The Skills of Jhāna

§ Momentary concentration is like a house roofed with thatch; its posts are made out of softwood. Momentary concentration isn’t jhāna. Threshold concentration is like a house made out of hardwood with a tile roof. Fixed penetration is like an immovable concrete building. This is where we become “one” in a single preoccupation on the single or direct path (ekāyana-magga). It’s like sitting alone in a chair or lying alone on a bed, without anyone trying to come and take up our space, or like being alone in a room without anyone else coming in to disturb us. When we’re alone in a room, we can be at our ease. We can even take off our clothes if we like. We can behave with good manners or bad, and no one will complain. This is why a mind with jhāna as its dwelling can be at its ease. It has a deep well so that it can get plenty of water—to the point where it can drop directed thought and evaluation, leaving nothing but pleasure: This is where feeling becomes your frame of reference (vedanānupassanā-satipaṭṭhāna). The body feels full. All four properties—earth, water, fire, and wind—feel full. When the mind feels full in this way, nothing is lacking. That’s rapture. You don’t want any more of the four properties.

When the mind soaks for a long time in this sense of rapture, it’s like something you’ve soaked in water for a long time: The water is bound to permeate it to a point of saturation. This sense of rapture is the second level of jhāna. When the sense of rapture begins to move, you don’t feel at ease, in the same way as when a boat begins to sway you want to get back on land. So once rapture fills the body, you let go of it, leaving nothing but pleasure and singleness of preoccupation. When the mind has soaked itself in pleasure to a point of saturation, it lets go, leaving an empty sense of equanimity. When the mind is really empty, it feels spacious and light. The more it soaks in equanimity, the more still it gets, giving rise to an inner sense of light. When the light is really intense you arrive at Right Mindfulness.

§ Directed thought—focusing on the breath without getting distracted—is like planting a tree. Evaluation is like loosening the soil around the roots, giving it fertilizer, and watering it from the roots to the topmost branches. The body, which can be compared to the soil, will soften, allowing the fertilizer and water to penetrate down to the roots. Rapture is like the tree’s being fresh and green and bursting into bloom. (There are five kinds of rapture: (1) an unusual sense of heaviness or lightness in the body; (2) a sense of the body floating; (3) a sense of coolness or heat; (4) a sense of thrill passing over the surface of the body; (5) the body beginning to sway.) Pleasure means stillness of body and mind, free from Hindrances. Singleness of preoccupation means being neutral toward other things, perfectly still in a single preoccupation. This is what the Buddha was referring to when he said that concentration matured with virtue is of great benefit, great rewards.

§ Directed thought is like standing and looking out a window. Whoever walks past, we know, but we don’t call out to them or turn to look after them as they walk down the road. We simply stand perfectly still at the window.

§ Directed thought and evaluation applied to the breath are like car mechanics. The mind is like the head mechanic. When we drive our car, we have to be observant and keep checking all the mechanical parts—such as the steering wheel, the springs, the tires, the gas line—to see if anything is wearing out or not working properly. If we find that anything is not working properly, we have to fix it immediately. That way the car will take us safely to our destination. When you practice concentration, you have to be observant, checking your breath to see whether or not it’s coming in smoothly, and adjusting it to make it comfortable. Your concentration will then progress step by step and ultimately take you to the transcendent.

§ When people criticize you, saying that you’re in a blind state of jhāna, it’s still better than having no jhāna to be in. And if they say that you’re like a baby chick that hasn’t come out of its egg, that’s okay, too. When a baby chick is still in the egg, no hawk can swoop down on it and catch it. When it comes out of the egg is when it becomes prey.

§ They may say that you’re sitting in “stump” concentration, but don’t pay them any mind, because stumps can have their uses. Sometimes they grow new branches, with tender leaves you can eat. But if the stump catches fire and burns to a crisp, that’s no good at all.

§ As we keep training the mind, it keeps getting more and more mature, more tempered and sharp, able to cut right through anything at all. Like a knife that we always keep sharpening: There’s no way it can not become sharp. So we should keep at the practice in the same way that we sharpen a knife. If any part of the body or mind isn’t in good shape, we keep adjusting it until we get good results. When good results arise, we’ll be in a state of Right Concentration. The mind will be firmly established in the present, in a state of singleness of preoccupation. We’ll gain power both in body and mind. Power in body means that wherever there are pains, we can adjust the properties of earth, water, fire, and wind to give rise to a sense of comfort, in the same way that we trim a tree. If any branches are broken or rotten, we cut them away and graft on new branches. If the new ones break, we graft on more new ones. We keep on doing this until the tree is healthy and strong.

§ Making the mind still is good for two things: suppressing and cutting. If we can’t yet cut, we can still suppress. “Suppressing” means that there are defilements in the mind but we don’t let them flare up into action. We keep them in line. “Cutting” means that we don’t even let them arise.

§ In putting the mind in shape we have to be observant to see what things need correcting, what things need fostering, what things need letting go. If you do nothing but correcting, it won’t work. The same holds true for just letting go. We do whatever the practice requires.

§ When the mind is in concentration, it doesn’t get distracted by any thoughts that come passing by. It’s like a person entirely focused on his work: If anyone walks by and tries to strike up a conversation, he doesn’t want to respond or even look up from his work. In the same way, when the mind has really cut away its outside preoccupations, it’s bound to stay entirely in the object of its meditation.

§ The mind full of defilements is like salt water in the ocean. You have to use a lot of directed thought and evaluation to filter and distill the mind to the point where the salt water turns into rain water.

§ People in the world are like people floating in boats in the middle of the sea when it’s filled with waves and monsoon winds. Some people are so far out that they can’t even see land. Some are bobbing up and down, sometimes able to see land and sometimes not. This stands for people who are meditating “buddho.” Others are beginning to come into harbor, where they can see fish traps, sailboats, and the green trees on the coast. Some have swum in so far that they’re almost ashore but not quite. As for the Buddha, he’s like someone who has reached the shore and is standing on the land, free from every kind of danger. He sees all the perils that human beings are subject to, and so he feels compassion for us, trying to help us reach the shore and escape from the dangers at sea. This is why he teaches us to develop generosity, virtue, and meditation, which are things that are going to pull us safely to solid ground.

When we develop the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha within ourselves, we won’t have to suffer. We make the mind into Dhamma, and the various defilements that spoil it will disappear. This is how we can escape from the sea.

Once we get on land we can have lots of fun, because there are a lot of things we never saw at sea. It’s like when we come into the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, where there are marsh trees and fresh green plants. We become enchanted and keep walking further inland to Sukhumvit Road. There we see bicycles and trucks and jeeps and pretty automobiles of different colors. This gets us even more excited, and some of us get smitten with what we see on land. In other words, we fall for the visions and signs that come in meditation. For instance, we may begin to remember previous lifetimes. If we remember bad things, we become sad. If we remember good things, we get happy. This turns into craving, the desire to be this or that, and some people get really deluded, thinking that they actually are the things they see.

If our discernment isn’t strong enough, then whatever we see will turn into the corruptions of insight (vipassanūpakkilesa)—like people who get all excited the first time they see a car. They go running to the car, wanting to ride in it, wanting to drive it, but without looking right or left or stopping to take note of anything. They run right out into the middle of the road, get run over, and either die or break an arm or a leg. After all the trouble they went to in order to get out of the sea, they get deluded and put themselves in danger all over again.

But if our discernment is strong enough, whatever we see will turn into noble treasures (ariya-dhana). If we see a forest of marsh tress, we can put them to use. We can cut them into firewood to use ourselves or sell in the market. If the land is a tangle of weeds, we can clear it and turn it into fields. If we don’t let it lie fallow, it’s sure to yield crops.

Falling for visions is also called “skewed perception.” The right way to act when you see a vision is to remember to evaluate it and then let it go in line with its true nature. Don’t latch onto what you see, because all things are inconstant. If you’re born poor, you suffer from your desire to be rich. If you’re born rich, you suffer in looking after your possessions, afraid that they’ll wear out, afraid that you’ll get cheated out of them, afraid that thieves will break in and steal them. There’s nothing certain or dependable at all. The same holds true with visions. So whatever you see, you have to let it go in line with its nature. Leave the trees in the forest, the grass in the meadows, and the rice in the fields. If you can do this, you can be at your ease, because you know what it’s like on land, what it’s like in the water, when to get in and when to get out. Once you’re skilled, you can travel on water or land, at your ease in every way. You can go forward or back without any obstacles. This is called lokavidū, knowing the world. You can stay with what you know, but you’re not stuck on it. You can live in the ocean without drowning. You can live in the world without getting sunk in the world—like a lotus leaf in the water: the water doesn’t seep into the leaf at all.

§ When you’re true in what you do, your work will succeed in every way. For instance, if you’re true in observing the precepts, your precepts will get results. If you’re true in practicing concentration, your concentration will get results. If you’re true in developing discernment, your discernment will get results. The reason we don’t see results is because we’re not true in what we do. Only five precepts, and yet we can’t catch them by the head or the tail. And when this is the case, how can we ever hope to make a living at anything? Only four concentrations—the four stages of jhāna—and yet we keep groping around and can’t find them. There are people who can manage farms covering hundreds and thousands of acres, and yet we can’t even manage just four concentrations. Isn’t that embarrassing?

§ If we aren’t true to the Buddha’s teachings in our thoughts and actions, the results of our not being true will keep pushing us further and further away from the Dhamma. We’ll have to be hungry and suffer in various ways. For this reason, the Buddha taught us to be true in whatever we do. When we’re true in this way, then even though we live in the world, we can be at our ease. We know how to flush the suffering out of our heart, to the point where the body feels comfortable in every part. Peace and calm depend on the heart’s having enough and being full. If the heart is full, external fires won’t be able to seep into it. When the body is filled with mindfulness, then where will there be anything lacking in the heart?

This is why, if we want to be full, we have to make an effort at developing our meditation as much as possible. Rapture will then arise. When rapture arises, we’re not stuck on it because we realize that it’s undependable. It eventually has to fade away. So we let go of the rapture. When we let go of the rapture, the mind is at ease in a sense of pleasure. This sense of pleasure and ease is much more refined and profound than rapture, with none of its active symptoms. Rapture is like a person who’s pleased by something and so shows it by smiling or laughing. As for pleasure, it doesn’t have any external signs. It’s hidden in the heart, as when a person is very rich but doesn’t show his wealth in any way that people would catch on. This pleasure is what calms the mind. If it were to show itself externally, it wouldn’t serve any purpose. Pleasure of this sort can cool the heart and give it respite, and this is what leads to stillness and peace. When the mind is at peace, it grows bright and clear, just like a sea without any waves: You can see the boats ten miles away. Whatever comes from the north, south, east, or west, you can see it clearly without having to use a spyglass. Our vision goes out further than normal. This is how we give rise to vipassanā, or the insight that allows us to know and see the truths of the world.

§ If we have a coconut, crack it open, and eat the flesh, it fills us up only once. If we forego eating it and plant it in the ground until it grows into a tree with more coconuts, then take those coconuts and plant them, eventually we’ll become coconut plantation millionaires.

If we get money and simply stash it away, it won’t serve any purpose, and the day will come when it’s no longer safe. So we have to find the right place to put it, by making donations to the religion. That’s when it will give rise to further results.

If the mind goes no further than concentration, it simply gets a sense of ease. We have to invest that stillness in giving rise to discernment. That’s when we’ll meet with the highest happiness.

§ If the mind has a sense of inner fullness, then when we associate with other people they’ll pick up on that sense of fullness as well. If we’re miserable, then when we associate with other people we’ll make them miserable, too.

§ If we can develop the power of the mind, we can send thoughts of good will to help lessen the sufferings of other people. But if we don’t straighten ourselves out first, we can’t really help anyone else, in the same way that a crazy person can’t help another crazy person become sane. If we’re on fire and other people are on fire, how can we help them? We have to put out our own fires first before we can help them cool down. We have to “have” before we can “give.”