for Entering Jhana ...Leigh Brasington / www.Dharma.org
instructions have been taken from a nine-day retreat offered
by Leigh Brasington at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies
in April of 2002. The Pali word jhana (Sanskrit dhyana) is sometimes
simply translated as “meditation,” but more accurately
refers to an “absorption” into a very focused, very
stable state of concentration. In the classical tradition there
are several stages of jhana, each one more focused than the
people will experience some of the jhanas on this retreat; some
people will not. The likelihood of you experiencing a jhana
is inversely proportional to the amount of desire that you have
for it. After all, the instructions given by the Buddha in the
early texts for practicing jhana begin with “Secluded
from sense desire, secluded from unwholesome states of mind,
one approaches and abides in the first jhana.” In order
to experience a jhana, it is necessary to temporarily abandon
the five hindrances [sense desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor,
restlessness and worry, doubt]. However, if you are craving
a jhana, you’ve got sense desire and an unwholesome state
of mind. You have to set those aside to be able to enter the
method for entering jhana begins with generating access concentration.
You begin by sitting in a comfortable, upright position. It
needs to be comfortable, because if there is too much pain,
aversion will naturally develop in the mind. You may be able
to sit in a way that looks really good, but if your knees are
killing you there will be pain and you will not experience any
jhanas. So you need to find some way to sit that is comfortable.
But it also needs to be upright and alert, because that tends
to get your energy going in a beneficial way that keeps you
awake. If you are too comfortable you will be overcome with
sloth and torpor, which is an unwholesome state of mind that
is totally useless for entering the jhanas.
the first prerequisite for entering the jhanas is to put the
body in a position that you can just leave it in for the length
of the sitting without having to move. If you have back problems
or some other obstacle that prevents you from sitting upright,
then you need to find some other alert position that you can
this is not to say that you cannot move. It may be that you
have taken a position and you discover that “My knee is
killing me; I have to move because there is too much aversion.”
If you have to move, you have to move. Okay, be mindful of moving.
The intention to move will be there before the movement. Notice
that intention, then move very mindfully, and then re-settle
yourself into the new position, and notice how long it takes
for the mind to get back to that place of calm that it had before
you moved. It is very important that you not move unmindfully.
process encourages you to find a position where you don’t
have to move, because you’ll notice the amount of disturbance
that even a slight movement generates. And in order to get concentrated
enough to have the jhanas manifest, you need a very calm mind.
access concentration can be done in a number of ways. Today
I will mostly talk about generating it using the breath, a practice
known as anapana-sati. The first word, anapana, means “in-breath
and out-breath,” while the word sati means “mindfulness.”
The practice is therefore “mindfulness of breathing.”
When practicing anapana-sati, you put your attention on the
breath. It is probably better if you can observe the physical
sensations of the breath at the nostrils or on the upper lip,
rather than at the abdomen or elsewhere. It is better because
it is more difficult to do; therefore you have to concentrate
more. Since we are trying to generate access concentration we
take something that is do-able, though not terribly easy to
do—and then we do it. When watching the breath at the
nose, you have to pay attention very carefully.
doing so you will watch the sensations, and then your mind will
wander off. Then you’ll bring it back and it will wander
off, then you’ll bring it back and it will wander off.
Eventually though—maybe not in the next sitting, maybe
not even in the next day—but eventually, you’ll
find that the mind sort of locks into the breath. You’ve
been going first to one side and then the other, and finally
you’re there, and you know that you’re there. You’re
really with the breath and the mind is not wandering off. Any
thoughts that you have are wispy and in the background. The
thoughts might be something like “Wow, I’m really
with the breath now,” as opposed to, “When I get
to Hawaii, the first thing I’m going to do is…”
the thoughts are just slight, and they’re not really pulling
you away, you’re with the sensations of the breath. This
is the sign that you’ve gotten to access concentration.
Whatever method you use to generate access concentration, the
sign that you’ve gotten to access concentration is that
you are fully present with the object of meditation. So if you
are doing metta [loving-kindness meditation], you’re just
fully there with the feelings of metta; you’re not getting
distracted. If you’re doing the body sweeping practice,
you’re fully there with the sensations in the body as
you sweep your attention through the body. You’re not
thinking extraneous thoughts, you’re not planning, you’re
not worrying, you’re not angry, you’re not wanting
something. You are just fully there with whatever the object
your practice is anapana-sati, there are additional signs to
indicate you have arrived at access concentration. You may discover
that the breath becomes very subtle; instead of a normal breath,
you notice you are breathing very shallow. It may even seem
that you’ve stopped breathing altogether. These are signs
that you’ve arrived at access concentration. If the breath
gets very shallow, and particularly if it feels like you’ve
stopped breathing, the natural thing to do is to take a nice,
deep breath and get it going again. Wrong! This will tend to
weaken your concentration. By taking that nice deep breath,
you drop down the level of concentration. Just stay with that
shallow breathing. It’s okay. You don’t need a lot
of oxygen, because you are very quiet.
the breath gets very, very subtle, or if it disappears entirely,
instead of taking a deep breath, shift your attention away from
the breath to a pleasant sensation. This is the key thing. You
watch the breath until you arrive at access concentration, and
then you let go of the breath and shift your attention to a
pleasant sensation. There is not much point in watching the
breath that has gotten extremely subtle or has disappeared completely.
There’s nothing left to watch. Shift your attention to
a pleasant sensation, preferably a pleasant physical sensation.
You will need a good bit of concentration to watch a pleasant
physical sensation, because a mildly pleasant feeling somewhere
in your body is not nearly as exciting as the breath coming
in and the breath going out. You’ve got this mildly pleasant
sensation that’s just sitting there; you need to be well-concentrated
to stay with it.
first question that may arise when I say “Shift your attention
to a pleasant sensation” is “What pleasant sensation?”
Well, it turns out that when you get to access concentration,
the odds are quite strong that some place in your physical being
there will be a pleasant sensation. Look at this statue of the
Buddha: he has a smile on his face. That is not just for artistic
purposes; it is there as a teaching mechanism. Smile when you
meditate, because when you reach access concentration, you only
have to shift your attention one inch to find the pleasant sensation.
when I tell you “Smile when you meditate,” your
reaction is probably “I don’t feel like smiling
when I meditate.” I know this because when they told me
to smile when I meditated, my reaction was “I don’t
feel like smiling.” OK, so you don’t feel like smiling.
Nonetheless if you put a fake smile on your face when you start
meditating, by the time you arrive at access concentration,
the smile will feel genuine.
you can smile when you meditate, it works very well for generating
a pleasant sensation to focus upon when you arrive at access
concentration; but actually, smiling seems to only work for
about a quarter of my students. Too many people in this culture
have been told “Smile whether you feel like it or not.”
And so now when I tell you “Smile whether you feel like
it or not,” your reaction is “No, I’m not
gonna do that.” OK. So you don’t smile when you
meditate. You’ll have to find some other pleasant sensation.
sensations can occur pretty much anywhere. The most common place
people that find pleasant sensations when they get to access
concentration is in the hands. What you want to do with your
hands when you meditate is put them in a nice position in which
you can just leave them. The traditional posture is one hand
holding the other, with the thumbs lightly touching. This is
a quite excellent posture because it has the tendency of moving
the shoulders back and lining up your spine nicely. When the
hands are held like this, many people find that eventually there
is a nice, tingly, pleasant sensation that appears in the hands.
You can also put your hands in all sorts of other positions
– just place them however appeals to you. When you get
to access concentration, if you notice that there’s a
nice pleasant feeling in the hands, drop the attention on the
breath and focus entirely on the pleasantness of that sensation.
common place that people find a pleasant sensation is in the
heart center, particularly if you’re using metta as the
access method. Just shift your attention to the pleasantness
of that sensation. Other places people find pleasant sensations
include the third eye, the top of the head, the shoulders—actually,
you name a body part and I’ve had some student find a
pleasant sensation there that they were able to focus upon long
enough for the first jhana to arise. It does not matter where
the pleasant sensation manifests; what matters is that there
is a pleasant sensation and you’re able to put your attention
on it and—now here comes the really hard part—do
find the pleasant sensation, and shift your attention to the
pleasant sensation. You observe the pleasantness of the pleasant
sensation, and do nothing else. If you can do that, the pleasant
sensation will begin to grow in intensity, it will become stronger.
This will not happen in a linear way. It’ll sort of grow
a little bit, and then grow a little bit more and then hang
out, and grow a little bit more…and then eventually it
will suddenly take off and take you into what is obviously an
altered state of consciousness.
this altered state of consciousness, you will be overcome with
Rapture ... Euphoria … Ecstasy … Delight. These
are all English words that are used to translate the Pali word
pãti. Pãti is this physical sensation that literally
takes you over and takes you into an altered state. It will
be accompanied by an emotional sensation of joy and happiness.
The Pali word is sukha, the opposite of dukkha [pain, suffering].
And, if you remain one-pointed on this experience of pãti
and sukha—that is the first jhana.
to summarize the method for entering the first jhana: You sit
in a nice comfortable upright position, and generate access
concentration by putting and maintaining your attention on a
single meditation object. When access concentration arrises,
then you shift your attention from the breath (or whatever your
method is) to a pleasant sensation, preferably a pleasant physical
sensation. You put your attention on that sensation, and maintain
your attention on that sensation, and do nothing else.
hard part is the do nothing else part. You put your attention
on the pleasant sensation, and nothing happens, so you might
think to yourself, “He said something was supposed to
happen.” No, I did not say to make comments about watching
the pleasant sensation. Or, you might put your attention on
the pleasant sensation and it starts to increase, so you think,
“Oh! Oh! Something’s happening!” No. Or it
comes up just a little bit and then it stops, and you sort of
try and help it. No. None of this works.
are to simply observe the pleasant sensation. You become totally
immersed in the pleasantness of the pleasant sensation. And
I mean by this just what I say: the pleasantness of the pleasant
sensation. I don’t mean the location of the pleasant sensation;
nor its intensity; nor its duration. I don’t mean whether
the pleasant sensation is increasing or decreasing or staying
the same. Just focus entirely upon the pleasant aspect of the
pleasant sensation, and the jhana will arise on its own.
you can do is set up the conditions for the jhana to arise,
by cultivating a calm and quiet mind focused on pleasantness.
And then just let go—be that calm quiet mind focused on
pleasantness—and the jhana will appear. Any attempt to
do anything more does not work. You actually have to become
a human being, as opposed to a human doing. You have to become
a being that is simply focused on the pleasant sensation which
is existing, and then the jhana comes all on its own.
now I have given you the instructions for the first jhana. It’s
a little bit foolish for me to be giving it on the first day
of the retreat, because you’re not likely to get there
any time soon. You’re going to sit down and start rearranging
the contents of your refrigerator, or something equally absurd.
That’s normal. Since I don’t know when you’re
actually going to get to that state of access concentration,
I give out the instructions on the first day so you have heard
them. And when you realize you’ve arrived at access concentration,
you will know what to do: shift your attention to a pleasant
sensation and do nothing else.
don’t expect the necessary concentration to show up any
time soon. In fact, don’t go expecting anything. Expectations
are the absolute worst things you can bring on a retreat. Simply
do the meditation method. And when access concentration arises,
recognize it, and shift your attention to a pleasant sensation.
Don’t try to do the jhanas. You can’t. All you can
do is pay attention to the object of meditation, and recognize
when it’s time to pay attention to another object.
are the instructions. Are there any questions?
secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states,
I entered upon and abided in the first jhana, which is accompanied
by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure
born of seclusion.
the stilling of applied and sustained thought, I entered upon
and abided in the second jhana, which has self-confidence and
singleness of mind without applied and sustained thought, with
rapture and pleasure born of concentration.
the fading away as well of rapture, I abided in equanimity,
and mindful and fully aware, still feeling pleasure with the
body, I entered upon and abided in the third jhana, on account
of which noble ones announce: ‘He has a pleasant abiding
who has equanimity and is mindful.’
the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance
of joy and grief, I entered upon and abided in the fourth jhana,
which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness
due to equanimity.
my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished,
rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained
to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge…
Nikaya 4, etc. Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Nanamoli/Bodhi
translation. Wisdom Publications 1995.]