WHAT THE JHĀNAS ACTUALLY ARE

By Bhikkhu Anīgha

A Glaring Discrepancy

One of the most notable differences among today’s Buddhist teachers and traditions is their interpretation of the jhānas, as well as the practices that they assert are the way to achieve them. The mutual gaps between these views are particularly wide when it comes to the first jhāna, due to varying ideas of what the Pali term vitakkavicāra refers to, the characteristic factor of the initial and arguably most crucial establishment of mind, given that all the subsequent jhānas are, in a manner of speaking, successive refinements of the first. The first jhāna that the Suttas describe is also perfectly sufficient for Arahantship (MN 64 & AN 9.36).

The foremost, generally unquestioned assumption about the practice of jhāna (and mental cultivation in general) is that one or another form of continuous attention upon one object is necessary, and this itself rests on the idea samādhi is a state of focused attention. For this reason, the term jhāna has frequently been interpreted as meaning “absorption”. The reality is, however, that not even a concept of “absorption” is discussed, let alone encouraged,  anywhere in the Suttas, nor does it correspond to any Pali term in the early texts, and is invariably being read into them and justified heuristically, if at all. In fact, the word jhāna has a very unambiguous meaning both in Pali and Sanskrit: thinking, contemplating, reflecting—meditating.1

The average person who is told to “meditate” would instead proceed to try to “empty their mind”, become hyper-aware of bodily sensations, and breathe deeply to achieve a bodily relaxation akin to what a massage provides. The more serious teachers and practices would then expand upon this, often in meticulous detail and with various nuances, slap Buddhist concepts and terminology into it after the fact, and present the final product as the core of the way towards Nibbāna.

Why It Exists, And Why It Shouldn’t

These distorted ideas have come about due to the fact that what is widely thought of today as Buddhist meditation is, at best, for those who label themselves Early Buddhists, the result of rejecting only some parts of the overall framework put forth by later Buddhist Schools, the Theravada Commentaries and the Visuddhimagga, often unaware that the largest of all the elephants remains in the room. At worst, some base their views on later interpretations without a second thought. In either case, the premise that the gist of mental cultivation is concentration upon objects is rarely challenged, despite the critical Western attitude often being willing to strip basically everything else away from Buddhism.2

It is overlooked that if one where to have a person wholly unfamiliar with meditation and Buddhist ideas—say, an average European from the 18th century equipped with a perfectly literal Pali dictionary, who will take what they read on its own terms and not those of Christianity or any other religion—read through the collection of early texts exclusively, without being told what they mean in advance (as most of us today are way before we actually read them), there is simply no way that they would come to the conclusion that the Buddhist path to liberation centers around stopping one’s thinking and/or watching bodily sensations. But modern practitioners, by the time they bother to read the Suttas (if they ever do), are already quite invested in that overall direction due to having had previous success with a contemporary “meditation” technique. This results in them inadvertently only being open to (mis)reading the Suttas in ways that support or at least do not invalidate what they have circumstancially come to regard as the Dhamma.

Instead, this individual of a previous era who is free from such biases and conflicts of interest would likely conclude, judging by the sheer frequency of mentions, that the Buddha’s main injunction is to meditate diligently (in the right sense of the word) on what is beneficial (kusala) and what is unbeneficial (akusala), and that the cultivation of the former and abandoning of the latter is done first and foremost through undertaking the precepts and restraint in regard to one’s desires, and moreover, by meditating on the unreliable and perilous nature of everything that one is, to one’s own detriment, emotionally dependent on—particularly sensual pleasures. And this would be a merely intellectual yet authentic and undistorted conclusion by someone who still has no plan to actually implement those teachings.

Having abandoned these five hindrances, imperfections of the mind that weaken wisdom, quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unwholesome states, he abides having entered the first jhāna, which is accompanied by thinking and pondering, with joy and pleasure born of seclusion.

—MN 39, Great Discourse at Assapura

And how, bhikkhus, are sensual pleasures seen by a bhikkhu in such a way that as he looks at them sensual desire, sensual affection, sensual infatuation, and sensual passion do not lie latent within him in regard to sensual pleasures? Suppose there is a charcoal pit deeper than a man’s height, filled with glowing coals without flame or smoke. A man would come along wanting to live, not wanting to die, desiring happiness and averse to suffering. Then two strong men would grab him by both arms and drag him towards the charcoal pit. The man would wriggle his body this way and that. For what reason? Because he knows: ‘I will fall into this charcoal pit and I will thereby meet death or deadly suffering.’ So too, bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu has seen sensual pleasures as similar to a charcoal pit, sensual desire, sensual affection, sensual infatuation, and sensual passion do not lie latent within him in regard to sensual pleasures. [i.e., he is able to establish the first jhāna.)

“And how, bhikkhus, has a bhikkhu comprehended a mode of conduct and manner of dwelling in such a way that as he conducts himself thus and as he dwells thus, evil unbeneficial states of longing and aversion do not flow in upon him [which would obstruct jhāna]? Suppose a man would enter a thorny forest. There would be thorns in front of him, thorns behind him, thorns to his left, thorns to his right, thorns below him, thorns above him. He would go forward mindfully, he would go back mindfully, thinking, ‘May no thorn prick me!’ So too, bhikkhus, whatever in the world has a pleasing and agreeable nature is called a thorn in the Noble One’s Discipline. Having understood this thus as ‘a thorn, restraint and non-restraint should be understood.

—SN 35.244, Things that Entail Suffering

(Ānāpāna)sati is… “Observation”?

Another cause of the widespread misconceptions about what meditation and jhānas are is the centrality given to what can be called “breath observation”, which means that virtually any other practice is done in a manner analogous to it, i.e., by focusing on something, even if it’s not static, such as a changing stream of bodily sensations or images of people one is radiating loving-kindness towards—in the end it’s still done with the purpose of narrowing down one’s awareness, however much the degree of narrow-ness varies.

The point here is not that ānāpānāsati is wrong, but that observing sensations of breathing, being either at one single point or throughout one’s whole body, or whatever arbitrary variation of this “observing”, is not what ānāpānāsati is, nor does it have anything to do with sati in general.

Ānāpānāsati is mentioned only a handful of times in the Suttas compared to the types of contemplations mentioned in the previous quoted passage, and there is ample reason to believe that a vast number of monastic disciples3 had never received detailed instruction on it, if at all. Therefore, instead of taking ānāpānāsati and the modern ideas of it as the starting point, one should actually interpret ānāpānāsati in the light of of the other comparatively enormous bulk of right reflections aimed at understanding4 the nature of things that the Buddha left behind, which are instead seen as supplementary, if at all considered. On top of this, the standard contemplation that is given in the context of jhāna is not ānāpānasati, but the recognition of the drawbacks of sensuality and its concomitant unbeneficial states. Thus, when you have pondered/meditated on the drawbacks of sensuality correctly, your mind abides having entered the meditation/state-of-comprehension (jhāna)5 that sees sensuality as a “charcoal pit”, and is accompanied by profound joy, pleasure and relief born of the safety from those burning embers. In this way, to use an analogy, planting apple seeds―not something else―provides you with an apple tree, and apples eventually.

Coherent, Doable, Free From ”Patchwork”

When jhāna/meditation is understood in this way throughout, everything in the 4 Nikāyas forms a coherent whole, and one does away with the otherwise lurking implication that the Buddha spent decades traveling far and wide teaching things that were only secondarily relevant compared to the supposed crux of the matter, which is absorption into bodily sensations with little to no thinking. Given that he tirelessly instructed people to be diligent and meditate ardently, it would follow that they would not be able to even make use of the vast array of discursive reflections he taught if the practice is about rendering oneself unable to meditate as much as possible. Instead, he would’ve been much better off leaving behind something more akin to a modern meditation manual and calling it a day, given that he was already not too eager to teach when asked to soon after his enlightenment.

We also do away with the notion that meditation, jhāna and enlightenment by extension, and dealing with day-to-day affairs are fundamentally at odds,6  which is certainly the case when your idea of “deep samādhi” requires you to not skip a beat in your alertness to every moment and (supposedly) not engage with concepts to sustain it—essentially tying you down more than it’s freeing you.

What jhāna practice does demand from you without exception is that you completely abandon delight in the five cords of sensual pleasure (not become unaware of them)—physically, verbally, and mentally—spend the majority of your time away from the presence of others, and refrain from using company as a form of entertainment when you do meet people due to practical necessities. This is exactly why the Suttas go on incessantly about the need for withdrawal from sensuality and seclusion from company—valuable space that could’ve been used to, at least once, mention these special object-observation techniques that magically bypass that need, making samādhi accessible to anyone who simply devotes time to them regularly, rendering monasticism effectively unnecessary except for the odd person who is perhaps too zealous about the practice.

Bhikkhus, without having abandoned six things, one is incapable of entering and dwelling in the first jhāna. What six? Sensual desire, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, doubt; and not having clearly seen with correct wisdom, as it really is, the danger in sensual pleasures. Without having abandoned these six things, one is incapable of entering and dwelling in the first jhāna.

Bhikkhus, having abandoned six things, one is capable of entering and dwelling in the first jhāna. What six? Sensual desire … not having clearly  seen with correct wisdom, as it really is, the danger in sensual pleasures. Having abandoned these six things, one is capable of entering and dwelling in the first jhāna.”

—AN 6.73, On The First Jhāna

With all this in mind, we can go on to elaborate further on the nature of the four “pleasant abidings here-&-now” and how contemplation done rightly and persistently naturally results in them, with no need for extraneous props.

Meditation is Concrete Thinking

To start off with, the first thing one is likely to wonder is what is the difference between the practice of meditation in this correct sense, and rehearsing abstract ideas and views one has read or heard about, which clearly anyone can do without experiencing the wholesome joy of relief from all that is unwholesome. The fact that people cannot see that distinction and thus end up doing the latter form of abstract pondering is one of the main reasons that they opt for the “more palpable” observation of bodily sensations and similar practices instead.

What one needs to start getting used to  is concrete thinking, which is the sort of thinking that develops the mind towards Right View and Right Recollection (sati). “Concrete” in the sense that one reflects, meditates on, thinks and ponders about the nature of a phenomenon while it is present, as opposed to dwelling on an abstract notion of “sensual pleasures are bad”, which, sure enough, would not result in anything of real value.

This brings us to another massive shortcoming in the usual approach towards samādhi, which is built around trying to get rid of “mind-wandering”, as it’s called. Truly recognizing the danger in the 5 cords of sensual pleasure requires them to present themselves as mental phenomena. That is what allows one to think about their perilous nature concretely, and for the contemplation not to revolve around abstract notions that have no practical relevance to when real desires arise. Only then can one start to realize the gratification  and danger in those phenomena while they persist, without which any apparent escape will be illusory. When the mind is taken by desire, one should, instead of cowering away by focusing on something else7, interpret that as a symptom of the mind not having sufficient clarity and confidence regarding the nature of pleasant experiences—which is what is being overlooked whenever one delights in them—and then get to work with developing that clarity and address the problem at its root8. This clarity/confidence being referred to is precisely what elevates the mind to the level of the first jhāna, not a meticulous manipulation of what objects and thoughts arise.

Therein, bhikkhus, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘Sensual pleasures here and now and sensual pleasures in lives to come,  sensual perceptions here and now and sensual perceptions in lives to come—both alike are Māra’s realm, Māra’s domain, Māra’s bait, Māra’s hunting ground. On account of them, these evil unwholesome mental states such as covetousness, ill will, and aggression arise, and they constitute an obstruction to a noble disciple in training here. Suppose I were to abide with a mind abundant and exalted, having transcended the world and made a firm determination with the mind. When I do so, there will be no more evil unwholesome mental states such as covetousness, ill will, and aggression in me, and with the abandoning of them my mind will be unlimited, immeasurable, and well developed.’ When he practices in this way and frequently abides thus, his mind acquires confidence in this base. Once there is full confidence, he either attains to the imperturbable now or else he resolves [upon it] with wisdom. On the dissolution of the body, after death, it is possible that the evolving consciousness may pass on to the imperturbable. This, bhikkhus, is declared to be the first way directed to the imperturbable.

—MN 106, Suitable for the Imperturbable

Samatha is No Exception

”The Imperturbable” is a term used to refer to the fourth jhāna at minimum, which means that this contemplation alone is sufficient to arrive at it eventually, once that full clarity being described is reached. At no point is it said that it’s necessary to abandon the aspect of reflective clarity and become absorbed in more rudimentary phenomena instead. Quite the opposite. This Sutta, which contains the most explicit description of how to enter formless attainments further down, proves how even those much more refined states are attained by reflecting and considering certain themes until the mind becomes confident in them. What is then to be said of someone whose idea of the very first jhāna involves trying to abolish their capacity to reflect on anything? That’s quite literally not “meditation” at all.

What the Sutta above is describing is undeniably samatha practice, and how it is done through contemplation/meditation, not through holding an object in one’s mind for a period of time9 and getting “locked” into it. Ānāpānasati, kasiṇas, brahmavihāras, satipaṭṭhānas, jhānas, formless attainments, cessation of perception-&-feelingall are developed through concrete reflection that sheds clarity onto those phenomena being reflected upon. In the SN 40 series, Ven. Mahāmoggallāna goes through the entire succession of nine meditative attainments by first clarifying what they are and what qualities define them.  There is no mention of some secondary concentration method that he had to implement, in which case he should’ve stuck to that and just stayed in the “present moment”, instead of allowing these unnecessary concepts and “wandering thoughts”  to preoccupy him, which, according to contemporary views generally, would be distractions and obstacles at the time of striving towards samādhi.

“Comprehension”/Jhāna vs. Liberative Insight

One will surely wonder, however: what is the difference between the contemplation and clarity that the jhānas and samatha in general involve, and the discernment of, say, the Four Noble Truths and Three Characteristics?

The straightforward answer is that the reflections that develop jhāna are directed at certain classes of phenomena of progressively refined nature, whereas in the noble insight that destroys the fetters, it’s the nature of phenomena as such, in the utmost general sense, that has been brought to light. This is well illustrated in MN 106 quoted above, where one is reflecting on the impermanent and unsatisfactory nature of sensual pleasures specifically, which is the the theme of contemplation that enables one to acquire the fourth jhāna and beyond once one is fully skilled in it.

One can certainly attempt to reflect on the nature of phenomena in general, e.g. of the five aggregates, right off the bat, and this would indirectly clarify the nature of the phenomena relevant to the jhānas , but it can be more beneficial to tackle the “dust in one’s eyes” directly, especially sensuality, rather than attempting to see clearly with dusty eyes (SN 35.246). But it’s not a hard and fast rule, and both avenues would contribute in their own way to the overall cultivation of the mind and wisdom.

Furthermore, as MN 64 and several others explain, once the comprehension of these specific phenomena that gives rise to jhāna is brought to fulfillment and the mind is perfectly pliable and free from obstructions, one then goes on to meditate on the nature of that entirely wholesome experience, and this necessarily brings to light the nature of all phenomena, to the extent necessary for fetters to be destroyed, which are not necessarily addressed by the initial meditation upon the danger of sensuality, etc.10 As the Sutta explains, this would lead to the destruction of the five lower fetters, not only to stream-entry, which one cannot “stay” at if skilled in jhānas.

Thus, right reflection is at the core of both samatha and vipassanā. Samatha simply involves a specialized form of contemplation aimed at the things that defile the mind, clearing the obstacles for vipassanā to take root. However, if one doesn’t know how and what things must be discerned, one will fail to contemplate properly so that the mind gets purified to begin with.

There is no jhāna without discernment, no discernment without jhāna.

One who has jhāna and discernment—they’re in the presence of Nibbānȧ.

—Dhammapada 37211

Jhāna Needed for Stream-Entry?

What’s been said so far will also serve to shed some light on a familiar controversy among modern Buddhists, which is whether jhāna is necessary for the attainment of stream-entry, given that a sotāpanna is said to possess sammāsamādhi, which is defined as the four jhānas. The solution to the seeming conundrum is that a stream-enterer, due to having first and foremost seen the danger in sensuality (see AN 6.73 above & MN 14) on account of seeing the origin of dukkha, and furthermore due to being able to recognize the hints of their mind (cittassa nimitta), which is the basis for any mind-development as per SN 47.8, has the faculty to meditate on the nature of sensuality correctly, in its full extent, and no longer confuses playing around with ideas and right reflection. Such a person has developed the concrete thinking described earlier, which is essentially the enlightenment factor of dhammavicaya12.  Hence, when they reflect on the nature of sensuality and unwholesome states, or on the fundamental truths they understood, they are practicing jhāna, even if they’re still not aware of it and have not obtained the wholesome pleasure of detachment from sensuality yet, which can take a while (AN 3.94, MN 14). This cannot be said for the puthujjana, who still does not see what the defilements are, let alone the way out of them. Thus, it is because of their Right View that they have Right Effort and Right Recollection, and whenever those two are present, the possibility of jhāna also is, though one may not have brought it to realization yet.

“Lady, what is composure (samādhi)? What is the basis of composure? What is the equipment of composure? What is the development of composure?”

“Unification of mind (citta-ekaggatā)13, friend Visākha, is composure; the four foundations of mindfulness14 are the basis of composure; the four right kinds of striving are the equipment of composure; the repetition, development, and cultivation of these same states is the development of composure therein.

―MN 44

Bhikkhus, if, even for a fingersnap, a bhikkhu cultivates Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Recollectedness and Right Composure, I say that he is called a bhikkhu who is not devoid of jhāna, who follows the Teacher’s instructions, who responds to advice, and who does not eat the country’s alms in vain. How much more so those who make much of it!”

—AN 1.431-438 (SuttaCentral numbering)

“But… What About The Cessation of Vitakka-Vicāra?”

Now, one may object that this concept of samatha in general being all about contemplation of the correct themes is incompatible with the fact that there is no thinking-and-pondering present from the second jhāna onwards. The answer to that is that one’s conception of right contemplation is not accurate unless one is already able to enter the first jhāna (which is highly unlikely to happen before stream-entry today if it is to be the real deal)15 and thus one will not be able to conceive of how the aspect of reflection and consideration of phenomena is present, in increasing levels of refinement, all the way up to the cessation of perception and feeling. If one has not learned to take the hint of one’s mind (cittassa nimitta), it is impossible for one to understand what right contemplation is, and how it can be done without the coarse philosophizing and theorizing which is all that one knows as “contemplation”.

Nevertheless, suffice it to say that when you choose to go against the grain of your desires to keep the precepts and be sense-restrained—being clear about their true purpose as well, not just mechanically—there is a nascent form of that contemplation whether you recognize it at the time or not, although you may not be actively philosophizing about how “sensuality is bad” every time you restrain yourself from acting out of it.16

“But, Master Gotama, what things, when developed and cultivated, fulfil true knowledge and liberation?” “The seven factors of enlightenment, Kuṇḍaliya, when developed and cultivated, fulfil true knowledge and liberation.”“But, Master Gotama, what things, when developed and cultivated, fulfil the seven factors of enlightenment?” “The four establishments of recollection, Kuṇḍaliya, when developed and cultivated, fulfil the seven factors of enlightenment.” “But, Master Gotama, what things, when developed and cultivated, fulfil the four establishments of recollection?” “The three kinds of good conduct, Kuṇḍaliya, when developed and cultivated, fulfil the four establishments of recollection.” “But, Master Gotama, what things, when developed and cultivated, fulfil the three kinds of good conduct?” “Restraint of the sense faculties, Kuṇḍaliya, when developed and cultivated, fulfils the three kinds of good conduct.

“And how, Kuṇḍaliya, is restraint of the sense faculties developed and cultivated so that it fulfils the three kinds of good conduct? Here, Kuṇḍaliya, having seen an agreeable form with the eye, a bhikkhu does not long for it, or become excited by it, or generate lust for it. His body is steady and his mind is steady, inwardly well composed and well liberated. But having seen a disagreeable form with the eye, he is not dismayed by it, not daunted, not dejected, without ill will. His body is steady and his mind is steady, inwardly well composed and well liberated.

“Further, Kuṇḍaliya, having heard an agreeable sound with the ear … having smelt an agreeable odour with the nose … having savoured an agreeable taste with the tongue … having felt an agreeable tactile object with the body … having cognized an agreeable mental phenomenon with the mind, a bhikkhu does not long for it, or become excited by it, or generate lust for it. But having cognized a disagreeable mental phenomenon with the mind, he is not dismayed by it, not daunted, not dejected, without ill will. His body is steady and his mind is steady, inwardly well composed and well liberated.

“When, Kuṇḍaliya, after he has seen a form with the eye, a bhikkhu’s body is steady and his mind is steady, inwardly well composed and well liberated in regard to both agreeable and disagreeable forms; when, after he has heard a sound with the ear … smelt an odour with the nose … savoured a taste with the tongue … felt a tactile object with the body … cognized a mental phenomenon with the mind, a bhikkhu’s body is steady and his mind is steady, inwardly well composed and well liberated in regard to both agreeable and disagreeable mental phenomena, then his restraint of the sense faculties has been developed and cultivated in such a way that it fulfils the three kinds of good conduct.

“And how, Kuṇḍaliya, are the three kinds of good conduct developed and cultivated so that they fulfil the four establishments of recollection? Here, Kuṇḍaliya, having abandoned bodily misconduct, a bhikkhu develops good bodily conduct; having abandoned verbal misconduct, he develops good verbal conduct; having abandoned mental misconduct, he develops good mental conduct. It is in this way that the three kinds of good conduct are developed and cultivated so that they fulfil the four establishments of recollection.

“And how, Kuṇḍaliya, are the four establishments of recollection developed and cultivated so that they fulfil the seven factors of enlightenment? Here, Kuṇḍaliya, a bhikkhu dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings … mind in mind … phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. It is in this way that the four establishments of recollection are developed and cultivated so that they fulfil the seven factors of enlightenment.

—SN 46.6, Kuṇḍaliya

Jhāna First, Renunciation Later?

MN 14, which has already been referred to above, contains a passage that  has lead to mistaken conclusions regarding the proper order of the practice of jhāna:

“Then Mahānāma the Sakyan went to the Blessed One, and after paying homage to him, he sat down at one side and said: “Venerable sir, I have long understood the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One thus: ‘Greed is an imperfection that defiles the mind, hate is an imperfection that defiles the mind, delusion is an imperfection that defiles the mind.’ Yet while I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One thus, at times states of greed, hate, and delusion invade my mind and remain. I have wondered, venerable sir, what state is still unabandoned by me internally, owing to which at times these states of greed, hate, and delusion invade my mind and remain.

“Mahānāma, there is still a state unabandoned by you internally, owing to which at times states of greed, hate, and delusion invade your mind and remain; for were that state already abandoned by you internally you would not be living the home life, you would not be enjoying sensual pleasures. It is because that state is unabandoned by you internally that you are living the home life and enjoying sensual pleasures.

Even though a noble disciple has seen clearly as it actually is with proper wisdom that sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering and despair, and that the danger in them is still more, as long as he still does not attain to the rapture and pleasure that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, he may still be attracted to sensual pleasures. But when a noble disciple has seen clearly as it actually is with proper wisdom that sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering and despair, and that the danger in them is still more, and he attains to the rapture and pleasure that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, then he is no longer attracted to sensual pleasures.

“Before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I too clearly saw as it actually is with proper wisdom how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering, and much despair, and how great is the danger in them, but as long as I still did not attain to the rapture and pleasure that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, I recognised that I still could be attracted to sensual pleasures. But when I clearly saw as it actually is with proper wisdom how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering, and much despair, and how great is the danger in them, and I attained to the rapture and pleasure that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, I recognised that I was no longer attracted to sensual pleasures.”

―MN 14. Shorter Discourse on the Great Mass of Suffering

This is taken by some to mean that one will only be able to achieve full restraint from sensuality after attaining jhānas, conflating  “being still attracted to sensual pleasures” , which the Buddha says he initially also was, with a justification for actions rooted in that attraction, failing to see that the attraction is fueled further primarily by the actions, not some ambiguous energies that concentration practices help dissipate.

Doubtlessly, there is a lot of appeal in the idea that adherence to some “meditation” method is by itself purifying the mind from sense desire, and that this process happens in a vacuum, more or less irrespective of the actions one does “off the cushion”. That, at some point down the line, one’s mind will naturally not be interested in sensual pleasures anymore, so until one’s skill in these “jhānas” matures sufficiently, one is justified in giving in to desires so as to not make the practice too difficult.

This very palatable idea disastrously gets things the wrong way round, and overlooks the true reason for the five hindrances and the lack of proper context of the nature of sensuality―the six obstacles to attaining the pleasure of dispassion as mentioned in AN 6.73 quoted ealier―ensuring that whatever comes out of one’s efforts will not be true jhāna.

“I say, bhikkhus, that ignorance has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for ignorance? It should be said: the five hindrances. The five hindrances, too, I say, have a nutriment; they are not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for the five hindrances? It should be said: the three kinds of misconduct. The three kinds of misconduct, too, I say, have a nutriment; they are not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for the three kinds of misconduct? It should be said: non-restraint of the sense faculties.  

―AN 10.61, Ignorance

In addition, the chinese Āgama parallel to MN 14 has a more explicit take on the matter than the Pāli version:

At that time Mahānāma the Sakyan, while walking about after midday, approached the Buddha. Having paid homage with his head at the Buddha’s feet, stepped back, and sat to one side, he said:

World-honored One, as I understand the teaching of the World-honored One, I must bring about the cessation of the three defilements in my mind: the defilement of mind by greed, the defilement of mind by hatred, and  the defilement of mind by delusion. World-honored One, [although] I understand the teaching like this, yet states of greed, states of hatred, and states of delusion still arise in my mind. World-honored One, I am thinking: What condition have I not eradicated that still causes states of greed, states of hatred, and states of delusion

to arise in my mind?

The World-honored One said:

Mahānāma, [within] you there is one condition that has not been eradicated, namely [that because of which] you remain a householder, instead of leaving the household life out of faith and becoming a homeless one to practice the path. Mahānāma, if you had eradicated this one condition, you would certainly not remain a householder but would certainly leave the household life out of faith and become a homeless one to practice the path. It is because this one condition has not been eradicated that you have remained a householder instead of leaving the household life out of faith and becoming a homeless one to practice the path. […]

Mahānāma, it should be understood that there is no happiness at all in sensual pleasures; [there is only] immeasurable suffering and misery. If a learned noble disciple does not see this as it really is, then he is enveloped by sensual pleasures and will not attain the happiness of relinquishment and unsurpassable peace.

Mahānāma, in this way a learned noble disciple regresses because of sensual pleasures. Mahānāma, I know that there is no happiness in sensual pleasures, but only immeasurable misery. Knowing this as it really is, Mahānāma, I am not enveloped by sensual pleasures and not overcome by what is unbeneficial, and so I attain the happiness of relinquishment and unsurpassable peace. Mahānāma, for this reason I do not regress because of sensual pleasures.

Madhyama Āgama 100,  The Second Discourse on the Mass of Suffering

Do As You Think, Think As You Do

Given that the jhānas are achieved primarily through reflections such as the one of regarding sensual pleasures as undesirable, the fact that meditation (again, in the original meaning of that word) and thus samādhi is incompatible with sensual behavior becomes a no-brainer. You can’t be (in good faith) reflecting on how sensual pleasures are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and constitute and obstacle when your day-to-day actions are still outlets for sensual desire, and prove your underlying view of it as satisfactory and beneficial.

Reflecting honestly, you would realize that the first step in truly meditating on that theme, which is the basis for the first jhāna as a whole host of Suttas point out (DN 2, MN 19, MN 20, MN 39, MN 75, MN 106, SN 35.244, SN 35.246… to name just a few), is to actually stop stepping on the “traps” of the five cords of sensuality intentionally. Not doing so and then trying to develop this meditation would be not only hypocritical but also futile, since by delighting in sense pleasure, one is falling away from the wholesome states the Buddha taught, and even more so as a puthujjana, who intrinsically does not see wholesome as wholesome clearly. Regardless of one’s views and wishes, the polar opposite of the meditation praised by the Buddha is being cultivated:

“Bhikkhus, I will teach you about one who is subject to decline, about one who is not subject to decline, and about the six mastered bases. Listen to that….

“And how, bhikkhus, is one subject to decline? Here, bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu has seen a form with the eye, there arise in him evil unwholesome states, memories and intentions connected with the fetters. If the bhikkhu tolerates them and does not abandon them, dispel them, put an end to them, and obliterate them, he should understand this thus: ‘I am declining away from wholesome states. For this has been called decline by the Blessed One.’

“Further, bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu has heard a sound with the ear … cognized a mental phenomenon with the mind, there arise in him evil unwholesome states, memories and intentions connected with the fetters. If the bhikkhu tolerates them and does not abandon them, dispel them, put an end to them, and obliterate them, he should understand this thus: ‘I am declining away from wholesome states. For this has been called decline by the Blessed One.’

“It is in such a way, bhikkhus, that one is subject to decline.

—SN 35.96, Decline

Two Mutually Exclusive “Abidings”

Once a person begins to abide peacefully in the right meditation that is utterly purified of sensual desire, it will begin to sink in that they have always been a “meditator” all along, whether they realized it or not. The lustful, averse, lethargic, restless and doubtful mind is also an abiding that results from one’s “meditation” upon the theme of sensual pleasures, ill-will and distractions as valuable and worthwhile, and one’s unrestrained bodily and verbal actions are just the outpours of that theme of meditation. Fostering that theme makes one increasingly abide “quite assailed with sensuality, quite infected with unwholesome states, with fantasizing-and-longing, in the pain and suffering born of attachment”―state which the whole world mistakenly regards as joyous and exciting when external things happen to go well.

Trying to remedy this situation by concentrating upon an object, successfully as one may, is shortsighted and of no real use, because it’s still happening within the “meditation” that the ignorant mind has always been doing under the hood, no matter how many overwhelmingly pleasant and seemingly spiritually relevant experiences it may provide (only sometimes, to boot), and how well it temporarily distracts you from the coarser pleasures that you would otherwise be craving for, as usual.

  1. The original meaning of this word makes it an excellent translation for “jhāyati/jhāna”. Unfortunately, however, since the advent of concentration-centric meditation techniques in the West, the term has acquired alien connotations to its original latin etymology of meditārī (“to ponder on, to think over, consider”). More often than not, it is used to refer to the exact opposite effort: stopping one’s thinking and consideration, “cutting off the narrative” in one’s mind, and focusing instead on bodily sensations or similar “more real” phenomena. The state thought of as jhāna (again, “meditation”) that results from this repetitive focusing and re-focusing is then, contradictorily, the inability to meditate, and provides one a sense of peace more akin to a blissful oblivion than that of  abandoning passion for sense experiences through meditating on  their true nature, which is what results in the first jhāna. ↩︎
  2. The emphasis on mechanical focusing techniques is invariably what survives even in the most “secular” presentations of Buddhist meditation, and it’s also what mystics in  eternalist religions would tend to practice, just with a different accessory narrative underpinning the need for focusing on the chosen object. It would follow that these mystics are not that far away from sammāsamādhi despite often engaging in wrong action and wrong livelihood, as are many who are fervently devoted to Buddhist meditation techniques too, unaware of the inherent contradiction. ↩︎
  3. There are no recorded instances of the Buddha teaching ānāpānasati to even his most devoted lay disciples who were stream-enterers. The authentic ānāpānasati presupposes a willingness to renounce everything, given that it’s an acute contemplation of non-control and impermanence. Hence the Ānāpānasati Sutta, MN 118, was received by a group exclusively consisting of attained bhikkhus. ↩︎
  4. The ānāpānāsati Sutta itself instructs one to understand (pajānāti, which is no less than the verb form of paññā) one’s act of breathing and the (un-ownable) body that’s revealed indirectly by it. This would lead to the same result as other contemplations like the recollection of death—complete dispassion towards existence that is greatly peaceful, unburdening and joyful for one who values it. And this is what the jhānas are, not sudden meditative experiences which are accessible to people who are not dispassionate if they just get lucky or do the right technique at the right time. ↩︎
  5. This would be an accurate rendering of the term. See further below on this “comprehension” differs from liberative insight. ↩︎
  6. See AN 3.63, walking, standing, lying down during jhāna. ↩︎
  7. Many approaches acknowledge that forcefully re-focusing the mind is unhelpful, yet ultimately still insist on the fact that the concentration object is helpful to any extent. The word nimitta in the first strategy of MN 20, sometimes used to justify this view,  does not mean “object”, but more like “background context” in this case, which is what meditating upon something leads to, and this dispels unskilful states if the cultivated context is right (and increases them if it’s wrong). See SN 12.54. ↩︎
  8. See Sīla is Samādhi for a detailed example of how one would develop that clarity in regard to the things one has gotten used to not acting out of well beforehand. ↩︎
  9.  If one goes back to square one, and starts reading the Suttas on their own terms having put aside preconceived notions, as the total newcomer described earlier would, one will not find a single instance of the Buddha even mentioning such a thing, not even as a “useful tool”. It completely falls outside the scope of samatha and the Path as a whole, and the releases and insights it can give rise to are not the right ones that contribute to permanent and irreversible freedom. Its results are delicate, guaranteed to fade if you don’t practice for not even that long, whereas the changes that the actual jhānas, not to mention noble attainments, effect on the mind survive even neurological disorders, amnesia and death itself.. ↩︎
  10. This does not mean that one can be “attached to jhāna” as is often believed. As MN 64 says, the very first jhāna is reached through “withdrawal from appropriation” (upadhiviveka), which is why it’s impossible for jhānas to be responsible for any unwholesome states. It’s simply that if one doesn’t take that same practice further, which requires instruction on anattā from a Buddha or a disciple, one will only be free from sensuality but not from self-view/conceit, i.e. still a puthujjana. Contemporary “jhāna”, however, does not even result in freedom from the former, as many would acknowledge if they’re self-honest. ↩︎
  11. Obviously, either of these two mutually reinforcing qualities can be somewhat ahead of the other depending on the person’s tendencies, but that’s not how it’s usually taken, i.e., as two completely different things, to the point of requiring different techniques and modus operandi. ↩︎
  12. See SN 46.30 on how all the seven bojjhaṅgas are acquired with stream-entry, not before, as tends to be conveniently believed. ↩︎
  13. This term ekaggatā has often been translated in an  extremely misleading manner as “one-pointedness”. The truth is that the word agga in Pali does not mean “point” anywhere in the early texts, and the notion gets extraneously inserted to accommodate modern views. Agga rather means “tip, top, peak” and even “room, place”. In the first jhāna, ekaggatā refers to the “one room” or “one peak” that the mind abides in, the “one apex” of one’s experience, which is the way of regarding sense pleasures described in MN 106 above. The overarching theme or “peak” for the ordinary person is the opposite: welcoming sensuality. ↩︎
  14. See my previous essay on the four satipaṭṭhānas―the four frameworks of right contemplation. ↩︎
  15. MN 14 shows how the layman Mahānāma, who is is acknowledged to be a Noble Disciple by the Buddha, is still not able to attain jhānas. If it were as easy as it’s thought of these days, to the point where many ordinary people can get anywhere close to it in the span of a 10-day retreat, it would make no sense for someone who is already so far ahead in their practice―an enlightened being, no less, who possesses the seven enlightenment factors―to not be able to enter jhāna. Same goes for Ven. Mahāmoggallāna, who initially struggled with his samādhi in AN 7.61 and throughout SN 40, and for every lay stream-enterer who was not celibate, which, as MN 14 proves, would be impossible if they had been proficient in at least the first jhāna. Non-celibacy for such a person is just as far-fetched as willingly stepping back into a charcoal pit, as the simile goes, having already recognized it for what it is and finally experienced the relief of getting away from it. ↩︎
  16. Refer to Sīla is Samādhi for more on how unwavering commitment to virtue and restraint already involves comprehension of the right things in its foundational degree. This contains a list of Dhamma talks on the topic of cittassa nimitta, which is what enables “concrete thinking”, and also is the necessary factor for virtue to go beyond a mere habit. ↩︎