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The Taste of Liberation: The Jhanas

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, author of the classic meditation manual Mindfulness in Plain English, explains the jhanas and how they can be reached.

By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

Monks at Lumbini. Photo by Heather Wardle

The jhanas are states of mental function that can be reached through deep concentration meditation. They are beyond the operation of the ordinary conceptual mind, the mind with which you are reading this right now. For most of us, this conceptual functioning is all we have ever known, and it’s unlikely we can even imagine what it would be like to go beyond thinking, beyond sensory perception, and beyond our enslavement to emotion. This is because the level of the mind that is trying to do the imagining is made up solely of sensing and thinking and emoting. The jhanas lie beyond all that.

The word jhana derives from jha (from the Sanskrit dyai), meaning to “burn,” “suppress,” or “absorb.” What it means in experience is difficult to express. Generally it is translated into English as “a deeply concentrated meditative state,” or “absorptive concentration,” or even just “absorption.”

Translating jhana as “absorption” can be misleading, however. You can be absorbed in anything—paying your taxes, reading a novel, plotting revenge—but that is not jhana. The word “absorption” can also connote that the mind becomes like a rock or a vegetable, without any feeling, awareness, or consciousness. But that is not jhana either. When you are totally absorbed in the subject of your meditation, when you merge with or become one with the subject, you are completely unaware. That too is not jhana, at least not what Buddhism considers “right jhana.”

In right jhana, you may be unaware of the outside world, but you are completely aware of what is going on within. It is a balanced state of mind where wholesome mental factors—mindfulness, effort, concentration, and understanding—work together in harmony, making the mind calm, relaxed, serene, peaceful, smooth, soft, pliable, bright, and equanimous.

The Benefits of Jhana

Some teachers say the jhanas are unnecessary and are rather like playthings for advanced meditators. It may be technically true that some can attain final release from craving, delusion, and suffering without jhanic meditation, but there are many benefits to achieving the jhanas.

First, there is the peace and joy you experience. That feeling is wonderful in itself, and you bring some of it back with you into your daily life. The vast calm of the jhanas begins to pervade your daily existence.

Even more important is their encouragement to the rest of your practice. The jhanas taste like liberation, a total freedom from all the mental and emotional woes that plague us. However, the jhanas are not that total freedom; they are temporary states that eventually end, and when they do, your normal world and the way you relate to it creeps back in. Still, through the jhanas you can be assured experientially that liberation is not just a theory, that it is not something that could maybe happen to other people but never to you. In this way, attaining the jhanas gives you energy and encouragement for your practice.

The jhanas teach you the true, strong concentration that is essential for Vipassana, the path of insight meditation. The fourth jhana especially can be used to see impermanence, suffering, and selflessness. Seeing the true nature of reality is the goal of meditation, and the jhanas can be used in the service of that goal.

The Potential Pitfalls of Jhana

It’s important to know that there are, in fact, certain dangers associated with incorrect practice of the jhanas, and a prudent person should be fully informed of the hazards. There are two main dangers: a practitioner of jhana can get “trapped” in jhanic ecstasy, and a practitioner of jhana can build pride around the attainment.

These hazards must be taken seriously. The ego can pervert and co-opt anything—even the Buddha’s path to liberation—to its own selfish purposes.

Ecstasy is the prime goal of many non-Buddhist contemplative systems. You concentrate on something—an image, a scripture, a stone—and you flow into it. The barrier between self and other dissolves and you become one with your object of contemplation. The result is ecstasy. Then the meditation ends and you are back to the same old you, in your same old life, and same old struggles. That hurts. So you do it again. And again. And again and again and again.

Buddhist meditation is aimed at a goal beyond ecstasy—discovering the truth of your own existence in order to dispel illusion and give you total, permanent freedom. It is a bit like a railroad track. There is a well-defined track that leads to full emancipation. Incorrect jhana—jhana without mindfulness—can lure you off the track and into a cul-de-sac. The challenge is that this cul-de-sac is in a very attractive location. You can sit there forever enjoying the view. After all, what could possibly be better than profound ecstasy? The answer, of course, is a lasting liberation that frees you from all suffering, not just for the period you are maintaining your ecstatic state.

The second danger is also perilous. The jhana states are rare accomplishments. When we attain them we begin to conceptualize ourselves as very special people. “Ah, look how well I am doing! I am becoming a really advanced meditator. Those other people cannot do this. I am special. I am becoming enlightened!” Some of this may, in fact, be true to a greater or lesser degree. You are special. And you are becoming an advanced meditator. But you are also falling into an ego trap that will stall your progress and create discouragement for everyone around you.

You must take these cautions seriously. The ego is subtle and clever. You can fall into these traps without knowing you are doing so. You can engage in these harmful ways of being with the full conviction that you are not doing so!

This is where the teacher enters the picture. Teachers have walked the full path themselves, and can shepherd the process and keep you from fooling yourself too badly. The value of a true teacher, especially in the middle and later stages of jhana practice, cannot be overstated. Please seek one out.

The Jhana States

As you practice jhana-oriented meditation, you move gradually through mental states that become more and more subtle. You start where you are now and you go far, far beyond. You move beyond the range of concepts and sensory perceptions.

We really cannot talk about such things with any real precision. Our normal concepts just do not apply to the nonconceptual. Yet that is where the jhana states lead, and we must use words to describe it. As we proceed through the coming description of the jhana states, words become more and more metaphorical. It cannot be helped. All we have are the concepts of our perceptual realm, but we must keep in mind that we are not really telling the full truth. Only the experience itself will reveal the truth.

There are two categories of “mundane jhanas.” The states in the first category do not have names. They are simply numbered first, second, third, and fourth jhana. These are called the “material jhanas” or the “fine material jhanas.” Those who have attained these jhanas are called “those who live happily in this very life.”

The second category is known as the “immaterial jhanas” because the meditation objects of these jhanas are pure concepts, not anything material. You center your mind upon a concept until it takes you into a direct, nonconceptual experience. Those who have attained these jhanas are called “those who are liberated and live in peace.”

These two categories of mundane jhanas are followed by the “supramundane jhanas.”

The Material Jhanas

The material jhanas are four states of experience that lie just beyond our ordinary cognitive, sensory world, but still have some relationship to it.

The First Jhana

As you enter the first jhana, something remarkable happens. There is a total break with normal thought and perception. Your mind suddenly sinks into the breath and dwells. The breath is still there, but it is no longer a “thing.” It is just a subtle thought, much like a memory or an after-image. The world goes away. Physical pain goes away. You do not totally lose all sensation, but the physical senses are off in the background. Wandering conscious thoughts stop. What remains are subtle thoughts of goodwill toward all beings.

Your mind is filled with rapture, bliss, and one-pointedness. “Rapture,” or “joy,” is like the leaping elation you feel when you finally get what you have been after. Joy may be physical, like hair rising all over your body, or it may be momentary flashes or waves that shower you again and again. “Bliss,” or “happiness,” is like the rich, sustained satisfaction you feel when you have it. Happiness is more restrained than joy; it is a gentle state of continuing ecstasy.

The Buddha offered a metaphor about a man who had been wandering in the desert and was on the verge of collapse from dehydration. Bliss is like drinking all he wants and soaking in a bath of cool water. Happiness is like relaxing in the shade of a tree afterward.

The first taste of jhana is usually just a flash, but then you learn to sustain it for longer and longer periods. Eventually you can experience it whenever you meditate. It lasts as long as you have decided that it should last. In the first jhana, “joy,” or “rapture,” predominates.

When you moved into the first jhana, you already put the hindrances on hold and let go of normal, conscious thought. Now it is time to let go of other things.

The Second Jhana

In the second jhana you drop even the subtle thought of the breath. The subtle thoughts of goodwill also drop away. Your mind is now totally free of any verbal or conceptual thoughts, even that of the breath. All that remains is a subtle reflection of thought and sensation that is more like a memory or an after-image.

The Third Jhana

It is hard to imagine that you could ever get bored with joy, but something like that takes place. Rapture is akin to excitement. It is coarse compared with the more subtle happiness and one-pointedness. Your mind turns toward bliss and one-pointedness in a way that is more delicate, refined, and stable.

Equanimity is growing. You gain a feeling of equanimity toward even the highest joy, which is really just more material substance. It is subtle, but it is still tying you to the hectic world of thought and the senses. You let it go and the joy fades away by itself.

In the third jhana, the more subtle “bliss,” or “happiness,” intensifies. It fills you and floods every cell of your body. Confidence rises. Mindfulness and concentration strengthen. The external world may be gone but body feeling is still present and it is wonderful. The body is very still. The breath is very gentle.

The Fourth Jhana

In the fourth jhana you go deeper still. You turn away from all mental states that would counter total stillness, even happiness. The turning away happens by itself; no effort is required. Equanimity and one-pointedness get even stronger. Feelings of pain went away at the first jhana. In the fourth jhana, feelings of bodily pleasure go away, too. There is not a single thought. You feel sensation that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. You rest in one-pointedness and equanimity.

As your mind becomes progressively more still, your body and breath do the same. In the fourth jhana it feels like you have stopped breathing altogether. You cannot be roused. You emerge from the fourth jhana only at a predetermined time of your own choosing.

The fourth jhana is also the state in which mindfulness and concentration unite into an intense awareness that can penetrate deeply into the nature of existence. This is the ideal state in which to directly perceive the three primary qualities of all ordinary existence: anicca, dukkha, and anatta—impermanence, suffering, and no-self. You passed through jhanas one, two, and three, simply allowing them to develop and pass. At the fourth jhana, you pause and use the state to see deeply into impermanence, suffering, and no-self.

The Immaterial Jhanas

The immaterial jhanas are four states that have very little relationship to our ordinary cognitive/sensory world. Normal words simply do not apply. These are called the formless jhanas. The first four jhanas are attained by concentration on a material form or the feeling generated by certain concepts such as loving-friendliness. Here you attain the formless states of the immaterial jhanas by passing beyond all perception of form.

The immaterial jhanas are not usually numbered. Each has an individual name that describes the sphere of awareness that the mind occupies or dwells upon. We give them numbers here just to show their order.

The Fifth Jhana: The Base of Infinite Space

Everything that happens in the mind can be thought of as existing “somewhere,” as if in a mental space. You turn your attention away from the characteristics of whatever is in the mind and toward the “space” it occupies. This infinite space is your object of contemplation.

Anything you attend to could be likened to a signal being carried on some medium of communication. You turn your attention away from the signal and toward the carrier wave that conveys it. The mind as a space, medium, channel, or vehicle is your object of awareness.

Equanimity and one-pointedness now mature fully. You find yourself in a realm where all perception of form has ceased. You cannot be disturbed or disrupted from the outside, but the tiniest suggestion of the material senses remain. You ignore them totally; if you turn your attention to any of them, the jhana is lost.

The Sixth Jhana: The Base of Infinite Awareness

Awareness of infinite space requires infinite awareness. You turn your attention toward that immeasurable alertness. The thought of infinite space drops away and what is left is infinite awareness without an object. You dwell in boundless consciousness, pure awareness of awareness.

The Seventh Jhana: The Base of No-thing-ness

The infinite awareness of the previous jhana has no object. It is empty, vacant, and void. You turn your awareness toward this emptiness. The seventh jhana is pure focus upon no-thing-ness. Your awareness dwells on the absence of any object.

The Eighth Jhana: The Base of Neither-perception-nor-nonperception

Perception of no-thing-ness is still perception. Your mind gets bored even with that and swings away from any perception at all. Total absence of perception is sublime.

You turn your attention away from perception of the void and toward the peacefulness of total nonperception. If there is the slightest hint of desire to attain this serenity or to avoid the awareness of void, the transition will not occur.

There is no gross perception going on, yet there is still super-subtle awareness of the state itself.

The Supramundane Jhanas

The supramundane jhana states are an absolute prerequisite to liberation. They take place at the end of both the insight meditation path and the jhana path. The supramundane is where the two paths merge.

In this series of states, the fetters, deep-rooted tendencies of the mind that bind you, are burned away without a trace. This is where the meditator does the final work of escaping from samsara.

Access Concentration

These states sound truly remarkable and appealing, do they not? But how do we get there? The transition point from non-jhana to jhana states is called access concentration. You won’t find the term “access concentration” in the early Pali texts. But there is a state just before full concentration, and we use the term “access concentration” to express that state. Access concentration is compared to the soft, weak muscles of a baby trying to learn to stand. The legs are not yet strong enough, so the baby falls back on the ground.

You use the state of access concentration to battle and subdue the hindrances. Applying mindfulness in the state of access concentration allows you to step aside from each hindrance to deep concentration and put it temporarily on hold. Do that often over enough time and the hindrances “go to sleep.”

The hindrances are just mental habits and you can replace them with the habit of mindfulness. In access concentration, the hindrances are restrained, enabling generosity, loving-friendliness, compassion, joy, happiness, and concentration to arise. Most meditators practice in access concentration for a good while before attaining jhana.

The Entry Point

If you have ever tried even a single period of meditation, you already know the initial stage. It is our normal mind.

Your focus wanders and wavers. If you are using your breath as your object of meditation, you’ll find that the breath is there for you occasionally, but you keep losing it and you go off into daydreams and memories and imaginary conversations. You notice the wandering and you pull yourself back to the focus. You fluctuate, vacillate, and swing back and forth between who knows what—distracting thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

Your first milestone comes when you detach from the world just a bit. The outer world with its sounds and sensations drifts into the background. They are still there, but they bother you less. Your thoughts are still there too, but they are quieter and they pull you away less often. You hear things, smell things, think things, but that does not disturb you so much. Some peace is present now and then. Your body becomes more and more still. You know you are headed in the right direction. Your mind begins to linger on the breath for short periods. You can feel yourself getting better at pulling back.

This is the place where you usually start to have some real insights about your thought process. You come to see that these thoughts and sensations really are annoying. They really are disturbing. It’s not just a theory. The calm one-pointed focus is so much nicer. Eventually even nicer thoughts are a bother compared with calm.

You start to see the hindrances too. Whether you call them that or not, you notice that certain thoughts and sensations are more jarring than others, and you start learning to let them go, to let the hindrances pass without grabbing on to them.

Concentration Strengthens

After a period of effort comes a noticeable strengthening of concentration. The mental attributes that will eventually mature into jhana—things like one-pointedness and bliss—become quite noticeable. This is your first major attainment. It is a state on the brink of genuine jhana. It is called “access” concentration because it is the doorway to the real thing.

Concentration is still unsteady but your mind keeps trying and it is getting easier. You fluctuate between your calm focus and your inner dialogue. You are still open to your senses. You hear and feel in the normal way, but it is off in the background. The breath is a dominant thought—an object, a thing—but it is not your sole focus. Strong feelings of zest or delight set in. Although weak, feelings of happiness, satisfaction, and a special state of nonpreference called equanimity begin to arise. They will mature.

Your attention touches the breath repeatedly, strikes at it, flicks away and then begins to dwell upon it. You may feel lightness or floating. In the mind’s eye you may see shimmering forms or flickers of light. These are not visual phenomena in the eyes. These phenomena are totally in the mind.

This is the realm of visions. If a deity or an entity is ever going to speak to you, this is where it will happen. Your normal thought patterns are being disrupted and deep imagery can come forth. Your visions may be beautiful or terrifying or just strange kaleidoscopic sequences without meaning. Whatever they are, you just let them be there and bring the mind back to the breath. They are nothing special, just more discursive thought in disguise.

Approaching First Jhana

As you approach the first jhana, there is a stage when your attention “sinks into” the meditation subject.

Some teachers place a lot of emphasis on the importance of using the sensation of delight as a tool to enter jhana. They recommend that if you feel this delight only in one location, you should enlarge it. The whole body should be bathed and saturated with the feeling of bliss. This is a physical sensation, though not the kind that you are familiar with in ordinary life. It is similar to an extremely pleasurable sensory phenomenon, though it is far more subtle and gratifying.

You can take control of this feeling and, to some extent, direct it. Once you have learned to concentrate, you can get to the delightful sensation anytime you wish and stay in it as long as we wish. For instance, when doing metta meditation, feelings in the center of the chest may occur. This is usually a very enjoyable feeling of bodily warmth. As soon as it comes, you should let go of the metta practice, place your entire concentration on the sensation and expand it to suffuse the entire body. This physical feeling is similar to the more subtle feelings of joy and bliss in jhana. This feeling can be used as a bridge to allow you to slide naturally into jhana.

When you have taken care of all the hindrances, the breath becomes very subtle. You may not even feel it. You may think it has stopped. But there is nothing to worry about. You are still breathing. When breath becomes subtle enough that it is unnoticeable, your mind focuses on the memory of this subtle breath as your object for gaining concentration.

Watch for the sensation to change into a kind of vivid after-image. Stay with that. Keep at it. Be persistent. This memory may then be replaced with a little spark of light. If so, that becomes your focus of attention. This is a very important moment, the moment just before true concentration. This spark is your signal. You are about to enter jhana.

At the beginning there may be just a fleeting experience that can be very hard to identify. The first time there may be just a strange, indefinable discontinuity that often evokes a startled, “What was that? What just happened?” Do not question such experiences. Any verbalized pondering will just lead you away from the goal. Just stay with your concentration practice. If some strange experience arises that you think might be jhana, pay no attention. When real jhana arises, you will know what it is.

If all goes well, in the next moment after experiencing the spark, you gain genuine jhanic concentration and hold it. There are thoughts of generosity, friendliness, compassion that you have already cultivated by overcoming greed, hatred, and cruelty—though they are not really “thoughts.” You experience just the shadow of the generosity, friendliness, and compassion that are holding greed, hatred, and aversion at bay. The joy, happiness, and concentration in jhana have now restrained drowsiness, restlessness, and doubt.

Even though your concentration in the first jhana is not very deep, you enjoy the freedom from all the hustles and bustles of worldly life. You attain the first jhana with the beautiful pleasant feeling that arises from having restrained hindrances and practicing metta. Your joy and happiness arise from being separated from all your physical worldly activities and from the hindrances that arise from those things. Now you can take a deep breath and relax. You can sit down quietly and enjoy the solitude and peace.

This article is adapted from Bhante Henepola Gunaratana’s book, Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English (Wisdom Publications, 2009) and was first published in 2009 in Buddhadharma.

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, known affectionately as “Bhante G,” was ordained as a Buddhist at age twelve in his native Sri Lanka. In 1968 he was invited to the United States to serve as general secretary of the Buddhist Vihara Society in Washington D.C., where he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from The American University. He is the founder of the Bhavana Society and abbot of its monastery in the Shenandoah Valley. He is the author of Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness and Mindfulness in Plain English.