Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 16

Theravada Meditation: Visuddhimagga Jhanas
First Quarter Moon Uposatha Day
, February 29, 2012
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In the Fifth Century AD in Sri Lanka, the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), was compiled by Ven. Buddhaghosa from previously existing materials and would prove to have lasting influence on the meditation methods of Theravada school of Buddhism. A number of things must have been striking to any new reader familiar with the Buddha’s meditation method described in the Suttas but encountering this huge, very detailed meditation manual for the first time. Primary among these is that the Visuddhimagga describes not one but two distinct methods of meditation, each to be cultivated independently for distinct purposes. These are called samatha- (serenity) and vipassana- (insight) meditation. Now the astute reader will recognize both terms, samatha and vipassana, from the previous discussions of Buddha’s meditation and its Zen variant, but in each of those cases these were aspects of of a single method that were brought into balance but worked together.

In order to compare the Visuddhimagga’s approach to the Buddha’s I will make use of the template we used to make the same comparison for Zen, however since we are now dealing with two methods I will apply it twice, this week for samatha meditation, and next week for vipassana.

Prerequisites of Visuddhimagga Samatha Medititation.

These are things cultivated prior to meditation, over years or minutes.

Wisdom and Virtue. Virtue and aesthetic practices are prerequisites to meditation. The latter, endorsed but not strongly by the Buddha, are intended to “cleanse” virtue by developing fewness of wishes and contentment. What differs from the Buddha’s program, following the Eightfold Noble Path is that samatha meditation is developed prior to the development of wisdom as a conceptual pursuit.

Methods of Visuddhimagga Samatha Medititation.

These are the mental actions that give rise to meditative experiences or allow them to be steered once they have arisen.

Removal of the hindrances. This is roughly as in Buddha’s meditation.

Undistracted reflection on themes conducive to insight? Forty alternative objects or themes of meditation are enumerated that substantially overlaps with the different themes of the buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness which are not represented in the Suttas. Most remarkable is the inclusion of ten different kasinas, or artificial disks as meditation objects. Otherwise objects are included that one one expect to be, as in Buddha’s method, intended to support the investigating impermanence, suffering, insubstantiality and unattractiveness. However the experience of samatha meditation described below actually precludes their use in this way once jhana is attained. The choice of meditation object seems intended to match the meditator’s personality type rather than the development of a particular kind of meditation.

In general the method is to fix the mind on the object of meditation and as the mind settles a counterpoint sign (patibhaga nimitta) will arise, which is an idealized mental image, unblemished and unchanging, of the object itself in the mind’s eye. The mind fixes instead on the counterpoint image when this arises. Fixing on an image in this way is not mentioned in the Buddha’s meditation.

Encouragement of active factors. In the preparatory stages of meditation all of the jhana factors and the early factors of enlightenment including mindfulness, investigation, energy, delight and happiness are encouraged, much as in the Buddha’s meditation.

The Experience of Visuddhimagga Samatha Medititation.

As in Buddha’s meditation the experience of samatha meditation is concentration at varying levels. The Visuddhimagga describes a level of concentration called samadhi but actually prior to jhana, which the Suttas do not mention: Access concentration is close to jhana, is possible only when the hindrances are suppressed, involves clear undistracted awareness and a full range of mental experiences.

Concentration is centered, not fixed? In the Visuddhimagga jhana, also called fixed concentration, is so fixed on the counterpart sign that this is the entirety of experience. This means that all senses and awareness of the body are completely cut off. The jhana factors that define the different jhanas and that we are familiar with from Buddha’s meditation — thought and discourse, delight, pleasure and one-pointedness — are present, but they are functions for directing and maintaining concentration, awareness of these individual factors is possible only before and after leaving jhana.

We have seen that in the Buddha’s meditation concentration is centered, not fixed, there is broad awareness, particularly of the body and of many mental factors in every jhana, including the five jhana factors. Clearly jhana in the Visuddhimagga is a different experience than in the Suttas. Just to be clear, when I need to disambiguate these two kinds of jhana I will call them respectively VM-jhana and S-jhana, or Visuddhimagga-jhana and Sutta-jhana. Notice that S-jhana has more in common with access concentration than it does with VM-jhana.

Investigation continues in samadhi? No investigation or insight can occur in VM-jhana. This is clearly stated in the Visuddhimagga itself and must be the case because the counterpart sign is the entirety of experience and it is experienced as unchanging, without blemish. VM-jhana in this respect is quite distinct from S-jhana, which we have seen forms not only a basis, but the essential basis, for vipassana.

So, if samatha meditation is not a direct basis for insight, what is it used for? First, it provides a blissful abiding. Second, it provides a indirect support for insight meditation by developing qualities of mind that carry over after leaving jhana. Third it allows the development of supermundane powers such as walking through walls or touching the sun. Fourth, it can lead to rebirth in the Brahma World. Fifth, it provides the cessation of Nirvana here and now … temporarily.

The pre-jhanic access concentration can be used a a direct basis for insight. But insight is actually developed in vipassana meditation, not in samatha meditation. And in fact according to the Visuddhimagga VM-jhana is not even a necessary condition for the development of at all insight; it is optional. Vipassana does not require VM-jhana. A practioner who makes use of VM-jhanas is even specifically referred to as a samatha-yanika, a serenity vehicle guy. This contrasts with the suddha-vipassana-yanika, a pure vipassana vehicle guy, or a sukkha-vipassaka, a dry vipassana guy.

It should be clear that VM-jhana is quite different from S-jhana. First, the Buddha provides in the Suttas no comparable method to that of the Visuddhimagga to lead to jhana and no fixing on an object of concentration is described and the intermediary role of the nimittas in fixing concentration is completely absent. Second, the description of jhana in the Suttas reflect something in which many mental factors are active, for instance, in MN 111 the Buddha takes Sariputta as a model and says of him,

Whatever qualities there are in the first jhāna … he ferrets them out one by one. Known to him they remain, known to him they subside…

He then makes exactly the same statement but with regard to the “second jhana,” the “third jhana” and the “fourth jhana.” This and the next passage describe things that would not be possible in VM-jhana.

A monk in each jhana regards whatever phenomena connected with form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an afflection, alian, a disintegration, a void, non-self … – AN 9.36

Third, jhana is described as necessary for insight in the Suttas, not optional. For instance:

There is no jhana for one with no wisdom, no wisdom for one without jhana. But one with both jhana and discernment, he’s on the verge of nibbana. – Dhp 372

In fact the idea that samadhi would be optional as a full fold of the Noble Eightfold Path seems on the surface absurd.

Fourth, there is no reference in the Suttas to coming out of jhana in order to practice insight, which is what is required for VM-jhanas. I have come across only one instance in the large number of suttas dealing with jhana and insight of coming out of jhana to practice insight, but it is the exception that proves the rule: In M.I.435.26 the meditator comes out of jhana in order to observe the impermanence of jhana itself. Bhante Gunaratana has written an paper available on line on this issue in which he concludes:

It is virtually impossible to find evidence in the Suttas that one should come out of jhana to practice vipassana.”

In summary, in the Visuddhimagga VM-jhana serves functions primarily different from the highest goal of final liberation, which requires insight, and for which jhana is helpful but optional. It only incidentally supports the development of insight. This is OK, since the Visuddhimagga provides a second form of meditation, which we will look at and assess next week.

What is a bit troubling is that the Visuddhimagga co-opts the Buddha’s terminology, “jhana” and “samadhi,” for its own ends. The Buddha had already co-opted “jhana” for his own ends, but it seems that in the Visuddhimagga it has reverted to what might have been its original non-Buddhist usage to refer to fixed concentration. What is a bit puzzling is the amount of attention given to VM-jhana, since it is not only optional for the highest goal and in fact rather outside of the logic of the Buddha’s system, but is also considered to be something few can actually attain. If any readers more familiar with the Visuddhimagga than I can explain away this trouble and puzzle I would appreciate it.


3 Responses to “Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 16”

  1. Hendrick Tan Says:

    Bhante – Being a practitioner of what you called as VM-Jhana, I would like to throw light on this persistent misunderstanding about samatha-vipassana system instructed in VM as compared to those in the suttas. For me, they are virtually the same thing, as the suttas are brief records and memorized and circulated among bhikkhus skilled in Jhana/samadhi attainments, they probably do not get confused about this brief teachings as compared to modern scholars that draw their understanding on intellectual pondering and speculation, not being aware of most suttas passed through early oral transmission were for the sake of pragmatic/practice purposes, not for endless pondering as an futile intellectual interest. Even looking at the existing Suttas, it is clear that the Buddha teaches Jhana as deep-level fixed absorptive meditation, which at highly skilled level, the function of 5 sense faculties is totally suspended, leaving a clear one-pointed awareness onto the mind impression (nimitta or a mind-projected image derived from impression of in-and-out breaths is the sole object of meditation because the tactile breathing sensation that creates from the breaths (touch-sense impression) have been shut down to permit the subtleness of consciousness to get into absorptive mode). The Buddha in the sutta is said did not hear the incredibly loud noise of the killer thunder in his samadhi, and the statement that Bhante Maha-Moggalanna, because of his sometimes imperfection in Samadhi, still could hear sound perplexed the other sangha members. Such deep level meditation cannot be achieved by what you called centered meditation. And only proficient levels of absorptive meditation in 4th Jhana can allow for taking much more subtle mental object in attaining the Arupa Jhanas, which for advanced practitioners, who have cut already cut off sensual desire like noble Anagami and Arahant, they would be able to access to the highest absorption namely nirodha samapatti that temporarily suspends all workings of mentality. In experiential levels, for those who have personal experience in this state of apana/absorptive meditation or Jhana one will directly know and understand clearly what the Buddha says about when the mind is thus concentrated, pliable, bright, malleable, etc are capable of seeing the reality as it really is. One who emerges from Jhanas, especially the forth Jhana, still retains higher degrees of purity, brightness and powerful suppression of 5 hindrances, such powerful mind state is optimally used in Vipassana/insight meditation, as the objects of vipassana are the very subtle and fast fleeting matter (rupa) and mind (nama). Without a powerful penetrative mind, one would hardly be able to access and directly see and know such refined realities that hide themselves from ordinary consciousness. When one is able to witness such refined realities of nama and rupa, the three marks of existence – dukha, anatta, anicca themselves, it becomes so clear that brings about strong impression/insight in mind that facilitates dispassion and disenchantment, as really all phenomena of our “existence” is always in flame and the ever changing becoming and ceasing is evidently worthless to grasp or hold on. Such realization is not on the level of intellectual understanding, and the clarity and efficacy of such realization depends upon how concentrated our mind is. That said, there are practitioners who could attain a very proficient degree of concentrated mind even without attaining the Jhanas (dry insight practitioners). Such practitioners are indeed equipped with strong paramis from their past, or having sharp faculties and wisdom. Hence without specific training in absorptive meditation/Jhana, their mind inclines to sufficient levels of concentration and clarity that allow them to witness subtle realities as those having attained the Jhana. I would think this type of yogi is scarce and rare in this age of declined Dhamma. So, I would urge earnest yogi to develop Jhana, because through accomplishment of such practice, you will know clearly what the Buddha says, one who has concentration can see the reality as it really is. And the benefits of such higher consciousnesses also enable one to develop higher minds for direct knowledge (abinna).

  2. bhikkhucintita Says:


    Thanks for your response. Let me briefly respond to some of your points. Of course there is room for differences in interpreting the suttas all around, so discussions back and forth like this are helpful.

    “Even looking at the existing Suttas, it is clear that the Buddha teaches Jhana as deep-level fixed absorptive meditation, which at highly skilled level, the function of 5 sense faculties is totally suspended, leaving a clear one-pointed awareness onto the mind impression (nimitta or a mind-projected image derived from impression of in-and-out breaths is the sole object of meditation because the tactile breathing sensation that creates from the breaths (touch-sense impression) have been shut down to permit the subtleness of consciousness to get into absorptive mode).”

    I think you are overstating what is found in the suttas. For instance, although the word nimitta occurs in the suttas, I don’t think anything like the description you give does.

    “The Buddha in the sutta is said did not hear the incredibly loud noise of the killer thunder in his samadhi, and the statement that Bhante Maha-Moggalanna, because of his sometimes imperfection in Samadhi, still could hear sound perplexed the other sangha members.”

    This particular passage seems to lend strong support to your position, and counterarguments are not satisfying. One is that a particular passage proves nothing because it may be a later insertion or have been altered in some way, as many passages are. This kind of argument devolves into arraying passages on both sides of the argument. I think there are relative few passages as strong as this for your position. But this kind of argument never seems conclusive. Another is that this passage has an interpretation that does not entail the senses shut down in samadhi, namely that the perceptive or formative faculty shuts down, not the senses. Contact occurs, but another inferential step is required to move from sound consciousness to identifying the external source of the sound.

    I find it more satisfying to argue from a functional point of view: The function of absorption is to develop residual calmness that after leaving absorption can be applied to improve vipassana. I have no doubt that it is used this way quite successfully. What I would question is that the Buddha taught it this way. If he did we would expect not only to find passages like the one you cite, but also some reference to leaving absorption to turn to vipassana. We would also expect to find causal statements roughly of the form samadhi –> mindfulness and for mindfulness to be the ultimate concern of the two. Instead causality in the suttas goes from sati to samadhi, as in the factors of awakening, samahi is the last step of the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Buddha admonished the bhikkhus to go sit in jhana, not in vipassana.

    I just don’t see a strong overall case for your position based entirely in the suttas. Again, this is not to say that what you say is not a powerfully useful practice, and in fact your point that in the modern age most of us need such a boost is well taken. I just don’t think the Buddha had much interest in teaching absorption.

    • Hendrick Tan Says:

      Dear Bhante, Thanks for taking time to reply to my earlier comment. The reason I dropped in a comment was to really want to clarify something that I and many meditators have known and seen on this highly misled topic of what constitutes Samatha and Jhana. This is not making stance on intellectual level, but something experiential and for us this leaves no room for doubt and confusion like many Buddhist scholars try to do these days. In fact through a stable, deep concentration as basis for recollecting one’s past life through analysis passing stream of consciousness from which one is able to understand at least in part the working of dependent origination through progressive lifetimes, some yogi can verify for themselves in one or many of their past lives that they have learned and practiced such type of high levels of Jhana under the guidance of the historical Buddha himself or his immediate noble disciples. Although it is impossible to prove such direct experience to other yogi, we really hope that yogi can at least develop this powerful Jhana and follow through the guidance given in VM to witness such knowledge themselves. Seeing is believing. Further argument through speculative pondering on what is really taught by the Buddha in the suttas and attempt to think the traditionally highly revered VM something not authentic or teaching a variant form of Samantha are actually doing quite detrimental service to the Buddha Dhamma. For those who understand the workings of Kamma such act may even become a hindrance in their path of realizing Nibbana. This statement is not meant to criticize anyone, but of a pure intention that it can help dhammafarers to recognize good dhamma and for the benefits of yogi living in this age of ambiguity.

      Sukhihotu Nibbana Paccayo, Hendrick

      Sent from Hendrick’s iPhone

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