Jhāna & Right Concentration
Among the cardinal tenets of the modern interpretation of mindfulness are these: that mindfulness practice is radically different from jhāna practice, that jhāna is not necessary for awakening, and that the modicum of concentration attained through mindfulness-as-bare-awareness practices is enough to qualify as right concentration. However, these tenets fly in the face of the standard definition of the noble eightfold path, which defines right concentration as the four jhānas (SN 45:8; DN 22; MN 141). So to justify the modern view, many writers have argued that the Pali discourses contain passages indicating that right concentration doesn’t necessarily mean jhāna, or that jhāna isn’t always necessary for awakening. Because this is such an important point, it’s worth examining these passages carefully, to see if they actually support the arguments based on them.
Before doing this, though, we should note that the texts record the Buddha as providing clear standards for how to evaluate statements made about his teachings. In DN 29 he presents a list of teachings to be taken as standard—the wings to awakening (bodhi-pakkhiya-dhamma)—among which are the factors of the noble eightfold path, including right concentration. He goes on to say that if anyone claims to quote him on the topic of the Dhamma, that person’s words should be measured against the standard. Anything that conflicts with the wings to awakening—either in expression or interpretation—should be recognized as wrong.
This means that if a passage in the discourses can be shown necessarily to conflict with these teachings, it must have been included in the discourses by mistake, for it’s not in line with the Dhamma. So in this sense, the efforts to find passages deviating from the standard definition of right concentration are self-defeating. Any passage that proves the modern argument would, by the standards in DN 29, not count as Dhamma and so would not count as authoritative. It would have to be put aside.
However, when we examine the passages cited for the purpose of justifying the modern view, we find that they don’t actually conflict with the standard definition of right concentration, and so don’t need to be put aside. What needs to be put aside is the modern interpretation forced on them.
The arguments supporting the modern interpretation fall into three main sorts: those based on the defining characteristics of an awakened person, those based on alternative definitions of right concentration, and those based on redefining the word “right” in right concentration.
I.A. A discourse frequently cited by arguments of the first sort is SN 12:70, which concerns a group of monks who are arahants “released through discernment.” Another monk, Ven. Susīma—who has ordained with the purpose of stealing the Dhamma from the monastic Saṅgha to take it to his sectarian friends so that they can claim it as their own—questions these arahants as to their attainments. Running down the list of the psychic powers that can sometimes result from jhāna practice, he asks them if they have attained any of the powers, and they repeatedly reply, “No, friend.” Then the conversation continues as follows:
Ven. Susīma: “Then, having known thus, having seen thus, do you dwell touching with your body the peaceful emancipations, the formless states beyond form?”
The monks: “No, friend.”
“So just now, friends, didn’t you make that declaration [of arahantship] without having attained any of these Dhammas?”
“We’re released through discernment, friend Susīma.” — SN 12:70
Some modern writers have cited this passage as proof that the arahants in question hadn’t practiced the jhānas and yet had still gained awakening. This would imply that jhāna is not a necessary part of the path. However, the “peaceful liberations, the formless states beyond form” are not the four jhānas. Instead, they are the formless attainments that can be developed based on the equanimity developed in the fourth jhāna (see the quotation from MN 140 in Chapter One). The fact that the arahants in this discourse hadn’t reached these attainments in no way proves that they reached arahantship without attaining the jhānas. In fact, the definition of “released through discernment” given in AN 9:43–45 states explicitly that arahants released through discernment can have attained any of the jhānas or formless attainments up through the cessation of perception and feeling, simply that they have not “touched with the body” any of the other subsidiary attainments—such as clairvoyance—that can open from those levels of concentration.
Ven. Udāyin: “‘Released through discernment, released through discernment,’ it is said. To what extent is one described by the Blessed One as released through discernment?”
Ven. Ānanda: “There is the case, my friend, where a monk, quite secluded from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, enters & remains in the first jhāna: rapture & pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. And he knows it through discernment. It’s to this extent that one is described by the Blessed One as released through discernment, though with a sequel.
“And further, with the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhāna… the third jhāna… the fourth jhāna… the dimension of the infinitude of space… the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness… the dimension of nothingness… the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. And he knows it through discernment. It’s to this extent that one is described by the Blessed One as released through discernment, though with a sequel.
“And further, with the complete transcending of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, he enters & remains in the cessation of perception & feeling. And as he sees with discernment, the effluents go to their total end. And he knows it through discernment. It’s to this extent that one is described by the Blessed One as released through discernment without a sequel.” — AN 9:44
This fact has been pointed out several times by several authors. In response, a more recent version of the argument asserts that the compilers of SN 12:70 wanted to state that release through discernment doesn’t involve the jhānas, but for some reason backed off from saying what they actually wanted to say. Of course, this argument takes the discussion away from the quest for Dhamma and into the realm of idle speculation. Even if we could divine the compilers’ hidden agenda, and that agenda actually did deviate from the standard teaching on the necessity of jhāna, that would automatically disqualify the discourse from being taken as authoritative. So again, this new version of the argument is self-defeating as a guide to the Dhamma. However, it does raise one important Dhamma question that has to be taken seriously.
The question relates to the ensuing scene in SN 12:70. After questioning the arahants, Susīma goes to see the Buddha to report what he has heard. The Buddha validates the arahants’ statements and then gives Susīma a standard questionnaire on the aggregates, and whether they are constant, pleasant, or deserve to be called “self.” After Susīma gives the correct answers, the Buddha then quizzes him about whether he sees the connections among the factors of dependent co-arising, and Susīma answers that he does. This, in the standard idiom of the Canon, indicates that Susīma has attained at least stream entry, the first level of awakening, probably as a result of being exposed to the questionnaire on the aggregates. Now, the argument states, Susīma would have had no opportunity during this conversation to develop any of the jhānas. Thus the hidden purpose of including the conversation in the discourse was to show that awakening can occur without jhāna.
However, there is nothing in the definition of jhāna to indicate that it cannot be developed while listening to a Dhamma talk. As AN 10:71 points out, insight can lead to jhāna, and so it’s possible that—if other conditions are right—the insight gained while listening to the Dhamma could induce a state of jhāna in the listener while the talk was occurring. In fact, the questionnaire on the aggregates that the Buddha uses with Susīma is one that he and his disciples used with great success in bringing about immediate awakening among their listeners, some of whom prior to hearing the questionnaire suffered from severe wrong view (MN 109, SN 22:59, SN 22:83, SN 22:85). As MN 111 and AN 9:36 show, the five aggregates are directly observable in the first jhāna, so a person in that level of concentration would be in an ideal position to observe the aggregates while being questioned on them.
Sometimes it’s argued that a person in jhāna is “incapable of speech” or cannot hear sounds, but neither of these assertions is supported by the Canon. SN 36:11 does state that speech grows still when one is in the first jhāna, but this doesn’t mean that a person in the first jhāna is incapable of speech, just as the stilling of in-and-out breathing in the fourth jhāna doesn’t mean that one is incapable of breathing. The stilling of speech in the first jhāna simply means that, for the duration of the time one is speaking, the level of stillness in one’s mind would not count as the first jhāna. In other words, a person in the first jhāna would be leaving the first jhāna when starting to speak, but could immediately return to the first jhāna as soon as he/she stops speaking.
As for the assertion that a person in jhāna cannot hear sounds, this point is clearly disproven by an incident in the Vinita-vatthu, or Precedents, listed in the discussion of Pārājika 4 in the Vinaya. There, Ven. Moggallāna states that he can hear sounds when entering the formless attainments. A group of monks object to his statement, convinced that he is making a false claim—which would be a violation of the rule—so they report his statement to the Buddha. The Buddha’s reply: Moggallāna’s experience of those attainments was not pure; however, that impurity was not enough to make the statement false. He actually was experiencing the formless attainments.
Now, given that Moggallāna was an arahant at the time of this incident, then even though his attainment of the formless attainments was not completely pure, it was pure enough. And although this passage doesn’t specify whether the ability to hear sounds in any of the four jhānas would make those jhānas impure, it clearly implies that the ability to hear sounds while in the first jhāna would not disqualify it from being jhāna.
So the fact that Ven. Susīma could attain the first level of awakening while listening to the Dhamma is no proof that he did not enter at least the first jhāna while listening to the Buddha’s questionnaire. And so it’s hard to find any trace of hidden motive in the presentation of SN 12:70. The discourse does not explicitly or implicitly support the idea that jhāna is unnecessary for awakening.
I.B. Another passage cited to prove that one can be an arahant without having attained jhāna is in AN 4:87. Here, the Buddha lists four types of contemplatives, two of them being the “white-lotus contemplative” and the “red-lotus contemplative.”
“And which individual is the white-lotus contemplative? There is the case, monks, where a monk—through the ending of the effluents—has entered & remains in the effluent-free awareness-release & discernment-release, directly knowing & realizing them for himself right in the here-&-now. But he does not also remain touching with his body the eight emancipations [vimokkha]. This is how an individual is a white-lotus contemplative.
“And which individual is the red-lotus contemplative? There is the case, monks, where a monk—through the ending of the effluents—has entered & remains in the effluent-free awareness-release & discernment-release, directly knowing & realizing them for himself right in the here-&-now. And he remains touching with his body the eight emancipations. This is how an individual is a red-lotus contemplative.” — AN 4:87
The argument here is that the eight emancipations, while not identical to the four jhānas and the formless attainments, are nevertheless equivalent to them. This would mean that “white-lotus” arahants are those who have attained none of the jhānas, whereas “red-lotus” arahants are those who have mastered all the jhānas.
Now it is true that the last five of the eight emancipations are identical with the four formless attainments plus the cessation of perception and feeling. From this it could be argued that the first three emancipations are simply another name for the four jhānas, in which case the “white-lotus” arahants would have to be devoid of jhāna. But there are two reasons for not accepting this argument.
The first reason comes from the description of the three emancipations themselves:
“Possessed of form, one sees forms. This is the first emancipation.
“Not percipient of form internally, one sees forms externally. This is the second emancipation.
“One is intent only on the beautiful. This is the third emancipation.” — DN 15
These are not descriptions of the four jhānas, for they contain no mention of the jhāna factors. Their emphasis is on what one sees, which means that they are types of meditative visionary experiences. The mere fact that they can lead to the formless attainments does not make them equivalent to the jhānas. They simply provide an alternative route to the formless attainments. In fact, the existence of this alternative route may explain why the Buddha, prior to his awakening, was able to reach the formless attainments when studying under Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, without at the same time passing through the four jhānas. So to say that an arahant doesn’t touch these emancipations with his/her body doesn’t mean that he/she has not attained any of the four jhānas.
The second reason for not accepting the argument that an arahant who has not mastered the eight emancipations must be devoid of jhāna is a parallel passage in DN 15, which describes two types of arahants. One is the arahant released both ways, whose definition is identical with that of the “red-lotus” contemplative. The second type, who does not touch the eight emancipations, is called the arahant “released through discernment.” This would correspond to the “white-lotus” contemplative. But look at what this arahant knows:
“There are beings with diversity of body and diversity of perception, such as human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms. This is the first station of consciousness.
“There are beings with diversity of body and singularity of perception, such as the devas of the Brahmā hosts generated by the first [jhāna] and [some] beings in the four realms of deprivation. This is the second station of consciousness.
“There are beings with singularity of body and diversity of perception, such as the Radiant Devas. This is the third station of consciousness.
“There are beings with singularity of body and singularity of perception, such as the Beautifully Lustrous Devas. This is the fourth station of consciousness.
“There are beings who, with the complete transcending of perceptions of (physical) form, with the disappearance of perceptions of resistance, and not attending to perceptions of diversity, (perceiving,) ‘infinite space,’ arrive at the dimension of the infinitude of space. This is the fifth station of consciousness.
“There are beings who, with the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of space, (perceiving,) ‘infinite consciousness,’ arrive at the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. This is the sixth station of consciousness.
“There are beings who, with the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, (perceiving,) ‘There is nothing,’ arrive at the dimension of nothingness. This is the seventh station of consciousness.
“The dimension of non-percipient beings and, second, the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. [These are the two dimensions.]
“Now, as for the first station of consciousness—beings with diversity of body and diversity of perception, such as human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms: If one discerns that (station of consciousness), discerns its origination, discerns its disappearance, discerns its allure, discerns its drawbacks, discerns the escape from it, would it be proper, by means of that (discernment) to take delight there?”
[Similarly with each of the remaining stations of consciousness and two dimensions.]
“Ānanda, when knowing, as they have come to be, the origination, disappearance, allure, drawbacks of—and escape from—these seven stations of consciousness and two dimensions, a monk is released through lack of clinging, he is said to be a monk released through discernment.” — DN 15
According to AN 4:123, the third station of consciousness is attained through the second jhāna; the fourth station of consciousness, through the third. So to have knowledge of these stations would require at least a modicum of jhāna. For this reason, we cannot accept the idea that a “white-lotus” contemplative has to be an arahant without jhāna.
I.C. A subset of the first set of arguments against the necessity of jhāna on the path contains arguments affirming that jhāna is necessary for arahantship, but denying that it’s necessary for stream entry, the first level of awakening. The prime example of this type of argument is based on a passage in AN 3:87, which describes a stream-enterer as one who is “wholly accomplished in virtue, moderately accomplished in concentration, and moderately accomplished in discernment.” Only with non-return, the discourse states, does one become “wholly accomplished in concentration.” In support of the idea that this means that the stream-enterer has not attained jhāna, the argument points to many of the lists in the discourses describing the virtues and accomplishments of the stream-enterer, none of which state that he/she is accomplished in jhāna (see, for instance, SN 55:32; SN 55:33; and AN 10:92).
However, this argument ignores two passages in the Canon stating clearly that right concentration is a part of the path to stream entry: MN 117 and SN 55:5. In fact, MN 117 places jhāna at the heart of the stream-enterer’s path. The statement that concentration is mastered only on the level of non-return must be interpreted in light of the distinction between mastery and attainment. A stream-enterer may have attained jhāna without mastering it, just as he/she has gained some discernment into dependent co-arising (AN 10:92) without fully mastering that topic. The discernment developed in the process of gaining full mastery over the practice of jhāna will then lead him/her to the level of non-return.
So none of the passages cited to prove that jhāna is not a necessary part of an awakened person’s attainments actually support the arguments based on them.
As for the second set of arguments, which try to prove that the Canon contains alternative definitions of right concentration that don’t involve jhāna, three of the passages cited by these arguments are worthy of note:
II.A. The first is a definition of right concentration that appears in DN 18 and MN 117. In those discourses, noble right concentration is defined as “any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors—right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, & right mindfulness.” This, the argument goes, shows that there is another form of concentration aside from jhāna that would qualify as right concentration, inasmuch as the jhāna factors are not mentioned in the definition.
This argument, however, misses two points. The first is that this definition differs in no way from the opening part of the definition of the first jhāna: “There is the case where a monk—quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful qualities—enters & remains in the first jhāna.” The “unskillful qualities” in this passage are identified by SN 45:22 as “wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness, wrong concentration.” And of course, sensuality is renounced through right resolve. In fact, MN 78 indicates a direct connection between right resolve and jhāna, stating that the first jhāna is where all unskillful resolves cease without trace. This means that any concentration truly endowed with right resolve would have to be at least the first jhāna.
The second point is that MN 117 itself confirms the connection between right resolve and jhāna, in that it defines noble right resolve as: “the thinking, directed thinking, resolve, mental fixity, mental transfixion, focused awareness, & verbal fabrications [directed thought and evaluation] in one developing the noble path.” The reference in this passage to factors of the first jhāna means that noble right resolve is itself part of the first jhāna.
So there is nothing in the definition of right concentration offered in DN 18 and MN 117 to indicate that it would be anything other than jhāna.
II.B. Another passage said to offer an alternative definition of right concentration not involving jhāna appears in MN 149. There a meditator is described as knowing and seeing the processes of the six senses as they have come to be, after which:
“For him—uninfatuated, unattached, unconfused, remaining focused on their drawbacks—the five clinging-aggregates head toward future diminution. The craving that makes for further becoming—accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there—is abandoned by him. His bodily disturbances & mental disturbances are abandoned. His bodily torments & mental torments are abandoned. His bodily distresses & mental distresses are abandoned. He is sensitive both to ease of body & ease of awareness.
“Any view belonging to one who has come to be like this is his right view. Any resolve, his right resolve. Any effort, his right effort. Any mindfulness, his right mindfulness. Any concentration, his right concentration: just as earlier his actions, speech, & livelihood were already well-purified. Thus for him, having thus developed the noble eightfold path, the four establishings of mindfulness go to the culmination of their development. The four right exertions… the four bases of power… the five faculties… the five strengths… the seven factors for awakening go to the culmination of their development. [And] for him these two qualities occur in tandem: calm & insight.” — MN 149
Some writers have maintained that this passage constitutes an alternative definition of right concentration, based on a pure insight practice into the nature of the six senses, with no mention of jhāna. However, the passage itself says that it’s an instance of insight developed in tandem with calm. Now, the Buddha often told the monks, “Develop concentration, monks. A concentrated monk discerns things as they have come to be” (SN 22:5; SN 35:96; SN 56:1). In fact, in SN 35:96, the “things” to be discerned as they have come to be are the processes of the six senses.
“Develop concentration, monks. A concentrated monk discerns things as they have come to be. And what does he discern as it has come to be? He discerns as it has come to be that ‘the eye is inconstant.’ He discerns as it has come to be that ‘forms are inconstant.’ He discerns as it has come to be that ‘eye-consciousness is inconstant.’ He discerns as it has come to be that ‘contact at the eye is inconstant.’ He discerns as it has come to be that, ‘Whatever arises in dependence on this contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain—that too is inconstant.’ [Similarly with the remaining senses.]” — SN 35:96
This indicates that the practice described in MN 149 would best be based on the practice of right concentration, so that the mind would be in an ideal position to see things actually as they have come to be. So there is nothing here to indicate that it would be a “pure insight” practice, or that the concentration on which it is based would be anything but jhāna.
II.C. A third passage sometimes cited to prove that a form of meditation different from the four jhānas would qualify as right concentration appears in AN 4:163. This discourse describes four types of practice: painful practice with slow intuition, painful practice with quick intuition, pleasant practice with slow intuition, and pleasant practice with quick intuition. In making the distinction between painful and pleasant practice, it defines painful practice in these terms:
“There is the case where a monk remains focused on unattractiveness with regard to the body. Percipient of loathsomeness with regard to food & non-delight with regard to the entire world, he remains focused on inconstancy with regard to all fabrications. The perception of death is well-established within him.” — AN 4:163
In contrast, pleasant practice is described with the standard formula for the four jhānas. Some writers have taken this as proof that there is an alternative path to awakening that does not involve the jhānas, in that the description of painful practice contains no reference to the jhānas at all.
This reading, however, misses the way in which AN 4:163 describes how painful practice and pleasant practice can yield either slow or quick intuition. Here’s how it explains why either form of practice might yield slow intuition:
“One dwells in dependence on these five strengths of a learner—strength of conviction, strength of shame, strength of compunction, strength of persistence, & strength of discernment—but one’s five faculties—the faculty of conviction… persistence… mindfulness… concentration… discernment—appear weakly. Because of their weakness, one attains only slowly the immediacy [the concentration of unmediated knowing—see Sn 2:1] that leads to the ending of the effluents.” — AN 4:163
Practice yielding quick intuition differs in that the five faculties appear intensely. Now, in both cases, the faculty of concentration—which is defined with the standard formula for the jhānas (SN 48:10)—has to be present for the ending of the effluents. Because this is true both for painful practice and for pleasant practice, both sorts of practice, whether slow or quick, need jhāna in order to succeed.
So none of the passages cited to prove that the Canon recognizes forms of right concentration that do not include jhāna actually support the arguments based on them.
III. As for the third set of arguments, which offer a different definition for the word “right” (sammā) in right concentration: These try to make the point that “right” has to be understood in such a way that alternative types of concentration would not necessarily be wrong. One example can serve to illustrate the entire set.
The PTS Dictionary states that sammā is related to two Sanskrit words: samyak, which means “right”; and samīś, which can mean “connected; in one.” Based on this etymology, it has been argued as follows: “[T]he qualification sammā, ‘right’… literally means ‘togetherness’, or ‘to be connected in one’. Thus to speak of the four absorptions or of unification of the mind as ‘right’ concentration does not simply mean that these are ‘right’ and all else is ‘wrong’, but points to the need to incorporate the development of concentration into the noble eightfold path.”
This argument, however, neglects two glaring points. The first is that etymology is an unreliable guide to what a word means in context. English contains plenty of examples where a word’s etymology would be a misleading guide to its meaning—think of “conscience” and “terrific”—and Pāli contains many more. To understand what sammā means in Pāli, we have to look at how it’s actually used in the texts. And we find that when sammā is used to describe the factors of the path, its opposite is never “apart” or “not included” or “not connected.” Its opposite is always micchā, which unequivocally means, “wrong” (MN 117; MN 126; AN 10:108).
The second point is that if this argument were to be valid for right concentration, it would also have to be valid for every other factor of the path. To speak of “right view” would not be a matter of saying that one view was right or another wrong; it would simply point to the need to incorporate views of some sort on the path; “right action” would indicate the need to incorporate actions of some sort on the path—and so on for the other factors. In this way, the path would become meaningless, for any type of view, resolve, etc., would qualify as the path.
So there is no reason for anyone who looks to the Pāli Canon for guidance to regard arguments of this third sort as convincing or helpful.
Four discourses attributed to the Buddha (AN 7:29–32) list the activities and mental attributes that a monk should respect if he is not to fall away from the practice. The lists in the four discourses differ in some of their details, but all four include the need to have respect for concentration. This is in addition to another member in each list—respect for training—which by implication also includes concentration, in that concentration is one of the three trainings (AN 3:85). In this way, these discourses highlight respect for concentration as deserving special attention. Perhaps the Buddha foresaw that, with jhāna being the most difficult part of the path, it would be the most likely to be discredited with the passage of time. It’s a shame that so many teachers and practitioners in the modern world have fallen into this trap in their enthusiasm to promote their own views on mindfulness and insight. Anyone serious about reaping the full benefits of the practice would be well advised to remember that the Buddha saw right mindfulness, insight, tranquility, and jhāna as mutually reinforcing. Respect for all of these qualities is a necessary attitude in following the path to the end of suffering and stress.
“If a monk would wish, ‘May I—with the ending of effluents—remain in the effluent-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having directly known & realized them for myself right in the here-&-now,’ then he should be one who brings the precepts to perfection, who is committed to inner tranquility of awareness, who does not neglect jhāna, who is endowed with insight, and who frequents empty dwellings.” — AN 10:71