Ajahn Chah on Jhāna, it’s factors, right samādhi
(from "Stillness Flowing", by Ajahn Jayasaro 2018)
(Ajahn Chah describes First Jhāna)
You have to be really resolute to practice Dhamma. It’s not a light thing. It’s heavy! You have to put your life on the line. A tiger’s going to eat you, an elephant’s going to trample you – then, so be it. You think like that. When you’ve kept your precepts purely, there’s nothing more to worry about: it’s as if you’re already dead. If you die, then it’s as if there’s nothing to die, and so you’re not afraid. This is called the weapon of Dhamma. I’ve been on mountaintops all over the country, and this single weapon of Dhamma has always triumphed. You completely let go. You’re bold. You’re ready to die. You risk your life.
(vitakka and vicāra are “raising a thought and examining it”:)
As I thought about it, I saw how the weapon of the Buddha strengthens the mind. It’s the best of all weapons. I kept reflecting, looking, thinking, seeing. When the mind truly sees, it penetrates things completely: suffering is like this, the cessation of suffering is like this. And so, there’s ease and contentment. Someone who sees suffering but doesn’t penetrate right through it, who’s content with feelings of inner peace – they have no way of knowing this.
If someone is unafraid of death, if they’re ready to give their life, then they won’t die. If you let suffering go beyond suffering, it comes to an end. Comprehend it, see the truth of things, see the nature of things. That has real value: it makes the mind powerful. Do you think it would be possible for such a mind to be afraid of anybody, to be afraid of the forest, to be afraid of wild animals? It is staunch and strong. The heart of a meditation monk is incredibly resolute. Through meditation, anybody who is ready to give their life for the Dhamma develops a mind that is great in size and scope, utterly firm. The ability to let go becomes sublime.
All this is called vitakka: raising something up in the mind, and then vicāra: examining it. These two things keep working together until the matter is fully penetrated. At this point, rapture (pīti) arises in the mind …
(the physical body feels the pleasure of first jhāna)
As I thought of practising walking meditation or of the virtues of the Buddha or the Dhamma, the rapture seeped through my whole body and thoroughly refreshed it. As I sat there, my mind overflowed with joy in my actions – all the obstacles I’d overcome – and my hair stood on end and tears started to fall. I felt even more inspired to struggle and persevere. There was no question of discouragement arising, whatever happened. There was vitakka, vicāra, rapture and a bliss accompanied by awareness. The mind was upheld by the vitakka and vicāra, and stabilized by the bliss. At that moment, you could say it was dependent on the power of absorption (jhāna) if you like, I don’t know. That’s just how it was. If you want to call it absorption, then go ahead. Before long, vitakka and vicāra were abandoned, rapture disappeared and the mind had a single focus (ekaggatā), samādhi was firmly established, and the lucid calm that is a foundation for wisdom had arisen.
So I gained the insight that it’s through practice that knowing and seeing take place. Studying and thinking about it is something else altogether. Even the thoughts and assumptions you make about how things will be are included in the things that you see clearly, and they are revealed to be in contradiction to the way things are.
: In this paragraph Luang Por explains the five mental states that define the first state of deep absorption concentration (jhāna).
(why ajhan chah doesn't like to talk about jhana)
Accurately conveying Luang Por’s meditation teachings is thus somewhat hampered by the unevenness of the body of recorded evidence; some topics are well-covered, others not so well at all. Complications are also caused by the fact that the material that is available is transcribed from instructions given ad hoc and which are reflective of time, place and audience. Luang Por’s response to questions about the importance of the cultivation of jhāna (absorption), for example, varied according to the character and accumulated foundational virtues of the questioner. In other words, if he saw meditators had a well-developed capacity for jhāna, he would encourage it (and it would appear that he considered this the superior path). But if he saw meditators had only a weak capacity, or were getting caught up in the trap of craving for jhāna, he might de-emphasize it. If he saw that meditators possessed strong powers of analysis, he might encourage them to make use of those powers when the mind had gone beyond the hindrances, without waiting for the stabilization of mind provided by jhāna. In this, his teaching paralleled that of his great contemporary, Luang Ta Maha Bua, who coined the phrase: ‘paññā cultivating samādhi’.
While Luang Por saw how important it was for his disciples to acquire a firm foundation of knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings, he also warned against the detrimental effect of too much or unwise study:
There are learned teachers who write about first absorption (jhāna), second absorption, third absorption, fourth absorption and so on, but if the mind gets to the level of lucid calm, it’s not aware of all of that. All it knows is that what it’s experiencing is not the same as in the books. If a student of the texts grasps on tightly to his knowledge when he enters states of lucid calm and likes to keep noting, ‘What’s this? Is it the first absorption yet?’, his mind will simply make a complete retreat from the calm, and he’ll get nothing from it. Why? Because he wants something. The moment there’s craving to realize something, the mind pulls back from the lucid calm.
That’s why you’ve got to throw away all your thoughts and doubts, and take only your body, speech and mind into the practice. Look inwardly at states of mind, but don’t drag your scriptures in there with you – it’s not the place for them. If you insist on it, then everything will go down the drain, because nothing in the books is the same as it is in experience. It’s precisely because of this attachment to book knowledge that people who study a lot, who know a lot, tend to be unsuccessful in meditation.
THE CRUST OF LUCID CALM
The word nimitta is usually rendered in Buddhist texts as ‘sign’. In the context of meditation, it refers to a mental phenomenon which is experienced as a sense perception arising as the mind goes beyond the hindrances. A nimitta is most commonly experienced as a visual form, less often as a sound or tactile sensation, and – rarely – as an odour or taste.
In The Path of Purification, nimittas are treated at some length and divided into three categories. Entry into jhāna is described as being dependent on the meditator shifting focus to a distinctive ‘sign’, most commonly a bright light, that appears as samādhi deepens.
Luang Por and his fellow forest masters were familiar with the treatment of nimittas in The Path of Purification but rarely incorporated it in their accounts of the meditation process. They used the term ‘nimitta’ with a slightly different emphasis. Luang Por employed it in speaking of the mind-made phenomena – colours, lights, visions of beings from other realms – that could appear as the mind became calm. He stressed the importance of maintaining the correct attitude to them. Known for what they were, nimittas were harmless. Obsession with them could lead to a time-wasting detour, and, in extreme cases, to psychosis. Armed with the awareness of their dangers, the basic method of dealing with them was simply to refuse to pay them any attention.
Whatever form the nimitta takes, don’t pay attention to it. While it still persists, re-establish your focus by putting all your attention on the breath. Breathe in and out deeply at least three times and that may well cut it off. Just keep re-establishing your concentration. Don’t see it as being yours, it is merely a nimitta. Nimittas are deceivers: they make us like, they make us love, they make us fear. They’re fake and they’re unstable. If one arises, don’t give it any significance. It’s not yours; don’t chase after it.
The most direct and powerful means of letting go of a nimitta was a change of focus from the perception to that which perceived it.
When you see a nimitta, then shift attention to look directly at your mind. Don’t abandon this basic principle.
Visions could be alluring, and it was not possible for meditators to simply refuse to take pleasure in them by an act of will. What they could do was to immediately recognize any feelings of pleasure that arose as being changeful and based upon false perception.
Not all nimittas are enamouring. Another common problem that meditators face is being startled and frightened by them.
Prepare your mind with the knowledge that nothing can harm you. If something appears during your meditation and you’re frightened by it, then your meditation will come to a halt. If that happens, then bring up the recollection that there is no danger and let it go; don’t follow it. Or you may, if you wish, take up the nimitta and investigate its conditioned nature. After you’ve experienced these things a number of times, you will be unmoved by them. They’ll just be normal, nothing to worry about.
There is, however, a class of nimittas that skilled meditators can use to intensify their practice. These include the mental images of parts of the physical body that ‘appear to emerge and expand from within the mind’, particularly those that occur after the mind emerges from a deep state of samādhi. Such images are significantly more vivid than any that could be produced by ordinary imagination. Contemplation of them – especially visions of the body in a state of decay – can produce a deep insight into the conditioned nature of phenomena, which in turn may lead to a deep dispassion and abandoning attachment to the sense of an embodied self. These potent images are much more likely to arise if the meditator had already devoted time to investigating the body as a discursive meditation.
Luang Por said that whether or not nimittas could be made use of in the cultivation of wisdom was dependent on the maturity of the meditator. Often, he would recommend a meditator to ignore a nimitta, even if it was of the physical body. One day, a lay meditator came to pay his respects to Luang Por and seek his guidance. He said that while meditating, he would see his body appear as a bleached skeleton floating in front of him. Luang Por explained to him that this is what The Path of Purification refers to as the uggaha-nimitta, the acquired image. But rather than going on to explain how to manipulate the object in the way the text recommends, he said that there was no need to do so. It was sufficient to create the conditions of stability and calm lucidity for wisdom to do its work. When the mind had been primed by samādhi in this way, any object that arose in the mind was experienced as if it was a question, and the immediate recognition of it as impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self, appeared as an effortlessly correct answer.
All that is called for is that you calm the mind sufficiently to provide a foundation for vipassanā. When wisdom has arisen, then as soon as anything occurs in your mind, you are able to deal with it; there is a solution to every problem. You become aware of the problem and its resolution simultaneously, and the problem ends. The knowing is important: if a problem arises without a solution, then you’re in trouble, you’re not keeping up with what’s happening. So you don’t have to do a lot of thinking about it; the solution arises in the present moment simultaneously with the problem – even about things that you’ve never thought about or considered before – without you having to hunt around here and there looking for an answer.
He returned to the point that he would make repeatedly with reference to nimittas: having fully acknowledged the object with equanimity, then turn attention away from the object known, to the knowing itself. By doing so, the object would dissolve.
Don’t run after externals, because if you do, then the image will just keep on expanding. Before you know it, the skeleton will have changed into a pig, and then the pig will become a dog, the dog a horse, the horse an elephant; and then they’ll all get up and chase each other about! Be aware that what you perceive is a nimitta, the crust of the lucid calm.
CALM AND INSIGHT
In his expositions of the practice of samādhi, Luang Por usually preferred to avoid speaking in terms of jhānas. Instead he would refer to the various mental states – known as jhāna factors – that constitute these jhānas. His reasoning was that the jhāna factors such as bliss (sukha) or equanimity were directly experienceable by the meditator, whereas ‘jhānas’ were simply names for different constellations of these factors. They were, in other words, conventions; and as such, they could lead the mind away from, rather than towards, awareness of the present reality.
If the mind is clear, then it’s just like sitting here normally and seeing things around you. Closing the eyes becomes no different from opening them. Seeing while the eyes are closed becomes the same as seeing with the eyes open. There’s no doubt about anything at all, merely a sense of wonder, ‘How can these things be possible? It’s unbelievable, but there they are.’ There will be sustained appreciation (vicāra) arising spontaneously in conjunction with rapture, happiness, a fullness of heart and lucid calm.
Subsequently, the mind will become even more refined, and will be able to discard the meditation object. Now, vitakka, the lifting of the mind onto the object, will be absent and so will vicāra. We say the mind discards vitakka and vicāra. Actually, it’s not so much that they’re discarded; what is really meant is that the mind becomes more concentrated, more compact. When it’s calm, then vitakka and vicāra are too coarse to stay within it, and so it’s said that they are discarded. Without vitakka lifting the mind to the object, and vicāra to appreciate its nature, there is simply this experience of repleteness, bliss and ‘one pointedness’ (ekaggatā).
I don’t use the terms first, second, third and fourth jhāna. I speak only of lucid calm and of vitakka, vicāra, rapture, bliss and unity, and of their progressive abandonment until only equanimity remains. This development is called the power of samādhi, the natural expressions of the mind that has realized lucid calm … So there is a gradual movement in stages, that depends on constant and frequent practice.
Once, Luang Por was asked about the relationship between the first four jhāna factors and the fifth (ekaggatā), usually translated into Thai as meaning ‘single-focused’, and in English as ‘one-pointed’. He replied that ‘ekaggatā’ was like a bowl and the other four factors were like the fruit in the bowl.
A cat watching a mouse hole has a kind of samādhi and so does a safe-cracker, but theirs is a natural, amoral concentration of instinct and desire, not the samādhi that issues from a disciplined gathering of inner forces and which provides the foundation of wisdom. The Buddha distinguished between ‘Right Samādhi’ (sammāsamādhi), an essential element of the path to liberation, and ‘wrong samādhi’ (micchāsamādhi), which leads away from it. Luang Por explained that the term ‘wrong samādhi’ included any state of calm that lacked the awareness necessary to create the foundation for insight:
Samādhi can be divided into two kinds:
wrong samādhi and right samādhi. Take good notice of this distinction.
In wrong samādhi
the mind is unwavering. It enters a calmness which is completely silent and lacking all awareness. You can be in that state for a couple of hours or even all day, but during that time you have no idea where you’ve got to or what the state of your mind is. This is wrong samādhi. It’s like a knife that you’ve sharpened well and then just put away without using. You gain no benefit from it. It is a deluded calm that lacks alertness. You think that you’ve reached the end of the practice of meditation and don’t search for anything more. It’s a danger, an enemy. At this stage, it’s dangerous to you because it prevents wisdom from arising. There can be no wisdom without a sense of moral discrimination.
Right samādhi could be known by the clarity of awareness.
No matter how deep Right Samādhi becomes, it is always accompanied by awareness. There is a perfect mindfulness and alertness, a constant knowing. Right Samādhi is a kind of samādhi that never leads you astray. This is a point that practitioners should clearly understand. You can never dispense with the knowing. For it to be Right Samādhi, the knowing must be present from the beginning right until the end. Please keep observing this.
On another occasion, he said that inner peace could be divided into two kinds: coarse and subtle. The coarse kind occurred when the meditator identified with the bliss that arose from samādhi practice and assumed the bliss to be the essential element of the peace. The subtle peace was the fruit of wisdom, and it occurred when the experience of the mind itself, as that which knows all transient pleasant and unpleasant experiences, was understood to be the true peace.
The pleasant and the unpleasant are states of being, states we are born into, expressions of attachment. As long as we attach to the pleasant or unpleasant, there can be no liberation from saṃsāra. The bliss of samādhi is not true inner peace. That peace comes through dwelling in the awareness of the true nature of the pleasant and unpleasant without attachment. Thus, it is taught that the mind that lies beyond the pleasant (sukha) and the unpleasant (dukkha) is the true goal of Buddhism.
Sometimes, Luang Por made use of the commentarial division of samādhi into three levels, as these were clearly distinguishable on the basis of duration and intensity:
Momentary (khaṇika) samādhi – The initial, short-lived intervals of calm, experienced as the mind becomes focused on its object.
Access (upacāra) samādhi – The state in which the five hindrances have been overcome but not securely so. There is still some background movement in the mind, but it is not distracting.
Absorption (appanā) samādhi – The deepest level of samādhi, a bright stillness in which no sense data appears to the mind or is so fleeting and peripheral as to be inconsequential.
Access samādhi is the state in which the wisdom faculty functions most fluently. It precedes and succeeds attainment of absorption samādhi. The access that follows absorption is a more potent base for wisdom development than that which precedes it. Luang Por compared the mind in access samādhi to a chicken in a coop, not completely still but moving in a clearly defined area, and unable to run off at will. On other occasions, he said it is as if the mind is enclosed within a glass dome. The mind is aware of sense impressions, but is not affected by them. It is the state, he said, in which the mind can see things in their true light:
Having abided in the state of complete lucid calm for a sufficient time, the mind withdraws from it to contemplate the nature of external conditions in order to give rise to wisdom.
THINKING AND EXAMINATION
The common Thai word ‘pijarana’ can mean ‘consider’, ‘reflect upon’, ‘contemplate’, ‘examine’ or ‘investigate’, and is found extensively in the teachings of the Thai forest masters. On some occasions, Luang Por equated ‘pijarana’ with dhammavicaya, the ‘investigation of Dhamma’ that arises in dependence on mindfulness and constitutes the second of the seven enlightenment factors (bojjhaṅga). All Buddhists are encouraged to reflect on (or pijarana) the truths of old age, sickness, death, the inevitability of separation from all that is loved, and the law of kamma. By doing so again and again, these truths sink into the mind and become elements of the Right View that must underlie effective meditation practice. Pijarana is also used in the context of discursive meditation practices to mean the examination of a theme of Dhamma in a coherent and disciplined manner.
Whereas the nature and role of pijarana in discursive meditations is straightforward, meditators can often doubt the part it plays in developing insight into the three characteristics, which constitutes the culmination of Buddhist meditation practices.
What degree of intentionality was Luang Por advocating when he instructed his disciples to pijarana the three characteristics? How could meditators be sure that they were not merely thinking about the three characteristics rather than developing insight into them?
It’s a little bit hard to appreciate this because of its similarity to mental proliferation, and when thoughts arise you may assume that your mind is no longer calm. In fact, the thoughts and perceptions that occur at this time arise within the calm. Examination that takes place within the calm does not disturb it. Sometimes the body may be taken up for examination. That doesn’t mean you start thinking or speculating: it’s a process that occurs naturally in that state of calm. There is awareness within the calm, calm within awareness. If it was merely mental proliferation, it would not be calm, it would be disturbing. This isn’t proliferation. It is something that appears in the mind as a result of the calm and is called examination (pijarana). Wisdom arises right here.
Luang Por clarified this point in conversation with a visiting group of American Dhamma teachers. He said that ordinary thinking could be distinguished by the fact that, although it might remain focused on a topic, it was coarse and lacking in penetration. When the mind became calm, the examination (pijarana) arose naturally as a kind of awareness that, while possessing some of the characteristics of thinking, was of a different order. Wise reflection on the three characteristics could be distinguished by the fact that it remained uncorrupted by mental proliferation, was always wholesome, and caused defilements to fade from the mind. Mere thinking, on the other hand, becomes absorbed by defilements and contributes to their increase. The examination that Luang Por was advocating was distinguished by the letting go of attachments:
Ordinary thinking has already been filtered out. If you don’t know the examination for what it is, it will turn into conceptual thought; if you do know, it will turn into wisdom – that is, it will look on everything that arises as impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self.
This wisdom or wise reflection, he said, would gradually mature into vipassanā. In contrast to much contemporary use of the term, Luang Por tended to use ‘vipassanā’ to refer to the insight that arises from wise reflection rather than the reflection itself. Vipassanā was not, he said, something contrived, not something you did. Vipassanā was the discernment of the three characteristics that arose naturally in the mind when all the necessary causes and conditions for it had been cultivated. The intensity of this clear seeing could vary from a weak insight to a comprehensive vision of the way things are.
The degree of calm necessary before this investigation of the three characteristics could take place was not measurable. When Luang Por was asked, ‘How much calm is needed?’, he replied, ‘As much as is necessary.’ In other words, meditators were to proceed by trial-and-error and closely observe the results of their efforts until they knew for themselves. If the contemplation degenerated into mental proliferation, then the mind was obviously not strong enough to do the work of wisdom.
Meditators had different faculties. Some people found it easy to let go of thinking, but found that the very qualities that made such letting go possible, also retarded the cultivation of wisdom. Others, of a more reflective bent, found that their mind’s gift for contemplation prevented them entering deep states of samādhi, but they were able to penetrate the truth through a close, focused attention on the conditioned nature of phenomena.
To illustrate this point, Luang Por adapted two terms from the Suttas – ‘cetovimutti’ (liberation of mind) and ‘paññāvimutti’ (liberation through wisdom). He applied these terms to two paths of practice: one that emphasised the power of mind, i.e. samādhi, and the other that emphasised wisdom. While wisdom-liberation character types were especially sharp and perceptive, the mind-liberation character types needed to take their time and go over the same ground many times before they understood. He gave an analogy:
It’s like two people going to look at a cloth pattern for a few minutes. One of them understands the pattern immediately and can go away and reproduce it from memory. This is ‘liberation through wisdom’. The other person, the mind-liberation character, has to sit and ponder on the details of the pattern and go back for further checks. With mind-liberation, you have to work with the mind a fair amount, you have to develop quite a lot of samādhi. The first person doesn’t need to do all that. He looks at the design, understands the principle and then goes off and draws it himself; he has no doubts. Both paths reach the goal, but they have different features.
Liberation through wisdom is always accompanied by mindfulness and alertness. When anything emerges in the mind, then it knows; it knows, and then lets go with ease. The mind-liberation person can’t see things as they emerge in that way, he has to investigate them – which is also a valid path. Know your own character. In the first case, some people may not realize that there is samādhi present. You walk along observing, and samādhi – meaning firm stability of mind – is inherently present. For someone with wisdom, it’s not difficult. He just develops enough samādhi to create a foundation. It’s like students reaching grade twelve at school. Now they can choose which subject they want to specialize in. Whoever wants to go on to study agriculture does that and so on. It is the point of separation. Samādhi is the same. It reaches its destination in this same way.