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1 in 1 Million Reach Jhana?

I have been speaking to some of my students about the difficulty in reaching Jhana – the Visuddhimagga Jhanas – and I’ve been trying to figure out different ways to help people enter Jhana. Trying to figure out different ways to teach entering the Jhanas, using different words that might resonate with people better than other words.

In my 20 years in Thailand I’ve not met more than a handful of monks who have ever attained Jhana. Monks in Thailand are not typically into meditation, to be honest, and that’s probably at least somewhat surprising to you. It was to me when I arrived.

I’ve seen maybe 10 monks meditating at temples in these 20 years. I mean, off by themselves. Not in group chanting or group meditation like at Wat Pah Nanachat or Wat Nong Pa Pong.

Leigh Brasington has something on his website about how difficult it is to reach the Visuddhimagga Jhanas. I’ll screenshot it below. Full credit to him. Apparently the quote comes from the Visuddhimaggas.

Screenshot of Leigh Brasington's quote on Jhana attainment from the Vissuddhimaggas.
Screenshot of Leigh Brasington’s quote on Jhana attainment from the Vissuddhimaggas.

It’s interesting in a couple of different ways.

  1. I’ve been wondering what the problem is when I teach Jhana entry to my students. Very few get it. It does take some time, and I understand that, but with a very well-defined path, I’d have thought it would have been quite a bit easier than people are finding it. I do know my perseverance in reaching complete concentration on the breath was in large part responsible for my reaching Jhana in under a year, but I also know some dedicated students that should get there soon.
  2. The quote above talks about entering Jhana. The 1st Jhana. How difficult is it to reach Jhana 2? 3? 4? How difficult to reach the Arupa Jhanas – the formless Jhanas?

I’ve talked to many knowledgable monks here in Thailand about Jhana.

I’ve read many books and social media and other posts and seen videos by many monks talking about Jhana.

I’ve seen very few people speak about Jhana 4 and above with any authority.

Often times, if I do see someone talking about Jhana 4 or the Arupa Jhanas they are just relating what the Suttas or Visuddhimagga says about them. Or, they are talking about what another monk did or said he did.

Are the deep Jhanas really that difficult to reach?

I think so.

The problem isn’t that people are not ‘able’ to reach them for some reason. It’s more that the prerequisites that are given to them – are hindering their progress DRAMATICALLY.

What I mean is… here, have a look at what the Visuddhimaggas say about preparing yourself to enter Jhana at some point in the distant future.

The Visuddhimagga, or “Path of Purification,” is a comprehensive manual of Theravada Buddhism written by Buddhaghosa in the 5th century. It details the practices and stages of the Buddhist path to enlightenment, including the deep states of meditative absorption known as jhana.

The text outlines the conditions and practices required to attain Jhana states. Here are some key points from the Visuddhimagga regarding Jhana:

  1. Prerequisites and Preparation – To attain jhana, a practitioner must fulfill several prerequisites. These include living a moral life, practicing generosity, and developing mindfulness and concentration. The Visuddhimagga emphasizes the importance of a secluded environment, free from distractions, to facilitate deep meditation.
  2. Concentration Practice (Samatha) – The primary method for achieving jhana is through samatha, or concentration meditation. This involves focusing the mind on a single object, such as the breath, a meditation device (kasina), or a concept like loving-kindness (metta). The Visuddhimagga provides detailed instructions on how to cultivate and deepen this concentration.
  3. Stages of Jhana – The text describes four primary jhanas (form jhanas) and four higher jhanas (formless jhanas). Each jhana represents a progressively deeper state of concentration and equanimity. The first jhana includes initial application and sustained application of the mind to the meditation object, along with rapture and pleasure. The subsequent jhanas refine these qualities, ultimately leading to profound equanimity and one-pointedness of mind.
  4. Challenges and Hindrances – The Visuddhimagga discusses various obstacles that practitioners may encounter on their path to jhana. These include the five hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. The text provides strategies for overcoming these hindrances to maintain focused concentration.
  5. Individual Differences – While the Visuddhimagga doesn’t quantify the exact number of people who can achieve jhana, it acknowledges that individuals differ in their abilities and temperaments. Some may find it easier to attain jhana due to their past karma, current effort, and the specific practices they follow. The text encourages diligent and persistent practice, tailored to the individual’s needs and capacities.
  6. Encouragement and Realistic Expectations – Buddhaghosa encourages practitioners to be patient and persistent, recognizing that the attainment of jhana requires time and dedicated effort. The text suggests that while not everyone may reach the highest states of absorption, progress on the path of concentration and insight meditation is beneficial and leads to greater clarity and peace of mind.

Overall, the Visuddhimagga presents Jhana as attainable but emphasizes that it requires significant preparation, effort, and the overcoming of various mental hindrances. It inspires practitioners to strive for these states while maintaining realistic expectations about their individual journey and progress.

In my case, on my path, I didn’t know about any of this. And still, Jhana came.

I wasn’t necessarily moral. I wasn’t generous. I prepared in absolutey no way to reach the Jhanas, other than my simple meditation practice.

What this says to me is that anyone can reach Jhana.
With dedication and a good plan.
A good path.
Good teaching.

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