Buddhist Jhana Attainments
I just completed a monthlong retreat at the Chaiya Meditation Monastery in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ve done 2 other lengthy retreats there but this one was by far the most challenging and the most productive. As it goes, the more one learns about a practice, the more one must pay attention to detail.
The method that my preceptor, Ajahn Chaiya, teaches is a combination of samatha and vipassana meditation. Samatha can be loosely defined as tranquility and vipassana as insight. Mindfulness is an element of Buddhist practice that is practiced from start to finish, all the way to the attainment of nibbana.
In this post, I will share a little bit about jhanas and their corresponding attainments. The Suttas of the Pali Canon contain ample references and descriptions though I have not studied these. When I first met Ajahn Chaiya, he told me that the practice of jhanas falls into the samatha tranquitlity practices. This practice is the lengthy one. He said that there was not time to complete that practice. Instead he taught me simple walking and seated meditation with the goal of remaining in the present moment. Through these practices, when done correctly, one can gain access concentration. Simply stated, access concentration is concentration which comes right up to the edge of jhana absorption.
The main thing to understand about jhana is that the attainment of jhana states does not lead directly to nibbana. But it does lead to birth in the Brahma realms, which are above the sensual heavens.
In the practice of samatha/ tranquility/ jhana, one focuses of a single object of concentration and suppresses all else. Anything else that arises such as a sound, a thought or memory, an emotion or a bodily sensation, is simply ignored and one continues focusing on the chosen single object.
In the practice of vipassana, one chooses a main object of concentration and notes (by mindfulness) all diversions from the main object. For example, one is focusing on the abdominal movement during the in and out breaths, noting “rising” and “falling.” Suddenly there is an itch on the body. One notes “itching, itching.” If the itch does not go away, one may mindfully scratch it, noting all bodily movements required to scratch. After scratching or if the itch went away by itself, one returns to noting the abdominal movement.
In the practice I do, samatha is practiced until the mind considerably calms down. Then one shifts into vipassana and begins toggling back and forth between the main object (breathing in and out) and whatever else arises when the mind diverts from the breath focus. One strives not to miss anything and notes the main object as well as other objects that arise.
The practice of vipassana is said to lead directly to nibbana since when noting and being aware of all mind movements, one can penetrate into the 3 marks of materiality:
- Inconstancy/ impermanence
- Stressfulness/ unsatisfactoriness/ suffering
- Insubstantiality/ no self
Through steady concentration which is at the doorstep of samadhi/ jhana absorption, one may directly observe and see the 3 marks. Through this piercing, this direct knowing of the nature of material existence, one relinquish grasping and clinging and rise above all ignorance.
While on retreat I was given a chart of the Cosmic System of Buddhism. Using this as my reference I will briefly list the 8 jhanas and the heavenly destinations which correspond to each.
However, firstly there are the sensual heavens nearest to the earth realm. These are six in number:
This link gives a brief description of the sensual heavens: https://www.arrowriver.ca/wheel/heaven.html
Next come the Brahma worlds which leave sensuality behind. Following is a listing of the jhanas and their corresponding Brahma world attainments:
1) Brahma-parisajja, 2) Brahma-purohita, 3) Maha-brahma
4) Parittabha, 5) Appamanabha, 6) Abhassara
7) Paritta-subha, 8) Appamana-subha, 9) Subhakinha
10) Vehapphala-subha, 11) Asanna-satta, 12) Aviha, 13) Atappa,
14) Sudassa, 15) Sudassi, 16) Akanittha
The Brahma worlds above, for the first 4 jhanas, are all in the Form realms.
Attainment of the 5th through the 8th jhanas qualifies one for rebirth in the Formless spheres as follows:
5th jhana: Akasaacayatana
6th jhana: Vinnanancayatana
7th jhana: Akincannayatana
8th jhana: Nevasanna-nasannayatana
It should be noted that the lifespan in all these heavens gets exponentially longer and longer with each higher attainment. Also, from each of these heavens, one will eventually be reborn until one practices further and pierces through the 3 marks of existence and directly knows the 4 Noble Truths:
- The truth of suffering
- The truth of the cause of suffering
- The truth of the cessation of suffering
- The truth of the way which leads to the cessation of suffering
May all beings realize the 4 Noble Truths, exit the wheel of samsara and reach the end of suffering, nibbana!