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Jhana and the Deathless

October 10, 2013

Q: A reader asks:

Jhana Sutta (AN 9.36): “I tell you, the ending of the mental fermentations depends on the first jhana….He regards whatever phenomena there that are connected with form, feeling, perception, fabrications, & consciousness as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, an emptiness, not-self.” 

“When one is in concentration such as jhana, can one discern and clearly see the phenomenon arise without losing the focus and concentration of jhana? Simply put, does one discern the phenomenon within or immediately following jhana? This Sutta continues on through the rest of the jhanas. So, Deathless can be attained during any jhana as long as one can completely detach and remove desire?”

The Arahant: Jhana, like any state of consciousness, is a platform of awareness. It provides a background for perception that, like any context, colors the phenomena one perceives in that state. When the mind is concentrated it becomes luminous and clear, and any identification with phenomena is seen as an obstacle to the mind approaching its original state.

It sounds like the questioner has no direct experience with jhana; but the first jhana, especially, is very easy to reach.  Many of these theoretical questions resolve automatically with even a little actual experience of jhana. In jhana it is clearly seen that ‘being’, in the sense of a fabricated existence defined ontologically as a product of Dependent Origination, is false. This is easy to see because any phenomenon connected with ‘being’ or ‘becoming’ obstructs the practice of jhana.

The natural tendency in the practice of jhana is to rise upward. Each jhana is eventually seen as too gross, and the mind itself desires states of greater concentration and integration. Concentration of the mind is naturally pleasurable, and once we are established in jhana we do not want anything to interrupt it. Perception of ‘being’, ‘nonbeing’ and ‘becoming’ is naturally painful because it tends to split the mind into subjective, objective and relation.

Thus by practice of jhana one comes to see the things of the world as undesirable, and develops dispassion for them. This automatically leads to giving up the desire for all kinds of phenomena, as it is seen that they are full of dukkha and nothing else. Anicca-dukkha-anatta refers to the world of phenomena, as seen from the platform of jhana. As far as possible one should remain in the state of concentration, because that leads to seeing the world as it really is.

We are already in the deathless, but we have the habit of going out into the world of phenomena. We desire to experience pleasure in the manifestations of the world, but in reality there is nothing but dukkha. This can be seen clearly from the platform of jhana.

From → Q&A

7 Comments
  1. peaceandwisdom2013 permalink

    Thank you. Here, you have provided really valuable information (at least in my perspective). Now, I have a better understanding of jhana. True, I do not have experience with jhana. This is something I need to practice.
    “We are already in the deathless, but we have the habit of going out into the world of phenomena.”-Indeed, the resolution to all fabrications is right in front of us. We just need to see. This was discussed in another post, “Enlightenment, the Open Secret.”

  2. peaceandwisdom2013 permalink

    There is one other comment I would like to make in regards to this statement, “Thus by practice of jhana one comes to see the things of the world as undesirable, and develops dispassion for them. This automatically leads to giving up the desire for all kinds of phenomena, as it is seen that they are full of dukkha and nothing else.”

    I am generalizing, but most religions and people live by the idea that life has a meaning and purpose. Society is grounded upon the idea that something must be accomplished in order for their to be meaning. Thus, they want, desire, and continuously create the typical “happy, succesful, joy-filled life.” Unfortunately, as I see it, this seems to be the exact opposite of Buddha’s teaching who teaches of not-becoming and non-clinging. You mentioned in another post something like, “Life itself has no meaning, just the meaning we give it, and even that is a fabrication.”

    My main point is that it is very difficult, uncomfortable, and unpleasent for people to view life as dukkha and to accept Buddha’s teaching of emptiness.

    Anyway, as I am studying Buddha’s teachings, these are some of the thoughts in my mind. What do other people think?

    • Yes, religion as a social control mechanism wants us to believe in and identify with so many high-sounding abstractions and fabrications. But when we get to the bottom of it all, most religion is simply grease for the wheels of society. It’s useful, so it gets funded. It is very rare to find a teaching that leads away from false pride and busily becoming something-or-other for social approval and economic development. Such authentic teachings are necessarily unpopular, attractive only to renunciants.

      Of course the Buddha’s original teaching is admittedly deep, subtle, difficult to see, hard to accept, hard to do. It wouldn’t be so extraordinary if it wasn’t. The Buddha and his teaching are statistical outliers. Extraordinary means above-average, putting it quite out of reach for the person who is content with being average, making all the safe choices and going along with the crowd.

      Being in the world is unpleasant, and everybody knows it. Everyone agrees with the First Noble Truth. The question is what to do about it. The Puthujjana cannot see that accumulating wealth, possessions and chasing sense enjoyment and designations only conditions future suffering—because all these things require ‘being’ and ‘becoming’, and these are sources of dukkha. How we sigh with compassion when we see the lostness and brokenness of the people in the world!

  3. peaceandwisdom2013 permalink

    I have another question regarding the same statement, “Thus by practice of jhana one comes to see the things of the world as undesirable, and develops dispassion for them. This automatically leads to giving up the desire for all kinds of phenomena, as it is seen that they are full of dukkha and nothing else.”
    However, in the Brahmajāla Sutta, there are those who attained jhana, and yet did not see reality as it is. This applies to Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta as well. So, these practioners seem to not have Right View in the sense of emptiness.
    I was wondering if you can clarify this in light of “‘being’ or ‘becoming’ obstructs the practice of jhana.”
    I ask these questions because it seems that even highly advanced meditators may cling to the view of Self and Being and not see reality as it is. So, how may a beginning student overcome this obstacle?

    • Yes, excellent question. This happens all the time. There is even a Thai expression for it, “Sitting on a hundred-foot pole.”

      Anapanasati can be practiced in two ways: as a path of concentration or as a path of insight. It can happen that one gets so comfortable on the path of concentration that his ego-structure attaches to a specific state of jhana. The Buddha left Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta because he saw that this was the case; their practices would lead, not to total Unbinding, but to rebirth in worlds with qualities of the higher jhanas.

      The key to avoiding this is to experience the jhanas and integrate their insights, but not to become dependent on them—that is dangerous. Yes, the jhanas are wonderful, but becoming attached to that pleasure is no different in principle than attachment to some kind of subtle sense-pleasure. It becomes another kind of conceit that a wise teacher knows will have to be broken before the student can advance further. Jump off that hundred-foot pole!

      • marinoklisovic permalink

        This is true. I have learned to enter into states similar to jhanas and I became even more selfish than before. Of course, I rationalized my selfishness and anger by declaring what I was doing as something sacred, something transcendental, a service to God, and therefore not allowed to be interrupted. It gave the the reason to be angry at people who would interrupt my meditative states. I rationalized everything in my head but didn’t see how I was creating bad karma. Man, one must be very responsible and prepare himself very well before attempting anything.

      • Marino, I was very happy to receive your email today. We have touched on the subjects you mention on the blog but due to their deep and esoteric nature, we have not explained in detail. Interruption during meditation practice is an interesting topic. We tend to get irritated with noises and other interruptions. But why not arrange your life so that you have a time and place for meditation that is not prone to interruption? These days I will often wake up in the night and spend 2-3 hours sitting until satisfied, then go into a deep trance and wake up in the morning, deeply refreshed. There will be even more facility for this kind of practice in the new kuti. For the meditator, the full moon is out every night.

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