Developing Jhana by Ven. Sonam Senge


Ven. Sonam Senge

CHAPTER 3: Concentration

Section 2: Cultivation of the Beautiful

Developing Jhana
There are two systems used to describe the jhanic process: in the Abhidhamma the fourfold method is used, in the Suttas and the Visuddhimagga the fivefold method is used. We will use the fivefold division in this exploration.

When the ancients considered the process of developing virtue in relationship to the cultivation of beautiful states of consciousness, they used the same methods of discipline that they used to abandon the unwholesome. In this way abstention is seen as virtue, effort is seen as virtue, patience is seen as virtue, mindfulness is seen as virtue and wisdom is seen as virtue.

16) The First Jhana – Thought conception and discursive thinking
In the first jhana, or what is sometimes called ‘access jhana,’ thought conception and discursive thinking are present. The first jhana’s primary characteristic is the abandonment of the hindrances. We are able to focus upon the object of interest without distraction and the energy of our mind is opened so that we become totally engrossed in the object. As a result great rapture and joy are present, and every cell of our body is suffused with this rapture and joy. When this happens we know something very real is occurring in our practice.

17) The Second Jhana – Rapture and joy
When we become aware that there is something beyond the first jhana, (i.e. a further development), then we are inspired to go beyond the barriers and push our meditation further, to know it more completely. In this way, we recognize and see thought conception and discursive thinking as hindrances to further development. In other words, we see that thought conception and discursive thinking are aspects of the mind that prevent us from experiencing total union with the object. They are like a veil between ourselves and the object. It is as though they are disturbances on the surface of a lake that prevent us from seeing a clear reflection. And so we recognize that abstaining from thought conception and discursive thinking is desirable. We use our effort to abandon thought conception and discursive thinking. With patience we focus the volitional mind on the removal of these states as obstacles. Mindful restraint from these states is the discipline that ensures our success, and the wisdom of non-transgression is the result. In this way, with the subsiding of thought conception and discursive thinking, and the gaining of inner tranquility and oneness of mind, we are freed from these disturbances. Thought conception and discursive thinking are left behind. The second jhana is entered upon due to full concentration without the disturbance of these obstacles. When this occurs, great rapture and joy is experienced and our whole body is suffused with this experience.

18) The Third Jhana – Cultivating equanimity
Now there will come a time in the development of the meditative life when we will see that rapture and joy are crude and also a form of disturbance in the mind. This disturbance is understood to be an obstruction to the development of higher states. Rapture and joy are understood to be states that should be abandoned and abstained from, and volitional consciousness becomes resolute and clear that we must go beyond these states. In this way the discipline of abstention, effort, patience and mindfulness is initiated and fulfilled producing the wisdom of non-transgression. After the fading away, the letting go of rapture and joy, our mind naturally abides in equanimity or the third jhana. We are mindful, very clear and conscious, aware that this equanimity is a higher state of happiness. On emerging from this jhana every cell of our body is suffused with deep happiness.

19) The Fourth Jhana – Realization of equanimity
Because equanimity is understood to be a higher state of development all pleasure-pain are seen as obstacles to cultivating this state of consciousness. And so abstention from the complex of pleasure-pain is recognized to be of benefit. Effort to abandon these states is seen to be the way of cultivating higher consciousness. Patience and mindfulness as a discipline results in the wisdom of non-transgression. We give up all clinging to pleasure and pain, joy and grief, and we know them to be obstacles to the cultivation of equanimity. Equanimity and mindfulness are fully present and when we emerge from this jhana every cell of our body is completely permeated with this exquisite new awareness.

The Arupa-Jhanas, The Formless Absorptions
The meditations on the formless are very extensively examined in the Mahayana and Hwa Yen teachings. They are also expounded in the Sunnata Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya by the Buddha as being his abiding. The teachings of Nagajuna and the Heart Sutta are the foundation of the Mahayana schools. Here they will be described in a very brief manner. According to the fivefold classification of jhana all formless meditations are considered to be developments of the fifth jhana.

20) The Fifth Jhana – Boundless Space
Now there will come a time in our meditative life when we will understand that being limited to the five senses and being bound to form is a hindrance to the further development of consciousness. In the case of the perception of matter, the perception of resistance and the perception of variety, abstention is virtue. These are states to be abandoned. With the effort of the volitional mind aroused, we realize that patient mindfulness in refraining from the perception of form, resistance and variety is the correct way to go beyond these limitations. Finally the wisdom of non-transgression leads to focusing the mind on boundless space. In this way we reach full absorption and abide in the perception of boundless space.

It should be understood when developing the formless absorptions that even in the first jhana sense perceptions are left behind. However, in the fifth jhana it is the main focus and even in-between our meditation sessions we practice abstaining from the perception of form, resistance and variety. In other words, we avert our consciousness from focusing on these qualities. We also notice that consciousness naturally moves to the awareness of space due to this exercise.

21) Boundless Consciousness
Now there will come a time when we will understand boundless space to be a limitation. Space is characterized by the absence of objects. Because boundless consciousness is not limited to the absence of objects, it is more inclusive and a higher attainment. Boundless consciousness includes all forms and emptiness. It includes them in the sense that consciousness is boundless, unobstructed and all-pervasive. In this way we abstain from the perception of boundless space and enter the perception of boundless consciousness. We use our effort to abandon the perception of boundless space and cultivate mindfulness of objects as not limiting consciousness. We use our patience to train the mind to ignore limitations to consciousness. We mindfully restrain our inclination to see consciousness as exclusive to people, animals, plants or living things. Non-transgression results in the wisdom of seeing the all-pervasiveness of consciousness. This is success in the meditation.

22) Emptiness
Now there will come a time in our meditative life when we will understand boundless consciousness as a limitation. Here we see consciousness, or ‘that which is perceiving’, as a limitation or hindrance. We abandon clinging to consciousness because, however subtle, there is still a clinging to a self. This consciousness is seen as gross in comparison to the experience of nothingness or emptiness. We abstain from the perception of boundless consciousness in order to be free of all clinging. In this way we exercise our effort and break down the barriers to higher realization. We use patient mindfulness to restrain the mind so that we give up the perception of boundless consciousness and in doing so we enter upon the experience of emptiness. Because we have abandoned the perception of boundless consciousness the wisdom of non-transgression leads to the experience which liberates us from all subject-object referencing and we come to experience the true nature of the mind as luminous emptiness.

23) Neither Perception nor Non-perception
Now there will come a time in our meditative life when we will understand the realization of emptiness as a limitation. By abandoning or letting go of the realization of emptiness we come to the realization consisting of neither perception nor non-perception. Because we have abstained from the perception of emptiness everything appears as neither truly existent nor nonexistent. This is a deeper realization of emptiness. If we cling to the pure perception of emptiness or nothingness we may fall into a state of nihilism. Instead, if we use our effort to become aware of emptiness as all pervasive, then we cannot say that it is separate from form. Because we use patient mindfulness to restrain our mind from the perception of emptiness we realize all forms as inseparable from emptiness. The first realization of emptiness is an absence, but it is extraordinary in the sense that we are freed from all our perceptions. The second realization is to perceive the extraordinary emptiness in the ordinary perceptions. We use our wisdom and determination to go beyond previous limitations, and we come to the direct realization of form and emptiness as neither perception nor non-perception.

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