The Jhanas or Dhyanas in Buddhism

Stages of the Development of Right Concentration

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The jhanas (Pali) or dhyanas (Sanskrit) are stages of the development of Right Concentration. Right Concentration is one of the eight parts of the Eightfold Path, the path of practice taught by the Buddha for reaching enlightenment.

The word jhana means "absorption," and it refers to a mind completely absorbed in concentration. The 5th-century scholar Buddhaghoṣa said that the word jhana relates to jhayati, which means "meditation." But, he said, it also relates to jhapeti, which means "to burn up." This great absorption burns away defilements and confusion.

Levels of Jhana

The Buddha taught four basic levels of jhana, but in time path of eight levels emerged. The eight levels are of two parts: the lower level, or rupajhana ("form meditations)" and the higher level, arupajhana, "formless meditations." In some schools you may hear of another, even higher, level, called the lokuttara ("supramundane") jhanas.

Another word connected to the jhanas is samadhi, which also means "concentration." In some schools, samadhi is associated with citta-ekagrata (Sanskrit), or single-pointedness of mind. Samadhi is the absorption brought on by intense concentration on a single object or thought until all else drops away.

Buddhist meditation teachers may or may not measure their students' progress by the jhanas. Some teachers feel they are useful for guiding students' progress. Others feel that becoming too attached to measuring progress gets in the way.

Today the jhanas arguably are taken most seriously within Theravada Buddhism. The Mahayana school of Zen actually is named for dhyana; dhyana became Chan in Chinese, and Chan became Zen in Japanese. However, while Zen meditation emphasizes concentration, Zen students are not necessarily expected to progress in the precise dhyana stages. Tibetan Buddhists may feel the dropping away of sense experience described in the dhyanas actually gets in the way of the practice of tantra yoga.

Here is the progression of jhanas as taught by at least some Theravada teachers:

The Rupajhanas

To master the first jhana, the student must release the Five Hindrances—sensual desire, ill will, sloth, restlessness, and uncertainty. To do this, he concentrates on an assigned object until he can see the object as clearly when his eyes are closed as when they are open. The object, called the learning sign, eventually manifests as a purified replica of itself, called the counterpart sign, which marks what is called "access concentration." These three things—the dropping away of the hindrances, the counterpart sign, and the access concentration, arise at once. And then they fall away.

This first jhana is marked by rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness of mind. The practitioner will also possess "directed thought and evaluation," according to the Pali suttas.

In the second jhana, the directed thought and evaluation—the analytical mind—are stilled, and the student enters a pure awareness free of conceptualizations. Rapture continues to permeate his body.

In the third jhana, the rapture subsides and is replaced by a sense of pleasure in the body. The student is mindful and alert.

In the fourth jhana, the student is infused with a pure, bright awareness, and all sensations of pleasure or pain drop away.

The Arupajhanas

In the Pali Sutta-pitaka, the four higher jhanas are called "peaceful immaterial liberations transcending material form." These immaterial jhanas are known by their objective spheres: boundless space, boundless consciousness, nothingness, and neither-perception-nor-not-perception. These objects are increasingly subtle, and as each is mastered the object preceding it falls away. At the level of neither-perception-nor-not-perception gross perceptions fall away and only the most subtle perception remains. Yet even this trace of sublime perception is still considered mundane.

The Supramundane

The supramundane jhanas are described as apprehensions of Nirvana. Written descriptions fail to do them justice, but the basic point is that through four supramundane stages the student becomes truly liberated from the world and the cycle of samsara.

Mastering the jhanas is the effort of many years for most people, and taking it very far requires the guidance of a teacher.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "The Jhanas or Dhyanas in Buddhism." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). The Jhanas or Dhyanas in Buddhism. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Jhanas or Dhyanas in Buddhism." Learn Religions. (accessed June 2, 2023).