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Dispelling Common Misconceptions

Regarding Insight (vipassana)

and Absorption (jhana/dhyana)

November 9, 2004

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

(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)

Through 30 years of the study and practice of the contemplative life, and specifically following the Noble Eightfold Path, I have found that the three vehicles of Buddhism, like all religions, subscribe to dogma that is not supported by their progenitor.  In the case of Buddhism, the progenitor's (Sidharta Gotama) discourses are revealed in the Discourses of the Buddha (the Nikayas).  Specifically, Theravadan Buddhism tends to subscribe to a belief in insight (vipassana) in rejection of absorption (jhana). 

In practical experience one will find that one cannot have insight without absorption.  In fact every accomplished contemplative will find that absorption is a prerequisite for insight.  On the other hand Theravadan Buddhism has further compounded their unsupportable dogma through the appropriation of the concepts of satipatthana, and has subverted them under the name of 'Vipassana' but in doing so they have conveniently left out a few important details from the satipatthana discourse.  In particular they have left out the necessity of absorption (jhana, DN 22.21). By doing so this school of Buddhism has proven it does not understand the Noble Eightfold Path, which is defined in terms of absorption, nor do they understand what insight (vipassana) is, or what the Buddha's intentions were with the practice strategy he called satipatthana.

Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22.21)
"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 There is the case where an aspirant -- quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities -- enters & remains in the first (absorption) jhana"...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).

Satipatthana is the cultivation of mindfulness with the intention of arriving at right, true or correct meditation (samma-samadhi), which is defined in terms of jhana, not in terms of insight (vipassana).  Further this contemplative has found that insight (vipassana) is a subjective state in which the cognitive processes of thinking and reasoning, or in Pali terms vitakka and viccra, are suspended, tranquility arises, which means by definition one is now in the second jhana, then insight (vipassana) arises.  I need only point you in the direction of the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) where insight (vipassana) is described as a fruit of the practice, not a practice path. 

Fruits of the Contemplative Life
Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2)
(Insight Knowledge)
"With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision."

In this sutta one will notice that it is not a coincidence that the section that immediately precedes the section that describes insight, provides a lengthy description of absorption (jhana), Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2.75-82).  And, the section on knowledge and vision (insight) begins with the characteristic conditions for absorption (jhana).  Therefore I believe it is reasonable to conclude absorption (jhana) is a necessary pre-condition for insight (vipassana) to arise.

Please also note that the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) is a description of the "Fruits of the Contemplative Life." Thus insight (vipassana) is simply seen as one of several fruits of the contemplative life, not the only fruit.

In this sutta we see that the fruits of the contemplative life are: virtue, sense restraint, mindfulness & alertness, contentedness, abandoning the hindrances, the four absorptions (jhanas), insight knowledge, the mind-made body (OOBs), supranormal powers (such as clairaudience, mind reading, recollection of past lives, knowledge of passing away & re-appearance of beings), and the ending of mental agitation.  So, why do Theravadans emphasize a single fruit?  Why do they reject the foundational "fruit" of absorption (jhana), when they think of insight (vipassana)?  The conclusion can only be that they do not know the dhamma.

If you read the Discourses of the Buddha (sutta/sutra pitaka) I am sure you will find the historic Buddha often recommended to his monastic and lay disciples to cultivate the absorption states (jhanas/dhyanas) 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, as has already been stated, he defined his Noble Eight Fold Path based upon jhana/dhyana (DN 22.21).  He said cultivating jhana was a Noble, correct, true or worthy 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/dhyana) 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)

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)

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.
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)

Culagosinga Sutta, MN 31

"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."
(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 ecstasy without wisdom,
There is no wisdom without ecstasy.
Whoever is close to enlightenment
truly has both wisdom and ecstasy."

I have found 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). It is these fruits of the Noble Eight Fold Path that lead inexorably to cessation (nibbana).

In conclusion the historic Buddha taught an eightfold 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 wihtout 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."
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)
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)
"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)

May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)

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