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Four Jhanic States

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Sep 30, 2006
Location: St. Dorothy's Rest
In topic: General Topics in Buddhism
Zoketsu describes the four jnanic states of meditation.
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Talk on Concentration in Zazen and the Four Jhanic StatesTalk given October 2006 Sesshin at Dorothy’s Rest

(Edited and abridged by Barbara Byrum)

This morning I would like to talk more technically about meditation practice. In our tradition there is resistance to seeing meditation as a technique. Our sense is that meditation is a religious act, not so different from prayer or ritual. Dogen sees zazen as prayer or ritual, and since we are influenced by Dogen, we also see our zazen in that way. This is good because we don’t have to worry so much whether we are doing zazen in the right way. All we have to do is be sincere and try our best and trust that however our zazen is now, it is just right. It is the same with prayer. The important thing in prayer is that you try to pray with your whole heart and with faith that God will hear your prayers. You don’t worry so much if you got a word wrong. You just do your best with faith and trust, and that, I think, is how we look at our zazen practice. So we don’t have to worry so much. And that is the most important thing.

On the other hand, it is a good idea to think about how we are practicing, because by thinking of our practice, and by making an intelligent effort, we give our practice more respect. To increase our attention and to brighten the quality of our effort is to give the Buddha and ourselves more respect.

In our dharma seminar a few months ago, we studied the five hindrances in terms of a wider daily life practice, but today I would like to talk about the five hindrances again, but this time specifically in relation to meditation practice. The five hindrances are sloth and torpor (these are really good ones, very common); doubt (also an excellent hindrance, which we all know intimately); ill will (which includes annoyance and irritation); restlessness and worry; and sense desire. We are actually experts in the five hindrances and know them all very well.

When any one, or combination of these hindrances, is part of our mental state, then it has the effect of removing us slightly from the immediacy of our experience. Each of the hindrances is a way of stepping back from experience. We might think, “No, I don’t want to experience this, I’ll have some sloth and torpor….I really don’t want to experience that, so how about a little restlessness and worry?” So the hindrances remove us from our lives, and the exile and gap that we feel by removing ourselves causes pain and suffering. And then we interpret that painful gap in all sorts of ways, usually thinking that there is something wrong with us or with other people or with the world. And we feel that we are defective. The world is in a ruin and how are we going to bear it? We feel that there is nothing we can do about it, and we are miserable.

None of these things are true. There is nothing wrong with us. There is nothing wrong with the world and nothing wrong with life. It is just that we have become extremely entangled and we can’t figure out how to get out of it. There is sloth and torpor, doubt, sense desire, ill will, and restlessness and worry…and we’re stuck. What can we do about this? One thing we can do is to practice meditation. It will actually untangle the knots of sloth and torpor, ill will, and so on. If we can focus and concentrate our minds, it will make a big difference, because the unfocused and unconcentrated mind is easily bamboozled and tricked. But the focused mind will naturally be more free and get out from under the hindrances. When the mind is pure and focused, it automatically becomes free. A purified mind, by its very nature, is free.

In classical Buddhism, the practice of settling the mind is called samatha, translated as calming or stopping the mind. The early Buddhists talked about eight jhanic states of calming the mind: the four fine materials states, and the four immaterial states. Jhāna in Pali means calming or meditation. The Sanskrit word is dhyāna. It is a problem to translate from Sanskrit to Chinese, because the Chinese language has no alphabet. The Chinese transliterated “dhyāna” to Chinese characters that sounded like the word “chan,” and the Japanese transliterated the Chinese to become the word “zen.” So our school is the dhyana or meditation school, which is ironic since Dogen is adamant that zazen is not meditation. He says that “zazen is the dharma gate of repose and bliss.” Dogen talks about “being Buddha without trying to be Buddha,” and so it is odd that our school is the dhyanic school, when Dogen almost never talks about the jhanic states.

However, I do want to talk about the first four jhanic states and how they relate to the five hindrances. These states are described as if they were distinctly different, as if the first state were like a Ford Explorer, and you drove that for awhile, and then you got out of that, and then you got into the second state, which was like a Volkswagon. The jhanic states are described as if they were totally different, which is misleading because, as we all know from our own experience on the cushion, states of mind do not move in a linear or progressive fashion. The mind does not go through the stages of: “Not calm…a little calm…a little more calm…very calm.” I don’t think it usually goes exactly that way. It usually goes more like: “Calm…not too calm...really not calm… very calm…not too calm.” Still, when you are trying to explain something in writing, you have to pretend that it is more organized than it is in life.

The first jhana is the most important because this is where we first truly enter into meditation practice. We have embarked upon the inner journey. When the first jhana arises, you have the sense that something extraordinary has entered into your life. You feel peaceful and happy. This is the great thing about meditation practice in our time: you don’t have to have faith in Buddha and you don’t have to be religious. All you have to do is to be willing to be with your breath and your body. You sit down on the cushion, breathe, and you embark. It is wonderful and you feel it immediately. You feel engaged and the mind feels settled. Love spontaneously arises in your heart, and when you enter the first jhanic state, you might feel, right away, as if all the problems of your life no longer exist. Things that you were so worried about just evaporate and disappear. The world seems beautiful and fine exactly the way it is. We feel easy and light and everything flows with an easy perfection.

The early suttas tell us that in this first jhanic state there are five factors. The first factor is called vitarka, which is usually translated as “application.” We are applying the mind to an object, rather than letting the mind churn according to its past conditioning. The mind is always churning. Even when we are sleeping, the mind is going, going, going. Virtually the only time that this does not happen is in meditation, when we intentionally apply the mind to a meditation object and interrupt its ordinary karmic habits. So vitarka is applying the mind to the object of meditation, and in our case, it is applying the mind to the body and the breath. With intention, we “place” the mind there, and when the mind wanders, we place it there again. When we can intentionally place the mind on the object of body and breath, even though it glances off many times, sloth and torpor are eliminated.

The second factor of mind which is present in the first jhanic state is called vichara, and is usually translated as “sustained application.” The object of meditation becomes more real, more attractive, and more vivid as the mind stays with it. What happens is that the breath as the object becomes just as real and moving and compelling as the various thoughts that are coming up in the mind; therefore, the mind can more easily be sustained on the breath. When there is sustained application with the object, doubt is dispelled. The mind goes beyond its normal skepticism and self defeating viewpoints and becomes engaged with a sense of aliveness in the object. There is no doubt at this point about our selves, about our life, or about our practice.

The third factor in the first jhanic state occurs when there is full engagement with the object. As a consequence of this sustained application and engagement, pitti arises, which is a sense of physical joy, zest, and delight in the body. Even the aches and pains of the body go away! The breath becomes delicious and smooth, with no labor in the breathing. You can feel the catlike elegance of the body. Even an elderly body can feel this way! It is a kind of sensual pleasure, and so that is why these first four states are called the “fine material” states. They are in this material world of body and breath, but are more refined. The state of pitti is different from ordinary sensual delight in that it is more refined and actually more delightful.

The jhanic states are not the opposite of the hindrances. It is just that when they arise, the hindrances can’t be there also. I cannot be standing up and lying down at the same time. Similarly, when these states arise, the hindrances can’t be there. When pitti arises, there cannot be irritation or ill will or crabbiness. How can you be crabby when you are feeling so delightful?

The fourth factor in the first jhanic state is called sukha, which means happiness. Sukha is the psychological analogue of pitti. You feel happy and have a tremendous sense of well being and gratitude. You feel fullness and satisfaction. You do not need anything more than what is going on in this moment. When sukha is present in your mind and heart, there is no restlessness and worry. Restlessness only comes when you are not satisfied with what is here now. It is the feeling that you aren’t really getting something that you want. And worry is the feeling that you might lose something later. When you feel delight and happiness with what is here now, how could you be restless or worried?

The fifth factor is one pointedness of mind, or samadhi. The mind is steady and stable with the object. If there is some thinking or sensation in the body, or even if something negative arises in the mind, it doesn’t make much difference. The mind just lets it come and go. The mind is so focused with a sense of well being on its object that whatever arises would be like a passing cloud. We might even see the thought or sensation as beautiful. When the mind is one pointed in this way, the hindrance of sense desire falls away. There is no desire for anything. There is just this moment.

So the first jhanic state is the most important one. In the second, third, and fourth jhanic states, these wonderful states of mind becomes more refined and more stable. It becomes second nature to us. In the second jhanic state, according to the classical description, vitarka and vichara fall away. Application and sustained effort on the object simply disappear. In the second jhanic state you don’t have to try to meditate. Zazen does itself. You don’t have to do zazen; you can let zazen do you. At this point your practice has a power of its own, and you don’t need to exercise your will or intention. The practice becomes easy and automatic, but also very alive and very vivid.

Being settled is a characteristic of the second jhana. You are more settled, and there is more self confidence and faith in the practice. There is a beautiful sense of inner dignity in the body. The body and mind are that of the Buddha. The Zen forms are an expression of the second jhana. They are the way we would express ourselves when we are in the second jhana. There is a rising sense of confidence in ourselves as being Buddha’s life. Imagine what it would be like if the forms just arose out of your body as an expression of what we are feeling inside! So the second jhana is a beautiful sense of inner dignity, the inner feeling that the body and mind is the body and mind of the Buddha.

In the third jhanic state, the delight disappears and there is just a sense of contentment and peace. In the fourth jhanic state, as described in the classical texts, the world disappears. You do not necessarily hear or see things. The breath becomes so refined that you do not notice it at all. We practice the first three jhanic states. One could practice the fourth, but we are not so much interested in developing it, because it is a little too peaceful for us! The thing about peacefulness is that it is leaving behind all stimulation. You may be totally withdrawn. In our practice, we want to be peaceful, but we want to engage continually with the world around us.

Here is what is important: entering the jhanic states does not really change anything. You think the states sound great because you think somehow you will be changed forever. But nothing really changes, because after you get up from the jhanic states and go back to ordinary life, you still have the same problems that you had before. We wonder why we can’t always feel this joy and delight and Buddha dignity. The states are good, though, because they are encouraging: you want to continue to practice. Overall, though, they don’t really shift anything in an important way.

Why would anyone want to practice the jhanic states if they don’t really make a difference? Because, according to classic Buddhist meditation practice, you have to calm the mind with samatha if you want to have vipassana, or insight. You can’t really have insight if the mind is full of sloth and torpor and ill will. As long as the mind is in that state, there is no insight. First you have to bring real peace to the mind, and then you can actually see something that’s true about your life. It is the wisdom or insight that does change our lives. During meditation, without any effort, your mind will produce insights. You may have experienced this many times. You are not trying to figure anything out, but all of a sudden you will realize something that is deeply true. It could be about your life or your relationships, or you see something that is really true about the dharma. These insights will change your life, especially if you make them an object of training. As a result of insight, you decide to work with your mind and work with your life. With insight, we really change our lives and we become beacons for the world.