April 23, 2013 Tuesday, Private Session On jhana, relationship of jhana to insight path, consciousness & awareness, access concentration, citta

On jhana,   relationship of jhana to  insight path, consciousness & awareness, access concentration, citta

From a private phone session, phone portion not picked up by mic

The question was about jhana and vipassana: excerpt from written question:

A second topic is that of concentration (samadhi), which you and I've touched on in the past and which I'd like to explore further. As I remember, you've confirmed that certain experiences I've described have involved a state of access concentration, but you've counseled against proceeding to the jhana states.

    What exactly these states consist of and how they're attained doesn't seem to be a settled matter amongst Buddhist teachers. I've read and listened to a number of accounts, which I've found to be mostly abstract and somewhat inaccessible. By far the most helpful has been an August 2012 concentration retreat on Dharma Seed, consisting of 17 dharma talks... I've listened to the series several times and feel that I'm gaining an experiential sense of the terrain--at least as far as this version of the teaching is concerned.

    I don't claim that I've achieved any of the jhana states, but I believe I do have a more developed sense of the five qualities (vitaka, vicara, etc.) that pertain to development of the first four jhana states. Also, I find the particular emphasis of this Dharma Seed retreat--i.e., the cultivate of relaxation, a sense of well-being and a focus on the breath--to be very helpful. I've experienced a greater sense of ease, depth and stability in maintaining focus.

    My question/inquiry relates to what I understand to be your advice to stabilize access concentration but not then to proceed to cultivation of the jhana states themselves. The recorded retreat I mentioned treats concentration not as an end in itself but as a means to strengthen insight meditation. I haven't yet worked sufficiently with the final portion of this retreat to really understand how the teachers meld concentration with insight meditation.

Barbara: As you noted, teachers and traditions have different views. Some believe the jhanas are necessary. Some believe they're unnecessary. Some believe they're simply useful but not necessary. I can only share my view with you. I don't ask you to accept my view.

Once we reach access concentration, the mind is very concentrated. There's a fork in the road. One can choose to go deeper into the higher, immaterial jhana or one can go into the path of the vipassana insights. The theoretical reason for doing jhana practice is to deepen concentration enough to reach access concentration. But once we're at access concentration, it's no longer useful. It leads one into some interesting experiences, but it's not needed.

In order to develop access concentration we need to develop more stability of mind, more ability to stay present, and that can happen in either of two ways. One would be through a practice like jhana, a strong concentration practice. One would be through what we call natural concentration. Probably jhana practice does more quickly develop a very strong concentration. However, then one has to unlink oneself from the jhana to go in a different direction. One has set up the mind to hold onto objects with a bulldog grip, and one has to go back and reverse that and come back into that spaciousness that's able to be present with whatever is arising, maintaining a strong focus within that presence. Here are vitakka and vicara, but without the bulldog grip. Mind has the quality of walking through a giant cave with a spotlight, turning to light up areas as we walk, not holding the light on just one object, but taking each as it becomes predominant.  

Often it takes people a long time to shift that bulldog grip. People also can become addicted to some of these jhana states. So basically I find it more helpful to have people just develop concentration through the practice of natural concentration, which does always develop a strong enough concentration for access concentration.

(Q) inaudible

B: I'm not sure. Are you saying, “So why do we have access concentration?”

(Q) when we say access concentration, access to what?

Access concentration gives us access to the place—let me backtrack. Are you familiar with the Pali word citta?

(Q) only superficially.


Citta means consciousness. There are two aspects of citta. Kuttara citta are mundane citta. Lokuttara citta are supramundane citta. Every citta, every consciousness, needs an object. The eye touches a visible object. Seeing consciousness arises. The physical eye can only touch on a mundane object. The physical eye cannot touch on a supramundane object. The ear touches on a sound. Every citta needs an object. If it's a mundane citta, it takes a mundane object.

The Unconditioned is a supramundane object. There are other objects along the way that are direct expressions of the Unconditioned, such as nada, the sound of silence, luminosity, spaciousness. These do arise out of conditions. We've established certain conditions by the opening of the lokuttara citta, that we can perceive nada, luminosity, spaciousness in this way, these supramundane expressions, and eventually, that we can perceive, have a direct expression of the Unconditioned. But we can't do that until the lokuttara citta are open.

Open is not quite the correct word. They are always open, but unless awareness is present to perceive the availability of the lokuttara citta, we miss that they are open. Mundane mind consciousness cannot go there!

Access concentration is the doorway at which point the lokuttara citta become accessible. Does that make sense? Do you have questions?

(Q) what next?

Once access concentration is open, then we can move into the direct path of vipassana insights. Have you been introduced to those?


What we call the vipassana insights... I have a handout that lists the progression of insights and the jhanas, and I'm looking to see if I can find that easily... Okay, I'm going to email you a document... I've sent this out to you. Let's look at it together. I think this will make the whole thing clearer.

Pasted here:

Jhanas (Jhanic States) or States of Absorption

Below is a simple list of the jhanic states and the primary experiences of each one:

The Formless States


“neither perception nor non-perception”


Infinite awareness rests in “no-thing-ness.”


Become aware of the infinite awareness that perceived infinite space. Rest in infinite awareness. Timeless.


Forms dissolve into infinite space, equanimity and one-pointedness

The formed states


Bliss abandoned. No sensation or thought. Rest in experience of equanimity and one-pointedness.  Breath also seems to cease.


Equanimity toward rapture leads to its fading. Experience bliss and one-pointedness.


Focus on rapture, bliss and one-pointedness. No sensory input. No verbal thought.


feelings of rapture, bliss and one-pointedness. Sense perceptions fade.

access concentration

awareness of sensory experiences; no hindering thoughts (this does not mean no thoughts but there is no contraction around the thought). Focus resting deeply on primary object

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Insight Stages

This is the path of pranna or wisdom. One begins with access concentration. Instead of focusing on the break with normal consciousness which led into the rapture and bliss of the first jhana, one focuses on the arising and dissolution of objects.   Just as with the jhanas, there is a traditional progression of insights. What follows is a very brief capsule:

Insight Into Body and Mind

One watches the progression of arising sensation, emotion and thought and begins to see the relationship between mind and body.  Insights into impermanence and emptiness of self of all that is arising and its cause/ effect relationship. We experience how everything arises from conditions and ceases when the conditions cease.

Realm of Arising and Passing

Arising seems wondrous. Everything becomes light filled. We may think this is it!

Then we start to see how it all dissolves. With dissolution and death, there is nothing to hold on to. We may feel fear and dread. The “dark night.”

The Unconditioned

We see how all this arising and dissolution has been of the conditioned realm. Deep equanimity with all arising and dissolution allows us to open to the Unconditioned.  This is not some place other than where we have been. It has always been here, but we've been so caught in the conditioned realm and our attachments and aversions to it that we have not previously been open to the ever-present experience of the Unconditioned. This experience is beyond bliss and other cruder emotions.The deepest effect is of profound peace.  It truly is life-changing, but you are nowhere but where you've always been.

“There has been no place to go, nothing to do. You are home; you have always been home. You have only to rest there to see that it is so!”

(Q) email has not come

Let's just talk without the email, then. When it comes, you'll see on the email that I sent, on the outline, access concentration is in the middle. From access concentration, we move off into jhana or move off into the insight stages.

The insights are, are you familiar with the commentary called the Visuddhi Magga?

(Q) I have heard of it. Not read or studied it

It's a long and complex commentary, so it's not something you need to work with right now. But it does delineate the whole progression of insights. I will send that to you also later today as an outline of the path. Just as a map.

Basically we have insight into body and mind. I'm reading from my outline... “One watches the progression of arising, cessation, emotion, and thought, begins to see the relationship between mind and body. Insights into impermanence and emptiness of self.” Some of this comes before we have access concentration, but it deepens with access concentration.

Then we move into the experience realm of arising and passing. The arising of everything seems wondrous. Everything becomes light-filled. We may think, “This is it. I'm enlightened.” Then we begin to see it all dissolve. With dissolution and death, there is nothing to hold onto. Feeling fear and dread. The dark night.

This is a natural progression of the path. It starts with access concentration. We see how all of this arising and dissolution has been of the conditioned realm. Deep equanimity with all arising and dissolution allows us to open into the Unconditioned. So we have a direct experience at that point of the Unconditioned.

This is the traditional path that we move through with vipassana practice in the Theravada tradition. Access concentration is the center point. But, I'm repeating this, if one only needs jhana to get to access concentration, and if one may get lost in jhana and find other difficulties using jhana, then there are better ways to get to access concentration than using jhana. This is my opinion; don't take it as gospel.

(Q) She says, may I ask, is the Theravada tradition different than my position, is that what you're asking?

B: There are basically different vipassana traditions and different Theravada traditions, coming from different parts of Asia. The northern Thai tradition, the forest tradition, Ajahn Chah, is closest to what I teach. The Burmese tradition focuses much more on jhana. In Sri Lanka they focus on jhana. Remember, there's no one right path. These are different teachers saying, “This is the way I found; it works.” I'm sure that people have found the path to direct realization using these different traditions. Goenka has his own different tradition. No one is right. We each can only teach according to our own experience.

What I'm saying is different than the Burmese tradition, yes.

(Q) asking about the Sayadaws

Let me add something there. Many of the founding IMS teachers worked much more with the northern Thai forest tradition. After Ajahn Chah died, they started to go to some of the Sayadaws, U Pandita Sayadaw and so forth, who also did not do jhana. But then slowly they moved into some of the jhana practices, I think just exploring the whole thing.

They are all useful practices to some people. They are not all necessary practices for everybody. For me, I really like the practice of just being present in this moment, which is basically what Ajahn Chah teaches in the forest tradition.


Basically it's important for you, you have a deep enough understanding of all of this to choose what path is most valid for you, to hear different teachers talking about different paths and choose what is right for you. Once you're working with a teacher, it's important to trust that teacher.

So if you're working with teachers like S, I don't want to pull you away from what she's telling you and suggesting that you practice differently. If you're going to practice jhana, I would go directly to the top, not to the Burmese teachers because they may feel a little bit less accessible, but to do a long retreat with Leigh Brasington, for example. But Leigh and I have discussed this at length. We have different views on whether jhana is essential. But we do both agree that once you reach access concentration, you must let go of jhana.

So the question simply comes down to, do I need jhana to get to access concentration or not? That partly is individual. There's no one answer to it. My experience teaching thousands of students has been most students do not need jhana to get to access concentration. And in fact jhana may become a hindrance for them. But as I said, this is simply my opinion.


You're welcome. Just, I don't want you to take this as gospel truth. Make sure you realize this is simply what I find true from my own experience, and is not as universally applicable as Truth with a capital T.

(Q) what is the issue  you have with jhana?

The challenge I've seen with jhana is twofold. The high states, the formless states of jhana, are very seductive; even the formed lower states of jhana are blissful and so forth. Bliss, one-pointedness, they're very seductive experiences. People can spend years developing their way through the higher jhanas. The highest jhanas, they're called No-Thing-Ness and neither perception nor non-perception, are very subtle states. One may imagine one is enlightened; but for my experience, I can either be in that state or in the mundane world. Thos estates don't translate for me; they don't teach me how to bring these experiences into everyday life. Nothing changes in everyday life. I just want to get back into meditation, and into those high jhanas.

If you've studied anything about the Buddha's life, you know that before his enlightenment he studied with Indian teachers, basically moving through the jhanas, moving into very deep experiences all the way through 8th jhana. And then he was able to say, “No, this is not the path to liberation.” So he had to go back, really to access concentration and start over. He had the courage to let go, but a lot of people just get trapped in it and keep thinking there will be a way through. And unless you have a very clear teacher who can lead you all the way to 8th jhana and then say, “Now let go of it completely; hold only the ability for concentration and shift it to your vipassana practice,” and unless you trust that teacher, people get caught in it. So, why set it up for yourself?

The other side of it is, working with natural concentration done skillfully, a very deep level of concentration evolves. Gradually it becomes very stable. But we're training the mind simultaneously not to hold onto anything, rather than to hold on as we do in the jhanas. So we develop that natural process of mind to be present with whatever is predominant. If something else becomes predominant, to turn to it and let go of what you were holding. This is where wisdom about emptiness and impermanence develops.

It takes an enormous amount of concentration to be present with whatever is predominant, to see that it has slipped into second place and let it go, and move to what is predominant. But it's a very openhearted process, with open concentration. And my experience is, this is exactly what we most need for deeper vipassana realization experiences.


I didn't get that, “The deeper the concentration, the experience allows for the access to guidance better.” Please repeat that... Does deeper concentration allow for easier connection to spirit guidance?


During the period that you're learning jhana, you will probably not be that open to spirit guidance, because you're simply focusing in meditation on the jhanas, pushing everything else aside and becoming very one-focused. So you're not letting anything else in.

Once you've experienced the highest jhanas and moved back to access concentration, and move into an insight path, then you'd have to re-open the door to be accessible to whatever is predominant, including guidance from spirit. And at that point it wouldn't matter whether you had done jhana or not. But in the interim, it would make understanding of guidance more difficult.

Lets also talk a little about pure awareness. I mentioned the mundane and supramundane cittas. When I use the word ‘consciousness', my own particular way of speaking, I mean the process of mind or body sense organ touching and object and the arising of consciousness. There seems to be a self in there. As access concentration develops, any sense of a self perceiving the object drops away. There is just this broad field of awareness. Full presence. As long as there's a self, there is separation, me perceiving that; me doing something with that. From the no-self perspective of awareness, there is just presence with whatever has arisen., it's from this space that we can function best to attend the troubles in the world. No fixer; just the open heart. Awareness is what connects best with spirit guidance, not mundane consciousness.


Why don't we let Aaron come in at this point and speak to you directly?

(end of transcribed session excerpt)