Theravada Meditation: Visuddhimagga Jhanas
First Quarter Moon Uposatha Day , February 29, 2012
index to series
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.