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Deep Jhanas vs. Light Jhanas

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  • Deep Jhanas vs. Light Jhanas

    Dear Venerable,

    It's been some time since we touched based. I hope you're keeping well! I have a question about the debate regarding deep jhanas vs. light jhanas.

    As you may know, in some meditation circles nowadays, the idea of jhanas as lightly blissful states where one can still move, hear, and is still in the world of the senses is promoted as opposed to the deep jhanas (aka "Visuddhimagga style" jhanas), as understood by highly regarded scholar-practitioners such as Ajahn Brahm, Brahmali, and Sujato (and I think also Bhikkhu Analayo; correct me if I'm mistaken).

    As you may know, the current debate revolves around whether the jhanas are states of deep absorption or light absorption. It's purported by supporters of light jhanas that the idea of deep jhanas actually came from the commentarial tradition, especially from the Visuddhimagga, while light jhanas are more in line with the Suttas (hence dubbing them "Sutta-style" jhanas), a claim which I'm hesitant to believe.

    Just the fact that accomplished Pali scholars and practitioners such as Ajahn Brahm, Brahmali, and Sujato understand the jhanas as very deep states of absorption where the senses have turned off carries sheer weight of proof for me.

    Also, for me it's common sense and reasonable to assume that the lifestyle depicted in the Suttas of forest-dwelling bhikkhus dedicated to meditation practice day and night for years would have more to show for it than mere light states of absorption. That is not really a high achievement worthy of the Ariyas.

    So, kindly let me know what is the proof from the Suttas that jhanas are indeed very deep and profound states of meditation where the five senses have turned off as understood by Ajahn Brahm and other respected teachers mentioned above?

    Sutta references, particularly, as well as any other references (e.g. reference to the Pali language, terms, and their meanings) you deem useful would be appreciated. Kindly shed more light on this matter Venerable.

    Warmest regards.
    Last edited by Haca Ce; 17th-May-2021, 08:14 AM.

  • #2
    Dear Haca Ce,
    Just got back from a retreat with Ven Dhammajiva, another well-practiced monk.

    Shall put my thinking cap on again and will get back to you...

    With metta and happy new year!
    Ven Upekkha


    • #3
      Dear Haca Ce,
      Hmm…now, you know I am a disciple of Ajahn Brahm and can’t help having been brain-washed by him all these years.

      The main bone of contention is the interpretation of the term “vivicceva kamehi” - seclusion from sensual pleasures – in the first jhana formula.

      I am not very experienced in these matters, so I am not really qualified to answer. However, there is a huge amount of discussion about this in Sutta Central. If you look at the threads and you will get your fill of references, interpretations, arguments and counter-arguments.

      The point is whether the experience is conducive to the cutting off of the defilements. The longer and more profoundly the hindrances are in abeyance, the more of a chance you have.

      However, Ven Dhammajiva made the helpful comment that the term ‘Vipassana Jhanas’ or Access-concentration was introduced by Sayadaw U Pandita because jhanas were considered unachievable by lay practioners. Access-Concentration, at least gave people hope, and a taste of peace. So in the same way, ‘jhana-lite’ at least gives people hope!

      Hope the Sutta Central threads are what you were after.

      With metta,
      Ven Upekkha


      • #4
        Hello Venerable,

        Thank you for your insights as always! The threads you provided are useful. I see your point of 'jhana-lite' giving people hope. Personally I find the idea of deep jhanas very inspiring because it shows me that the path of Dhamma has so much to offer!

        Plus, I've also been happily brain-washed by Ajahn Brahm as well!

        With metta.


        • #5
          Hi Haca,

          I haven't been here for a long time. I thought I'd chip in.

          First of all, although some people often speak of Visuddhimagga as the source of "deep" jhanas, the Vibhanga already quite unanbiguously describes them as such. The Vibhanga is a very early Abhidhamma, and some think parts of it are just as early as the suttas.

          There is also plenty of evidence in the suttas. To me the clearer ones are the contextual ones. The jhanas are one of the the "supernormal powers", mentioned alongside things like mind reading, recollecting past lives, and enlightenment itself. So these meditation states are on such a level. We monks and nuns also can't say to a layperson that we have experienced these, because it's almost like claiming to be enlightened. The jhanas are "astounding and amazing" (AN7.53), "extraordinary disctionctions" (MN76).

          We also see in the suttas that great monks such as Mogallana and Anuruddha struggled to develop the jhanas, and even the Buddha himself before his enlightenment. (E.g. MN128) So we find all these struggles to get the jhanas; however, no sutta mentions of practitioners struggling to get insight. It seems like the development of samadhi is the main hurdle for most. AN1.345 says that not many beings get to experience samadhi i.e., the jhanas. So those who do are worth of respect and anjali. (AN9.33)

          Clearly, not an ordinary matter!

          Also interesting is that the description the Buddha gives for his experience of jhana is EXACTLY THE SAME as the description he gives for others. And that is because IT IS the same. That is how deep and powerful these states are. Your mind is temporarily free from the hindrances, i.e. is temporarily just like the Buddha's. (When you come out, delusion comes back, which doesn't happen for an enlightened one.) This is why they are called temporary liberation. (MN122)

          DN9 mentions that the rapture in the first jhana is "subtle but real", in other words, not something that is coarse (like goosebumbs or whatever "light" jhana interpretations there are). The suttas make clear it is a mental experience, as it comes from virtue and gladness. It "surpasses even divine bliss" (can't find reference, sorry). And "nothing like it can be found" (SNp2.1)

          Interesting also is that the Buddha and other enlightened ones do not dwell in jhana constantly. They have to come out to go on almsround or to teach, and such things. (SN22.122)

          In jhana the mind is said to be "abundant and exalted, having transcended the world" (lost reference). To me this clearly means you can't feel the body. AN5.176 says that no pleasure having to do with sensuality exists there. Pleasure/rapture that comes frmo the five senses is called "filthy pleasure" which "should not be pursued" (MN66). The pleasure of the jhanas has "nothing to do the sense pleasures" (MN36). It is "internal (i.e. mental) pleasure" (MN139). "Sound is a thorn to the first jhana" (i.e. you can't hear in it) (AN10.72)

          In the fourth jhana the breath has stopped. (AN9.31) Not just the perception of breath, but the breath itself.


          There are also common translation problems with the jhana formulas, such as "feeling pleasure with the body". Bhikkhu Bodhi even has this as a translation, although in a footnote he says "the happiness (also called sukha) the meditator is said to ‘experience with the body’ in the third jhāna […] is actually mental happiness, identical with somanassa." That is a very unhelpful translation, then! Why he does it, I don't know. The meaning is something along the line of "experiences personally". There are also passages that say "experience nibbana 'with the body' (i.e. personally)"... which Ven. Bodhi also translates way too literally.

          Another misunderstanding is with the word "kama", which is abandoned in the jhanas. It can technically either refer to sense desire or the *objects* of sense desire (i.e. the experiences of the five senses.) But it makes little sense for it to refer to the former, as sense desire is already included in the five hindrances, mentioned in the same sentence. So it refers to the five senses. This is clear also from phrases such as "perception of kama" (perception of the five senses).


          I could go on like this for a while, because in my reading of the suttas I've kept some (very coarse) notes on this subject. However, I'll leave it at this. I'm not too concerned about making a point on this, because I think the "light" jhanas are actually not problematic to develop. What I've heard and read about them (which admittedly isn't too much as I'm not interested in them) are experiences that will happen before reaching proper jhana, anyway. I think they only become dangerous when you are convinced that that is where samadhi ends, and you start replicating those experiences and don't go deeper. For example, bodily pleasure of relaxation is helpful, but if you think that it's all about bodily pleasure, you might not explore the mental pleasure. I'm not sure how many people get stuck in their development because of these kind of things, but even if there's a lot of them, I'm not sure evidence of suttas is the way to show them their mistake.

          But hopefully this was somewhat helpful for you.

          With metta,

          Last edited by Bhikkhu Sunyo; 5th-April-2020, 05:32 PM.


          • #6
            Thank you very, very much for your input Venerable Sunyo! It's great to hear from you after so long. Your sutta references and comments are of tremendous benefit to me. Much appreciated.

            With metta.



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