Last night we talked about how the establishing of mindfulness, when it’s developed, helps you to master right concentration. Tonight I’d like to talk about concentration in more detail. First, I’ll read the passage from the Canon:
“What is the faculty of concentration? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, making his object to let go, attains concentration, attains singleness of mind. Quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities, he enters and remains in the first jhāna: rapture and pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. With the stilling of thoughts and evaluations, he enters and remains in the second jhāna: rapture and pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness, free from directed thought and evaluation, internal assurance. Then with the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, and alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters and remains in the third jhāna, of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one has a pleasant abiding.” With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress, he enters and remains in the fourth jhāna: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain.” [§1]
Two terms need to be explained here. One is singleness—in Pāli this is ekaggatā—and the other is jhāna.
The word ekaggatā can be broken down into three parts: Eka means one, agga can mean either summit or gathering place, and then the -tā at the end indicates that this is a noun. So you have either one summit or one gathering place for the mind. Sometimes ekagga is defined as being gathered into one point, with no ability to think, no awareness of your body or outside senses, but the Canon doesn’t support that interpretation. When the Canon uses the word ekagga in the context of ordinary daily life, it’s in the context of listening to a talk, saying that when you listen to a Dhamma talk, your mind should be ekagga while at the same time applying appropriate attention. In other words, you’re thinking about how the talk applies to solving the problem of your own suffering. So when your mind is ekagga, it can think and it can hear.
Also, when you look at the descriptions of jhāna in the Canon, they talk about a whole-body experience, not an experience reduced to one point. And awakening is also based on jhāna. It’s described as something that can happen when you’re in a jhāna and you can analyze the jhāna in terms of fabrication or of the aggregates, and are able to develop dispassion for it. You wouldn’t be able to do this if the mind wasn’t able to think.
So the word ekaggatā or singleness means that all the activities of the mind are gathered around one object. In the first jhāna, for instance, you’re thinking about the object and adjusting the object. As you get deeper into jhāna, then the thinking and evaluating fall away and the activities get more subtle.
Now, the word jhāna itself is related to a verb, jhāyati, which means to burn with a steady flame. They have different words for burning in Pāli, and this one is used to describe the flame of an oil lamp. When your mind is in jhāna, it’s like a steady flame. If you’re trying to read a book, you can read it by the flame of an oil lamp. If you were trying to read a book by a bonfire where the flames are jumping all over the place, though, you’d have trouble reading. In jhāna, you’re trying to get the mind into steady focus so that you can read it clearly.
There are four levels of jhāna. The first level is basically what we’ve been doing this week—or, at least, what we’re trying to do. At the very least, you’re headed in the right direction. You’re thinking about the breath and you’re also evaluating the breath: Is it comfortable? Is it not comfortable? If it’s not comfortable, what can you do to change? When it is comfortable, how do you maintain and use that sense of comfort? You try to spread it through the body. That’s the work of directed thought and evaluation.
When you really do get focused on the breath, to the point where you’re not interested in anything else, the mind will come to singleness of preoccupation. And the results will be a sense of ease or pleasure, along with a sense of rapture.
Those five factors, taken together—directed thought, evaluation, singleness of preoccupation, pleasure, and rapture—constitute the first jhāna.
As you’re staying with the breath in this way, you find that you get to a point where you can’t improve the breath any further. Ajaan Fuang’s analogy is that you’re trying to fill a water jar. There comes the point where the jar is full. You could keep on adding water, but it would spill out and the water in the jar would still stay at the same level, so it’s useless to add water any more. So you stop the directed thought and evaluation. This is the point where the breath is really comfortable and the mind can enter into it. That’s when you enter the second jhāna.
When you’re in the first jhāna, it’s as if the breath is in one area and you’re in an area right next to it. In the second jhāna, though, it’s as if the two of them meld together. This is unification of awareness, where the awareness and its object seem to be one. You don’t need to think about the breath anymore. You just have the perception that says “breath.” Otherwise, you feel just very continuously there. You don’t go anywhere else. There still is a sense of rapture and of pleasure. In fact, on this level, the pleasure and rapture grow stronger.
There will come a point, though, where the rapture begins to become unpleasant and you want to get away from it. The best analogy that I can think of is that it’s like the radio waves coming through the chapel right now. You’ve got the radio waves coming from Monaco, the radio waves coming from Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence, and all the other radio stations around, and you have to decide which frequency you’re going to tune into. Now suppose that Monaco is sending radio waves of hard rock, whereas Aix is sending soft classical music. You can think of rapture as being like the radio waves coming from Monaco, and they’re getting kind of gross. You stay in the same place, but you change the frequency of your receiver, and now you’re getting the soothing music coming in from Aix.
In the same way, when you’re moving from the second to the third jhāna, you don’t go anyplace else. You simply tune to a more refined frequency of awareness of the body, so that you can evade the grossness of the rapture. When you get into the third jhāna, the breath is very refined, the mind is very calm and even. The body feels pleasure; the mind feels a sense of equanimity.
As you stay there for a while, the breath energies in the body begin to connect more and more until you feel like everything is connected. There’s very little sense that the breath is coming from outside, and all the breath you need is coming from inside. At that point, the breath gets more and more and more subtle until finally you don’t feel any in-breath or out-breath at all. This is where you begin to enter the fourth jhāna.
Now, the first time you hit this, you might start getting scared: “Am I going to die from lack of breath?” And that thought pulls you out of concentration. You have to remind yourself that even though the breath is still, you’re not forcing it to stay still. It’s just that the body doesn’t feel any need to breathe. The only way I can explain this is that the oxygen needs of the body are reduced as the mind gets more and more still, so that the oxygen exchange at your skin is enough.
Just as a side story here: There’s a town in California, Laguna Beach, and once a year they have what they call a Festival of the Arts. They don’t have real paintings there, so they depict famous paintings on stage: Gainsborough, Corot, whatever. Sometimes they try to reproduce sculptures using real people. For the sculptures, they go down to the beach to find people with nice bodies to be David or Venus, and then they paint them white to make them look like marble.
The first time they did this, they covered the people’s bodies entirely in white, and then as the stage revolved around, David came into view and he fainted. They discovered that this was because all the pores of his skin were covered with the white, so he was lacking oxygen.
So keep that in mind when the breath grows still. There is enough oxygen coming in through the skin. And then you can just stay there. The mind is very still. If there’s any sense that some part of the body is lacking breath energy, the breath energy from another part of the body will come in and fill it up.
Now, based on this fourth jhāna, four formless jhānas can be accessed. We mentioned these briefly this afternoon. They’re not necessary for the practice, but they’re good to know, and very restful if you can manage them. To get into the first one, the dimension of the infinitude of space: You’ll notice, as you’re staying in the fourth jhāna, that because your in-breath and out-breath are not moving, your sense of the contours of your body begins to get very vague and fuzzy. Your sense of the body itself is like a mist with little tiny droplets of water. So, instead of focusing on the drops of sensation, you focus on the space in between. It’s like the space in between atoms. Then you remain with the perception that this space fills and permeates everything: not only your own body, but everything in all directions. This is the first formless jhāna.
The second one, after you’ve learned to stay solidly with the sense of space, comes when you pose the question in your mind: “What is it that’s aware of that space?” And there will be a perception of just “knowing, knowing, knowing,” so you stick with that perception. In other words, whatever you’re aware of, you’re aware of the fact that there’s awareness of that thing. The awareness itself is your focal point, and it seems that the awareness is not affected by anything. That’s the second formless jhāna, the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness.
For the third formless jhāna, you drop the sense of the oneness of the mind, the oneness of the perception of awareness, and what’s left is a perception of nothingness. That’s the third formless jhāna, the dimension of nothingness.
If you stay with that long enough, even the perception of nothingness goes away, and you enter a state where there is no clear perception, but you couldn’t say there is no perception at all: In other words, you recognize it, but you don’t have a name for it. That’s the fourth formless jhāna, the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.
All of these are based on attaining the fourth jhāna where the breath is still.
Now, it’s not necessary to attain all of these levels for the sake of awakening. According to the Canon, some people can reach awakening based just on the first jhāna. So don’t get discouraged by the full map. However, it’s good to know the map in advance, because sometimes people hit the dimension of space, consciousness, or nothingness, and they think, “Here I am; this must be nibbāna,” but actually there is still fabrication going on there. After all, these states of concentration are all states of becoming. As with every state of becoming, they’re based on a desire—the desire to stay—supported by the intention to stay and to maximize the ease or stillness, along with attention to whatever needs to be done to protect that state. Now, these things are barely clear to your awareness when you’re in those states, because they’re working so well together. Your sense of “you”—as provider and consumer of the concentration—is also there, but it’s very subtle. It seems to meld into its object, and nothing gets in the way of its desire to stay. When there’s no opposition, the boundary of “self” gets very faint. But even though you barely notice your sense of self, it’s still there, which is why all these states count as a state of becoming.
For our purposes now, though, let’s focus on the four first jhānas. The Buddha gives analogies for each of these [§8]. The first jhāna, he says, is like a bathman working water into soap powder. In those days, they didn’t use bars of soap. They used soap powder, and they would mix it together with water to make a kind of dough, like the dough you mix to make bread. In the Buddha’s image, the bathman is working the water into the dough so that all of the powder is moistened and there’s no excess water, no excess powder. The bathman mixing the powder and the water here stands for the activity of directed thought and evaluation as they take the sense of pleasure and rapture and work it through the body. That’s the analogy for the first jhāna.
The second jhāna is like a lake with a spring of water at the base of the lake. There are no rivers coming into the lake, but rain falls regularly, which keeps the spring going, and the spring water wells up to fill the lake with its coolness. The water here stands for pleasure, while the welling up of the water, the movement of the water, stands for rapture. That’s the analogy for the second jhāna.
In the third jhāna, he says, you have a lake of still water, because the rapture is gone. In this lake there are lotuses, and some of the lotuses have not come up above the surface of the water yet. They’re immersed in the water and they’re saturated from their roots to the tips of their buds with the cool water of the lake. That’s the analogy for the third jhāna.
The fourth jhāna is like a man sitting covered by a white cloth, with no part of his body not covered with the white cloth.
Now you’ll notice in these analogies that water is equivalent to pleasure, the movement of the water stands for rapture, and as I said earlier in the analogy for the first jhāna, the bathman stands for directed thought and evaluation. That’s the only analogy in which you have a conscious agent doing something. Also, in the second analogy, the movement of the water is totally surrounded by the water of the lake, unlike the bathman who was a little bit separated from the water. In the same way, in the second jhāna there’s a sense of total oneness, being surrounded by the breath. In the first jhāna, there’s a sense that the breath is there and you’re right here, behind it or to one side of it, but now the breath surrounds you. Your awareness is one with the breath. In the analogy for the fourth jhāna, there’s no water, and no movement: full equanimity.
So those are the analogies for the jhānas.
As the Buddha said, jhāna has four uses, and three of them are relevant here. The first is for a pleasant abiding, the second is for developing psychic powers, and the third is for mindfulness and alertness. The fourth use is for ending defilement, which is the goal of the path.
For the pleasant abiding, a lot has been written about the danger of getting stuck on the pleasure of jhāna, but the Buddha actually said it’s a necessary part of the practice. Remember his image that it’s food for the mind. It’s also an alternative escape from pain. For most people, the only way you can escape from pain is through sensual pleasure, which is why we’re caught going back and forth between pain and the desire for sensual pleasure all the time. To get out of that back-and-forth, you need the pleasure of jhāna as an alternative. That way, you don’t have to go for the sensuality, which is a much more dangerous kind of pleasure. People don’t kill, steal or wage war over jhāna, but they do over sensuality. And the pleasure of jhāna actually makes your virtue and discernment stronger. If you have a sense of internal well-being, it’s easier to say No to sugary food, to say nothing of breaking the precepts. This pleasant abiding is also useful when you’re suffering from an illness. In some cases, you hear about people who are able to cure an illness with their powers of concentration. And even if you can’t cure your illness through concentration, you can live with it without suffering from it.
My teacher had many women students who were very good at concentration, but two in particular were good probably because both of them were suffering from cancer and they found concentration to be a good refuge for the mind. One of the two had a cancer that kept moving. First it was here, then it spread to there. In other words, she had it in one organ, they’d cut that out, and then it would move to another organ, and they would cut that out, and it would move to another organ. She lived like this for 20 years. I happened to visit her one day after she’d had a kidney removed, and she was sitting up in bed looking perfectly normal. I asked her, “Is there any pain?” And she said, “Yes, the pain is there, but I don’t go into it.” So, that’s one of the benefits of having jhāna as a pleasant abiding.
The other woman had noticed a pain in her liver, and so the doctors did an exploratory operation, but they discovered that the cancer was far too advanced and too extensive for them to cut out. So they sewed her back up and asked her, “Would you like a pain-killer?” And she said, “No, I’d rather be alert.” And as with the first woman, she showed no signs of being in pain. In fact, every morning the doctors and nurses in the hospital would come and visit her and listen to a Dhamma talk.
So, having jhāna as a pleasurable abiding is very helpful in many cases.
They talk about this in the Canon as well. There’s a poem about a monk alone in the wilderness who falls ill. He asks himself, “Am I going to leave the wilderness and look for a doctor?” And he replies, “No, I’m going to think about the example of the Buddha and the great disciples. I’m going to treat my mind with concentration, with the four establishings of mindfulness, the five faculties, and the seven factors for awakening.” He recovered and lived to tell the story. That’s jhāna as a pleasant abiding.
As for psychic powers, everyone knows that these are dangerous, but if you use them wisely, they can help you develop saṁvega. Think of the Buddha remembering all of his past lives. This kind of knowledge can lead to a very strong sense of saṁvega or dismay over staying in saṁsāra. Ajaan Mun said he remembered that he was a dog for 500 lives. Imagine, if you could remember you’d been a dog for 500 lifetimes, the strong sense of saṁvega you’d feel.
It’s interesting that, when the Canon talks about psychic powers, it treats them with a sense of humor. Perhaps this is because psychic power does have its dangers, so it’s important that you not get dazzled by other people’s psychic powers. You don’t put too much faith in them—or develop pride around these powers if you develop them yourself.
One of my favorite stories in the Canon concerns a young monk with psychic powers. A group of monks are invited for a meal, a very large meal, and as they’re walking back to the monastery, it’s quite hot and—in the Canon’s words—the monks feel like they’re melting. So the youngest monk asks the eldest monk, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a gentle rain shower with a gentle breeze right now?” And the senior monk said, “Yes, that would be very nice.” So all of a sudden, a breeze blows up, and a nice, gentle rain falls all the way back to the monastery. When they get there, the young monk asks, “Is that enough?” And the senior monk says, “Thank you. That was very kind of you.”
Well, the layperson who had given the meal was following behind the monks and he saw this happen. So, after the monks had gone back to their huts, he confronted the youngest monk and said, “I saw that. Is there anything else you can do?” The young monk looked at him for a second and said, “Okay, take off your upper robe, place it on my porch, get a pile of grass, and put the pile of grass on the robe.” The layperson did as he was told. The young monk went into his hut, closed the door, and then a flame came out through the cracks around the door, burned the grass, but didn’t touch the cloth. The layperson picked up his robe and, with his hair standing on end, was shaking it off as the monk came out and asked him, “Is that enough?” And the layperson said, “Yes, more than enough, thank you.” Then he went on to say, “You’re welcome to stay here as long as you’d like. I’ll provide whatever food, clothing, shelter, and medicine you need.” So the monk said, “That’s very nice of you to say that.” But after the layperson left, the monk gathered all of his belongings and left. He realized the trouble that would follow if word of this got out, so he decided that the best thing to do was to leave.
There’s a very similar story in Ajaan Lee’s life. There was an old nun who was living at home, paralyzed, and she had been paralyzed for many years. Ajaan Lee happened to be traveling through the area. Previously to that, another meditation monk had gone through the area, and the woman’s children had asked him, “Can you cure our paralyzed mother?” And he said, “I can’t do it, but another meditation monk is going to be coming soon and he’ll be able to do it.” So when Ajaan Lee happened to come through the area, the woman’s children came to him and asked, “Can you please come and see our mother?” As he walked into the house, she got up from her bed just enough to put her hands in añjali, palm-to-palm in front of her face. And he said to her, “Okay, your old kamma is done, you can be cured now.” The next thing he did was something I can imagine in a movie with Humphrey Bogart. He sat down near her and said, “Can you light my cigarette?” And she did. Within two weeks she was walking.
The problem, though, was that after he had cured her, everyone in the area came with all of their sick people, so he had to leave. Psychic powers are not always a good thing.
So, let’s get back on topic. The third use of jhāna is to develop more mindfulness and alertness, because the stillness of jhāna makes it easier to remember things—that’s the function of mindfulness—and it allows you to be alert to things in the mind more quickly and more subtly, which helps in the work of ardency. That way, if any disturbance comes into the mind, you can very quickly get rid of it. If anything good appears in the mind, you can start working on nurturing it right away. Often the good qualities of the mind are like tiny, tiny sprouts coming up out of the ground, and if you’re not looking carefully, you just step on them. But if you learn to recognize them for what they are, then you can protect them. This is how jhāna helps with mindfulness and alertness.
As for putting an end to defilements—in other words, the real purpose of our practice—first, as you’re getting the mind into concentration, you can see any distraction that comes up and recognize that “This is simply a fabrication,” so you can realize that it’s not the true you. It’s just an old habit. All too often when a feeling comes up in the body, you think, “This is my feeling,” and you think that if you don’t fully express it or honor it, you’re not being true to yourself. But if you have another place to put the mind, as in the state of concentration, you can see that these feelings and the thoughts around them are just old habits, and that you have the freedom to change them. In this way, you can let them go. This is the task of discernment that we’ll discuss more tomorrow night.
As your jhāna itself becomes more fully mastered, you can start looking at the jhāna itself in terms of fabrication. Remember the three kinds of fabrication we talked about when we were discussing persistence. There’s bodily fabrication, which is the in-and-out breath; verbal fabrication, which is directed thought and evaluation, in other words, the way the mind talks to itself; and then there’s mental fabrication, which are feelings and perceptions. As I pointed out last night, every state of jhāna is composed of these things: all three in the case of the first jhāna; bodily and mental fabrication in the case of the second and third jhāna; and mental fabrication in the case of every level beginning with the fourth jhāna. Once the mind is really firmly in a state of concentration, you can pull out a little bit and analyze it in those terms. You can do this either while you’re in the state of jhāna [§9] or as you move from one jhāna to another. For example, when you enter into the second jhāna, your verbal fabrication falls away. When you move into the fourth, then bodily fabrication falls away. When mental fabrication falls away, it’s a state that goes even higher than the highest jhāna. In Ajaan Lee’s image, it’s like putting a rock into a smelter and raising the temperature, and as you reach the melting point of different minerals—tin, lead, zinc, silver, and gold—they separate out of the rock on their own.
So in either way—either when analyzing the jhāna while in it, or when you move from one to another—you begin to see clearly that these are fabricated states, and what precisely the fabrications are. As I said earlier, this is a very important insight because when you attain a state of pure awareness or luminous awareness, it’s all too easy to mistake it for the unfabricated: when, for example, you think you’ve reached the ground of being, a metaphysical substrate that underlies your being or the being of the world. But when you keep in mind the fact that concentration is a type of kamma and fabrication, you keep looking to see, “What am I doing to maintain this state?” You see that your sense of being one with something—even space, consciousness, or nothingness—is a kind of doing. There’s a perception behind it that’s doing the activity. Keeping this in mind gives you a perspective to detect the subtle movements in the mind that still have a potential to cause suffering. This level of mindfulness is what protects you from mistaking a jhāna attainment for the highest attainment.
Here it’s important to remember what Ajaan Lee said, which is that when you’re practicing jhāna you’re going against the principles of inconstancy, stress, and not-self. You’re trying to see how far you can fabricate something that’s constant and easeful and under your control. But you come to an end to that. This is how far fabrication can take you. Fabrication can only get this good. That realization puts you in a better position to be willing to let go of everything that is fabricated and to recognize the unfabricated when you actually encounter it.
So, those are the four uses of jhāna: The first three are a pleasant abiding, psychic powers, mindfulness and alertness—all of which are parts of the path—and then the fourth, the end of defilement, is the end of the path. Jhāna helps you reach the end of the path because it puts you in a good position to develop discernment. Discernment is what actually gets you to the end of the path, but the concentration is what gives you the power and the precision so that discernment can clearly see subtle things. It’s like doing a scientific experiment. You have all of your equipment on a table, and although the equipment may be very sensitive, if the table wobbles, then the results recorded by the equipment are useless. But if the table is solid, then you can trust what the equipment is telling you.
We’ll talk about the work of discernment tomorrow night to show how this equipment actually works. But for now, let’s meditate.