October 16, 2004
By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)
While the absorption states (jhanas) are frequently mentioned in the suttas, there seems to be a considerable amount of debate over what actually constitutes absorption. The list below is typically how they are described in the suttas:
The Four Material Ecstasies, meditative absorption states (rupa jhanas) "samprajana-samadhi" where there is awareness of the material senses:
1- The first jhana (Bliss) contains 5 jhana factors and 1 factor of enlightenment, the 6th factor (Piti) is acquired:
|applied or initiating attention|
2- Second jhana (Tranquility) with no attention or Vitakka & Vicára needed, contains 4 jhana factors and 2 factors of enlightenment, the 3rd factor (Passaddhi) is acquired:
|avitakka ca aicara||no applied or sustained attention|
3- Third jhana (Equanimity) contains 5 jhana factors and 3 factors of enlightenment, the 5th factor of enlightenment (Upekkha) is acquired:
4- Fourth jhana [freedom from joy and suffering (asukha and adukkha)] contains 4 jhana factors and 3 factors of enlightenment:
|Asukha ca Adukkha||no pleasure & no pain|
Transitional phase absorption (nerupajhana-nearupajhana) between material (rupa) an immaterial (arupa) absorption (jhana), where OOBs and luminous orbs appear. No sensory stimuli "contact" contains 7 jhana factors:
|Asukha ca Adukkha||no pleasure & no pain|
No sensory stimuli
|viriya, vîrya, kundalini||Energy, lit. 'virility', vigor|
The Four Immaterial Attainments trances or raptures (nonmaterial absorptions) (arupa-jhanas) (Jhanas 5-8) "asamprajnata" or "nirvikalpa-samadhi." where there is no awareness of the material senses:
|5th jhana||Sphere of Infinite Space||Akasanancayatana||Absorption or union (yoga) with infinite space, or a God of infinite dimension|
|6th jhana||Sphere of Infinite Consciousness||Vinnananaacayatana||Absorption or union (yoga) with the infinite consciousness of God, or absorption into infinite being, Indra's net of jewels (Mahayana Buddhism), Vishnu's Ocean of Milk (Hinduism), Devekut with the Shekhinah (Kabbalah).|
|7th jhana||The Sphere of No-Thingness||Akincannayatana||Absorption or union (yoga) with the Infinite such that he or she cannot distinguish between either this nor that, neither self nor other, neither self nor god. "I am That" Tat Twam Assi.|
||The Sphere of Neither-Perception-nor-non-perception||Nevasannanasannnayatana||Cessation (nibbana/nirvana) union (yoga) with the Infinite in which there is no sensible dimension, blackness, the full enlightenment or annihilation (fana).|
Other absorption states not apparently described in the Buddha's Discourses
|1||absorption or union (yoga) with infinite time, or a God of infinite time,|
I have found the central conflict between the various schools of thought on absorption centers upon whether the first four absorptions (rupa-jhanas) are lucid nonmaterial realities that fully efface the material senses, or whether the material absorptions are simply a subjective experience that does not fully efface the material senses.
I have found that very few commentaries seem to grasp the central definitions of these four ecstasies (absorptions). In fact the commentaries tend to lean toward a belief that the first four absorptions completely efface the physical senses. I have certainly not found that in my meditation practice, nor do I see anything in the description of the absorptions in the Buddha suttas leading one to believe that.
I believe the key to understanding the four material absorption states is that they are material (rupa). I believe this should be clear enough that the material senses are still active during the first four absorptions, as I have found they are during my meditations at this level. So, let me clarify the key components of the 4 material absorptions, so those seeking verification in their subjective experiences will be able to understand which stage of ecstasy (jhana) one has entered upon.
(Pali-Rupa-Jhanas) (Sanskrit- Samprajana-Samadhi)
The first absorption (jhana) is characterized simply by the arising of a pleasurable sensation, which is bliss (piiti), as a consequence of a meditation technique. I have found the Pali term "piiti" is too often translated as "rapture" however rapture is a Christian contemplative term for a nonmaterial absorption or trance and is often used to describe the experience of being transported, such as in an Out-of-body (OOB) experience, which the Buddha called manomaya or mind-made body. So, we should really reject the term "rapture" as a translation for the Pali term "piiti."
So, what constitutes bliss (piiti)? I believe bliss is the "pleasant abiding in the here and now" (Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa) that is "not born of sensory stimulation" (sense contact) that is the jhanas that the Buddha described having arrived at. And, I believe that pleasant abiding is the jhana-nimitta, or characteristic signs of absorption that have been discussed in an earlier article.
The second jhana is characterized by being able to sustain that pleasant sensation of bliss (piiti) and joy (sukha) without the need of maintaining a concentration technique. Here is where I must now clarify another error that has been made by modern translators of the Pali canon. The first two jhanas are defined by the Buddha in part through the use of two Pali terms that he is said to have used, 'vitakka' and 'vicara'. In the translations of the Pali canon 'vitakka' and 'vicara' are too often translated as "applied and sustained thought" or "thinking and reasoning" etc. This must be an error in translation, because I assure you no one has ever entered into absorption through "applied and sustained thinking." It is in fact through the cessation of the cognitive processes, such as thinking and reasoning that one enters into and progresses through the ecstasies (absorptions).
The correct translation of the Pali terms 'vitakka' and 'vicara' with respect to the absorptions (jhanas) must be "applied and sustained attention or sustained application of a concentration technique." This is in fact the very definition of concentration as native speakers of English use that term.
This now brings us to another common error in translation of the Pali canon into English. The Sanskrit and Pali term "samadhi" is often inaccurately translated as "concentration." I believe the Sanskrit and Pali term "Samadhi" is more correctly translated as "absorption" or "ecstasy." The reason for this clarification is the ecstasies (jhanas) are an altered state of consciousness that one enters into from the skillful application of a concentration technique, not simply an intense level of concentration.
There is one more key characteristic of the second stage of absorption (jhana) and that is the arising of tranquility. In Pali tranquility is called "Passaddhi." Tranquility is simply the arising of a calm and still mind, or what Zen practitioners often call "No Mind." It is the ending or the cessation of discursive thought, which is the ending of the internal verbal conversational stream.
The third ecstasy (jhana) is defined by the arising of equanimity. The Pali term for equanimity is "Upekkha." Equanimity is often interpreted as ambivalence, however that is also in error. In my experience equanimity is a subjective state in which the mind does not cling to sensory phenomena. When one is in equanimity sensory phenomena is simply observed on face value, it is not cogitated upon, noted or reacted to. But, this does not mean that one is ambivalent to sensory phenomena or that the senses are completely effaced, they are simply observed without perception, thinking and reasoning being involved, thus thinking and reasoning fall away by the second stage of absorption and perception falls away by the third stage of absorption.
In the fourth ecstasy (jhana) one arrives at a place where neither pleasant, nor unpleasant phenomena, is reacted to. In this place one could have a root cannel drilled by the dentist with little pain. I have found in this subjective state one can even pass kidney stones without analgesias. I have found at this stage of absorption the pictorial stream falls away as well, and the mind is left very still and calm.
In summary of the material absorption, once one enters absorption, the concentration technique is no longer needed, if one is engaged in a technique, then one, by definition, is still in the first absorption (jhana), because vitakka and Vicara (applied and sustained concentration of the awareness upon an object) is still active. Also, the cognitive processes of thinking and reasoning, and perception, as well as the notion of pleasant and unpleasant are eventually suspended.
The Non-material Absorption
(Pali, Arupa-Jhanas) (Sanskrit, Asamprajata-Samadhi)
In my experience of the ecstasies (jhanas) the first four absorptions (rupa-jhanas) are simply a subjective experience that does not fully efface the material senses. On the other hand I have found the nonmaterial absorptions (arupa-jhanas) are lucid nonmaterial realities that fully efface the material senses, thus the terms "rapture" or "trance" is an appropriate term to use for these states of awareness.
The Vedas discuss two basic stages of absorption, they are called "samprajana-samadhi" and "asamprajata-samadhi." The concept of the materiel absorptions is expressed by the Sanskrit terms "samprajana-samadhi," which is articulated in the yoga sutras as an ecstasy where there is still object-consciousness. In other terms there is still some awareness of the physical senses. The non-material absorption is called "asamprajata-samadhi," where there is no longer any object-consciousness, or awareness of the material senses.
We can therefore conclude that the pivotal difference between the material absorptions and the nonmaterial absorptions is simply the lucid effacement of the material senses in the nonmaterial absorptions, while maintaining awareness, and of course the experience of one of the 5 above states of unification (yoga) with infinite dimensions of time, space and awareness in the 5th through 7th absorptions (jhanas), or the complete effacement of self identification in the 8th absorption (jhana), or the complete effacement of all sensory phenomena in the 9th absorption (jhana) that is nibbana (s. nirvana).
The fifth stage of absorption or fifth jhana, is absorption or union (yoga) with infinite space, or a God of infinite dimension. Buddhism tends to be a non-theistic religion, so that they tend to describe things within non-theistic terms, but one can readily see that if one were to enter into a subjective state in which the physical sensory experience is completely suspended, and one finds one"s awareness expanded to the fringes of the physical universe, then one who comes from a theistic point of view would tend to interpret that experience within a theistic framework.
The sixth absorption (jhana) or union (yoga) is with infinite time, or a God of infinite time. This subjective state is the lucid experience of one"s awareness expanding into the fringe of time, such that one experiences the creation and destruction of the physical universe. One returns from such an experience feeling ancient, or billions of years old.
The seventh absorption (jhana) or union (yoga) with infinite consciousness, or a God of infinite being, has also been described in Buddhism as "Indra's Net of Jewels," or in Vaishnava Hinduism as Krishna reclining on his Ocean of Milk. The Ocean of Milk in Hinduism is equivalent to our Milky Way. It is the mass of stars that is our galaxy. In mystic Judaism (Kabbalah) this experience is called "Devekut with the Shekhinah." The Hebrew term "Devekut" in Kabbalah means, "Mystical cleaving to God." The concept of cleaving to God is as close as Judaism is willing to admit a mystic can experience the unification experience. The Hebrew term "Shekhinah" means "God's presence" or the "body of God," and is often expressed as a shining coat of "sparks." The "sparks" are the 144,000 souls that make up the "body" of God. Thus "Devekut with the Shekhinah" means to "cleave to the body of God," which is the many stars of heaven (space).
The eighth absorption (jhana) or union (yoga) with God is such that he or she cannot distinguish between either this nor that, neither self nor other, neither self nor god. This idea of such self-effacement that one cannot tell between self and other was described by Moses as "I am That, that I am." In Advaita Vedanta almost the exact same concept is revealed in "Tat Twam Assi," which is often translated as "I am That." In Islamic Sufism the concept of complete self-effacement is expressed in the Arabic term "fana," which is often translated as "annihilation."
In Buddhism there is still another level of absorption beyond utter self-effacement. It is not typically called a jhana. Instead the 9th stage of absorption is called Nibbana (S. Nirvana). Nibbana is typically translated as cessation. In Hinduism this is called Nirvikalpa Samadhi, or union (yoga) with a God in which there is no sensible dimension. The experience is one of utter blackness, where there is no sensible object of any kind, in any sense. One is simply awareness in a dimensionless domain.
May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,
Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)
This updated version, January 03, 2005, can be retrieved at this URL