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Buddhadharma : Winter 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly winter 2 0 09 60 The Taste of Liberation The jhanas, says Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, are powerful mental states offering practitioners a window onto the experience of enlightenment. In his new book, Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, he explains how even relatively new practitioners can start to enter these states through deep concentration meditation. 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, how- ever. 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 com- pletely unaware. That too is not jhana, at least not what Bud- dhism 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. PaintinGs By susanna snodGrass 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 feel- ing 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 free- dom from all the mental and emotional woes that plague us. However, the jhanas are not that total freedom; they are tem- porary 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, suf- fering, 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