Jhana As An Emptying Process

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

Compiled by Jayaram V

Summary: In a broader sense the practice of jhanas is a transformative, renunciatory practice only in which you ultimately renounce and empty the mind to overcome the turbulence of the mind.

The Pali word jhana is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana. In Buddhism it refers to a contemplative practice as well as a state of mind or awareness. Knowledge and practice of jnana’s are deemed important to attain restful states and deeper states of awareness, which culminate in Nirvana. The Buddha prescribed it as a transformative and purification practice, in which the mind progresses through several stages of cleansing and modification until it settles in one pointed mental absorption.

For the aspirants of nirvana on the Eightfold Path, the mind is a major obstacle to attain prajna or insightful awareness. It is the source of suffering, the seat of suffering and the source of thoughts and feelings which produce suffering. It is also filled with many impurities which produce afflictions(klesas) and make it difficult for anyone to tame it and experience peace and stability. The practice of jhana aims to resolve this problem on a lasting basis.

The Buddha identified five progressive states of meditation or jhanas. Depending upon which jhanas you have mastered, you can determine your progress. The mind is subject to many problems and obstacles. Overcoming them to harness its hidden potentials and states of awareness is an important aim of the jhana practice. It is essentially an emptying process, in which in the first phase you empty the mind of its negative qualities and propensities which are largely responsible for its tumultuous and unstable nature and its numerous weaknesses. In the next phase, you also gradually empty its positive qualities, since from a nirvanic point of view they are still problematic, so that in the end you are left with nothing but an empty mind which is tranquil and absorbed in itself.

Thus, in a broader sense the practice of jhanas is a transformative, renunciatory practice only in which you ultimately renounce and overcome the mind itself which is a major hindrance to attaining the Buddha nature. The ultimate aim of Jhana is the same as that of the Eightfold Path, which is to attain Nirvana through wisdom, awareness and discernment. Hence the knowledge of various Jhanas (meditative states) and their mastery are crucial to attain the goal of Nirvana on the Eightfold Path. If you do not practice Buddhism, you may still use it as an important spiritual tool to gain control over your mind and its movements.

With this understanding, let us explore how a Buddhist monk on the Eightfold Path progresses from one meditative state or awareness (jhana) to another and progressively attains peace, mental absorption (samadhi) and unified consciousness. We have to mention the Eightfold Path in conjunction with Jhanas, because Jhanas cannot be practiced in isolation. There must be a corresponding purification of the mind and body and improvement in one's thinking and behavior to establish the mind firmly in each jhana. It is possible only through an all-round development on the Eightfold Path.  In classical Yoga also we follow a similar model. There, yogis practice rules and restraints (yamas and niyamas) to attain perfection in the other six limbs.

The Buddha described the first Jhana as a mixture of rapture and pleasure arising from the withdrawal of the mind from mundane matters, accompanied by critical and evaluative thinking. It is achieved by overcoming imperfections and weaknesses and attaining perfections and strengths. The Buddhist texts respectively mention them as hindrances and possessions. They are five each. The five hindrances are sensuality (kama), negativity (vyapada), inertia or delusion (thina and middha), excitement and depression (uddhacha and kukkuca) and skepticism (vicikiccha), which are responsible for the unstable and tumultuous nature of the mind.

The five perfections are logical thinking (vitarka), evaluative thinking (vichara), one pointedness (ekagrata), rapture (priti) and happiness (sukham). A monk attains the first jhana by gradually withdrawing the mind and senses from worldly objects, worldly pleasures, attachment to material things, sensuality and inimical qualities. These efforts lead to right view, right intention and right concentration on the Eightfold Path and settle the mind in tranquility and resolve.

The Buddha described the second jhana as the stillness of the mind which arises from the suppression of all forms of thought including the logical and evaluative thinking. Since he has already shed the hindrances in the first jhana, he is now left with just three perfections or possessions only namely one pointedness, rapture and happiness. As a result, the monk now experiences positive states of mind as he remains rapturous, happy and contended as his mind is now unified and free from conflicting and stressful thoughts and feelings.

In the third jhana, rapture also fades away as the mind remains balanced, equanimous, mindful and attentive to pleasure and pleasant feelings. This happens as he renounces rapture and becomes indifferent to it, considering it to be a form of suffering and mental disturbance only. With that, he now retains only two of the five mental possessions namely one pointedness and happiness or pleasure. In the fourth jhana he abandons happiness also and abides in one pointedness only.

For peace and tranquility, the mind cannot be divested of one pointedness. Hence, the monk resorts to it to enter the fifth and final state of jhana in which the mind becomes absorbed in itself without the duality of subject and object, and enters the unified state of awareness or pure consciousness, which is empty in itself, aware of itself, mindful of itself and devoid of perception, non-perception, qualities and impurities. It is the indistinct samadhi, the state of Nirvana.

Thus, you can see that the practice jhana is a transformative practice in which the formations and modifications of the mind are gradually arrested and discarded to attain unified and empty consciousness. In the early stages, you discard the unwholesome qualities of the mind or hindrances. In the first jhana, you replace them with five positive qualities. In the second jhana, you discard two of the five. In the third one, you discard, the rapture, and in the fourth you discard pleasure. In the end, you are left with only one quality, which is one-pointedness. Using it as the support, you enter the final state of pure consciousness or unified awareness.

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