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Jhana and the Houses of God

Flooding the Dark Night of the Soul with Wholesome States

By Dhammaccariya Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks):

Inyo National Forest

November 13, 2005

(Copyright 2005 all rights reserved)

Passing through difficult times on the spiritual journey is common for those moving toward the spiritual awakening.  Saint John of the Cross called these difficult times the "Dark Night of the Soul."  The Buddha talked about obstacles on the path (magga).  He said it was important to relinquish what he called "akusala-s‡dh‡rana," which means "unwholesome mental states," and "Upakkilesa" which means imperfections or impurities, which are the Dark Night of the Soul within a Buddhist context. 

The Buddha proposed countering the Unwholesome States with wholesome states, which he called "Brahma Vihara," which literally means the "House of God." Mahayanist Buddhists call these wholesome mental states "Bodhichitta," which literally means the "Mind of Buddha." It seems reasonable to accept that those who are going through dark times could be aided by actively cultivating wholesome mental states to counteract the unwholesome states of the Dark Night.

Before one begins to cultivate wholesome states one must have at least begun the essential self-examination process of the personal inventory, which is the purification process that Siddhartha Gotama, Pata–jali and many other mystics within a Vedic context used the term 'Visuddhi.' Visuddhi means 'purification' and purification in a Vedic context is simply learning to recognize the unwholesome states, and learning to let go of them. Once one has begun the purification process of rooting out the unwholesome aspects of the psyche, then the cultivation of the wholesome states is assured, otherwise the effort would be futile. How can one understand what is wholesome before one has understood what is unwholesome? 

Cultivating Wholesome Mental States:

One of the keys to tapping into the desirable mental states is to understand they come in order.  And, it is often suggest that one begin with generosity, even though it is not on the list.  This recommendation I believe is sound. The reasoning is as follows: How can one be selfish, depressed or lonely if one is thinking of the welfare of others?

From the egalitarian position of generosity (dana) one will automatically find Loving Kindness (Metta/maitrî).  Once one is established in Loving Kindness most often one will then find compassion (Karuna) will bloom forth. From compassion will arise sympathetic joy (Mudita), and from sympathetic Joy will come equanimity (Upekkha/upekæâñâä).  One should keep in mind that one will be benefited if one does not obsess upon a single wholesome state, such as loving kindness (Metta/maitrî).  It is best to work on cultivating all of the wholesome states, not just one.

There are five basic methods typically taught for the cultivation of the wholesome states. The first and most common method for cultivation of the wholesome states is to think about them. The second most common method is to repeat the word, mantra-like, for the desired wholesome state.  The third method is to reflect upon them in meditation.  The fourth and less common is to embody them. The fifth and least common, but most effective, method is to enter into meditative absorption, and while in absorption use the arising wholesome states to saturate and pervade oneself with that which is the source of what is wholesome. Ideally one might engage in any, if not all of these methods at one time or another in one's contemplative life.

Method # 1, directing ones attention to the wholesome states:

The general recommendation for cultivating the wholesome states is to think about them. How this level of the practice works is through the mindfulness of the unwholesome states that one acquires through the practice of the personal inventory one develops the ability to be aware of one's mental state at all times.  When an unwholesome mental state arises one simply acknowledges that arisen unwholesome state, then one directs one's attention to a desired wholesome state by simply directing one's mind and attention to that wholesome state over and over again. This method involves simply directing one's attention to the wholesome states throughout the day. 

Method # 2, repeating the word for a wholesome state, mantra-like:

If one were going to take this method it would be best to repeat the word for the aspired state from one's native language instead of from a so-called sacred language that is not one's native language. The reason for this is the psyche is going to recognize the words from one's native language at a deeper level, than a non-native sacred language such as Pali, Sanskrit, Latin or Hebrew.  Thus one simply fills one's mind space with the repeated word, such as "generosity" or "loving kindness," etc.

Method # 3, reflecting upon the wholesome states in meditation:

Using the wholesome states as a meditation object is not much different than the above two methods, except one actually takes the method into the formal practice of meditation. Therefore this method is the next most effective method for the cultivation of the wholesome states. It can begin with using a word for a wholesome state as a mantra, but it can include reflecting upon the state, and conducting a mental projection of that state, first in one's being, then to a friend, then to an enemy, then to the whole Earth, etc.

If one already has a meditation object, such as a mantra, or the following of the breath, which the Buddha called "Anapanasati," then it is certainly acceptable and even useful to tie the meditation object to the practice of cultivating the Wholesome Mental States.  To do this one first simply establishes as deep a state as one can with one's meditation object, then at the point one feels deepest in meditation one can begin the practice of reflecting upon the wholesome states, while still maintaining the meditation object.  If doing both practices becomes stressful or distracting, then one can let go of the meditation object if necessary, or return to the meditation object, then when stability is reestablished then return once again to the wholesome mental state as an additional meditation object. This method is not ideal for a beginner at meditation.  This method is best for someone who is well established in his or her meditation practice. As skillfulness develops in one's contemplative practice one can find carrying both objects simultaneously very useful.

An excellent variation on this method is to use the four corner stones or paths to mindfulness for the cultivation of the wholesome states.  The four paths to mindfulness are expressed in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta and the Satipatthana Sutta. In this method one brings forth the desired wholesome state then, while holding that state present one allows it to permeate and suffuse the four cornerstones of awareness, which is the body, the senses, the mental activity and the psyche.

Method # 4, embodying the wholesome states

The fourth and less common method of cultivating the wholesome states, but a more effective method, is to embody them. I find the "radio station" metaphor is an effective way to express this method.  In this metaphor one thinks of the mind as a radio station.  Simply put one learns to "dial in" one of the wholesome states, such as compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy or equanimity.  And, the unwholesome states of depression, resentment, loneliness, etc, are "dialed out." 

There is another related metaphor I use for the unwholesome states, upon which we are often fixated.  This metaphor is what I call the "broken record," which is a record with a grove in it.  In this metaphor, when it comes to the unwholesome states, we get stuck, like a record needle in a grove in a broken record.

Now there is a trick in both metaphors.  When calling up a "good station" on one's subjective "radio" it does little good just to think about the wholesome state, because the state is not "embodied" by just thinking about it. To embody a wholesome state all one need do is recall a time when that state arose in one's life.  It works best when one can recall all of the details of the memory of the event.  By recalling as many of the details of the time when one manifested the wholesome quality, one then finds it invoke wholly and completely, which means it is embodied.  I have heard this method is called Cimarron Yoga in some traditions.  In Sufism the term they use for meditation really means to remember, it is called "Dzikr."  I believe where Yoga, Buddhism and Sufism meet is in the cultivation of the wholesome states.

Basically these metaphors function upon the idea of "tuning out" an undesirable mental state and "tuning in" a desirable one. Basically it requires that one develop moment-to-moment mindfulness of one's mental state, as well as a regular practice of cultivating tranquility through some form of silent meditation practice. Anapanasati, or breath observation, comes highly recommended. Once one has in place these basic skills then one can simply begin to work embodying the desirable mental states by tuning out the undesirable and tuning in the desirable. 

If one cannot recall a time when one manifested the desired wholesome state, then it might be possible to recall someone who manifested that wholesome state. All one simply need do is to reflect upon the qualities of someone one knows personally who manifested generosity, or any of the other boundless states.

If one cannot even recall someone who one knows manifested the desired wholesome state, then we can resort to reflecting upon a well known person or saint who manifested the quality. It is a little like the Catholic and Hindu concepts of saint veneration, however, I do not believe there is a need for a formal ritual around the practice. Here, again, recalling every detail of the individual helps a great deal in this practice.

Method # 5, using meditative absorption (jhana) for the cultivation of the wholesome states:

The best and most effective means of embodying the wholesome states is to enter into meditative absorption, and while in absorption use the arising wholesome states to saturate and pervade oneself with that which is the source of what is wholesome. In the Tevijja Sutta the Buddha said that it was the meditative absorption states that actually lead to the wholesome mental states. He further suggested using the meditative absorption states for cultivating the wholesome mental states.

Tevijja Sutta (DN 13.75-78)
75 Éwhen these five hindrances are abandoned in himself, he regards it as being without debt, good health, release from prison, freedom, a place of security. Seeing that they have been abandoned within him, he becomes glad. Glad, he becomes enraptured. Enraptured, his body grows tranquil. His body tranquil, he is sensitive to bliss (piti). Feeling bliss (piti), his mind becomes absorbed.
"Quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, he enters and remains in the first absorption (jhana): bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born from withdrawal, accompanied by applied and sustained attention (vitakka and vic‡ra). He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born from withdrawal.
76. And he lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of Loving Kindness (metta) and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, and everywhere, does he continue to pervade with heart of Loving Kindness (metta), far-reaching, grown great, and beyond measure.
77. 'Just, Vàseññha, as a mighty trumpeter makes himself heard-and that without difficulty-in all the four directions; even so of all things that have shape or life, there is not one that he passes by or leaves aside, but regards them all with mind set free, and deep-felt Loving Kindness (metta).
'Verily this, Vàseññha, is the way to a state of union with Brahmˆ.
78. 'And he lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of Compassion (Karuna) Sympathetic Joy (Mudita), equanimity (Upekkha), and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, and everywhere, does he continue to pervade with heart of Compassion (Karuna)ÉSympathetic Joy (Mudita), . . . equanimity (Upekkha), far-reaching, grown great, and beyond measure.

Just because the fifth method of cultivating the wholesome states from meditative absorption (jhana) is more effective, does not mean that one should not employ all of the methods mentioned above. Ideally one might engage in any, if not all of these methods, at one time or another in one's contemplative life.  Also, one should always keep in mind that there are a number of wholesome states, not just one.  So do work on cultivating all of the wholesome states.

In conclusion one should not be too concerned about unpleasant mental states because they arise, like anything else, and like everything else they are impermanent and therefore subside. Also, the closer one gets to awakening, the deeper the darkness. Remember, both Siddhartha Gotama, as well as Jesus of Nazareth, had intensely unpleasant visions just prior to their enlightenment experience. So, take heart when the darkness comes, because, as they say, "it is always darkest before the dawn."

May you become enlightened in this very lifetime.

Dhammaccariya Sotapanna (stream winner) Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

the Great Western Vehicle


Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118) "Mindfulness of the breath"

Commitment as a Refuge, Dark Night of the Soul in Buddhism (January 1, 2003)

The Five Hindrances (nivarana) to Enlightenment:

Kayagata-sati Sutta (MN 119) "Mindfulness of the Body"

Mahàassapura Sutta (MN 39)

Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22), "Larger Discourse on the Four Paths of Mindfulness"

Makhadeva Sutta (MN 83.6)

Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) "Larger Discourse on the Four Paths of Mindfulness"

Tevijja Sutta (DN 13.75-78)

Understanding the Unwholesome States, The Darkness of the Dark Night

Virtue, Understanding What is a Wholesome State

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation by Jhanananda

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