How the Meditative Absorption States (jhanas)
Figure into Buddhist Psychology.
Or, Purification within a Buddhist Context
Abandoning the Five Clinging Aggregates (Skhandas) of Cognition,
The Five Hindrances (nivarana) and the 10 Fetters (samyojana)
June 05, 2005
(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)
Within a Buddhist context it is the hindrances (nivarana) to Enlightenment [desire (kamacchandra, Ill-will or aversion (vyapada), Restlessness and ethics (uddhacca-kukkucca), Sloth and Torpor (thina-middha), Doubt (vicikiccha); and the fetters (samyojana) that drive the ethical system of Buddhism. Every culture has an ethical system, such as the 10 Commandments and the Buddhist 8 Fold Path and their 5 Precepts, or the Hindu concept of Ahimsa. While it seems reasonable to acknowledge that aspects of morality are too often culturally biased, there are fundamental aspects of morality (what Buddhists call sila) that apply across cultural boundaries. Those aspects of human behavior that we call "essential moral behavior" seem to correspond to an avoidance of harm. These concepts are most likely intended to inspire one to avoid harm whenever possible. Harmlessness is most often interpreted as to not only avoiding harm to other humans, but other creatures, as well as to oneself.
The Five Hindrances (nivarana) to Enlightenment
|2||vyapada||Ill-will or aversion|
|3||uddhacca-kukkucca||Restlessness and scruples (anxiety)|
|4||thina-middha||Sloth and Unconsciousness|
A classic example of what we now accept as a cultural contrivance is the pre-Buddhist and pre-Christian practice of animal sacrifice that almost every religion and culture practiced intensively prior to the emergence and dominance of Buddhism and Christianity. In the classics, such as the Ramayana, Old Testament, Homer's Odyssey, and Virgil's Aeneid, we find animal sacrifice was considered by the early Hindus, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans to be essential religious, moral and ethical behavior. Now many of us, especially those following a Christian, Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu based spiritual model today, consider animal sacrifice amoral behavior, even though the American barbecue is a common enough and highly regarded cultural past-time in the USA.
What is common among the monastic traditions of the world is a belief that if the monk or nun simply emulates the life of his or her religion's progenitor that she or he will succeed in his or her monastic efforts. It is also a common belief among those traditions that teach the contemplative life, that one must first demonstrate sufficient ethical behavior before being initiated into the "deeper mysteries" of that tradition. While agreeably it is indispensable for the seeker to lead a life that is dedicated to ethics, it is clear through examining the notorious misbehaviors among some monastics and well-known teachers in every religion and tradition of the world that simple emulation is not enough.
It has been this contemplative's experience that while he was dedicated to an ethical life, he had of course plenty of weaknesses, like everyone else. And, it was through leading a contemplative life that he was in a sense fortified in his spiritual journey, as well as in his effort to lead an ethical life. In fact he has found the more he becomes saturated in the absorptions states the less he has an interest in the objects of the senses. Upon studying the Discourse of the Buddha this contemplative finds his personal experiences are supported by the Buddhist canon.
The historic Buddha often recommended to his monastic and lay disciples to cultivate the absorption states (jhanas/dhyanas) as a desirable pleasure to be cultivated (MN 139), because the jhanas are a wholesome state that would afford one "the joyful home of the way" (Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa) (MN 66). In fact he defined his Noble Eight Fold Path based upon jhana/dhyana (DN 22). He said cultivating jhana was a Noble, correct, true or right effort (MN 101). He said it was jhana that burned or destroyed the hindrances (SN 9.53). He even said that those who cultivate jhana are the "chief, the best the foremost, the highest, the most excellent of... meditators" (SN 34), because those who cultivate jhana are moving toward nibbana (SN 9.53). Thus they are developing a superhuman state (lokuttara) (MN 31). And, since the jhanas destroyed the hindrances (SN 9.53), then 4 of the 10 fetters are destroyed, and no doubt the remaining 6 are "burned up" as well.
In the process of our spiritual development within a Buddhist context we will encounter three basic aspects of the personality that prevent us from making progress. They are the aggregates of cognition, the 5 "lower fetters" the 5 "higher fetters", and the hindrances. The 5 "lower fetters" are those aspects of the self that drive us to material existence, what are Narcissism, or a sense of self; doubt regarding that there is in fact on other way of being other than a material creature, clinging to ritualized or habitual behavior, desire for sensory stimulation and aversion. According to the Buddha it is this suite of psychological behaviors that keep returning ot physical form over and over again.
5 Lower Fetters (orambhagiya-samyojana) tying beings to the wheel of existence:
|3||silabbata-paramasa||Clinging to rules, rights and rituals|
|4||kama-raga||Desire for sensuality|
|5||vyapada||Ill-will or aversion|
The Mahamalunkya Sutta (MN 64.9) says that we can free ourselves of the 5 "lower fetters" by cultivating the meditative absorption states (jhanas). The meditative absorption states require a mental state that is free of clinging, and it is through cultivating this clinging free state that the absorption states deepen. And, the pleasure component within the meditative absorption states is so great that we are motivated to continue deepening the absorptions state.
Mahamalunkya Sutta (MN 64.9)
The Greater Discourse to Malunkyaputta7. The Blessed One said, "There is a path, Ananda, a way to the abandoning of the five lower fetters; that someone, by relying upon that path, on that way, shall know and see and abandon the five lower fetters-this is possible..."9. "And, what, Ananda, is the path, the way to the abandoning of the five lower fetters? Here, with seclusion from acquisitions, with the abandoning of unwholesome states, with the complete tranquilization of the bodily inertia, quite secluded from sensual pleasure, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhana...(through 8th jhana).
Purification within a Buddhist context also means the relinquishing of the aggregates (skhandas) of cognition. The aggregates of cognition are a sense of body, sensory stimulation, perception, mental structures and cognition. In Buddhist philosophy these aggregates of cognition are the hooks upon which our ego depends upon for its very existence. And, in Dependent Origination we see the Buddha formulate how the aggregates of cognition form our sense of self and perpetuate our continued cycle of rebirth.
The Five Aggregates (khandas/skhandas) of Cognition that cause the arising and passing away of mental structures (pancha-upadana-skhanda):
|Body, matter, physical form||rupa|
|2||Sensuality, sensory stimuli||vedana|
|4||Mental structures, states and objects||sa˝khara|
Further on in the Mahamalunkya Sutta (MN 64.9) we also see that the Jhanas are also useful for the abandoning the five clinging aggregates (skhandas) of cognition.
Mahamalunkya Sutta (MN 64.9)
The Greater Discourse to Malunkyaputta15. "Whatever exists therein of (sensing), perception, (cognitive structures), and (cognition), he sees those states as impermanent (anicca), as suffering (dukkha), as a disease, as a tumor, as a barb, as a calamity, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as void, as not self (anatta). He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element thus: 'This is the peaceful, this is the sublime,' that is, the stilling of all cognitive structures, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of all craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbana.(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995, 2001)
The final stage of purification within a Buddhist context is when we begin to relinquish the 5 "higher fetters." The 5 "higher fetters" are: craving for material existence; craving for immaterial existence; conceit and ignorance. Craving for material existence is wanting to have a body with its five senses to explore aphysical world in. Craving for immaterial existence means wanting to exist in a paradise or angelic realm. Conceit is simply the sense of being a separate self. Restlessness is simply not being tranquil. And, ignorance is not understanding the way, truth and life of freedom from the cycle of existence.
5 Higher Fetters (uddhambhagiya-samyojana)
|rupa-raga||Craving for material existence|
|arupa-raga||Craving for immaterial existence|
We find in the Jhanasamyutta SN 9.53 that the meditative absorption states (jhanas) are also used for freeing oneself from the five higher fetters as well. So it seems that according to the Buddha, the meditative absorption states (jhanas) were a kind of "cure-all" that solved all of our spiritual and emotional problems.
Jhanasamyutta SN 9.53"Bhikkhus, there are these five higher fetters. What five? Lust for form, lust for the formless, conceit, restlessness, ignorance. These are the five higher fetters. The four absorptions (jhanas) are to be developed for direct knowledge of these five higher fetters, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning."(Samyutta Nikaya trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom, 2000)
It seems reasonably to conclude that one who is an authentic enlightened being would be saturated in jhana and thus not manifest the five hindrances the five clinging aggregates or the 10 fetters to existence. Thus such a one would not manifest the Seven Deadly Sins either (Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed and Sloth) because the Seven Deadly Sins are nothing other than obsessive compulsive behavior disorders. So, let us not assume one who has given rise to the meditative absorption states is "addicted to bliss states" but is someone who has negotiated purification within a Buddhist context.
Anenjasappaya Sutta (MN 106.13)
The Way to the Imperturbable2. "Bhikkhus, sensual pleasures are impermanent, hollow, false, deceptive; they are illusory, the prattle of fools. Sensual pleasures here and now and sensual pleasures in lives to come, sensual perceptions here and now and sensual perceptions in lives to come-both alike are Mara's realm, Mara's domain, Mara's bait, Mara's hunting ground. On account of them, these evil unwholesome mental states; such as covetousness, ill will, and presumption; arise and they constitute an obstruction to a noble disciple in training here.3. "Therein, bhikkhus, a noble disciple considers thus: 'Sensual pleasures here and now and sensual pleasures in lives to come, sensual perceptions here and now and sensual perceptions in lives to come constitute an obstruction to a noble disciple in training here. Suppose I were to abide with a mind abundant and exalted (jhana), having transcended the world and made a firm determination with the mind. When I do so there will be no more evil unwholesome mental states, such as covetousness, ill will, and presumption in me, and with the abandoning of them my mind acquires confidence in this (foundation). Once there is full confidence, he either attains to the imperturbable now or else he resolves [upon it] with wisdom. On the dissolution of the body, after death, it is possible that the evolving consciousness may pass on [to rebirth] in the imperturbable. This, bhikkhus, is declared to be the first way directed to the imperturbable.13. "...Perceptions of the imperturbable, perceptions of the base of nothingness, and perceptions of the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception-this is identity as far as identity extends. This is the deathless, namely, the liberation of the mind through not clinging.(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995, 2001)Pasadika Sutta (DN 29)The Delightful Discourse25. Then such wanderers might ask: "Well then, those who are given to these four forms of pleasure-seeking - how many fruits, how many benefits can they expect?" And, you should reply: "They can expect four fruits, four benefits. What are they? The first is when a monk by destruction of three fetters has become a Stream-Winner, no more subject to rebirth in lower worlds, firmly established, destined for full enlightenment; the second is when a monk by the complete destruction of three fetters and the reduction of greed, hatred and delusion, has become a Once-Returner, and having returned once more to this world, will put an end to suffering; the third is when a monk, by the destruction of the corruptions in this very life has, by his own knowledge and realization, attained Arahantship, to the deliverance of heart and through wisdom. Such are the four fruits and the four benefits that one given to these four forms of pleasure-seeking can expect."a translation from the Pali byMaurice Walshe, Wisdom Publications, Boston 1987, 1995
Aranavibhanga Sutta, MN 139
(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli & Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995)
Jhanasamyutta, SN 34
(Bodhi, Bhikkhu trans., Samyutta Nikaya Wisdom, 2000)
Culagosinga Sutta, MN 31
(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli & Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995)Mahamalunkya Sutta (MN 64.9)
(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995, 2001)
(Samyutta Nikaya trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom, 2000)
Anenjasappaya Sutta (MN 106.13)
(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995, 2001)
Pasadika Sutta (DN 29)
The Delightful Discourse
a translation from the Pali by
Maurice Walshe, Wisdom Publications, Boston 1987, 1995
I can only hope that I have been of some small benefit to you and others. I seek not to cause harm, but only to benefit all beings with every thought word and action. And, if I have inadvertently caused harm, then I only seek your forgiveness and the forgiveness of the others I may have harmed.
If one diligently engages in the contemplative life one will become enlightened in this very life-time,
Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
Originally posted Fri, Aug 15, 2003 7:53 am on the Jhana Support Group
This version (updated 06-05-05) may be retrieved at this URL: