’t matter what the text says, if it indicates that the jhana is anything other than full absorption it is wrong. He just has to find a way to reject it.

So he reaches this conclusion, “Therefore to observe the arising of these mental qualities and their disappearance could only happen before an absorption is attained or after the attainment has come to an end” (121-122). And how, may I ask, do you observe the arising of these mental states “before” they happen? Since “the very presence of these qualities is required for there to be an absorption” (121).

And furthermore, you can not “observe” a past mental state, you can only remember one that you previously had. Remembering is not the same as observing. You can only observe in the present moment. Therefore Bhikkhu Analayo is wrong, “before an absorption is attained or after the attainment has come to an end” one can only remember “the arising of these mental qualities and their disappearance.” But the text doesn’t say that. You observe, not remember.

Walking While Doing Jhana

A passage that Bhikkhu Analayo doesn’t deal with indicates that one can walk while in a jhana state. If this is true, then jhana could not be an abortion state. The Buddha explains that, although “high and luxurious kinds of bedding … are not allowed” to monks, there are metaphorically “three kinds of high and luxurious beds” that the Buddha can “gain at will” (AN 3.63 Bodhi). He then explains that one of these metaphorical beds is the four jhanas.

After listing the four jhanas the Buddha says, “Then, brahmin, when I am in such a state, if I walk back and forth, on that occasion my walking back and forth is celestial” (AN 3.63 Bodhi). In his endnote, Bhikkhu Bodhi says that “This seems to imply that walking can occur even with the mind in jhana” (1650).

Now it seems rather clear that if jhana is an absorption then Buddha cannot mean what he said. And so there are attempts to explain this away. The commentaries explain it as “walk back and forth” after the jhana. But the passage is clear, the Buddha was walking back and forth “when I am in such a state.”

I would suggest that the Buddha is referring to the first jhana, which is “accompanied by thought and examination” (AN 3.63 Bodhi). Notice he didn’t say he was walking back and forth in all four jhanas, only that he did so “in such a state.” That is he did so in a state of jhana. I believe this is possible only in the first jhana.

Some have mistakenly said that MN 122 is a similar thing. Here it mentions the four jhanas and then mentions voidness contemplation. It ends the paraphrase by saying, “In this way he has full awareness.” Which indicates that this is the ending of voidness contemplation.

He then takes up the mindfulness of bodily positions. It says: “When a bhikkhu abides thus [meaning in full awareness], if his mind inclines to walking, he walks…. If his mind inclines to standing, he stands… If his mind inclines to sitting, he sits.… If his mind inclines to laying down, he lies down, thinking: ‘while I am lying down thus, no evil unwholsome states will beset me.’ In this way he has full awareness of that” (MN 122 Bodhi).

Notice that both the previous and present paragraphs end with having “full awareness.” Which means that it is not referring to the jhanas at all, but to mindfulness and awareness. The jhanas are just one on a list of many wholesome things that “a bhikkhu should wish” to do to develop this “full awareness.”

Notice over and over it says “if his mind inclines to” whatever activity. Any fair reading of this sutta would show you that walking, standing, laying down, and talking are not jhanas practices but mindfulness practices (MN 10). T says specifically, “In this way he has full awareness” not full absorption or even full concentration. Plus this list of things is not even happening on the same day. Rather, these are simply a list of activities that one can engage in so that “a bhikkhu should constantly review his own mind” (MN 122 Bodhi). Instead of studying their own mind, some bhikkhus were “delighting in company” (MN 122 Bodhi). So the Buddha gave a number of ways to develop their awareness.

References

  • Anālayo, Bhikkhu. Early Buddhist Meditation Studies. Barre, MA: Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, 2017.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012.