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What is Ecstatic Buddhism?

September 19, 2004

By the contemplative recluse monk Arahatta Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)

During the 3 decades of my contemplative life I have always kept an interest in the ecstatic traditions of every religion.  And, I have found that pretty much every major religion has an ecstatic component.  Arguably these ecstatic traditions are often very small when compared to the overall expression of that religion.

Catholic Christianity has several traditions with ecstatic origins, such as the Cistertian and Carmalite orders that originated in 15th century Spain from the work of Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross.  The Franciscans were also an ecstatic tradition under Francis of Assisi.  There are many others Catholic Saints who also were ecstatics, such as Saints Anthony, Vitus and Bernard, just to mention a few key figures.  Protestant Christians also had a number of ecstatic traditions, such as the Quaker and Shaker movements.  We could also argue that Christianity began as an ecstatic tradition, if we consider that it grew out of the Gnostic movements of the Mediterranean.

Ecstatic traditions within Islam began to emerge in the first 50 years of that religion.  Rabia and al Hallaj are the best examples of the Early Sufi mystics, but the best known Sufi in the West is of course Jellaludine Rumi.  Sufism has been an active component of Islam ever since.

Hinduism also has many, many ecstatics, from Patanjali to Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.  And of course there are ecstatic traditions within Hinduism today. They are perhaps best represented by the Sant Mat organization that has its origins with Kabir, who was a recognized and deeply revered mystic in both Islam and Hinduism.

What is meant by an ecstatic is one who seeks the ecstasies, not one who makes a fool of one’s self standing on the street corner yelling “Praise Jesus,” or “Hare Krishna.”  One who seeks the ecstasies is also often called a mystic.

One of the most common elements among mystics is leading a contemplative life.  The language of the ecstatic traditions often causes conflicting beliefs, however the most common element in the ecstatic traditions is leading a contemplative life.  The contemplative life has many definitions, however the common elements are seeking solitude, most often in nature, observing silence and engaging in meditation and contemplation.

Theresa of Avila in here book, “The Interior Castle,” articulated the ecstasies in the clearest manner for Christianity.  In this book she defined 7 stages of ecstasy.

Ecstatic Buddhism is founded upon a belief that the historic Buddha, Sidharta Gotama, was an ecstatic mystic in the same sense of other ecstatic mystics, such as: Saint Anthony, the founder of monastic Christianity; Saint Vitus, the name-sake of kriyas and other spontaneous charismatic movements in a charismatic Christian context; Saint Francis of Assisi, who established the need for Christian mystics to maintain a commitment to poverty and a contemplative life in the wilderness; and Saints Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who articulated 7 stages of ecstasy. 

We can also look outside of Christianity for examples of ecstatic mystics.  In Islam we have the rich mystical tradition called Sufism, and they have the excellent examples of mysticism in al-Hallaj, ibn al-Arabi, Rumi, Kabir and many more. We can also look to an equally rich ecstatic tradition within Hinduism by looking toward Patanjali, Mira Bai, Sri Ramakrishna and many, many others.

When I use the term 'Ecstatic' in conjunction with 'Buddhism' I am often asked whether that is an oxymoron.  The reason is, Buddhism is not known for its ecstatic component, but for its tranquility.  In fact every religion has a rich ecstatic tradition.  So, why should we consider Buddhism does not have one?

How we know the historic Buddha was an ecstatic mystic was his many references to jhana in his discourses.  Jhana is a Pali term, and according to the Buddha, it is an absorption state characterized by ecstasy (piiti) and joy (sukha).  And, he even defined the eighth fold of his Noble Eight Fold Path, in terms of jhana (ecstasy) MN 22.21, by defining Right Meditation in terms of jhana (ecstasy).

Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22)

"And what is right meditation (sama-samadhi)? There is the case where an aspirant -- quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities -- enters & remains in the first (absorption) jhana"... (through the fourth jhana).

If we examine the discourses of the Buddha regarding the jhanas we will see that ecstasy (piiti) is present in most of them.  Also, if we look at the Seven Factors of Enlightenment we will see that ecstasy (piiti) is one of the factors of enlightenment.  We must therefore conclude that ecstasy must be present at all times during all of the absorption states.  And, finally we will also notice that five of the seven factors of enlightenment are qualities that one attains in absorption (jhana).

The Four Material Ecstasies, meditative absorption states (rupa jhanas) "samprajana-samadhi" where there is awareness of the material senses:

1- The first jhana (Bliss) contains 5 jhana factors and 1 factor of enlightenment, the 6th factor (Piti) is acquired:


applied or initiating attention
Vicára sustained attention
Sukha joy
Piti bliss
Ekaggatha one-pointedness

2- Second jhana (Tranquility) with no attention or Vitakka & Vicára needed, contains 4 jhana factors and 2 factors of enlightenment, the 3rd factor (Passaddhi) is acquired:


Piiti bliss
Ekaggatha one-pointedness
Passaddhi tranquillity
avitakka ca aicara no applied or sustained attention

3- Third jhana (Equanimity) contains 5 jhana factors and 3 factors of enlightenment, the 5th factor of enlightenment (Upekkha) is acquired:


Piiti bliss
Ekaggatha one-pointedness
Passaddhi tranquillity
Upekkha equanimity

4- Fourth jhana [freedom from joy and suffering (asukha and adukkha)] contains 4 jhana factors and 3 factors of enlightenment:

Piiti bliss
Ekaggatha one-pointedness
Passaddhi tranquillity
Upekkha equanimity
Asukha ca Adukkha no pleasure & no pain


The Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhanga), sambojjhanaga DN 22.16, n.689, 33.2.3(2):


Panna wisdom
2 Viriya energy, kundalini
3 Passaddhi tranquility
4 Sati awareness, mindfulness
5 Upekkha equanimity
6 Piiti ecstasy, bliss or rapture
7 Samadhi absorption (jhana)

I believe you would agree with me that suffering in this world is a most important issue, and I believe we would all agree that the relief of suffering was of central importance to the Buddha.  I believe the Buddha taught the jhanas for two specific reasons.  First to relieve suffering, and second, because the jhanas, in his discourses, are clearly indicated as the means of access to Nibbana.  In fact the Buddha often recommended to his monastic and lay disciples to cultivate the absorption states (jhanas) as a desirable pleasure to be cultivated (MN 139), because the jhanas are a wholesome state that would afford one a "pleasant abiding in the here and now" (MN 66).  In fact he defined his Noble Eight Fold Path based upon jhana (DN 22.21). 

Latukikopama Sutta (MN 66)
"...he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called renunciation-pleasure, seclusion-pleasure, calm-pleasure, self-awakening-pleasure. And of this pleasure I say that it is to be cultivated, to be developed, to be pursued, that it is not to be feared.

He said cultivating jhana was a noble, correct, true or right effort (MN 101).  He said it was jhana that burned or destroyed the hindrances (SN 9.53).  He even said that those who cultivate jhana are the "chief, the best, the foremost, the highest, the most excellent of ... meditators" (SN 34), because those who cultivate jhana are moving toward nibbana (SN 9.53). Thus they are developing a superhuman state (lokuttara) (MN 31). And, of course absorption (jhana) is just one of several fruits, such as insight (vipassana) that are available to the noble ones who follow this Noble Eight Fold Path (Dhammapada Verse 372)

The Fruit Of Right Effort (samma-vayam)
Devadaha Sutta (MN 101. 38-42)
"Having thus abandoned these five hindrances, imperfections of the mind that weaken wisdom, quite secluded from sense pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, he enters upon and abides in the first absorption (jhana)...(through 4th jhana)"...Thus too, bhikkhus, this exertion is fruitful, this striving is fruitful."
(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli & Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995)

Jhanasamyutta (SN 9.53)

"Bhikkhus, there are these five higher fetters.  What five?  Lust for form, lust for the formless, conceit, restlessness, ignorance.  These are the five higher fetters.  The four absorptions (jhanas) are to be developed for direct knowledge of these five higher fetters, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning."
(Samyutta Nikaya trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom, 2000)

Jhanasamyutta (SN 9.53)

"Bhikkhus, just as the River Ganges slants, slopes and inclines toward the East, so too a bhikkhu who develops and cultivates the four absorptions (jhanas) slants, slopes, and inclines toward nibbana."
(Samyutta Nikaya trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom, 2000)

Jhanasamyutta (SN 34)

"Therein, bhikkhus, the meditator who is skilled both in meditation regarding absorption (jhana) and in attainment regarding absorption (jhana) is the chief, the best the foremost, the highest, the most excellent of these four kinds of meditators."
(Samyutta Nikaya trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom, 2000)

Culagosinga Sutta (MN 31)

10-17.  "Good, good Anuruddha.  But while you abide thus diligent, ardent, and resolute, have you attained any superhuman state, a distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, a comfortable abiding."
"Why not, venerable sir?  Here, venerable sir, whenever we want, quite secluded from sense pleasure, secluded from unwholesome states, we enter upon and abide in the first jhana"...(through 8th jhana)
(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli & Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995)
Dhammapada Verse 372
Natthi jhaanam apan~n~assa, pan~n~aa natthi ajhaayato,
Yamhi jhaanan~ ca pan~n~an~ ca sa ve nibbaanasantike.
"There is no absorption (jhana) without wisdom (panna),
No wisdom without absorption.
One who is close to emancipation (nibbana/nirvana)
has both wisdom and absorption."

By following the Noble Eight Fold Path one comes inexorably to cessation (nibbana).  Through Right View (samma-ditthi) one observes Right thought, speech, action and livelihood (samma-sankappa, vaca, kammanta and ajiva).  Through this Right Effort (samma-vayam) one arrives at Right Mindfulness (samma-sati).  Right Mindfulness culminates in Right Meditation (sama-samadhi). Right Meditation bares various fruits including absorption (jhana) and insight (vipassana). These fruits of the Noble Eight Fold Path lead inexorably to Cessation (nibbana).

In conclusion it appears that the historic Buddha taught an eight fold practice path, that included right or noble mindfulness (samma-sati). Based upon the Satipatthana Sutta, MN 10, we can conclude he called the cultivation of mindfulness (sati) "satipatthana" (DN 22), not "vipassana."  And, the successful execution, of satipatthana was specifically for giving rise to right or correct meditation (samma-samadhi) (DN 22.21); which he defined in terms of the four material, or rupa jhanas, (DN 22.21); which he called "Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa;" which is often translated as a "pleasant abiding in the here and now" (MN 8); which he considered to be supramundane (Lokuttara) (NM 31.10-18).

Maha-cattarisaka Sutta (MN117)
Having developed Right View without the fermentations, one should develop Right Resolve without the fermentations. And how does one develop Right Resolve without the fermentations? By being resolved on Right Meditation (samma-samadhi).  And for what purpose is Right Meditation developed? For the purpose of developing Right Knowledge.
Gopaka Moggallana Sutta (MN 108.27)
"And what sort of (meditation) did he praise? There is the case where a monk -- quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities -- enters & remains in the first jhana... fourth jhana... This is the sort of (meditation) that the Blessed One praised.

Samadhanga Sutta (AN V. 28)

"He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the ecstasy (piiti) and bliss (sukha) born from withdrawal. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by ecstasy (piiti) and bliss (sukha) born from withdrawal."
One should pursue pleasure within oneself
Aranavibhanga Sutta (MN 139)
9. ..."One should know how to define pleasure, and knowing that, one should pursue pleasure within oneself"..."Here bhikkhus, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enter upon and resides in the first (absorption) jhana"... (through 4th jhana).  "This is called the bliss of renunciation, the bliss of seclusion, the bliss of peace, the bliss of enlightenment.  I say of this kind of pleasure that it should be pursued, that it should be developed, that it should be cultivated, and that it should not be feared."
(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli & Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995)

May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,

Arahatta Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)

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