The highest level of concentration—fixed penetration—follows on threshold concentration. If mindfulness and alertness arise while you are in threshold concentration, they turn it into jhāna.

Jhāna means focusing the mind, making it absorbed in a single object, such as the form of the body. If you want jhāna to arise and not deteriorate, you have to practice until you are skilled. Here’s how it’s done: Think of a single object, such as the breath. Don’t think of anything else. Practice focusing on your single object. Now add the other factors: Vitakka—think about the object; and vicāra—evaluate it until you arrive at an understanding of it, e.g. seeing the body as unclean or as composed of impersonal properties. The mind then becomes light; the body becomes light; both body and mind feel full and refreshed: This is pīti, rapture. The body has no feelings of pain, and the mind experiences no pain: This is sukha, pleasure and ease. This is the first level of rūpa jhāna, which has five factors: singleness (ekaggatā), directed thought, evaluation, rapture, and pleasure.

When you practice, start out by focusing on a single object, such as the breath. Then think about it, adjusting and expanding it until it becomes dominant and clear. As for rapture and pleasure, you don’t have to fabricate them. They arise on their own. Singleness, directed thought, and evaluation are the causes; rapture and pleasure, the results. Together they form the first level of jhāna.

As you become more skilled, your powers of focusing become stronger. The activities of thought and evaluation fade away, because you’ve already gained a certain level of understanding. As you focus in on the object, there appears only rapture—refreshment of body and mind; and pleasure—ease of body and mind. Keep focusing in on the object so that you’re skilled at it. Don’t withdraw. Keep focusing until the mind is firm and well established. Once the mind is firm, this is the second level of rūpa jhāna, in which only rapture, pleasure, and singleness remain.

Now focus on the sense of rapture associated with the grosser physical body. As the mind becomes more and more firm, it will gain release from the symptoms of rapture, leaving just pleasure and singleness. This is the third level of rūpa jhāna.

Then continue focusing in on your original object. Don’t retreat from it. Keep focused on it until the mind attains appanā jhāna, absolutely fixed absorption, resolute and unwavering. At this point, your sense of awareness becomes brighter and clearer, causing you to disregard the grosser sense of the form of the body and to focus instead on the subtler sense of the body that remains. This leaves only singleness of preoccupation, the mind being unconcerned and unaffected by any external objects or preoccupations. This is the fourth level of rūpa jhāna, composed of singleness of preoccupation and equanimity.

When you become skilled and resolute at this stage, your concentration gains the strength that can give rise to the skill of liberating insight, which in turn is capable of attaining the noble paths and fruitions. So keep your mind in this stage as long as possible. Otherwise it will go on into the levels of arūpa jhāna, absorption in formless objects.

If you want to enter arūpa jhāna, though, here is how it’s done: Disregard the sense of the form of the body, paying no more attention to it, so that you are left with just a comfortable sense of space or emptiness, free from any sensation of constriction or interference. Focus on that sense of space. To be focused in this way is the first level of arūpa jhāna, called ākāsānañcāyatana jhāna, absorption in the sense of unbounded space. Your senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and ideation—feel spacious and clear, with no physical image acting as the focal point of your concentration. If your powers of discernment are weak, you may mistake this for nibbāna, but actually it’s only a level of arūpa jhāna.

Once you know and see this, go on to the next level. Let go of the sense of space and emptiness, and pay attention to whatever preoccupation is left—but attention on this level is neither good and discerning, nor bad and unskillful. It’s simply focused on awareness free from activities. This level is called viññāṇañcāyatana jhāna, absorption in the sense of unbounded consciousness. If you aren’t discerning, you may mistake this for nibbāna, but it’s actually only a level of arūpa jhāna.

Once you know this, make your focus more refined until you come to the sense that there is nothing at all to the mind: It’s simply empty and blank, with nothing occurring in it at all. Fix your attention on this preoccupation with “Nothing is happening,” until you are skilled at it. This is the third level of arūpa jhāna, which has a very subtle sense of pleasure. Still, it’s not yet nibbāna. Instead, it’s called ākiñcaññāyatana jhāna, absorption in the sense of nothingness.

Now focus on the subtle notion that says there’s nothing at all, until it changes. If you don’t withdraw, but keep focused right there, only awareness will be left—but as for awareness on this level, you can’t really say that it knows and you can’t say that it doesn’t. You can’t say that it’s labeling anything and you can’t say that it’s not. You can’t yet decide one way or another about your preoccupation. The mind’s powers of focused investigation at this point are weakened, because an extremely refined sense of pleasure has arisen. You haven’t searched for its causes and, when you’re in this state, you can’t. So you fall into the fourth level of arūpa jhāna: neva-saññā-nāsaññāyatana jhāna, absorption in the sense of neither perception nor non-perception, a state in which you can’t say that there’s any act of labeling left, and you can’t say that there’s not.

So when the mind changes from one of these stages of awareness or points of view to another, keep close track of it. Be circumspect and fully aware of what it’s doing and where it’s focused, without letting yourself get caught up with the refined sense of pleasure that appears. If you can do this, you’ll be able to let go of all saṅkhāra dhamma: all things fabricated and conditioned.

The four levels of arūpa jhāna are nothing other than the mind dwelling on the four types of mental phenomena (nāma). In other words, the mind starts out by getting caught up with a sense of pleasure and well-being that isn’t focused on any object or image, but is simply an empty, spacious feeling (vedanā). This is the first level of arūpa jhāna. On the second level, the mind is caught up with the act of consciousness (viññāṇa). It’s focused on an empty sense of awareness as its object—simply the act of consciousness happening over and over continuously, without end. This is called absorption in the sense of unbounded consciousness, i.e., being stuck on the act of consciousness. On the third level of arūpa jhāna, the mind is caught up with the act of mental fabrication (saṅkhāra), which merely arises and passes away. Nothing, nothing at all appears as an image, and the mind simply notices this over and over again. This is called absorption in the sense of nothingness, i.e., being stuck on mental fabrication. On the fourth level of arūpa jhāna, the mind is caught up with the act of labeling (saññā), seeing that it can’t say that there is a label for what it has just experienced or is now experiencing, and it can’t say that there isn’t. Thus it falls into absorption in the sense of neither perception nor non-perception.

All four levels of arūpa jhāna have a sense of pleasure and well-being as their common basis. Beginning with the first level, there is an extremely fine and subtle sense of pleasure, but your understanding of it isn’t true. What this means is that you can’t yet let go of your understanding of it. You simply remain focused and absorbed in it, without thinking or evaluating to find out its causes. The mind at this point doesn’t feel inclined to think or evaluate because the sense of pleasure is relaxed and exquisite beyond measure.

So if you want to gain release from all suffering and stress, you should practice focusing from one level of arūpa jhāna to another, in and out, back and forth, over and over, until you are skilled at it. Then investigate, searching for the causes and underlying factors until you can know that, “Here the mind is stuck on the act of labeling—here it is stuck on the act of mental fabrication—here it is stuck on the act of consciousness.”

Consciousness is the underlying factor for name and form, or physical and mental phenomena. Physical and mental phenomena, by their nature, contain and cover each other. Once you understand this, focus on the form of the body. Evaluate it back and forth so that it becomes more and more refined until the mind is absolutely firm, absorbed in a single preoccupation, either on the sensual level [a sensory image of the body], on the level of form [the internal sense of the form of the body], or on the formless level. Keep the mind fixed, and then examine that particular preoccupation until you see how it arises and passes away—but don’t go assuming yourself to be what arises and passes away. Keep the mind neutral and unaffected, and in this way you will be able to know the truth.

The way in which the four levels of rūpa jhāna and the four levels of arūpa jhāna are fashioned can be put briefly as follows: Focus on any one of the four properties making up the sense of the form of the body (earth, water, fire, and wind). This is rūpa jhāna. The one object you focus on can take you all the way to the fourth jhāna, with the various levels differing only in the nature of the act of focusing. As for arūpa jhāna, it comes from rūpa jhāna. In other words, you take the sense of physical pleasure coming from rūpa jhāna as your starting point and then focus exclusively on that pleasure as your object. This can also take you all the way to the fourth level—absorption in the sense of neither perception nor non-perception—with the various levels differing only in the way you label and experience that pleasure. Or, to put it in plain English, you focus (1) on the body and (2) on the mind.

Rūpa jhāna is like a mango; arūpa jhāna, like the mango’s taste. A mango has a shape, but no one can see the shape of its taste, because it’s something subtle and refined. This is why people who don’t practice in line with the levels of concentration go astray in the way they understand things. Some people even believe that death is annihilation. This sort of view comes from the fact that they are so blind that they can’t find themselves. And when they can’t find themselves, they decide that death is annihilation. This is like the fool who believes that when a fire goes out, fire has been annihilated. Those who have looked into the matter, though, say that fire hasn’t been annihilated, and they can even start it up again without having to use glowing embers the way ordinary people do.

In the same way, a person’s mind and body are not annihilated at death. Take a blatant example: When a man dies and is cremated, people say that his body no longer exists. But actually its elements are still there. The earth is still earth just as it always was; the water is still water; the fire is still fire; and the wind, still wind. Only their particular manifestations—hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, etc.—have disappeared. What we supposed them to be has vanished, but the nature of the primal elements hasn’t. It’s there as it always was. People who have fallen for their supposings are sure to be shocked at death; those who have seen the truth, see death as nothing strange. It’s simply a change in the manifestations of the elements.

Our fear of death is based on our assumption that the body is ours. When it dies, and we feel that it’s been annihilated, this only increases our fears, all because we don’t know the truth of the body. And if we don’t know the truth even of this crude body, we’re ripe for all sorts of wrong views, such as the view that death is annihilation. If death is annihilation, then there are no heavens, no hells, no Brahmā worlds and no nibbāna. And if this is true, then the Buddha was even stupider than we are, because pleasure in the present life is something everyone knows enough to search for—even common animals know enough to look for food. So why would the Buddha have to exert himself to the point of sacrificing his life and mind for the sake of teaching other people?

People who believe that death is annihilation, who from birth have been led by necessity to search for a living from their environment, are like a person blind from birth who—when he gets older and his parents or friends take him by the hand and lead him into a cave—won’t know whether he’s in the cave or outside of the cave, because he can’t see. And when he can’t see, he’ll think that everywhere is probably dark without exception. Even if they tell him that in-the-cave is dark and outside-of-the-cave is bright, he won’t believe them, all because of his own darkness. In the same way, people believe that the body and mind are annihilated at death and that there are no heavens, hells, Brahmā worlds, or nibbāna, all because of their own darkness. Their knowledge hasn’t penetrated into the real nature of birth and death. They see others speaking of the practice of virtue, concentration, jhāna, and discernment for the sake of ending becoming and birth, and they smile to themselves. “What a bunch of fools.” they say. But actually they’re the fools without their knowing it.

Those who have seen that death has to be followed by rebirth have seen that if defilement, craving, and unawareness still entwine the heart, rebirth will be endless. People who can’t see this are bound to believe that everything is annihilated at death.

Our Lord Buddha was a sage, a man of wisdom endowed with virtue, concentration, and discernment. He was able to see that there is no annihilation—just like the expert surveyor who can look at a mountain spring and know that there’s gold in the mountain.

“Look,” he tells some farmers. “There’s gold in the spring.”

They go and look, but they don’t see any signs of gold. All they see is water gushing out of the mountain. “That guy is lying,” they think. “He must be out of his mind. He looks at spring water and sees gold.”

But what’s really wrong is that they don’t know his craft. Those who see that death has to be followed by rebirth as long as there is unawareness (avijjā) in the heart are like the expert surveyor. Those who believe that death is annihilation are like the farmers who know nothing of the craft of searching for gold.

Those who want to see clearly into the nature of birth and death will first have to learn the craft of the heart. Directed thought, evaluation, rapture, pleasure, and singleness: These form the first skill in the Buddha’s craft. To focus in until only rapture, pleasure, and singleness are left is the second skill. To focus in until only pleasure and singleness are left is the third skill. To focus in until only equanimity and singleness are left is the fourth. When you’ve reached this point, you’ve mastered all the skills offered in that particular school, i.e., you’ve mastered the body; you’ve seen that it’s just a matter of physical properties, unclean and repulsive, inconstant, stressful, and not-self. Some people, on reaching this point, don’t continue their studies, but set themselves up in dubious professions, claiming to have special powers, to be fortune-tellers or to know magical incantations, using their skills to make a living under the sway of delusion.

Those, however, who have the necessary funds—namely, conviction in the paths and fruitions leading to nibbāna—will go on to study in another school, arūpa jhāna, focusing directly in on the mind. For example: Right now, what are you thinking? Good thoughts or bad? When you have the mindfulness and alertness to know that a thought is bad, stare it down until it disappears, leaving only good thoughts. When a good thought arises, there’s a sense of ease and well-being. Focus in on that sense of well-being. Don’t withdraw. If you’re going to think, think only of that sense of well-being. Keep focusing until you are skilled at staying with that sense of well-being, to the point where, when you withdraw, you can focus right back in on it. This very sense of well-being is the basis for all four levels of arūpa jhāna. They differ only in their viewpoints on it. Once you’ve focused on this same sense of well-being firmly enough and long enough to go through the first, second, third, and fourth levels of arūpa jhāna, you should then go back and review all the skills you’ve mastered from the very beginning, back and forth, until they become appanā jhāna, fixed absorption, firm and fully mastered.

Rūpa jhāna, once mastered, is like being a government official who works and earns a salary. Arūpa jhāna, once mastered, is like being a retired official receiving a pension from the government. Some people, when they’ve finished government service, simply curl up and live off their pensions without using their skills to provide themselves with any further benefits. This is like people who master rūpa jhāna and arūpa jhāna and then don’t use their skills to gain the further benefits of the transcendent.

If you do want to gain those benefits, though, here’s how it’s done: Focus your powers of investigation back on your primal sense of the body and mind until liberating insight arises. The insight that acts as a stairway to the transcendent level is based on jhāna at the level of fixed penetration, focusing the mind resolutely to reach the first level of rūpa jhāna. Those people who have a good deal of discernment will—once the mind has attained concentration for only a short while—focus directly in on mental phenomena. In other words, they’ll focus on the mind and investigate its preoccupation until they clearly see the true nature of physical and mental phenomena. The state of mind that clings to physical and mental phenomena will vanish, and while it is vanishing the “state of mind changing lineage (gotarabhū citta)” is said to arise. When the mind can know that “mundane mental states are like this” and “transcendent mental states are like that,” that’s called gotarabhū-ñāṇa, change-of-lineage knowledge, i.e., comprehension of nibbāna.

Here we’re talking about people who are inclined to focus primarily on the mind, who tend to develop insight meditation more than tranquility meditation and are not expert in focusing on the body. Their Awakening is termed release through discernment (paññā-vimutti). Although they don’t develop all of the mundane skills that come along with concentration—i.e., they don’t master all of the three skills, the eight skills, or the four forms of acumen—they still master the one crucial skill, the knowledge that does away with the mental effluents (āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa).

Those who tend more toward tranquility meditation, though, are in no great hurry. They develop all the levels of jhāna, going back and forth, again and again, until they’re expert in both rūpa jhāna and arūpa jhāna. Then they return to the fourth level of rūpa jhāna and focus strongly on it, taking the features of rūpa jhāna as their object—their uggaha nimitta—and then manipulating them back and forth (paṭibhāga nimitta) to the point where their powers of mindfulness and alertness are firm. They focus until their minds are neutral and still, steady with a single object, uninvolved with any outside preoccupations. They will then be able to identify exactly how the features of rūpa jhāna and arūpa jhāna differ—and will realize that the fourth level of rūpa jhāna is the crucial one, giving the mind strength in a variety of ways.

When you reach this point, focus on the fourth level of rūpa jhāna. Keep the mind neutral and still, constantly focused on a single object. Focus on one spot as your frame of reference (satipaṭṭhāna), i.e., on the subtle sense of the body at this level, in and of itself. When you are strongly focused, a sense of brightness will develop, and a variety of amazing skills—either mundane or transcendent, depending in part on the power of your jhāna—will arise in the mind.

The knowledge and skills arising from jhāna can free you from all suffering and stress. But most of us, by and large, don’t think of looking for these skills. We’re interested only in those skills and forms of knowledge that will keep us tied to suffering and stress on and on through time. So those who aim for well-being that’s clear and clean should train their minds to give rise to jhāna, which is one of the treasures of the noble ones.

The four levels of rūpa jhāna and the four levels of arūpa jhāna, taken together, are called the eight attainments (samapatti), all of which come down to two sorts: mundane and transcendent. In mundane jhāna, the person who has attained jhāna assumes that, ‘This is my self,’ or ‘I am that,’ and holds fast to these assumptions, not giving rise to the knowledge that lets go of those things in line with their true nature. This is classed as sakkāya-diṭṭhi, the viewpoint that leads us to self-identity view, the feeling that, ‘This is me,’ or ‘This is mine.’ This in turn leads to sīlabbata-parāmāsa, attachment to our accustomed practices, i.e., seeing jhāna as something of magical potency, that whatever we set our minds on attaining will have to come true. As for our doubts (vicikicchā) about the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha, these haven’t been cleared up because we’ve been deflected, deluded by the things that occur on at this level and haven’t gotten any further.

Thus whoever attains jhāna without abandoning the three fetters (saṅyojana) is practicing mundane jhāna. Mundane jhāna, unless you’re really expert at it, is the easiest thing in the world to lose. It’s always ready to deteriorate at the slightest disturbance from sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas—unless you’re really proficient at it. Sometimes you may be sitting in jhāna and then, when you get up and walk away, it’s gone.

As for transcendent jhāna: When you’ve attained rūpa jhāna and arūpa jhāna, you go back to examine the various levels until you are expert at them and then develop insight meditation so as to see mundane jhāna for what it really is. In other words, you see that the preoccupations of both rūpa jhāna and arūpa jhāna are inconstant, stressful, and not-self. Once this knowledge arises, you are able to let go of the various preoccupations of jhāna; and once the mind is set loose from rūpa jhāna and arūpa jhāna, it enters the transcendent level; the stream to nibbāna. It cuts the three fetters—self-identity view, grasping at practices and habits, and uncertainty—and is headed straight for nibbāna. When you have cut the three fetters, your jhāna is transcendent jhāna; your virtue, concentration, and discernment are all transcendent.

Once you have mastered these two modes of jhāna, they will give rise to the various abilities, mundane or transcendent, taught by Buddhism that differ from worldly skills in that they can arise only after the attainment of jhāna. Among these skills are the three skills (vijjā), the eight skills, and the four forms of acumen (paṭisambhidā-ñāṇa).