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AN OUTLINE OF THE ABSORPTIVE (DHYĀNA / JHĀNA) METHOD OF MEDITATION

[Note: In what follows technical terms are given, in their first occurrences, in
both Sanskrit and Pāli. In subsequent occurrences only the Sanskrit is used.]

We have already seen that the Buddhist path (mārga / magga) is divided into three components: moral
discipline (śīla / sīla), meditative concentration (samādhi), and insight (prajñā / paññā).

An even simpler summary of the path is its traditional two-part division into disciplines of “calming” or
“stilling” (śamatha / samatha) the mind and body and disciplines of intellectually intuitive “discernment” of or
“insight” (vipaśyanā / vipassanā) into the way things truly are. Generally speaking, śīla and samādhi fall under the
heading of śamatha, whereas prajñā falls into the category of vipaśyanā. All Buddhist meditation practices may be
sorted out according to this basic two-part distinction, and the differences between various methods of
meditation are often simply differences in the relative proportions of these two ingredients. Thus certain
methods require that one spend a great deal of time practicing śamatha (calming or stilling) before exercising
vipaśyanā (discernment or insight); others require rather less in the way of śamatha practice. Note, however, that,
whatever the mutual proportions, both kinds of practice are necessary. Note too that, whereas śamatha disciplines
are common to both Buddhist and non-Buddhist meditation methods, it is the practice of vipaśyanā which is most
distinctive or most characteristic of Buddhism. In fact, vipaśyanā may have been Buddhism’s chief innovation in
the history of meditation.

Following these simpler divisions of the path, we may now outline the basic stages in one of the classic
schemes of Buddhist meditation known as the method of dhyāna (“absorption,” “trance,” “ecstasy,” “enstasy”).
This method of meditation is the one Śākyamuni himself is said to have followed, and his experiences during the
night of his enlightenment are commonly described in terms of the later stages of this method. In terms of the
śamatha-vipaśyanā distinction, this dhyāna or absorptive method requires that much time and effort be spent in
practice of śamatha as preparation and foundation for vipaśyanā.

[Note: the following outline is based largely on early discourse of the Buddha known as the Śramaṇaphala Sūtra
("The Discourse on the Fruits of the Ascetic Life,” Pāli: Samaññaphala Sutta)].

I. ŚAMATHA: CALMING AND STILLING THE MIND/BODY.

A. Moral Discipline (śīla) and the Preparations for Concentration.

1. OBEDIENCE TO THE MORAL RULES (śīla): moral discipline in which the practitioner observes both the basic
moral rules incumbent upon all Buddhists, clerics and laypersons alike, and, in the case of clerics, the code of
monastic conduct described in the vinaya (“discipline”) section of the canon. As one advances in moral discipline,
such obedience becomes gradually less and less effortful, more natural or habitual.

2. GUARDING THE SENSES (indriyeṣu guptadvāratā / indriyesu guttadvāratā): the long-term practice of sensory
restraint, i.e., controlling the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind so that the experiences available to and
through them do not distract the practitioner. This usually requires a deliberate reduction or restriction of
sensory input (keeping the eyes averted, avoiding seductive or arousing sound, colors, and shapes, etc.).

3. MINDFULNESS (smṛti / sati) and Clear Comprehension (saṃprajanya / sampajañña): cultivation of clear,
meticulous, vivid, and unremitting awareness of all that one is doing in one’s practice, and of all one's motivations
in doing it. Commonly this takes the form of focused, non-judgmental attention to simple physical or emotional
activities like breathing, walking, feeling, etc. The emphasis is on sheer attention, not on thinking, interpreting,
evaluating, etc. and the purpose is to bring one out of the fog of inattention and forgetfulness in which we
normally live so that one may live more fully in the immediate “here and now” of reality.

[Note: There is another method of meditation in Buddhism, a method distinct from this dhyāna
method, which transforms mindfulness and clear comprehension from the merely preliminary
practices that they are here into the chief components of meditation discipline. This — the
“mindfulness” or “insight” (vipaśyanā; Pāli: vipassanā) method of meditation — requires far less
in the way of preparatory śamatha practice and proceeds quickly, with minimum practice of
calming or stilling, to the practice of discernment or insight. The mindfulness method will be
the next major topic discussed in the course, after we conclude our discussion of the dhyāna
method.]

4. CONTENTMENT (saṃtuṣṭitā / santuṭṭhitā): cultivation of an attitude of satisfaction with few possessions, and of
the feeling of freedom that accrues to such an attitude. In the case of a cleric, this amounts to becoming
comfortable with the poverty required of all monks and nuns.

5. SOLITUDE (vivikta senāsana / vivitta senāsana, literally: “a dwelling apart”): the choice of a proper site or
environment for one’s practice, usually a remote and quiet place where one can be alone or nearly alone and
where one will be relatively untroubled by distractions.

6. THE FIVE HINDRANCES (nivāraṇa) and their elimination by the antidotal (pratipakṣa / paṭipakkha) method:

• SENSUAL DESIRE OR LUST (abhidhyā or kāmacchanda), the antidote to which is


contemplation of the impurities and corruptibility of the body (aśubhabhāvanā /
asubhabhāvanā).

• HATRED, ILL WILL, OR MALICE (vyāpāda), the antidote to which is cultivation of the mental
attitude of benevolence or loving-kindness (maitri / metta). This consists typically in certain
mental exercises in which one learns to extend to others, even to those toward whom one
may usually feel ill will, the same attitude of benevolence that one naturally holds for
oneself or for loved ones.

• TORPOR, SLOTH, LANGOR, LETHARGY, OR APATHY (styānamiddha /sthīnamiddha), the


antidote to which is cultivation of vigor (vīrya / viriya), a disposition of energetic
perseverance in one’s practice.

• DISTRACTION, ANXIETY, OR WORRY (auddhatyakaukṛtya / uddhaccakukkucca), a kind of


cognitive uneasiness or agitation, the antidote to which is contemplation of the dependent
origination (pratītyasamutpāda / paṭiccasamuppāda) of all things.

• PERPLEXITY OR DOUBT (vicikitsā / vicikicchā), a kind of hypertrophy of the rational intellect,


a relentless appetite for conceptual knowledge. The antidote to it is the practice of
mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasmṛti / ānāpānasati).

B. Concentration Proper (samādhi): The Levels of Absorption (dhyāna / jhāna)

(Note: Buddhist meditation is often described in terms borrowed from cosmology. One of the
fundamental concepts of Buddhist cosmology is the notion of the “three realms” (tridhātu /
tidhātu). According to this notion, the cosmos (i.e., saṃsāra, the universe of suffering and rebirth)
has three primary levels or dimensions: First there is the dimension of desire (kāmadhātu), which
is accessible to the senses and the sensual appetites. Secondly, there is the dimension of material
form (rūpadhātu), which is said to be located "above" the realm of sensual desire. It is accessible
to the mind and may also be subtly accessible to the senses when and if they are free of the
control of sensual appetites. Finally, there is the formless and immaterial dimension
(ārūpyadhātu / arūpadhātu), which is accessible only to the mind. It is a tradition of Buddhist
meditation literature to speak of meditative movement through the levels of absorption or
“trance,” as though it were movement up through these levels or dimensions of the cosmos. We
would call this kind of description figurative, but it is a question whether traditional Buddhist
would agree.)

7. ENTRANCE INTO THE FIRST ABSORPTION, in which the meditator is dissociated from sense-desire and in which
five factors (aṅga / anga) of absorption arise in him.

• APPLICATION OF MIND OR THOUGHT (vitarka / vitakka), i.e., the ability deliberately or


volitionally to apply one’s mind to an object of meditative attention (as distinct from
allowing the mind simply to be drawn to an object of attention). Acquisition of this factor is
held to be the result of elimination of the hindrance of torpor or sloth.

• SUSTAINED MENTAL APPLICATION (vicāra), the ability deliberately to sustain one’s mental
attention once it has been initially applied. Acquisition of this factor is held to be the result
of elimination of the hindrance of perplexity or doubt.

• ZEST (prīti / pīti), a kind of exhilaration or perhaps even euphoria, said to be the result of
elimination of the hindrance of ill-will or hatred.

• HAPPINESS (sukha), a pleasurable feeling of repose and serenity said to be the result of
elimination of the hindrance of distraction or anxiety.

• ONE-POINTEDNESS OF MIND (ekāgracitta / ekāggacitta), an unadulterated, intense, and


sustained focusing of the mental energy of sheer attention on whatever has been chosen as
the object of meditation. This is held to be the result especially of elimination of the
hindrance of sensual desire.

8. ENTRANCE INTO THE SECOND ABSORPTION, in which application of mind and sustained mental application are
dispensed with while zest, happiness, and one-pointedness of mind — all born of concentration (samādhi) — are
retained. The meditator now experiences an interior serenity (adhyātmasaṃprasāda / adhiattasampajañña) and
supreme exaltation (ekotībhāva / ekodibhāva).

9. ENTRANCE INTO THE THIRD ABSORPTION, in which zest is dispensed with while happiness and one-
pointedness of mind persist. The meditator now abides in equanimity (upekṣā / upekkhā), mindfulness, (smṛti), and
clear comprehension (saṃprajanya / sampajannña).

10. ENTRANCE INTO THE FOURTH ABSORPTION, in which happiness is dispensed with and only one-pointedness
of mind remains. The meditator is now purified in equanimity and mindfulness (upekṣāsmṛtipariśuddha /
upekkhāsatiparisuddha), and attains mental liberation (cetovimukti / cetovimutti).

[Note: The following stages, i.e., nos. 11 through 14 — the four formless attainments or the fifth
through the eighth levels of absorption — are not found in all versions of the dhyāna method.
They seem to have been grafted onto it, having perhaps been imported into Buddhism from
originally non-Buddhist meditation traditions. The later tradition, for example, holds that these
are among the meditative feats that Śākyamuni mastered before his own enlightenment, as a
student of other teachers. Also, the classical accounts of his enlightenment experience tell us
that although he proceeded through these four higher levels of absorption just prior to his
attainment of enlightenment, he did not enter enlightenment directly from the eighth dhyāna.
Rather, after reaching the eight dhyāna, he then descended or returned to the fourth dhyāna, and
it was this that served as the immediate threshold to his bodhi. All of this suggests that these four
following stages are, in a sense, superfluous and not strictly necessary for the achievement of
nirvāṇa / nibbāna.]

11. ENTRANCE INTO THE FIFTH ABSORPTION OR FIRST FORMLESS ATTAINMENT (ārūpyasamāpatti /
arūpasamapatti), in which the meditator passes beyond the notion of material form (rūpasaṃjñā / rūpasaññā),
suppresses all notions of resistance or impenetrability (pratighasaṃjñā / paṭighasaññā) and all notions of
multiplicity (nānātvasaṃjñā / nānāttasaññā), contemplates the infinity of space, and resides in the sphere of the
infinity of space (ākāśānantyāyatana / ākāsānañcāyatana).

12. ENTRANCE INTO THE SIXTH ABSORPTION OR SECOND FORMLESS ATTAINMENT, in which the meditator
passes beyond the sphere of the infinity of space, contemplates the infinity of consciousness, and resides in the
sphere of the infinity of consciousness (vijñānānantyāyatana / viññāṇānañcāyatana).

13. ENTRANCE INTO THE SEVENTH ABSORPTION OR THIRD FORMLESS ATTAINMENT, in which the meditator
passes beyond the realm of the infinity of consciousness, contemplates that nothing exists, and dwells in the
realm wherein nothing exists (ākiṃcanyāyatana / ākiñcaññāyatana).

14. ENTRANCE INTO THE EIGHTH ABSORPTION OR FOURTH FORMLESS ATTAINMENT, in which the meditator
passes beyond the realm in which nothing exists and enters the realm of neither consciousness nor non-
consciousness (naivasaṃjñānasaṃjñāyatana / nevasaññāsaññāyatana).

[Note: In later times standard accounts of the dhyāna method of meditation included a ninth
level of dhyāna, or fifth attainment. This is usually called either “the attainment of cessation”
(nirodhasamāpatti) or “the attainment of the cessation of mental activities and feelings”
(saṃjñāveditanirodhasamāpatti / saññāvedayitanirodhasamāpatti). It is said to be an extraordinary
and ineffable state, nearly indistinguishable in psycho-physical terms from death, and is
described as a condition in which one has, as it were, a temporary foretaste of nirvāṇa itself. We
will discuss this attainment at greater length later in the course.]

II. VIPAŚĀYANĀ / VIPASSANĀ: DISCERNMENT.

C. Prajñā / Paññā: Insight into the way things really are, made possible by moral discipline and concentration.

15. Knowledge as vision (jñānadarśana / ñāṇadassana), an experiential knowledge of one’s own body-mind complex
in which one sees it as a product of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda / paticcasamuppāda), as
impermanent, as composite, and as a focus of attachment. This realization begets detachment and enables one to
overcome the fear that arises from attachment to physical existence.

[Note: the following two components of this path — i.e., no. 16 and the five items in no. 17 —
although they are associated with prajñā, are regarded chiefly as useful by-products of
mediation. They are not exclusive to Buddhism but are available to yogis in other traditions.
Also, they are not nearly so important as knowledge-in-the-mode-of-vision (item # 15), nor are
they as valuable in the economy of salvation as the items listed under no. 18. Especially
important are the frequent Buddhist warnings against pursuing them for their own sake.]

16. Creation of a body-made-of-mind (manomāyābhinirmāṇa / manomāyābhinimmāna) the ability of the meditator —


at this stage of practice and in consequence of samādhi attainments — to create a kind of spiritual or psychic
duplicate of the physical and material body (what is called in western occult traditions an “astral body”) which is
not subject to the laws of ordinary material existence and can therefore, for example, change size, be magically
projected at great distances through space, etc.
17. Attainment of the first five superknowledges (abhijñā / abhiññā):

• MAGICAL PSYCHIC POWERS (ṛddhī / iddhi), e.g., the ability to become invisible, to become
multiple, to pass through walls, to hold the sun and the moon in one’s hands, etc. It differs
from the other four superknowledges in that its range extends to include power over both
internal subjective and external objective reality, and power over both matter and mind.

• CLAIRAUDIENCE or the “divine ear” (divyaśrotra / dibbasota), the ability to hear divine
sounds as well as worldly sounds, the ability to hear sounds occurring at great distances as
well as those that occur nearby, and the ability to hear exceedingly faint and otherwise
imperceptible sounds.

• KNOWLEDGE OF OTHER MINDS (paracittajñāna / paracittañāṇa), the ability to read the minds
of others, to sense directly their private thoughts, emotions, dispositions, etc.

• RETROCOGNITION (pūrvanivāsānusmṛti / pubbanivāsānussati), the ability to recall all of one’s


previous lives, in all their detail.

• KNOWLEDGE OF THE ARISING AND CEASING OF BEINGS (cyutyupapattijñāna /


cutūpapātañāṇa), or the “divine eye” (divyacakṣus / dibbacakkhu), an all-encompassing vision
of saṃsāra — the ability to see, all at once, the universal pattern of karma and rebirth as it
engulfs, has engulfed, and will engulf all sentient beings.

18. THE SIXTH SUPERKNOWLEDGE — KNOWLEDGE OF THE EXTINCTION OF THE RESIDUAL IMPURITIES
(āsravakṣayajñāna / āsavakkhayañāṇa), an experiential understanding of duḥkha / dukkha, its arising, its cessation,
and the path leading to its cessation which leads in turn to the extinction of the three fundamental residual
impurities of the sentient condition (note that āsrava / āsava, the term we translate as “residual impurity,”
literally means “outflow,” “oozing,” or “canker”):

• KNOWLEDGE OF THE EXTINCTION OF THE RESIDUAL IMPURITY OF DESIRE (kamāsravakṣayajñāna /


kāmāavakkhayañāṇa),

• KNOWLEDGE OF THE EXTINCTION OF THE RESIDUAL IMPURITY OF CRAVING FOR CONTINUED


EXISTENCE OR BECOMING (bhavāsravakṣayajñāna / bhavāsavakkhayañāṇa),

• KNOWLEDGE OF THE EXTINCTION OF THE RESIDUAL IMPURITY OF IGNORANCE


(avidyāsravakṣayajñāna / avijjāsavakkhayañāṇa).

[Note: According to some accounts of the Buddha’s own enlightenment experience, that
experience consisted precisely in these three extinctions and in his experiential
knowledge of their occurrence.]

III. PHALA (Fruition), the achievement of the goal of the path.

19. NIRVĀṆA, the attainment of liberation (vimokṣa / vimutti) or arhatship (arhattva / arahatta).

[Note: Although nirvāṇa is, of course, the final fruition of the path, the tradition also speaks, in
respect of the fact that the path usually takes many lifetimes, of three preliminary fruitions or
attainments of the path. These are: achievement of the saintly status of “stream-enterer”
(śrotāpanna / sotāpanna, i.e., one who has entered the path to enlightenment, is assured of never
backsliding, and who is thus immune to rebirth in the lower destinies); achievement of the
saintly status of “once returner” (sakṛdāgāmin / sakadāgamin, i.e., one who has only one more
rebirth left before his last); achievement of the saintly status of a “non-returner” (anāgamin, i.e.,
one who is in his final lifetime).]

Note:

The Theravāda tradition’s most extensive and authoritative exposition of the dhyāna method of
meditation is, without doubt, the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification, the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pāli title would
be Viśuddhimārga) by the great scholar Buddhaghosa (fl. early 5th century CE). Buddhaghosa was an Indian monk
who settled in Śrī Lankā to become one of the greatest figures in the religious and intellectual history of that
country and one of the foremost thinkers in the whole history of Buddhism. His Visuddhimagga is a veritable
encyclopedia of Theravāda teachings concerning the path (mārga) and it treats in great detail of all that our
scriptural sources — the Śramaṇaphala Sūtra / Samaññaphala Sutta, et al. — simply outlines. A very reliable but
rather literal and scholastic translation of this work was done by Bhikkhu Ñaṇamoli, a Theravāda monk of English
origin who was ordained in Śrī Lankā. It was originally published in Colombo by A. Senage in 1964. A two-volume
paperback reprint was published by Shambhala Books of Boulder, Colorado in 1976. Most recently (in 2003) it has
been republished by Pariyatti in Seattle.

Also worth consulting is an earlier conspectus of meditation, similar in structure to the Visuddhimagga
but differing from it on some points, known as the Path of Freedom (Vimuktimārga / Vimuttimagga). Originally
written in an Indic language by a monk named Upatissa it has survived only in Tibetan and Chinese. The Chinese
translation (解脫道論 Jietuodao lu — T1648) was made in the early 6th century, in Nanjing, by the monk
*Saṃghabara (僧伽婆羅, var.: *Saṃghavara) from Cambodia (Funan). This Chinese version was translated into
English in the 1930's by the Japanese scholar N. R. M. Ehara working together with two Sinhalese monks, Soma
Thera and Kheminda Thera. There rendition was first published, privately, in 1961 by Dr. D. Roland D. Weesuria
and has been reprinted since 1977 by the Buddhist Publication Society of Kandy, Śrī Lanka. See also P. V. Bapat,
Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga: A Comparative Study (Poona, 1937).

The best modern study of Theravāda dhyāna meditation as set forth in the Visuddhimagga is still
Mahāthera Vajirañāṇa’s Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice (Colombo: Gunasena, 1962), but also worth
consulting are Winston L. King, Theravāda Meditation: The Buddhist Transformation of Yoga (University Park:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980) and Henepola Gunaratna, The Path of Serenity and Insight: An Explanation
of the Buddhist Jhānas (Columbia, Missouri: South Asia Books, 1985).