I have written a whole series on the jhānas. In that series, I translated jhana as “meditation.” The Pali Text Society’s Pali English Dictionary defines jhāna as “literally meditation.” The New Concise Pali English Dictionary defines jhāna as “a meditative state.” So the first jhana was translated as “the first [stage of] meditation.”
I have been translating samādhi by the standard translation of “concentration.” This is so widespread that it seemed natural to follow the consensus. The Pali Text Society’s Pali English Dictionary defines samādhi as “concentration.” The New Concise Pali English Dictionary defines it as “one-pointedness of the mind.”
However, samādhi can also mean “meditation” according to the New Concise Pali English Dictionary. And the Pali Text Society’s Pali English Dictionary says that samādhi is an “intent state of mind and meditation which, concomitant with right living, is a necessary condition to the attainment of higher wisdom and emancipation.”
So, both samādhi and jhāna can mean “meditation.” And this makes sense since right samādhi is the four jhānas. But this also means that both samādhi and jhāna can mean “concentration.” The question then becomes which makes more sense: right concentration consists of four stages of meditation or right meditation consists of four levels of concentration.
It seems to me that the four jhānas are levels of unification of mind. That is why “thought and investigation” are part of the first level of concentration but cease before reaching the second level of concentration. And you can judge the depth of your concentration by the factors present in the mind.
And it seems to me that meditation is more of a general category than concentration.In other words, meditation can include many different states of mind while concentration is talking about one aspect of the mind, its collectedness or unification.
The Pali Text Society’s Pali English Dictionary seems to agree that jhāna “never means vaguely meditation. It is the technical term for a special religious experience reached in a certain order of mental states. It was originally divided into four such states. These may be summarized: 1 The mystic, with his mind free from sensuous and worldly ideas, concentrates his thoughts on some special subject (for instance, the impermanence of all things). This he thinks out by attention to the facts, and by reasoning. 2 Then uplifted above attention & reasoning, he experiences joy & ease both of body and mind. 3 Then the bliss passes away, & he becomes suffused with a sense of ease, and 4 he becomes aware of pure lucidity of mind & equanimity of heart.”
The Middle Way
It then seems that the fourth level of concentration one enters in absorption. After reaching absorption one can move on to the four arūpa stages of absorption, which the Buddha learned before his awakening from his two previous teachers. It is important to realize that the Buddha was trained in four arūpa stages of absorption. It is also important to listen carefully to what he said about his previous practice.
The Buddha said:
I thought: ‘Whatever recluses or brahmins in the past have experienced painful, racking, piercing feelings due to exertion, this is the utmost, there is none beyond this. And whatever recluses and brahmins in the future will experience painful, racking, piercing feelings due to exertion, this is the utmost, there is none beyond this. And whatever recluses and brahmins at present experience painful, racking, piercing feelings due to exertion, this is the utmost, there is none beyond this. But by this racking practice of austerities I have not attained any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to enlightenment?’
I considered: ‘I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. Could that be the path to enlightenment?’ Then, following on that memory, came the realization: ‘That is indeed the path to enlightenment’ (MN 36 Bodhi).
Please notice that the four arūpa stages of absorption, which was part of his practice before awakening, “I have not attained any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to enlightenment?” And what was his great discovery? The jhānas that were not too strenuous and not too lacks. In other words, a meditation that was concentrated enough to be focused but relaxed enough to allow insight to arise.
In other words, before the ascetics were so interested in getting ti absorption that they didn’t discover the middle way of a relaxed concentration that had focus but did not get lost in the object of meditation. This is the middle way of the Buddha.
The Buddha said:
And what is right meditation? It’s when a practitioner, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome qualities, enters and remains in the first [level of] concentration, 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 [level of] concentration, 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 [level of] concentrationn, 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 [level of] concentration, without pleasure or pain, with pure equanimity and mindfulness. This is called right meditation” (SN 45.8 PMT).
Right meditation is developing the four levels of concentration. The first level of concentration is where mindfulness takes you. Right mindfulness leads to right meditation in the Noble Eightfold Path. So it only makes sense that mindfulness would lead you into the first jhana, the first level of concentration. It also makes sense that one would move up the levels from one to four, based on the strength of the concentration involved.
Buddhist meditation, then, can be defined as “unifying the mind and placing its awareness upon a particular object” (Olendzki). The strength of this unification or collectedness I am calling concentration. As the Oxford English Dictionary defines concentration as “the action or power of focusing one’s attention or mental effort.” This power of focus has levels of intensity. The intensity can be judged by the jhana factors as described above.
This means that the three trainings are in morality, meditation, and wisdom. The three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are wisdom (right view), morality (right motivation, right speech, right action, right livelihood), and meditation (right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation). This seems intuitively right.
I have decided to update my translation (PMT) to reflect my growing knowledge. I now translate jhāna as concentration and samādhi as meditation. I have not, however, updated all the articles.
Arbel, Keren. Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhānas as the Actualization of Insight. New York: Routledge, 2018.
Olendzki, Andrew. “What’s in a Word? Samādhi.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Summer 2021. https://tricycle.org/magazine/samadhi-meaning/