Excerpt: The Jhanas, by Shaila Catherine

Read a brief of The Jhānas: A Practical Guide to Deep Meditative States by Shaila Catherine, and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, Wisdom Publications.

By Shaila Catherine

Constance Kassor’s review from the Summer 2024 Buddhadharma:

The Sanskrit term dhyana is translated as “meditation.” As Buddhism has spread across Asia, different communities have come to interpret dhyana practices in various ways. Theravada Buddhists, for example, understand dhyana—translated into the Pali language as jhana—as a fundamental aspect of right concentration on the noble eightfold path: when the jhanas are practiced sequentially, they can transform the mind, and eventually lead to awakening. Shaila Catherine skillfully unpacks and explains this process in The Jhānas: A Practical Guide to Deep Meditative States (Wisdom). Catherine describes the jhanas as “states of happiness that can radically transform the heart, reshape the mind, imbue consciousness with enduring joy and ease, and provide an inner resource of tranquility that surpasses any conceivable sensory pleasure.” The Jhānas, previously published in 2008 as Focused and Fearless, guides readers through the eight levels of meditative absorption that constitute jhana practice, and offers exercises and reflections for readers to try on their own. These exercises are spaced throughout the book, and range from more traditional practices such as counting the breath to more imaginative practices such as imagining your thoughts like baseballs that you catch and then throw back. Catherine renders complex theories easy to understand, making this book suitable for those who are new to jhana practice, as well as those with some experience who are looking to deepen their understanding

[Please note that the text from which this excerpt derives makes use of footnotes and diacriticals; these are not represented in this excerpt.]

The Excerpt:

From Focused Concentration to Fearless Awakening

Resting under the shade of a rose apple tree, the young Siddhartha Gotama (whom we would later come to know as the Buddha) spontaneously entered a state of deep concentration, satisfaction, and ease. Much later, after he had studied intensively with two meditation masters and practiced extreme asceticism, he recalled that quiet moment in his youth and decided to cultivate those naturally pleasant states as the means to awakening. In so doing, he harnessed the potency of the unified mind and transformed a conventional practice of concentration into a catalyst for awakening, for enlightenment. Austere practices of selfmortification understandably lost favor as he taught his disciples to unlock the power of a happy mind.

The development of intense concentration that leads to sublime states of mental absorption, known as jhana, predated the Buddha—but because he was able to use it as a foundation for his enlightenment, it became a critical feature of his teachings. The practice of using jhana as a basis for insight has been preserved to this day. In the discourses of the Pali Canon, an early record of the Buddha’s teaching, “concentration” appears repeatedly and is taught as a pivotal method for inner transformation.

In Pali, jhana literally means “to think” or “to meditate.” Consequently, the term is open to a wide variety of uses and interpretations and there has been much debate about its precise meaning. In this book, jhana practice refers to a traditional sequence of specific states of absorption in which the mind is secluded from sensory impingement and deeply unified with a chosen object. Attention is neither distracted by stray thoughts nor affected by the flutter of moods. Even physical sensations and sounds eventually fade as the mind becomes entirely immersed in a single coherent focus.

Jhanas are states of happiness that can radically transform the heart, reshape the mind, imbue consciousness with enduring joy and ease, and provide an inner resource of tranquility that surpasses any conceivable sensory pleasure. Jhanas are states of deep rest, healing rejuvenation, and profound comfort that create a stable platform for transformative insight. In this approach to jhana, we use the calming aspects of concentration to support the investigative aspects of insight meditation. The fruit of concentration is freedom of heart and mind.

This book will teach you about and guide you through the traditional sequence of eight levels of meditative absorption that constitute jhana practice—though it will focus in detail on only four. While jhana is a powerful practice not intended for the dilettante, diligent beginners will benefit from the stability and strength afforded by deep concentration, and seasoned meditators will find in jhana practice a potent method for intensifying insight.

Although the notion of mastering sequential stages of deep concentration may appear daunting at first, the jhana system is easy to follow and surprisingly simple. Traditionally this practice was not reserved for special people, nor was it restricted to the monastic order. In the Buddha’s time, lay disciples and busy merchants would, from time to time, enjoy the benefits and joys of abiding in jhana. These eight levels of concentration remain accessible to contemporary practitioners who can dedicate sufficient time for retreat, remain ethically clear, and apply balanced effort. Although I’ve included many teachings useful to beginners, a working knowledge of one’s own mind and some facility with mindfulness practices are assumed as prerequisites to the serious undertaking of jhana practice. Nonetheless, I will review mindfulness practice and how it is used to avoid common pitfalls in jhana practice.

This book emerged from my experiences during a ten-month silent retreat focused on the cultivation of jhana as the basis for insight. Although I had more than twenty years of meditation experience, until this retreat I had not systematically used these refined levels of consciousness to develop insight. The methodical techniques of establishing access to jhana, strengthening and sustaining each level of absorption, and then applying the concentrated mind for insight had a powerful effect on my consciousness: it opened me to an experience of unremitting happiness, dramatically reduced the lure of sensual pleasures, and strengthened confidence and equanimity. When I emerged from retreat and shared some of my experiences with friends, I realized that the attainments and insights gleaned from this retreat described a clear path of concentration and wisdom. I want to offer serious practitioners this method for developing the mind and attaining unwavering clarity.

Through reading this book, some seasoned meditators will discover that they have already experienced some jhana factors (rapture, happiness, and equanimity, for instance) while engaged in other meditation practices. Indeed, states of extreme happiness characteristic of jhana naturally arise during many intensive meditation experiences. However, cultivating and harnessing them as the basis for insight is a technique unto itself, quite beyond the random “slipping into jhana” that long-term meditators often describe. The Jhanas can serve as a manual for contemporary practitioners who are prepared to cultivate jhana as an expression of the stable mind and use that concentration to deepen insight.

When the Buddha was asked, “Why are some people liberated and others not?” he did not say that the most concentrated meditators attain liberation. He replied, “Whosoever clings to the objects perceived by the senses cannot gain liberation. Whosoever stops clinging will be liberated.” Liberation through non-clinging is the core of the Buddha’s teaching. The human propensity to cling is the problem; meditation is designed to solve it. Working in tandem, the twin practices of concentration and insight create conditions remarkably conducive to awakening.

Some readers may find variances in method and emphasis from teachings received from other teachers. Many approaches have developed over the centuries, each based on an individual teacher’s understanding of the ancient texts and how those understandings manifest through his or her own meditation practice. If you would like to authentically experience jhana, you will probably need time in silent retreat under the guidance of teachers. A book can provide a map of the terrain, describe the required skills, and indicate signposts along the path, but there is no substitute for diligent practice and the guidance of skilled teachers.

This book is an introductory guide, not a definitive or exhaustive study. Many exercises and reflections are interspersed throughout. Please try them, even if they slow the pace of your reading. Merely reading exercises will neither develop meditation skills nor produce the profound experience of concentration. I encourage you to, at times, set the book down, close your eyes, and collect the mind in silence. If you do, these practices will contribute to a living ease and an undistracted presence—with or without the attainment of jhana levels of absorption. But do bear in mind that the cultivation of serenity and wisdom can’t be rushed. Please give it the time to work. Don’t grow impatient if you don’t understand it completely at first. Certain principles are repeated throughout the book and are refined as the practice progresses.

This book systematically explores the framework of eight classical states of unified consciousness: the four primary jhanas and the four formless realms. It gives instruction on accessing these states, discerning their qualities, and using each as the basis for wisdom. While its thrust is cultivating the deep concentration of jhana, the development of right concentration in the Buddhist tradition must always be intertwined with wisdom. Undertaking jhana practice without the framework of wisdom would be pointless at best—and also contains the danger of reinforcing attachment to the pleasures of jhana. Accordingly, I have included wisdom teachings on developing mindfulness, practicing non-clinging, applying skillful effort, setting intentions, overcoming habitual thoughts, recognizing emotions, learning to let go, and understanding the aim of the spiritual life. These wisdom teachings will anchor the reader’s cultivation of concentration to a liberating path.

Additionally, practitioners should be aware that ethical conduct is a necessary condition for developing right concentration. Although this book does not explore in detail the cultivation of morality and right action, practitioners who aspire to attain jhana should first develop a high degree of purity in ordinary activities.

Mental stability is essential for this training. The use of mind-altering drugs, including legal plant-based hallucinogenic substances, is antithetical to the development of jhana. A healthy mind is a rare and precious thing in this world—do not take casual risks with the stability of your mind. If you are serious about undertaking the practice of jhana, it is critical to cease the use of mind-altering substances and develop skills in renunciation, right effort, right intention, and right concentration that will support the refinement of the higher mind.

Some people are attracted to jhana practice as a route to dramatic blissful spiritual experiences, and wrongly confuse meditative attainments with drug experiences. They do not know what an actual jhana state is and therefore conflate meditative altered states of consciousness with drug induced psychedelic trips, out-of-body experiences produced by extreme physical or breath exercises, or unity experiences that occur through orgasmic sexual encounters. Please understand that physical and drug-induced activities do not lead to jhana. Inducing altered-state experiences through the use of chemical or organic substances, intense physical exercises, or ritual ceremonies is incompatible with this path of meditative training.

If you are still enchanted with the possibility that drugs might open the door to spiritual experiences more quickly than traditional practices, please be aware of some characteristics of jhana that would strongly distinguish it from psychedelic states:

1. profound inner calmness and the absence of craving for tan-talizing experiences;

2. continuous mindfulness of one’s meditation object;

3. balanced effort, discipline, and an inclination toward renunciation;

4. clear attention that is maintained without mental wandering or associative mental activity;

5. fitness and flexibility of mind that responds to intention and sustains focus without being influenced by sounds, distracting thoughts, or sensual stimuli;

6. sustained absence of unwholesome states such as fear, anger, remorse, sensual desire, stories of self, memories, images, thoughts, narratives, dullness, agitation, restlessness, and all hindrances and unwholesome states;

7. conscious control over the meditative perception that remains stable throughout the absorption; and

8. the ability and skill to enter and exit the states of jhāna at will.

These abilities and experiences develop naturally with the practices of concentration that are taught in this book and will serve the meditator long after the meditative session has ended.

This book contains five sections. The first, “The Joy of the Focused Mind,” positions the practice of jhana as training in relinquishment and an exploration of happiness. The second, “Preparing the Mind for Absorption,” addresses themes necessary for preparing the mind to enter jhana. The third, “How to Establish Meditative Absorption,” contains instructions for the four primary levels of jhana. The fourth, “Doing the Work of Insight,” explores the wisdom that arises when using jhana as the basis for insight. The fifth, “Experiencing the Formless Dimensions,” examines the four formless realms as an experiential investigation of emptiness. The Epilogue discusses the significant role jhana can play in living a fearless, awakened life.

May readers discover deep peace within their hearts

and bring lasting peace into our world.

May this book contribute

to the liberation of all beings.

From The Jhānas: A Practical Guide to Deep Meditative States by Shaila Catherine. We thank Wisdom Publications for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

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Shaila Catherine

Shaila Catherine

Shaila Catherine has been practicing meditation since 1980, with more than eight years of accumulated silent retreat experience. She has taught insight meditation since 1996 in the U.S. and internationally. Shaila has dedicated several years to studying with masters in India, Nepal and Thailand, completed a one-year intensive meditation retreat with the focus on concentration and jhana, and authored Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity. Shaila Catherine has practiced under the guidance of Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw since 2006; she authored Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhana and Vipassana to help make this traditional approach to meditative training accessible to Western practitioners. She is the founder of Bodhi Courses, an online dhamma classroom, and Insight Meditation South Bay, a Buddhist meditation center in Silicon Valley.