In this part, I continue 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. For this reason, he cannot accept the standard translation of vitakka as “thought.”

Vitakka Means Thought

He admits, “The term vitakka is etymologically related to takka, which stands for logical reasoning and thought. This at first sight suggests that conceptual thought continues during the first level of absorption” (123). Since I have already shown the overwhelming evidence that vitakka means “thought”, I will not rehearse the evidence here.

But what I find interesting is that he calls the first jhana “the first level of absorption.” There are no levels in absorption, you are either immersed or you are not. There is no such thing as partial absorption. Absorption means the “entire occupation of the mind” (Merriam-Webster.com). Anything less is not absorption. So how can you have a “level of absorption”? Admitting there are levels of jhana is akin to admitting that jhana doesn’t mean absorption.

In a footnote, Bhikkhu Analayo mentions that Paul Griffiths, Martin Stuart-Fox, and Roderick S. Bucknell all believe that conceptual thought continues in the first jhana (123). These are in addition to those I listed in part 1. The evidence is, honestly, overwhelming. I cannot understand his attachment to his theory.

He keeps adding the evidence against himself, saying that:

a discourse in the Madhyama-agama describes a progression of practice where merely leaving behind thought leads on to the attainment of the second absorption. This seems to lend support to the impression that the first absorption corresponds to a condition of the mind in which thought is still present (124).

But you know he can’t accept that conclusion, so he reverts to his textual escape hatch. This time it is not a Tibetan text, or a Chinese translation, but the Pali. He concludes these “could in principle be an addition due to the leveling tendency or oral translation” (124). Yes, and it could be that he just can’t accept anything that contradicts his theory. Which do you think is more likely?

In his summary, we discover his purpose was to sow doubt, not discover the truth. Bhikkhu Analayo writes:

In sum, to take these two discourses as canonical support for assuming that the first absorption is comparable to ordinary thinking activity is doubtful, as the apparent progression from such an ordinary state of mind directly to the second absorption, without ever having experienced the first absorption, could just be the result of a transmission error” (125).

Here he conflates a textual issue with the “canonical support” for there being “thought” in the first jhana. No one teaches that you can skip the first jhana and go right to the second. Maybe the first jhana only lasted for “as long as a finger-snap” (AN 1.394). But that is not the point in question. It is whether “thought” is possible in the first jhana.

He then engages in a strawman fallacy. “Thought” is not the same thing as “ordinary thinking activity.” I have been quite clear, the “thought” here are mindfulness-enhancing thoughts, such as “I am breathing in deep” or “I am breathing in shallow.” Not, I wonder what’s for dinner.

Just to give one example, Richard Shankman writes, “‘Thought and examination’ does not refer to thinking in the ordinary sense that we are used to in everyday life…. Thought and examination here involve unifying the while mind – bringing all its capacities, including its thinking capacities, together in undistracted awareness” (105-106).

Noble Silence

Bhikkhu Analayo mentions two passages that are interesting to look at. The first says that, “For one who has attained the first jhana, speech has ceased” (SN 36.11 Bodhi). And the other says that “the second jhana…. is called noble silence” (SN 21.1 Bodhi).

On the face of it, it implies that talking interferes with entering the first jhana, which is a state of concentration. While only in the second jhana do you achieve noble silence, because thoughts have been stilled. Which would prove that the first jhana does have thoughts and is not silent.

Upakkilesa Sutta

Bhikkhu Analayo now must provide proof for his position, and he pulls out the Upakkilesa Sutta (MN 128). He says that this is a report of “the Buddha’s own struggle through various mental obstructions before he was able to attain even just the first absorption” (126). The first problem is that jhanas are not mentioned anywhere in the whole sutta. They might be implied by the section on concentration (samadhi).

And second, to say that the Buddha had problems attaining the first jhana contradicts the Buddha own testimony. For just before his awakening, he remembered that when he was child:

when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening’ (MN 36 Thanissaro).

And so now that he remembered this, he didn’t struggle to attain it, The suttas are clear:

So when I had taken solid food and regained strength, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation (MN 36 Thanissaro).

So as soon as he realized that jhana was the way to awakening, he abandoned the ascetic path he was on and took “some solid food.” Then it makes it sound easy, he “entered & remained in the first jhana.” Where is the struggle that Bhikkhu Analayo is referring to? Even as a child he was able to attain it. Now after years of meditation practice, he has to struggle to attain it? I don’t believe it.

If you read the Upakkilesa Sutta, it seems more like an investigation than a struggle. The Buddha is probing his mind to identify corruptions or imperfections (Bodhi) in it. He was asking, “What is the cause and condition why the light and vision of forms have disappeared” (MN 128 Bodhi). He is not struggling to attain the first jhana.

The Buddha ends the discourse by saying:

So, Anuruddhas, I developed concentration with directed thought & evaluation. I developed concentration without directed thought but with a modicum of evaluation. I developed concentration without directed thought or evaluation. I developed concentration with rapture. I developed concentration without rapture. I developed concentration with enjoyment. I developed concentration with equanimity (MN 128 Ṭhānissaro).

Here the implication is that “I developed concentration with directed thought & evaluation” refers to the first jhana. Then “I developed concentration without directed thought or evaluation” refers to the second jhana. Then “I developed concentration with rapture” refers to the third jhana. And then “I developed concentration with equanimity” must refer to the fourth jhana.

But that interpretation raises some issues. What jhana is the one where he “developed concentration without directed thought but with a modicum of evaluation”? There actually appear to be seven states, not four. So are there really seven jhanas?

1) with directed thought & evaluation
2) with directed thought but with a modicum of evaluation
3) without directed thought or evaluation
4) with rapture
5) without rapture
6) with enjoyment
7) with equanimity

And how does any of this prove that the Buddha struggled “through various mental obstructions before he was able to attain even just the first absorption” (126)? There is never a hint of struggle. It is filled with an investigator exploring fully the mind to understand it backwards and forwards.

Chinese Aganas

Since his arguments from the Pali is not too strong, he switches to the Chinese Agamas, which are translations from the Sanskrit, which are translations from the Pali or something like Pali. So mistakes can happen in both translating from the Pali into Sanskrit, and then more mistakes can happen in translating Sanskrit into Chinese. And then he is going to add another layer of possible mistakes and translate Chinese into English.

Here is Bhikkhu Analayo’s augment:

The impression that the context of absorption attainment vitakka does not refer to conceptional thought appears to have been also the understanding of the translators of the Chinese Agamas, who in descriptions of absorption attainment regularly employ the term “awareness” (覺) to render this particular absorption factor (126-127).

However, 覺 (Pinyin: jué) can be defined as: “to feel; to find that; thinking; awake; aware.” Awareness is only one of the possible meanings. And the passage in question could be translated, “there is awareness, there is insight, detachment from joy, happiness, into the first jhāna” (DA 9 Forrest). This means that there is “insight” (Pinyin: guān, which is vicārā in Pali) during the first jhana. In fact, Charles D. Patton translates this same phrase as “awareness and investigation” (MA 2).

Notice he does not quote the passage, that is because he doesn’t want to deal with the fact that during the first jhana “there is insight.” Remember, this can’t happen in any jhana.

I should also point out that even after saying that the Chinese word jué (覺) means “awareness,” he doesn’t translate it that way in the Madhyama Agama for the BDK English Tripitaka. Here he translates it, “with initial and sustained application of the mind” (MA 2 Analayo). It should be translated “with awareness and investigation” (MA Patton).

Hearing Sounds

In this section, Bhikkhu Analayo is going to argue that one is unable to “hear sound” in the fourth jhana and that this applies “to lower levels of absorption” as well (140). I am willing to concede that this may be true for the fourth jhana, but I don’t believe it is true for the first jhana.

It is clear that one can enter so deeply into concentration meditation that one does not “hear a sound as it’s raining and pouring, lightning’s flashing, and thunder’s cracking” (DN 16 Sujato). But unfortunately, this is not specifically related to any particular jhana. Although one would guess it is the fourth jhana.

The fact that the second jhana is referred to as “noble silence,” one would assume that at least in the first jhana one can hear sound (SN 21.1 Bodhi). But it is more likely this is referring to silencing the “thought and investigation” we referred to earlier.

Since the incident concerning Moggallāna is so important to Bhikkhu Analayo’s argument, I will give the passage in full:

Then the Venerable Moggallāna the Great addressed the monks, saying: “Now I, your reverences, having entered upon steadfast contemplation [samādhi] on the banks of the river Sappinikā, I heard the noise of elephants plunging, crossing over and trumpeting.” The monks became annoyed, vexed and angry, saying: “How can venerable Moggallāna the Great talk like this, saying: ‘Having entered upon steadfast contemplation, I heard the noise of elephants plunging, crossing over and trumpeting?’ … a state of further-men [i.e., claiming a super-human achievement].” They told this matter to the Lord. He said: “Monks, that was contemplation [samādhi], but [it] was not wholly purified. Moggallāna spoke truly. There is no offence for Moggallāna” (Horner 189).

Steadfast contemplation [samādhi] might better be translated as “imperturbable concentration.” It is a high attainment, and the monks seem to believe that you shouldn’t be able to hear anything in such a deep meditative state. The Buddha agrees with them, if the imperturbable concentration was pure you shouldn’t be able to hear anything. However, Moggallāna’s samādhi “was not wholly purified.” What does that mean?

Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro interprets it as, “Moggallāna’s experience of those attainments was not pure; however, that impurity was not enough to make the statement false. He actually was experiencing the formless attainments.” Which means that “the assertion that a person in jhāna cannot hear sounds… is clearly disproven.”

Bhikkhu Analayo, on the other hand, interprets it differently: “Being seated in the fourth absorption, he heard sounds when having momentarily lost the absorption and then thought he had heard them while still in the attainment” (139). Here he is following the commentary, which is in a footnote to the passage, “They say that the thera [elder] attained arahanship on the seventh day after he went forth, and had mastery in the eight attainments, but not having purified himself well in the obstructions to contemplation … and rising up from musing and hearing the sound of the elephants, he heard it between the attainments. Of this he was aware.”

The problem is that the text can be read in both ways. I actually think that Bhikkhu Analayo might be right, Moggallāna momentarily slipped out of the fourth jhana into the third, and then returned to the fourth jhana so quickly that Moggallāna was not aware of it. Although Bhikkhu Analayo is not satisfied with this. He claims that Moggallāna “lost the absorption” of all four jhanas. Remember he wants to prove that “The inability to hear sound appears to apply also to lower levels of absorption…” (140).

I cannot believe that Moggallāna momentarily slipped out of all four jhana states and didn’t realize it. It seems reasonable that he heard the sounds “between the attainments” of the third and fourth jhana. If Moggallāna had come completely out of the jhanas it wouldn’t be “between the attainments.” It would be between non-attainment and re-attainment. A completely different thing. So one can hear sound in the first, second, and third jhana. Just not the fourth.

Sound is a Thorn

The Buddha said:

Sound is a thorn to the first [stage of] meditation. Thought and investigation are a thorn to the second [stage of] meditation. Rapture is a thorn to the third [stage of] meditation (AN 10.72 PMT).

It is clear from this that sound is an obstacle to entering the first jhana. That is because noise will interfere with your concentration. It will distract you. This is why the Buddha valued quite so much. But Bhikkhu Analayo draws the strange conclusion that the “proper attainment of the first absorption requires leaving behind the hearing of sound” (142).

This is a jump. Saying that sound is an obstacle to becoming concentrated is not the same thing as saying that you can not hear sound in the first jhana. Even Ajahn Brahm, who he quotes approvingly, says that “sound can disturb the first jhana” (273). So clearly you can hear sound.

Of course, Bhikkhu Analayo quotes Ajahn Brahm for the second part of the quote, “sound can disturb the first jhana, but when one actually perceives the sound one is no longer in the jhana” (273). But hearing a sound is not the same thing as listening to a sound. Ajahn Brahm is one of the modern sources for misunderstanding the first jhana.

Bhikkhu Analayo then quotes a discourse in the Dirgha-agama, which says: “When entering the first absorption, the thorn of sound ceases” (143). This means that since sound is a thorn to entering the first jhana, once one has entered the first jhana, sound is no longer a thorn. That is it is no longer an obstacle.

Mental Unification

The Buddha said:

Venerable, the first Jhāna has five factors. Here, Venerable, a monk who has attained the first Jhāna engages in thought, investigation, rapture, happiness, and mental one-pointedness. Venerable, in this way the first Jhāna has five factors (MN 43 Suddhaso).

Here Bhikkhu Analayo’s whole argument rests on the meaning of “mental one-pointedness.” He says that according to this passage “already with the first absorption on reaches a condition of ‘mental unification’, cittekaggatā” (143).

Notice what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say total, complete, or perfect “mental unification.” It seems obvious that since the first jhana is the first stage of meditation in the practice of right concentration, there would need to be some level of “mental one-pointedness” (MN 43 Suddhaso). It would naturally be one of the “five factors.” But so is “thought” and “investigation.”

The Pali word he translates as “mental unification” is cittekaggatā. The New Concise Pali English Dictionary defines it as “concentration of thought.” This means that “thought” is taking place in the first jhana. You can’t concentrate what’s not there. So instead of supporting his theory, it disproves it – yet again.

Conclusion

So you can see that there is no real evidence to support the theory that “thought” doesn’t take place in the first jhana. And if “thought” does take place in the first jhana, then the word jhana itself does not mean absorption.

Let me end with the words of the Buddha:

And what is right concentration? It’s when a practitioner, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome qualities, enters and remains in the first [stage of] meditation, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, which is accompanied by thought and investigation. As thought and investigation are stilled, they enter and remain in the second [stage of] meditation, which has the rapture and bliss born of concentration, with internal clarity and confidence, and unified mind, without thought and investigation. And with the fading away of rapture, they enter and remain in the third [stage of] meditation, where they abide with equanimity, mindful and aware, personally experiencing the bliss of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one abides in bliss.’ 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).

References

  • Anālayo, Bhikkhu. Early Buddhist Meditation Studies. Barre, MA: Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, 2017.
  • Brahm, Ajahn. Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006.
  • Horner, I.B. The Book of the Discipline, volume 1. Bristol: Pali Text Society, 2014.
  • Patton, Charles D. “Madhyama Āgama.” Sutta Central (legacy), 2004. https://legacy.suttacentral.net/en/ma2
  • Shankman, Richard. The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation: Mindfulness, Concentration, and Insight. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2015.
  • Ṭhānissaro, Bhikkhu. “Appendix Three: Jhāna & Right Concentration.” Right Mindfulness: Memory & Ardency on the Buddhist Path. DhammaTalks.org. https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/RightMindfulness/Section0018.html