The Art of Concentration (Samatha Meditation)
August 11, 2008
Oftentimes, when the Buddha taught, he liked to present a sort of map of the whole path, or a description, really, of the whole path as it unfolds from its most basic elements and beginnings and building blocks all the way to complete, final liberation, the end of the path. He liked to often present that for his students, for his listeners. I also get the sense, with the Buddha, that he liked to whet people's appetites in that presentation. So a little bit, that's what I want to do tonight, really more in the sense of describing a map, presenting a map, presenting a look at where this practice potentially can unfold, can lead.
So I want to talk tonight about the four jhānas, what's called the four jhānas, which are states of deep samādhi, deep samatha, deep absorption and concentration. Jhāna is a Pali word. In Sanskrit the word is dhyāna. What I would just like to say, to start, is to put a question out for you to hold lightly during the talk, and to kind of keep in the background, which is: what happens when you hear about this stuff? What happens in the mind? What's the reaction? How are you listening? If one hears about states further along than we are at the present moment, what does the mind do with that? Does it say, "It's rubbish where I am now. It's worthless. It's not worth anything. That's what I want"? Does it dismiss my present experience? Does it dismiss the present experience? Does it find something in a description of something that we don't already have -- does it use that to put ourselves down in the present? It's just that inner critic again, using whatever it can to kind of press down on the self and berate the self. Or sometimes we hear something, and it just sounds like -- somehow we're turned off. And if we're turned off, what's the reason there? What's going on there? So just to, a very light question, how are you listening? How are we listening to this? And what's happening as we listen? Just to notice the reactions.
We've been here, I don't know, three, three and a half days or something, and out of a five-day retreat, I don't particularly expect most of what I'm talking about tonight to be really present much in your experience right now. It's very early days we're talking about. However, for some people who have been here much longer, some people have a long history of this kind of practice, and it will speak definitely to what's in their experience. For others, even in the days that we've had so far, there have been glimpses of something that's a little bit out of the ordinary experience that one is used to. So all that may be possible. For the most part, for most of you tonight, it will just be a matter of kind of sitting back and listening to something, listening to a description of where this might unfold. I've put an enormous amount of material out just so far in the retreat, and for once, for the most part, you don't actually have to do much with this tonight. It's just listen, sit back, and kind of hear about it.
This comfortable feeling, however it is, that I've been talking about and pointing to and that we've been encouraging, slowly, slowly, and in a non-linear way, we begin to develop that. We begin to develop it. As it's developing, the mind begins to like it more and more; it's comfortable, it's pleasant, it's enjoyable, it's easeful, whatever. Because of that, the mind can settle down in it more. As the mind settles down in it more, it grows. You get this kind of feedback loop going on, and a kind of resonance set up. Eventually it develops, and it might become more steady. It might also really grow in intensity, but it may not grow that much in intensity. There's a word in Pali called pīti, and that's usually translated as 'rapture,' or sometimes as 'pleasure,' sometimes as 'delight.' But let's use just the word pīti. It's hard to say, to draw a dividing line, where that comfortable feeling that may be ever so humble right now, where that begins to move into the territory where we can call it pīti. Maybe it's just a spectrum; maybe there actually isn't a dividing line.
This comfortable feeling, we could call that pīti. But we could also say there are actually many types of pīti. So even right now, this comfortable feeling, if we had the time and went through every -- "Describe your comfortable feeling" -- we'd get a lot of different descriptions. Similarly with pīti. So a lot of different ways it manifests, and a lot of different strengths as well -- sometimes very unremarkable, sometimes so strong it's like being hit by, struck by lightning. It's unbearably intense, the kind of rapture, and words like 'bliss' and 'ecstasy' are not off the mark. But pīti can manifest any way. It could be a warmth, an opening, a tingling, a kind of pleasant vibration, a lightness. Many, many qualities it can have, but the basic qualifier for it is that it's a pleasant feeling arising out of meditation. Even that, I'd have to qualify, because sometimes people get it outside of meditation; it has more to do with an openness of being. One's in nature, or listening to music, or just emotionally very open, and that very openness of being allows the energy channels in the body to open up, if we use that language. The energy flows, and there's pleasantness. There's comfort there. There's pīti there.
So this pīti begins to come into the experience, and it can be sporadically at first, but it begins to develop and begins to get a little more steady, and then a lot more steady. One has a couple of choices as a meditator, and in a way, one can also develop the capacity to do both. One is to keep the breath, as I've been describing, as something that kind of nurtures and bathes that pleasant feeling. In a way, sometimes the breath and the pīti can kind of mix together, and they become almost indistinguishable, as if one is breathing this pīti, breathing this pleasant feeling. Or one can let the breath go, and let it be very much in the background, or even lose touch with it, and the pīti comes more to the fore. That becomes the object of concentration; it becomes the thing that the mind is focusing on. One begins to develop this, focus on it, and enable it to spread and fill the whole body. So the whole body is actually saturated with a pleasant feeling. Again, that could be extremely, extremely pleasant or just a little bit pleasant. I'll come back to this. But actually that degree of intensity of it is less important than the fact that it's spread and it's steady.
When this pīti -- this nice feeling, this pleasant feeling that's come from meditation -- when that's steady, and it's lasting minutes and longer, and it's suffusing the whole body, and the mind is really, really enjoying it, and the mind kind of absorbs into it, really rubs its nose into it, really dissolves into it, really gets inside it and gets to know it, that state is called the first jhāna, the first absorption or the first state of concentration. The Buddha had very beautiful poetic images for the jhānas. I'll just read you each as I go through them. He's talking about someone:
He enters [in this case 'he' -- could be 'she,' of course] and abides in the first jhāna, and makes the rapture and pleasure drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by the rapture and pleasure. Just as a skilled bathman or bathman's apprentice heaps bath powder in a metal basin and, sprinkling it gradually with water, kneads it until the moisture wets his ball of bath powder [so in those days you couldn't go to the supermarket and buy a bar of soap. There would be actually someone in the public baths mixing soap powder into a ball for each individual bather, and they would mix it and give this thing to the person], soaks it, and pervades it inside and out, yet the ball itself does not ooze, so too he makes the rapture and pleasure drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of this whole body unpervaded by the rapture and pleasure.
So the important thing -- it's interesting, it's quite an active image. This person is really mixing something. Sometimes, with this comfortable feeling -- that, again, please remember I'm talking, probably, maybe, for many people here, in the future -- one is actively kind of mixing that through the body, kind of pushing it, "How do my legs feel?", getting it down there, mixing it in the body. At other times, it will be much more kind of hands-off and subtle, the way that one gets it to spread. It's almost like just letting it spread, or opening up the awareness, and then it spreads. But the Buddha chooses quite an active image, which is interesting.
And so one learns that. One learns to do that, and one does it over and over and over, and really begins to enjoy it. That state begins to deepen. In time, it ripens. It ripens into what's called the second jhāna, which is quite similar, except a couple things have changed. In the background, so to speak, in the first jhāna -- there was this pīti there, and in the background was a kind of happiness, like a very deep happiness. But the pīti is so strong that oftentimes a meditator doesn't notice even that there's a lot of happiness there. In the second jhāna, what happens is the happiness comes to the fore, and the pīti goes a little bit to the background. The pīti is still very much there, but what's really prominent in the experience of the second jhāna is happiness -- really unbelievable happiness. I mean, very, very profound outpouring in the being, a very deep, incredibly fulfilling happiness.
The other factor that happens in the second jhāna is that -- in the first jhāna, for a lot of people, it's actually still possible to use reflective thought and kind of evaluate, "How's the meditation going? A bit more of this, a bit of ..." You actually think about the breath: "Should I make it longer now?", etc. It's what's called 'applied' and 'evaluating thought.' That kind of disappears in the second jhāna, in the sense that the mind can't follow a thought in that state. So thoughts, as something that the mind follows, have kind of disappeared. There's really nothing going on but this happiness, beautiful welling up of happiness. The Buddha has a very lovely image for this:
Just as though there were a mountain lake whose waters welled up from below [so you've got a mountain spring feeding a lake], and it had no inflow from east, west, north, or south, and would not be replenished from time to time by showers of rain, then the cool fount of water welling up in the lake would make the cool water drench, steep, fill, and pervade the lake, so that there would be no part of the whole lake unpervaded by cool water, so too he makes the rapture and pleasure [he's talking about the rapture and happiness this time] born of concentration drench, steep, fill and pervade this body, so that there is no part of this whole body unpervaded by the happiness and rapture.
You have to remember they're living in a very hot climate, so the idea of a cool lake is actually quite appealing. [laughter] Whereas August in Devon ... [laughter] But to listeners, that would have been a very beautiful -- can you hear the beauty of the image? You've got this lake, and it's just being fed. And in a way, I find the poetic images incredibly precise, somehow, poetically. They don't work for everyone, but they're really quite precise.
Again, a meditator gets used to that. This all really takes time, what I'm talking about. A meditator gets used to that, and gets used to really drenching, really absorbing in that. After a time, it's almost as if the happiness completely fulfils the being. So what we want is happiness, and here it is, just like a waterfall of it, or as the Buddha says, an inner spring of it, and we have enough. The heart feels like, "I have enough." Totally fulfilled by the happiness. And then something happens: it begins to mellow. It's like the happiness begins to mellow. It goes through a couple of stages, in a way. It passes through a stage where there's this profound sense of contentment. It's interesting -- if we say 'rapture' or 'ecstasy' or 'bliss,' describing the first jhāna, and then we say 'contentment' begins to move into the third jhāna, most people would say, "Well, rapture and bliss and ecstasy sound much better!" But actually there's something about this contentment; it's much more satisfying. It's something that we don't really taste in our everyday life. These are states that are beyond the emotional range, and certainly the range of consciousness, that most human beings would be used to. It's a profound sense of satisfaction, fulfilment, contentment, that's also very, very peaceful, exquisitely peaceful. That begins to deepen, and the sense of peacefulness begins to really come to the fore.
At this point, the rapture has sort of faded from the experience. So the sort of buzz of ecstasy, etc., has faded, and what's just there is a very mellow, indescribably beautiful, sweet, tender peacefulness that's just suffusing everything. The Buddha, again, a similar kind of image:
Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses that are born and grow in the water thrive immersed in the water, without rising out of it, and cool water drenches, steeps, fills, and pervades them to their tips and their roots, so that there is no part of all those lotuses unpervaded by cool water, so too he makes the pleasure [really the peacefulness, the happiness] divested of rapture [the rapture is gone] drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by the pleasure divested of rapture.
In a way, each of these stages has kind of gradations within it. It can be that that peacefulness begins to kind of expand out. So it very much starts with contentment, and the peacefulness is here. And then it kind of expands out, and it's almost as if one is in a realm of peacefulness, everything -- so that when the birds sing out there or crow or whatever they do, they're singing of peace. They're expressing peace. Everything gets coloured that way; everything is speaking of peace. It's very hard, in that kind of state, to be disturbed by sensory jolts, etc.; you definitely might hear them still, but a sense of peace is pervading through everything. Again, one develops that, and this really takes time, etc., and eventually that deepens too. One moves to the fourth jhāna. One is almost submerged or cocooned in a state of total stillness. The mind and the body have kind of dissolved in stillness. The body is very much just -- all that's there is the sense of exquisite stillness. The mind, too, dissolved in stillness.
That stillness, though, is very bright; there's a real sense of incredible aliveness. Sometimes it's visually very bright. Sometimes all these states are visually very bright, like white, golden light. But there's an incredible sense of aliveness and presence, a sense of really, really being there. Like, this moment, very, very alive, this moment, very present. It's also very refined. So what's happening here is the states are getting more and more refined. In a way, rapture, relative to the stillness of what I'm talking about now, is something quite gross -- it's very buzzy and sort of "Yeehaw!" kind of thing. [laughter] This is something very, very exquisite and incredibly refined. It's very, very subtle, extremely subtle. One of the things that's happening as the mind deepens through this is that the mind itself is becoming more refined. It's able to notice and stay with very, very refined objects. So the peacefulness in the third jhāna is very, very refined. It would be hard -- it's almost like we train the mind to stay, to be able to stay with that degree of refinement.
Now, sometimes, we hear about this or whatever, and we want to kind of rush through all this. I feel it's more useful if one just spends time in each stage and lets it ripen like a fruit ripening. It's just ready to move into the next stage. Sometimes you can kind of encourage it and nudge it, but for the most part it just ripens. The Buddha's image for that one:
He sits pervading this body with a pure, bright mind [pure, bright awareness], so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by the pure, bright awareness. Just as though a man were sitting covered from the head down with a white cloth, so that there would be no part of his whole body unpervaded by the white cloth, so too he sits pervading the body with a pure bright awareness, so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by that.
So it's interesting. It does sound a lot less dramatic, but actually, without exception, a meditator finds them more fulfilling as they go deeper.
Sometimes people get into states like these, but they're not -- it's all a bit amorphous, in other words. It's quite important to know, "This is this state, and this is this state, and this is that state." There's something quite important about that, rather than just "I'm in a state that really feels extraordinary and very good." Something about knowing each one. They can be experienced as kind of the mind making a quantum leap from one state to the other: you're really in something different now. Or they can be experienced as a continuum -- both. But it's really good to know them as separate and really know, "Ah, this is the second jhāna, this is ..." etc.
Now, I mentioned, sometimes, in fact quite often, people get secondary effects, what are called nimittas in Pali. The most common one is bright, white light. Some of you may even be experiencing that now. It's like the mind produces kind of bright, white light. It's just a sign that the mind is deepening in the concentration. Sometimes these can be a bit of a distraction, but if a meditator can blend them in with the rapture or blend them in the happiness, etc., then they can be really useful. But they're not essential to what's going on. Sometimes they get a little overemphasized in the teaching of all this. What is essential is the suffusion. The whole body steeped in this, the pervading of the whole body. If you notice every time the Buddha talks about it, he uses those words -- "drench, suffuse, steep," etc. That's actually essential.
The other essential thing is the steadiness. The word jhāna is related to a word jhāyati, which is the word for the steadiness of a candle flame. So there's something very, very steady in the state. Those factors, the suffusion and the steadiness, are actually more important than intensity. Mind-blowing ecstasy, etc., is actually not so important [as] the steadiness or the suffusion. Also, interestingly, the degree of absorption -- so some people say, "It's not a jhāna until someone could chop your head off and you wouldn't realize." Maybe there is that degree of absorption, and I guess that could come in handy. [laughter] But actually that's not the significant factor. There will be a continuum of absorption; sometimes one feels more absorbed, sometimes less. Of course one is trying to be more absorbed. But that's actually not so important. One also tends to assume that the more intense and the more absorbed, the better, but not always. Someone might have extreme absorption, extreme intensity of experience, but there's actually not much wisdom or not much difference happening in a person's life. So those aren't really the key factors.
It's possible, and I would say it's strongly, strongly preferable with all of this: a meditator can learn to develop mastery of each of these states. So what that means is, one is able to sit down, or stand, or walk, or whatever it is, and just say, "Bliss." And there it comes. Or just say, "Stillness." And there it comes. Just a very slight intention, and there it is, and then one is able to sustain that and absorb into it. That might sound incredibly far-fetched, but it's actually not, and in fact there are people in this room right now who have been here for a while, or have been doing this kind of practice for a while, who are quite able to do that. A mastery at being able to enter, being able to come out of it, being able to sustain it, etc. So even possible to go for long walks and be in one of these states, and the body just kind of knows what to do, where to put the feet, etc. This is all actually very, very possible.
That degree of mastery, I think, is really, really preferable, in terms of making a long-term difference to one's life, over a kind of glimpse of an experience, which can be helpful or can be not helpful. If an experience, if a jhānic experience, is a one-off -- like you had this one experience that was like "Wow," and then never again -- that's when it's dangerous in terms of attachment, because the mind just went, "Wow, that was so different. I just want to get back there." Once it begins starting to be a bit more regular and a bit more accessible, the problem of attachment is actually not that great at all.
The Buddha also emphasized this mastery and the kind of letting things ripen. He has this image of a foolish cow that's grazing in a field in the mountains, and then this foolish cow thinks, "I wonder what that field -- that field looks pretty good. I wonder what that's like," and it has to go down this mountainside and into a ravine to get to the other one. But it goes down there out of curiosity for the other field, and then it can't get out of the ravine. It can't get to the new field, and it can't get back to the old one. So there's something -- the idea is just stay where you are and let things ripen.
Part of this mastery that's involved, that I'm saying is actually quite possible with long-term dedication to this, is that one gets the sense that these are kind of like frequencies or radio waves that actually are in the air all the time. What one is doing is sort of tuning one's mind, tuning one's radio tuner into a certain frequency. You tune it into rapture, or you tune it into happiness or peacefulness or whatever, and then you just abide with that. So it can be a little like opening your wardrobe, and you've got clothes hanging on the thing. You say, "Hmm, that one." But the sense of what's going on begins to change, and it moves to the very real sense that they're there all the time. They're actually there all the time. It's more a sense of tuning into something. There's something quite important about that shift.
Something with all this: attitude. I'll remind you of the question that I started with: just how are you hearing this right now? How are you hearing this? For a practitioner who is going through all this or has the possibility to go through all this, even then, attitude is really, really important. It's very common to kind of grasp at this word jhāna, or kind of want to have a badge that says, "Yeah, first jhāna," you know, have stripes or something. The ego can get a hold of it that way; it's very easy. Much better to regard this as a kind of lifetime deepening. Over a lifetime, we're deepening in this beautiful, beautiful exploration of the deepening of consciousness, the deepening of samādhi. There's just a kind of lifetime commitment to it, as part of our whole practice. Slowly, slowly, these things can come to us if we're interested in them, and if we put the work in. I, actually, when I'm working with people one on one, I almost never use the word jhāna. Oftentimes it's a word that people grab hold of in the wrong way and kind of make too much of or something. So I actually talk much more in terms of, "How's the happiness doing? Are you able to pervade the comfortable feeling?" or something. And I introduce the word jhāna much, much later, when things are much more settled and normalized, etc.
It's also important to realize that for someone who goes into this, there will still be the whole continuum of experience. All that is still -- the whole continuum of difficulty and the effort level, I think is what I'm trying to say -- that will still be very much part of the experience, a part of the practice. So sometimes one finds oneself in a beautiful state, and it feels completely effortless, totally suffused and right there and just totally effortless. Sometimes, in fact more often, perhaps, there's a degree of tweaking going on. Someone told me, in fact a lot of people told me today, I've been using words that they don't understand, that apparently are American words. [laughter] So if I talk American, say something. Is tweaking okay? Tweak, tweak? [laughter] Okay.
There's a degree of tweaking going on, and what I mean by that is that one is still doing some subtle work in the absorption: just a little bit more of this, a little bit less, relax a little bit, working with all these factors that I've been throwing out. It's just on a more subtle level. That's going on. Sometimes it feels effortless, sometimes there's a degree of tweaking going on. Sometimes there are niggles going on, even, and you're trying -- one is working to do the best that one can to iron them out. Sometimes the hindrances are sort of around, but they're not prominent. It's as if they're like a little pack of sort of terrier dogs, but they're just outside the door, yapping, yapping, yapping. They're not quite in the foreground of the experience. And sometimes there's a full-blown hindrance attack, or multiple hindrance attack. All that is the practice of samādhi, even the practice of jhāna practice. It's all involved. So to actually expect that. There's a subtle work going on quite a lot of the time, and sometimes not so subtle at all.
Okay, so, hearing about this, and even before we heard about this, just in terms of the practice that we're doing, this is a question that's come up from a few people, and it's very important. Is this escapism? Am I escaping into some kind of la-la land? Am I not dealing with my psychological difficulties that need to get dealt with? This is actually a very important question. It comes out of a lot of integrity and honesty. It's important that we ask this question. I touched on it, I think, in the talk on the first evening. You have to see -- to repeat a little bit -- you have to see what we're doing here on this retreat in context. It's one kind of slice out of the whole of what practice is. We're just emphasizing that slice for the purpose of this retreat. So to see it in context.
Am I able, as a practitioner, am I able to meet what's difficult emotionally? Am I able to open to what's difficult emotionally? Do I know how to do that? Can I draw near? Can I open? Can I touch and hold what's going on that's difficult, emotionally, physically, psychologically, etc.? Am I able to do that? And am I able to put that down and go into something else? Am I also able to kind of understand what might be feeding that difficulty, and understand it in a way that defuses it? All that is part of practice. We're just emphasizing one part right now. If I'm able to do all that, then the question of "Am I avoiding? Am I not avoiding?" becomes quite secondary. It's like, well, sometimes I can do this, and sometimes I can do that. And if I've chosen to, I don't know, bliss out for a while, and that's the wrong choice, it'll show itself. It'll show itself. The fact of one's ability to move between the two gives one more freedom. One is less worried about making the wrong choice there. You can do both. It's not that one exclusively does one or the other.
So, is it escapism? The Buddha actually would refer to -- he calls this -- this is an escape. You know what? The first jhāna is an escape from the hindrances. It's an escape from sloth and torpor, and restlessness, and doubt, and greed, and anger, and aversion. It's actually an escape from all that that's difficult. And then the second jhāna is an escape from being caught up in thought or from following thought. The third jhāna is an escape from the relative grossness of rapture, etc. They're escapes. Is it an escape in terms of our connection with other people? Absolutely not. What one realizes as one goes deeply into samādhi practice is that there is really love in this. The samādhi, what just starts as the comfortable feeling, when it grows, and particularly when it reaches the happiness stage, it's actually got a lot of love in it. There's a real quality of love kind of mixed in with the happiness. As that goes deeper into the territory of the third jhāna, there's a real tenderness in there. The heart is extremely tender and open with all of that. All of this makes us, in a way, more emotionally available -- to ourselves, to others, and to life. We're being bathed in this love, in this tenderness, and it really opens up the availability in our life. Having access, in one's life, to this kind of independent sense of happiness and well-being gives a tremendous confidence. We just feel a confidence that I can be happy. I can be happy, and that's a big deal. It's a big deal to know that I can be happy. And not only that -- I can actually be happy in an independent way, not so needy. It doesn't make us cold and cut off, but we're just not so needy.
Again, as the samādhi develops, there's a real faith that comes up. You see, "Oh, my experience totally matches what the Buddha said. And then my next experience totally matches what the Buddha ..." And it keeps going. You think, "Well, maybe if this much is true -- one, two, three, four, etc. -- it's probably all true." It gives a real, real faith. There's incredible healing in all of this. Any even pre-jhānic samādhi, what we're mostly dealing with on this retreat, just that bathing the body, bathing the sense of well-being, that healing that comes from that -- it just deepens, it just deepens. Incredibly healing for the body, incredibly healing for the mind, the emotional body, the nervous system, all of that. A lot of healing here. A lot of people find their -- how to say? -- intuitive capacities kind of growing; there's something about this that opens up the intuition quite deeply. The sensitivity to life is also opened.
Tomorrow I'm going to talk a lot about the relationship of concentration, of samatha, and insight. I just want to touch very briefly this evening on a little bit of that. All this that I've just talked about has a dramatic effect -- or should have a dramatic effect -- on our relationship with greed and sense desire, and also on aversion. I have something, one has something here that's actually a lot better, to put it grossly, a lot better than what one can get through sense pleasure. There's less of this kind of hunger in the mind to go out. One just has enough. That's a shift that particularly starts happening around the second jhāna. There's a real re-evaluating of where the happiness comes from in life, and it really sinks down into the being where the happiness is really.
Sometimes, and again I don't know if this sounds crass or not, but sometimes just taking, say, the first three jhānas -- I wonder what that's worth in money terms. [laughter] It's a ridiculous question, of course, but I don't know. Millions? Billions? Whatever you could buy with money won't give you that same satisfaction. A massive yacht that's moored in the Caribbean, with waiters and people who fan you. [laughter] And bring you those cocktails with umbrellas in and stuff. Imagine you had that whenever you wanted. You had a private jet that could fly you there whenever you got a little stressed out at work. It's just, [snaps fingers] "Jeeves?" [laughter] And along comes a chauffeur, and then takes you to your private jet, and off you go. The azure, clear waters, and the beautiful, blue sky, etc. It doesn't compare. I don't know how much money one would need to have all that. Sorry to be crass.
One of the other insights: in the third jhāna, the degree of peacefulness, one realizes it's come from -- put it this way: there's a wishlessness that comes with that peacefulness. One is totally satisfied, totally contented, and with that, it's like one doesn't wish for anything. One is not wanting anything more or anything less. An insight drops: peacefulness comes from wishlessness, from not wishing, from having no wishes. That's the deepest kind of peacefulness.
With all of these jhānas -- I'll touch on this at some other point -- but there's a progressively getting to know less self. There's less self around. It's like the self is just getting more and more in the background and being quiet; it's not being so built up. The Buddha said, "Develop samādhi. Develop samādhi." When the samādhi is really developed, the mind "can move mountains," he said, "let alone measly ignorance." To move ignorance means to be completely enlightened. He said once samādhi is developed, it's like that's easy. It's a tremendous resource in our lives. Sometimes we think, "Well, how is that going to apply to my daily life?" Actually, with practice of this, it's possible to have things like rapture, comfortable feeling, pīti, and even happiness or more, peacefulness, etc., as qualities -- maybe not full jhānic absorption as one's moving through the busyness of the day, but as qualities that are actually quite accessible. One begins to be able to just draw on them in the middle of a difficult situation. One just draws on that quality, and it changes one's relationship with the situation. This is actually much more accessible than one might think.
There was once -- I can't remember the whole story -- but there was once a novice monk called Cunda, and someone had said to him, "You Buddhist monks and nuns, you're addicted to lying and cheating and stealing and killing and sense pleasure and greed and all of that." Being very new, he kind of didn't know what to respond. So he went back to the Buddha, and the Buddha said to him, "Well, if someone says that, you should say no, we're not addicted to that. But we are addicted to four forms of pleasure-seeking. My disciples are addicted to four forms of pleasure-seeking." He uses this word "addicted." "We're addicted to four forms of pleasure-seeking. Those are the pleasures of the first, second, third, and fourth jhāna. We're addicted to that." He goes on to say, "Because they are entirely conducive to disenchantment, etc., to awakening, to nirvāṇa." Entirely conducive to nirvāṇa -- "This is a pleasure that I will allow myself. This is a pleasure that leads to nirvāṇa," he says. He's very, very clear about that. He goes on to say, in the same passage, "There are four fruits that can be expected for one who is given to these four forms of pleasure-seeking. They are the four stages of enlightenment, the four stages of awakening." That's what's to be expected. He's very clear: "Pursue this because it leads to awakening. Develop this pleasure because it leads to awakening."
So this question of attachment, it's very rarely a problem. I'll put it that way. There are cases where it is. But it's very rarely. I think I used the image of a ladder in one of the talks. So it's a little bit like, what's quite common, if I'm working one on one with someone, and they're going through this, they reach the level of the third jhāna and this exquisite peacefulness, and then they -- I have to prod them a little bit and check, "Hey, are you still keeping up the first jhāna?" Because they look back, and all that ecstasy and all that buzz seems, "I don't want that." It seems gross. And the mind actually kind of withdraws from it. There's a natural kind of letting go of the lower states, and that just progressively builds. To follow that image of the ladder, it's almost like one is grabbing this rung up there, which enables one to let go of the rung down there. Then one grabs the rung above, progressively, progressively.
So there is a way that the path of samatha, this unfolding of all this in its depths, actually leads, in itself, all the way to awakening. It's one of the sort of routes that are available, that lead all the way to nirvāṇa. But always it's part of the whole path. All the factors that I began the retreat talking about -- generosity, and ethics, and loving-kindness, and insight, all that -- that's always part of the path. Practitioners vary in the -- let's put it this way -- in the degree that they emphasize samatha. Some people emphasize it very, very little, and some people emphasize it really, really a lot, and some people are kind of medium. That's all fine, and that depends on individual personalities and predispositions and that kind of stuff. But it is possible just in and of itself, if you're reflecting on the samatha in the right way, that it leads all the way to awakening. On this retreat, as I said, we're really emphasizing the samatha. We're really emphasizing that slice of the path. Tomorrow I'm going to talk about the relationship of concentration, of samatha, and insight, and how they feed each other, because that's really what goes on. The samatha feeds the insight in a very deep way, and the insight feeds the samatha. They're mutually reinforcing.
So, a little bit of a map. I think what I really want to say is that, actually, this, what I've described tonight, is actually more available than it might sound. I don't know how it sounds, actually. It will sound different ways to different people. But it's more available than one might think. It's actually there for a practitioner if one wants it.
How are you doing? Are you tired? I could open it up for questions now, or should we not? Let's take a little time and do that, if you're not too tired, then. Any questions about what I've just been talking about?
Q1: recap of second jhāna
Yogi: Could you explain what the second jhāna is, please, again? I missed that.
Rob: Second jhāna? Yeah. In the first jhāna, you've got a lot of physical rapture, physical ecstasy. In the second jhāna, what comes to be more prominent is happiness, the quality of joy or happiness, very, very deep happiness. That sort of takes the centre stage, and one just absorbs in that happiness. The rapture or physical ecstasy is still there, but it's sort of a little bit in the back -- not really in the background; it's just not as prominent as the happiness. The other factor that sort of defines the second jhāna is that there may be a little flicker of thought or an image, this and that kind of sparking in the mind, but it's not possible to follow a thought or to think a thought, so to speak. Thought has kind of gone, and happiness is really filling the experience. Okay?
Q2: preconceptions and expectations getting in the way of jhāna practice; preconceptions about jhāna can be helpful
Yogi: I think it's wonderful and inspiring, hearing about the jhānas. But I wondering about going into the practice with preconceptions, and then they get in the way.
Rob: The preconceptions getting in the way? Yeah, yeah. It's definitely a potential issue. There are two words: one is 'preconceptions,' and one is 'expectations.' Yesterday in the talk, I very briefly talked about kind of having one's mind so much on the results that one is neglecting paying attention to the causes. What are the causes? Well, the thing that we've been doing -- nurturing, playing with the breath, playing with the mind, etc., nurturing that pleasant feeling. If I'm thinking, "It should be like this," or something, that's really going to get in the way.
In terms of preconceptions, that can work both ways. Sometimes, yeah, sort of, one gets into a state and wants to paint it in a way that it's -- "Now I've got that first jhāna badge," etc. But in other ways it can be helpful in just kind of -- not freaking someone out, when they have a new experience. "Oh, this is referred to. This is common. This is something that actually people have been experiencing for thousands of years. It has a context. It has a framework." So yeah, I'm aware of that, but also I think there's a benefit for providing that framework and that map. I remember doing solitary retreats in the past and working on samatha, and getting into some states which I only realized, "Oh, this is the whatever jhāna," because I had read the description before. Then I could kind of work with that and relate it to what I'd experienced before. So it can be a problem, but it can also be useful. It's a call. As I said at the beginning, the Buddha seemed fond of doing that, so humbly I follow his example. But it's a good point.
Q3: necessity of jhāna for enlightenment; jhāna and insight
Yogi: Are we saying that you can't get enlightened without the jhānas?
Rob: That's a loaded one, yeah. Did everyone hear that? "Are we saying you can't get enlightened without the jhānas?" Am I saying, or ...? [laughter] Is that machine on? [laughter] The Buddha said there's no jhāna without wisdom, but he also said there's no wisdom without jhāna. The degree of that might vary. In other words, what my teacher usually said is you can't be enlightened without an experience of at least the first jhāna. I don't know, to be honest. If it's available for someone, I really tend to emphasize it, because what I see -- and I'll talk about this tomorrow -- what I see is that they're so good for insight, even more than they are for just, like, juice on the path, etc. They do such a lot for insight, and for allowing insight to really deepen and take root in the being, and for different kinds of understanding to unfold. I wouldn't like to say -- what that would involve would be working with a lot of people who actually reach enlightenment and seeing how many of them actually didn't do that. [laughter] There are people at Gaia House who have reached stages of enlightenment. I want to say that, actually. That happens here on long-term retreat. But I haven't worked with enough of them to know if that's the case. That's all I would say. So I don't feel it's for me to say. I tend to emphasize them when they're available for a person. I never push someone into this. I never -- if they don't want to do it, that's totally fine. I always respect that. But if it's available and they're interested, I gently tend to encourage it because I see that it's really good for insight. That's most of the reason why I would emphasize it. So I'm not really answering your question, but ... Is that okay? Okay.
Q4: precision in defining states of jhāna
Yogi: I [?] have a question. I think I'm struck by the precision of the states. [?]
Rob: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah. They are very -- I briefly made that point. It's relatively common for a person to be meditating quite a long time and get what could be quite intense experiences, but they're quite vague, and they're not really defined. They don't really know, "Is it this jhāna or that jhāna?" I actually think it's important. I'll go into this a little bit perhaps as part of the context of tomorrow's talk. It's actually important to be very precise and know. It doesn't mean there can't be some variation from time to time in how each one feels, but there is a lot of precision. The Buddha is extremely precise in his teaching. He's a very precise teacher.
Yogi: Is there movement up and down the jhānas? [?]
Rob: Is there movement?
Yogi: Well, movement in and out ...
Rob: Yes. In fact, sorry, I forgot to say. Once one has mastered, one can kind of ping-pong around at will. So you're in bliss, and you just think, "Okay, stillness." And you ping-pong there. Then you say, "Okay, some happiness." And you can just spend your time ... [laughter] Very possible. Really, really possible. Totally. Yeah.
Q5: rarity of samatha practitioners; development of Dharma in the West
Yogi: [?] Why are you the only one who does it?
Rob: I'm not the only one who does it. Is that on or off? [laughter] I'm not the only one who does it. I'm really not the only one. The Dharma is very young in the West. You have to see that. You think back -- where are we now? 2008. When did the Dharma -- this kind of tradition, Insight Meditation tradition, took root in the West in the middle to late seventies, so you're talking about thirty years old. It came through certain -- two or three particular streams of traditions which tended to really not emphasize samatha. Now, I totally respect that. But that's just what took hold. As the Dharma is growing -- and it's very, very young. You think about -- a 2,600-year-old tradition has been in the West for thirty years. This is baby time. We are baby time now. And it's just growing. There are all kinds of factors -- how is Dharma meeting modern psychotherapy and psychology? That's really shaping things. How is Dharma, this tradition, meeting other traditions, like Tibetan traditions, etc.? There's a whole kind of birthing process going on. It's very early days. My guess is that in the next five, ten, twenty years there will be lots of different strands available to practitioners. You get, yeah, different people emphasizing one, like I said, and the other. It will be much more available, much more sort of mainstream. It's starting to happen already. It's already starting to happen. Historically, there are reasons -- it's more to do, for the most part, with which particular streams were the really popular streams that took root when the Dharma originally came in the seventies, or the Insight Meditation tradition originally came in the seventies. Is that ...? Yeah?
Q6: potential danger of grasping at quick fixes, embracing samatha, and forgetting compassion; samatha as a tool in developing compassion
Yogi: I was just wondering, again, the way that we're practising in the West, we tend to have busy lives and come to a retreat once or twice a year. Sort of short-term. Do you see a potential danger with our tendency to grasp at just the quick fixes, that we might embrace this strand of the practice and forget all about perhaps other strands like compassion? Or do you think it can be a real tool in developing compassion?
Rob: I think it can be a real tool. Like I said, it brings compassion. There's no question about it; one is just more available. The jhānas themselves are infused with that quality. Real love and tenderness are in there. It's also not a quick fix, this path -- it takes a lot of work, don't get me wrong. You can see. Has this been hard work? [laughter] It's been hard work. I mean, doesn't mean to say it's not enjoyable and can't be nice at times, even a lot of the time. But even when it's going well, it's still hard work. There's an aspect to it that's hard work. I suppose that's possible, for someone to overemphasize this at the expense of another part of the path. But one could do that with any part of the path, and like I said a few times on this retreat, the Dharma is something very wide. This retreat, we're just emphasizing one part. We have to see things in context. It's almost like, being able to do different things, being able to embrace different parts -- there might be periods of one's life where one is emphasizing one particular strand of that, and periods of one's life where one is emphasizing another, and that's fine. People will differ in terms of how much concentration they can do in the middle of a very busy life. Some people are completely fine with doing it in the middle of a busy city and going to work and commuting and all that. Some people, less so. But it's still, I would say, much more available than one would think. Does that answer? Yeah. Okay.
Q7: difficulty relating to the need for intellectual precision
Yogi: You talked about being very precise. This is more an observation than question. To me, that felt very intellectual. I find that quite difficult to relate to.
Rob: The factor of precision? Yeah.
Yogi: Yeah, that it has to be so precise. That's what, how it came out to me.
Rob: Okay. Yeah, sorry, I didn't mean ...
Yogi: And that seems very kind of 'up here' and not kind of 'home.' Do you see what I'm saying?
Rob: I think so. Okay, what could we replace that with?
Yogi: Is it about identifying the feeling?
Rob: Yeah. I guess all I'm saying is that there's a real difference, say, between the first and the second jhāna, and it's important to know when you're in one and when you're in the other, that's all. And that's not an intellectual process. That's a really embodied -- like, you just know, like you know your best friend from your husband or whatever. You know the difference.
Yogi: So it's not important to know the name of it? It's important to [?], and that you're in the first or second or third jhāna?
Yogi: That it's different?
Rob: Yeah, that it's different. Like I said, I rarely -- when I'm working with someone one on one, I rarely use the word jhāna. I wait for the person to use their own language, and then I'll pick up on that language. If you start using the word 'joy' or 'delightful,' something or other, I'll just mirror that back to you. I'll use your language. But in the back of my mind I'm kind of thinking, "Okay, there are discrete things, which you know. There's this, and then there's this." And then later on you can map them onto first, second. But that's much later. By that point it's a very intimate experience to you and very embodied, etc. Yeah? Maybe one more.
Q8: surrendering to intense, lovely feelings and spreading them; opening energy channels to allow movements inside while keeping the physical body still
Yogi: Just a question, really, about the actual practice. You said yesterday, in the group interview that we had, when this kind of ... yeah, this bliss, this pleasure is arising, to really see if there's any way in which you're holding back, and to really go for it, really, you know. And in doing that -- well, anyway, then you said the intensity isn't necessarily as important as the steadiness, and that it's all-pervasive. So it's just a kind of question about -- yeah, whether to keep going with that, like you said yesterday, where the intensity is just growing and growing and growing and growing, or whether to sit in a space where it's slightly less intense? I'm kind of working more with ... [?]
Rob: Spreading it? Can you hear that at the back? Okay, so the question is, having said that the intensity is not that important -- Becca's saying, when she kind of surrenders to this really lovely feeling, it gets really intense. She can do that, but it's really, really intense. Or she can kind of spread it in the body and work on spreading it. Both are important. There will be a kind of patch of time where it goes for a period where it's almost too intense, a little bit. But you're just going through a phase there. The whole movement of this is towards more mellowness. So one just has to -- you know, sometimes it's unbearably pleasant. It's almost like you just have to weather that period. The more you surrender to it, the more you won't get hung up there, and it will just move. So it's okay.
Yogi: It is good to go into the intensity?
Rob: Yeah, go into it, but be very open, and work also on spreading it.
Yogi: The thing is, maybe it's just this space. For me, like, going into that intensity, you know, [?] like, physically quite so ... [laughs] I don't know. It's quite intense. [laughs]
Rob: Yeah. It will be intense, but it's okay.
Yogi: [?] ... disturbing?
Rob: Has anyone been disturbed by ...? [laughter]
Yogi: I feel like, when I'm like shutting down, it's like, okay, that's too much. And I'm like, it should be like ... [laughs]
Rob: Yeah. It's quite a common sense. If your body actually starts ...
Yogi: [?] ... it's, like, uncontrollable, like, movement in the ...
Rob: Inside? Yeah, don't worry about the movements inside. If your body actually starts shaking, see if you can really keep it still, and open up inside. Open up the energy channels inside to let it move inside, but see if you can keep the actual physical body still. You're not disturbing anyone at all. I mean, it's quite a common feeling to think it's a bit too much, but it's fine. It's fine. Okay? Maybe one more. Did you have a question?
Q9: progress in jhānas and samādhi practice is non-linear but zigzags upwards
Yogi: Yeah, it's just in general, you've been saying that this is a non-linear process, not just the jhānas but the whole samādhi. But it seems like, you know, you can sort of zip in and out of different jhānas that seem to be in a progression.
Rob: Okay, yeah, thank you for that. There is a progression, and in that sense, it's linear. But within that, it's almost like you'll be zigzagging up. So it's, if we do, you know, first jhāna, sort of enlightenment, it's like this, you know? And it's going to be non-linear within that larger linearity, if that makes sense. In other words, some days you're going to feel great. The next sitting you feel it's terrible, which is very common. Then it's kind of middling. But generally, where you are one year, you're in a different place the next year, or the next month, or whatever it is. Okay? All right. Let's have a bit of quiet to end.
E.g. AN 5:28. The similes for all four jhānas can be found in the same sutta. ↩︎
AN 9:35. ↩︎
MN 108. ↩︎
MN 111. ↩︎
SN 35:99. ↩︎
AN 6:24. ↩︎
See DN 29 for the Buddha's dialogue with Cunda. The phrase "This is a pleasure I will allow myself" is attributed to the Buddha in Ayya Khema, When the Iron Eagle Flies: Buddhism for the West (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2000), 133. ↩︎
Dhp 372. ↩︎
For Ajaan Geoff's discussion of attaining at least the first jhāna as a requirement for awakening, see Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Wings to Awakening (Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery, 1996; rev. sixth edn, 2010), https://www.dhammatalks.org/Archive/Writings/Ebooks/wings210213.pdf, 352, accessed 24 Mar. 2021. Also see AN 9:36. ↩︎