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A Swift Pair of Messengers

Bhikkhu Sujato

Chapter 8


Having completed our survey, we now turn to a discussion of some of the sutta passages that have been taken to indicate that jhanas are not necessary for liberation. We have seen that the suttas explain the path clearly and explicitly, approaching the subject from different angles, but always including jhana as an intrinsic element. If we are to discover a jhana-less path we should expect a similar approach. The principle of proportion and the principle of historical perspective, which I proposed in the first chapter, now come to the fore. Minor teachings should be seen in context. Background stories should be carefully examined for authenticity. We should ask: ‘Is the Buddha here altering the eightfold path, or describing a different path? Or is he clarifying details, emphasizing particular aspects or modes of practicing the eightfold path?’ As far as I can see, there are two possible outcomes of this discussion. Either the counter-examples do not, in fact, imply that jhanas are unnecessary, or there appears to be a contradiction in the teachings. Obviously the first alternative is preferable, so we will see if these passages can be interpreted in line with the core teachings. Normally this is straightforward. If, however, the interpretations we provide ‑ some of which must remain tentative in the absence of definitive statements in the passages themselves, itself an indication of their secondary status ‑ are not felt to be acceptable in some cases, this should not be taken as negating the authoritative sutta passages in the previous chapters.

The Susima Sutta has been regularly relied on to substantiate the claim that an arahant need not possess jhana. According to the Pali version of the sutta, the wanderer Susima fraudulently entered the Sangha desiring wealth and fame. He questioned a number of monks who had declared arahantship, and they denied possessing psychic powers or formless attainments. This is quite in line with the general position of the suttas. Jhana is not mentioned. Their declaration of arahantship included the phrase: ‘The holy life has been lived’. This means they have fully developed the noble eightfold path. They say they are ‘released by understanding’; we have seen above that such an attainment regularly includes jhana, although, as here, it may not include the formless attainments, which are extra and beyond the four jhanas. Venerable Susima is obviously puzzled by the monks’ statements, and goes to the Buddha. The Buddha does not explicitly endorse the monks’ claims to arahantship,[1] but explains the situation thus:

‘First there is the knowledge of the regularity of natural principles; afterwards there is the knowledge of Nibbana.’[2]

This statement re-emphasizes the importance of causality and the regular sequence of knowledge. Without an understanding of the causal principles underlying suffering and the causal principles of the practice to break free from suffering, it is impossible to realize Nibbana. The Buddha then teaches Venerable Susima a passage from the Anattalakkhana Sutta culminating in the release of arahantship.[3] This release is described in the Anattalakkhana Sutta as ‘release of mind’. We saw above that this ‘mind’ (or ‘heart’) release is due to the fading away of lust; and the fading away of lust is due to the development of the mind through samatha.[4] The Buddha goes on to teach dependent origination. Venerable Susima says that he understands those teachings, and filled with remorse, confesses his transgression to the Buddha.

Interestingly, in the Chinese version of this text, though the basic doctrinal teaching of dependent origination is similar and so original, the background story is quite different. There, Venerable Susima, having fraudulently entered the Sangha, nevertheless quickly picked up enough doctrinal knowledge to expose by cross-examining some monks who had falsely boasted of being enlightened (one of the most serious vinaya offences). As this text shows the monks in a very bad light it is unlikely to have been forged. While the faults of monks are of necessity on display throughout the Vinaya Pitaka, the suttas almost always focus on the positive. We may surmise that the background story in the Pali version was rewritten to whitewash faults in the Sangha. This must have occurred when the Pali canon of the Theravada school had already become separated from the version later preserved in Chinese. This separation occurred no earlier than the Third Council, over a century after the Buddha’s passing away.[5] Perhaps the de-emphasis on samadhi in the Pali version of the story, though not actually contradicting the original teachings, marks an early stage in the development of the concept of ‘dry insight’ without jhana.

In several places the Buddha talks about two ‘ways of practice’, which may be taken to indicate the distinction between separate meditative paths on the basis of whether or not they include jhana. The ‘painful way of practice’ consists of the perceptions of the ugliness of the body, the repulsiveness of food, boredom with the whole world, death, and the impermanence of all activities. This ‘painful way of practice’ is contrasted (unfavorably) with the ‘pleasant way of practice , which consists of jhana.’[6] We may note that the painful mode is never identified with vipassana; the basic purpose of most of these contemplations is to eradicate sensual lust, which is an aspect of samatha. Nor has it anything to do with contemplation of painful feelings. Moreover, the distinction between these ways of practice was clearly not meant as a hard and fast division. Venerable Sariputta's practice was of the pleasant mode, yet he had also perfected body contemplation.[7] Venerable Moggallana’s practice was of the painful mode, yet he possessed mastery in all levels of samadhi.[8] The distinction is merely a matter of emphasis. The pleasant practice of jhana does not supplant the other seven path factors; nor does the painful practice supplant jhana. In fact, one practicing each of the contemplations of the painful way of practice is said to ‘not neglect jhana’[9] and to possess the five spiritual faculties, if only weakly.[10]

Again, the Buddha says to Mahanama the Sakyan that sensuality may arise in a noble one if they do not attain jhana.[11] However, this is phrased in the present tense, ‘does not attain’, not ‘has never attained’. It seems that even after a stream-enterer has seen the Dhamma their samadhi may fall away unless they devote sufficient time to meditation, and therefore certain defilements may re-arise.[12] Stream-enterers and once-returners are not ‘perfected in samadhi’. This does not imply that they have never experienced any jhanas, only that they may not have experienced all four jhanas, or may not be proficient in them.

Again, the six recollections ‑ the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, virtue, generosity, and deities ‑ are taught as a basis for arahantship,[13] even though according to the Visuddhimagga they only lead to access samadhi. Such suttas, which teach samatha for arahantship with no mention of vipassana, can hardly suffice to establish the authenticity of a path of ‘pure vipassana’. Moreover, the suttas say that these meditations will abandon the five cords of sensual pleasures, so that the meditator dwells ‘with heart become in every way like space ‑ vast, exalted, measureless, free from hatred and ill will.’[14] They are called ‘blissful abidings here and now pertaining to the higher mind, for the purification of the unpurified mind, for the brightening of the dull mind.’[15] They lead to the abandoning of the ‘taints of the mind’.[16] Each of these phrases implies jhana. There is no distinction derivable from the suttas between the samadhi which results from these recollections and the samadhi which results from any other meditation subject. The Buddha simply confirms this straight-forward interpretation by saying that one who develops these recollections ‘does not neglect jhana’.[17] The chief reason why the Visuddhimagga thinks these recollections cannot induce jhana is that they involve recollecting and pondering over diverse qualities of the Buddha, etc., and so can lead only to access samadhi (which is an incidental admission that so-called access samadhi is not truly one-pointed).[18] But there seems to be no reason why one could not leave off contemplating diverse qualities and focus on just one quality to arouse jhana. A similar process is recommended in the Visuddhimagga itself for some other meditations, such as the parts of the body. This technique, based on the mental recitation of the word ‘Buddho’, is a favorite method for developing jhana in contemporary Thailand.

Probably the most striking and influential passages, which many believe to imply the superfluity of jhana, are the background stories of monastics and laypeople attaining various levels of Dhamma with no mention of prior meditative development, usually while listening to a talk. There is usually nothing to positively rule out the possibility of previous attainment of jhana, but in many cases this seems unlikely, especially where laypeople are concerned. Regarded as extraordinary and noteworthy, such cases of ‘instant enlightenment’ occur in a small proportion of suttas (for example, about half a dozen times in the Majjhima Nikaya), almost always when the Buddha himself is teaching. The Buddha is, however, rarely personally credited with confirming these attainments. In fact, he is at times reluctant to do so, typically preferring to show how one can know for oneself.[19]

The most common attainment is stream-entry, so many conclude that such passages imply that this does not require jhana. There are, however, a number of striking descriptions of people attaining arahantship in circumstances where it seems unlikely they had previously developed jhana. So it seems that if such stories imply a jhana-less stream-enterer we must also admit a jhana-less arahant. But I prefer to reverse the logic: the texts unequivocally declare that arahants must have jhana, so these stories cannot prove the existence of jhana-less arahants. This being so, they cannot prove the jhana-less stream-enterer either. Here I will advance three lines of argument to support this conclusion. Firstly, such stories are often of questionable authenticity. Secondly, they frequently describe a kind of samadhi gained immediately prior to the enlightenment experience that could well be jhana. And thirdly, they were meant to point to the path, not replace it.

First to historical matters. Descriptions of ‘instant enlightenment’ are scattered through the canon, but most characteristically in the first chapter of the Vinaya Mahavagga. I will therefore concentrate on this text, though I believe many of the features I note here also occur in other contexts.

This chapter tells of the founding of Buddhism. It starts under the Bodhi tree with the Buddha reflecting how Dhammas become clear to the ‘ardent brahman in jhana’. It goes on to tell how the Buddha converted his first followers and established a monastic order, thus serving to introduce the Vinaya. This text, together with the Maha Parinibbana Sutta ‑ with which it shares much in common ‑ forms the basis of all later biographies of the Buddha. The other early schools also had their versions of this text, some of them extending it to a full-fledged biography. Although the early suttas spare little time for biography, later writers found that the Buddha's life story gave the teachings that ‘personal touch’ ideal for popularizing the teachings. The story was probably included to provide the Vinaya students with some background and doctrinal teachings, rounding out their education.

And, adding zest to the sometimes dry Vinaya material the chapter abounds in all manner of wonderful and marvelous happenings ‑ deities appearing; displays of supernormal powers; the Buddha even does battle with a ferocious fire-breathing dragon, tames it, and puts it in his bowl! This latter event comes replete with a flowery but superfluous verse summary (mistaken for prose in the PTS Pali and translation) ‑ an obviously late literary feature. Accounts of miraculous events are fairly restrained in the early strata of the canon. They increase markedly in the later strata, such as the Maha Parinibbana Sutta or the Sagathavagga, and proliferate wildly in later literature. Some of the Mahavagga miracles must have had popular currency. At least one, the story of the Buddha walking on water, later served as the literary model for the well known story in the Christian Gospels.

Not least wonderful and marvelous are the ‘miracles of conversion’. It is to be expected that the codifiers of a religion should ascribe the maximum possible purity to the first adherents. It seems that almost everyone the Buddha taught in those first months became a stream-enterer at least. This includes, for example, King Bimbisara together with a hundred thousand leading householders of Magadha. (There is no mention of how such a vast multitude managed to squeeze around the woodland shrine where the Buddha was staying.) Such trends, too, proliferated in later writings; the Milinda Panha piously informs us that over a billion lay followers had realized the Dhamma. There is surely an anomaly here. Only a short while before, the Buddha, reflecting on the subtlety of Dhamma and the strength of defilements, doubted anyone could understand and famously hesitated whether to teach at all.

Professor AK Warder suspects a political influence at work here. Although the Buddha’s main centre of operations was in the neighboring kingdom of Kosala, there are no comparable accounts of mass realizations there. During the period this text was being assembled, the star of Kosala was waning, while that of Magadha was waxing, following the aggressive expansionist policy initiated by Ajatasattu and culminating in the pan-Indian Buddhist empire of Asoka. It would have been most agreeable for the increasingly politicized Sangha of the time to emphasize the early Buddhist traditions of Magadha. It seems not too far-fetched to see in this chapter's emphasis on biography, missionary activity, miracles, mass lay conversion, and the liberating efficacy of listening to the teachings a close connection with the popular, urbanized, scholastic Buddhism which emerged in Asoka’s time.

I suggest that this first chapter of the Mahavagga was probably finalized around the same period as the final chapter of the Culavagga, which tells of the Third Council, that is, perhaps two hundred years after the Buddha's passing away. Could this be connected with the schismatic thesis, disputed by the Theravada at the Third Council, which claimed that the path could be induced by a word? Although the doctrinal seeds around which this text crystallized ‑ the four noble truths, the eightfold noble path, dependent origination ‑ spring from the heart of the Buddha's awakening, the details of the connecting biography record popular tradition as much as enlightened revelation.

As I have already noted, ‘instant enlightenment’ also occurs elsewhere in the Pali canon. Having seen the dubious authenticity of the text where these events occur most prominently, we may well suspect that other occurrences may be tarred with the same brush. Stories come to mind such as the conversion of the assassins sent by Devadatta and the later conversion of Devadatta’s entire retinue. Now I do not wish to suggest that all such stories are spurious. Some of the doctrinal passages we will examine below confirm that it is possible to realize Dhamma during a talk, and many of the historical accounts may be genuine. However, I do wish to suggest that the historical evidence attesting to realization without prior Dhamma practice is slim. It is often just those occasions when it seems least likely that the listener would have previously developed jhana that turn out to be most historically questionable.

And so to my second line of argument. The passages describing ‘instant enlightenment’ frequently emphasize how the joy of listening to Dhamma purifies the mind in readiness for realization. Although the texts are not completely explicit on this point, the description of this mind state is certainly consonant with jhana. The standard passage is as follows.

‘Then the Blessed One gave the householder Upali graduated instruction; that is, talk on giving, virtue, and the heavens. He explained the danger, degradation, and defilement in sensual pleasures and the blessings of renunciation. When he knew that the householder Upa1i’s mind was ready, soft, free of hindrances, elated, clear of doubt, he expounded to him the special teaching of the Buddhas: Suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. just as a clean cloth with all the stains removed would take dye evenly, so too while the householder Upali was sitting right there, the stainless, immaculate eye of the Dhamma arose in him: “Whatever is subject to arising, all that is subject to cessation.” ’[20]

This passage emphasizes the gradual, progressive nature of the teaching, paralleling the gradual, progressive nature of the path. We have seen how jhanas, the ‘bliss of renunciation’, are the escape from sensual pleasures; how the freedom from hindrances is equated with the first jhana; and how samadhi is the indispensable condition for seeing the four noble truths. We have also seen that a stream-enterer knows that: ‘These principles, which I formerly only heard of, I now abide in having personally contacted, and see having penetrated with understanding.’ The simile of the clean cloth further emphasizes the need for purity of mind to see the Dhamma. Is it possible to attain jhana during a Dhamma talk?

‘When a noble disciple bends his ear to listen to Dhamma, paying full attention as a matter of vital concern, applying his whole heart to it, on that occasion the five hindrances are not present, on that occasion the seven enlightenment factors come to fulfillment by development.’[21]

Here, samadhi is signified in both the negative aspect, as abandonment of the hindrances, and positive aspect, as fulfillment ‑ not mere preliminary arousing ‑ of the enlightenment factor of samadhi. I do not see how this could be anything less than full jhana. While the above passage concerns one who is already a noble disciple, the following passage concerns one who is to enter the way to stream-entry.[22]

‘Endowed with these five qualities, monks, one listening to the true Dhamma is incapable of entering the fixed course of rightness regarding beneficial qualities. What five? One criticizes the teachings; one criticizes the teacher; one criticizes oneself; one listens to Dhamma as one of scattered mind, not of one-pointed mind; and one pays attention away from the root. [But if one has the opposite qualities, one is capable.]’[23]

If one-pointedness here merely implies paying full attention to the teaching, this passage might be read as implying that a pre-jhanic level of concentration can be sufficient to realize the Dhamma while listening to a discourse. But ‘rightness’ means the noble eightfold path, including jhana; and the samadhi of one practicing for stream-entry is the spiritual faculty of samadhi, etc. We have also noted that the only passage that analyzes an unambiguously pre-jhanic samadhi in more detail describes it as ‘not unified’.[24] This passage therefore seems to imply jhana attained either before or during the talk itself. If so, this strongly supports the necessity of jhana for entering the path. The following passage describes the process in more detail.

‘There are, monks, these five bases for release where for a monk abiding diligent, ardent, and resolute his unreleased mind becomes released, his un-evaporated poisons become evaporated, and the unattained supreme security from bondage becomes attained. What five?

‘Here, the Teacher or a respected companion in the holy life teaches the Dhamma to a monk....

‘...Or a monk teaches the Dhamma he has learnt to others....

‘...Or a monk recites in detail the Dhamma he has learnt....

‘...Or a monk thinks over, examines, and explores with his mind the Dhamma he has learnt....

‘...Or a certain basis of samadhi is well apprehended, well attended to, well held in mind, and well penetrated with understanding....

[In all of the above cases:] ‘He is inspired by the meaning and the Dhamma. Being inspired by the meaning and the Dhamma, gladness is born in him. In one who is glad, rapture is born. In one with rapturous mind, the body becomes tranquil. One with tranquil body feels bliss. The mind of one who is blissful enters samadhi…. These are the five bases of release....’[25]

These situations correspond with the development of the enlightenment factors,[26] with the basis of psychic power ‘dependent on inquiry, one gains samadhi, one gains one-pointedness of mind’, with the path which develops vipassana prior to samatha, and with the nine dhammas that are very helpful.[27] The crucial conditions for jhana are present exactly as normal, and samadhi, the regular synonym for jhana, appears as usual in between bliss and liberating insight.

Unlike the previous passages, here there is no particular reason to suppose that the attainment of samadhi must be simultaneous with hearing the Dhamma, etc. Rather, hearing the Dhamma, etc., is the spark for the development of samadhi. Although we noted above that the historical records almost always associate such events with teachings given by the Buddha himself, these doctrinal passages do not distinguish between whether the Buddha or a disciple is teaching; nor do they imply that the teacher must have psychic powers. We may note that only once in the suttas does a monk become enlightened while teaching, and in that case the monk was already a non-returner.[28] In fact, listening to Dhamma is the only one of these occasions mentioned regularly for attaining stream-entry; but we should be cautious in drawing any implications from this. The suttas are, after all, records of oral teachings, not of meditation experiences.

This passage should be considered in conjunction with the discourse on the ‘abider in Dhamma. There, the first four kinds of monks ‑ the studier, the teacher, the reciter, and the thinker ‑ are contrasted unfavorably with the ‘abider in Dhamma[29] who ‘does not neglect retreat, is devoted to samatha of the heart within’. This points back to the phrase ‘diligent, ardent, and resolute’ ‑ study only yields its fruits when married to meditation.

The case of the brahman Dhananjani might also be mentioned in this connection. A corrupt tax collector, he was nevertheless able to develop the divine abidings on his deathbed through being exhorted by Venerable Sariputta, and through the attainment of that jhana he was reborn in the Brahma realm.[30]

I have left the most important line of argument until last. These passages were never intended to supplant or modify the noble eightfold path. Their purpose is to inspire, to rouse, to point to the teachings. They should encourage us to investigate the teachings thoroughly and to apply our whole hearts to the practice for the realization of the Dhamma in its fullness. Let us not grab the snake by its tail. Exploiting such passages to opt out of key aspects of the path surely confounds the very purpose of the teachings.

When all is said and done, though, these passages remain the most difficult to square with the integral importance of jhana in the path. Indeed, they rest uneasily with our basic understanding that the attainment of Dhamma is a direct inner realization transcending concepts. At some point in the discourse, surely, the listener must apply the conceptual knowledge they have gained to the direct contemplation of experience. This much is implied by ‘paying attention to the root’. If this inner turning to vipassana can occur, there seems to be no hard and fast reason why an inner turning to jhana cannot also occur.[31] Certainly, there are no sutta passages that rule this out. Perhaps we must simply accept that these are almost unimaginable events occurring for the most extraordinary individuals.

For practical purposes, the question as to whether or not such events imply jhana is perhaps not of overriding importance. At most they establish that some individuals can make extremely rapid progress on the path. They never constitute a separate path. The best way to maximize our chance of realizing Dhamma while listening to a talk is to assiduously develop samatha and vipassana. Right view is assisted not just by learning, and not just by meditation, but by ‘virtue, learning (or ‘listening’), discussion, samatha, and vipassana’.[32]

The above passages all mention samadhi. Dhamma is often taught, however, without any mention of samadhi at all. For example, neither the Buddha’s second or third sermons mention samadhi, yet both led the audience to arahantship.[33] How should this be understood? Elsewhere, Dhamma is taught with no mention of wisdom. For example, the famous verses known as the ‘Exhortation in the Code of Conduct’ primarily focus on virtue, but include two phrases indicating meditation: ‘brightening the mind’ and ‘higher mind’. These refer specifically to samadhi. Vipassana constitutes the ‘higher understanding’ not mentioned here. Having taught only virtue and samadhi, the Buddha sums up by saying: ‘This is the dispensation of the Buddhas.[34] The Sonadanda Sutta exemplifies how these and similar contexts should be interpreted. A brahman tells the Buddha:

‘Understanding is purified by virtue, and virtue is purified by understanding; where one is, the other is; a virtuous person has understanding, and an understanding person is virtuous, and the combination of understanding and virtue is called the highest thing in the world.’

‘But, brahman, what is that virtue, what is that under, standing ....?

‘Here, a disciple goes forth [as in the Samannaphala Sutta] ... undertakes the virtues ... guards the senses ... develops mindfulness and clear comprehension ... is content, etc. That, brahman, is virtue.

‘He enters and abides in the four jhanas ... develops the direct knowledges ... and attains the evaporation of the poisons ... That, brahman, is understanding.’[35]

When the path is taught in brief, certain aspects may be emphasized or others omitted to suit the situation. However, the detailed explanation of these brief teachings should be given in terms of the overall framework. If jhanas are not specifically mentioned, they can be included under wisdom.

Many fear that samadhi leads to attachment. This theme finds scant support in the suttas. The ‘danger’ in samadhi is treated identically with the ‘danger’ in mindfulness and understanding; that is, they are not yet the final goal.[36] Abandoning this subtle defilement ‑ reckoned as the fetters of lust for form and the formless, and in the craving, the poison, and the inherent compulsion for existence ‑ is chiefly the task of the non-returner.[37] The issue of attachment to samadhi is addressed in the following analysis by Venerable Maha Kaccana of an enigmatic statement of the Buddha.

‘A monk should scrutinize in such a way that as he scrutinizes his consciousness is not distracted and scattered externally, is not stuck within, and by not grasping he is not anxious. If he does so, then there is no production of birth, aging, death, and the origin of suffering for him in the future....

‘How, friends, is consciousness called “distracted and scattered externally”? Having seen a visible form with the eye, a monk's consciousness follows after the feature of visible form, is tied, shackled, and fettered by the fetter of gratification in the feature of visible form. [And so on.]

‘And how, friends, is consciousness called “not distracted and scattered externally”? Having seen a visible form with the eye, a monk’s consciousness does not follow after the feature of visible form, is not tied, shackled, and fettered by the fetter of gratification in the feature of visible form. [And so on.]

‘And how, friends, is the mind called “stuck within”? Here, a monk ... enters and abides in the first jhana. His consciousness follows after the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, is tied, shackled, and fettered by the fetter of gratification in the rapture and bliss born of seclusion. [And so on for the “rapture and bliss born of samadhi” of the second jhana; the “bliss with equanimity” of the third jhana; and the “neither pleasure nor pain” of the fourth jhana.]

‘And how, friends, is the mind called “not stuck within”? Here, a monk ... enters and abides in the first jhana. His consciousness does not follow after the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, is not tied, shackled, and fettered by the fetter of gratification in the rapture and bliss born of seclusion. [And so on.]’[38]

Venerable Maha Kaccana’s exposition is typically subtle and precise. The three kinds of scrutiny correspond with the threefold training. The first kind is closely linked with sense restraint, an aspect of virtue. Note that ‘mental phenomena’ are here treated as external to consciousness, just as the other sense objects. The section on samadhi then follows as the natural sequel to virtue. Here Venerable Maha Kaccana switches from ‘consciousness’ to ‘mind’. Although generally having the same denotation, the suttas tend to treat ‘consciousness’ in terms of the first noble truth ‘to be fully known’ ‑ and ‘mind’ in terms of the fourth noble truth – ‘to be developed’. The analysis shows that the way beyond attachment to spiritual bliss is not by avoiding jhana. The monk ‘not stuck within’ practices jhana just the same, but uses the subtle wisdom empowered by samadhi to avert attachment. The suttas consistently recommend samadhi as part of the practice to overcome attachment to samadhi.[39]

I did not include a translation of the analysis of the phrase ‘by not grasping he is not anxious’. It explains how, if the five aggregates are conceived in relation to a ‘self’, anxiety arises when they change. Venerable Maha Kaccana does not comment on the final phrase: ‘The production of birth, aging, death, and the origin of suffering in the future’. The identical phrase occurs in the Maha Nidana Sutta with reference to the fixation of consciousness in mentality and physical form. It suggests the dual role of consciousness, as the center of lived experience and as the sense of identity flowing on in rebirths. The verse which follows the same introductory summary in the Itivuttaka confirms that rebirth is the issue.[40]

This ties up with the Bodhisatta’s famous rejection of his former teachers under whom he reached the highest formless attainments.[41] When the Bodhisatta first practiced with these teachers, he began by studying the doctrinal theory. This is not explained in detail, but would certainly have placed the practice of samadhi within a conceptual framework, probably positing the eternal existence of a blissful soul in the plane of rebirth corresponding to the samadhi attainment. Any samadhi which results from such a wrong view is of necessity wrong samadhi. The Bodhisatta nevertheless credits his teachers with possessing faith, energy, mindfulness, samadhi, and understanding (here these are not called ‘spiritual faculties’), disposing of any idea that mindfulness and understanding are unique to Buddhism. As well as understanding kamma and rebirth, these teachers may well have pointed out that almost everything is impermanent, suffering, and not-self, clinging only to a rarified view of self. But the Bodhisatta set out on his spiritual quest in search of what was not subject to birth, aging, and death, and so he rejected this wrong samadhi of the sectarians, which leads only to rebirth in exalted planes of existence. His respect and gratitude for his former teachers is evident however, since they were the first people he thought of teaching after his enlightenment; having long had ‘little dust in their eyes’ they would quickly understand the Dhamma. He did not extend the same honor to the self-mortifiers of the group of five monks as he did to the samadhi practitioners, merely commenting that ‘they were very helpful’.[42]

It is interesting that when the Bodhisatta, immediately before his enlightenment, reflected on his past practice of samadhi, he skipped over his experience with the sectarian teachers, recalling instead an isolated episode from his youth. Perhaps this memory showed him that samadhi need not be imprisoned within a dogmatic metaphysical framework, but in its essence is simply a natural expression of the gracious flow of the Dhamma.



In summary, the passages that have been used to throw doubt on the necessity for jhana consist of minor doctrinal statements and background stories. Even if we were to find a direct statement of the superfluity of jhana in such material, could this outweigh the great mass of clear teachings on the path? Better try to derail a freight train with a toothpick. And of course, there is no such direct statement. The Buddha would hardly have fixed jhana squarely in the heart of the path only to about face and declare a path of all head, no heart.

We should never forget that the thoroughgoing treatment of causality is one of the most distinctive features of the Dhamma, underlying the analysis of both the existential problem and the practical solution. The specific factors of the path, functioning as necessary conditions for their specific results, exemplify specific conditionality of phenomena in general, that is, dependent origination. Suggesting that one of the path factors may be optional introduces a fuzziness to the path, retreating from a causal to a correlative paradigm. The path becomes merely a collection of skilful means, not an embodiment of universal principles. It is true that some practices, such as the ascetic practices, formless attainments, and psychic powers are useful but not essential. But these do not occur in the wings to enlightenment or the dependent origination; they are not key factors of the path in the sense under consideration here.

Playing around with the key path factors unleashes a further host of theoretical difficulties. If one path factor is optional, what of the others? Perhaps there might be more than one path? Then how many? How are the many benefits of jhana accomplished without jhana? How to overcome sensuality when one cannot withdraw from the senses? How to overcome restlessness when the mind is still moving? How to transcend concepts when the mind is still labeling? How to perceive subtle truths with coarse consciousness? If one can go beyond hindrances with bare mindfulness, why can’t one simply center the mind and go into jhana? What is hindering jhana if not the hindrances? Being unable to realize the preliminary samatha of jhana, how can one realize the ultimate samatha of Nibbana? Deleting jhana from the path would take more than pointing to a few suggestive passages; it would require a comprehensive model of the path to account for such difficulties.

We should be very reluctant to draw from ambiguous passages inferences that entail modification of central teachings. The Dhamma has a very fine and delicate structure. Like a house of cards, removing one piece imperils the whole edifice. Or again, like a pot brimful of pure water, with neither lack nor excess ‑ remove one cupful and every other drop must shift to fill the space, leaving a pot that can never be called ‘full’.

[1] See M105

[2] S12.70

[3] S22.59

[4] A2.3.10 quoted above

[5] This information is from Richard Gombrich’s How Buddhism Began, which includes a chapter attempting to trace the beginnings of the decline of samadhi to the period after the Buddha’s passing away, when the teachings were being collated and organized. He uses a different logic to arrive at a similar date as I give in the text.

[6] A4.163

[7] A4.168, A9.11

[8] A4.167, S40.1.9

[9] A1.20

[10] A4.162

[11] M14.4 quoted pg 38

[12] cp S55.40 quoted pg 75

[13] A6.26

[14] A6.26

[15] A5.179

[16] A3.70

[17] A1.20

[18] Vsm 7.67

[19] D16.2.8

[20] M56.18

[21] S46.38

[22] cp. S25 quoted pg 116

[23] A5.151

[24] A3.100 quoted pg 17

[25] A5.26

[26] A5.73 quoted pg 135

[27] S46.3

[28] D34.2.2

[29] S22.89

[30] M97

[31] I have heard anecdotal evidence that seems to confirm this possibility.

[32] M43.14, A5.25

[33] S22.59, S35.28

[34] D14.3.28 cp. M128.32, A7.65 quoted pg 62

[35] D4 condensed

[36] S48.2-7

[37] see e.g. Iti 3.96

[38] M138. MLDB overlooks the phrase ‘is fettered by the fetter of gratification’ at M138.12. The traslation also errs in omitting sukha in the phrase ‘follows after the bliss and equanimity’. The PTS Pali has upekkha at the first occurrence only; all following and parallel occurrences have the (preferable) upekkhasukha.

[39] See e.g. M8.14.18, M113.21ff

[40] Iti 3.94

[41] M26.13ff

[42] M26.22ff


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last updated: 06-09-2004