Difference Between Jhana and Stages of Nibbana

March 24, 2017

1. There are many misconceptions on the relationship between jhana and magga phala (the four stages of Nibbana). Some view that jhana are necessary to attain magga phala, and others believe that being able to get into jhana means one has attained magga phala.

  • The first assumption is wrong, and the second is true if one has attained an Ariya jhana.
  • We can resolve these issues by looking into what are meant by jhana and magga phala, and also the difference between anariya and Ariya jhana.

2. One attains magga phala (various stages of Nibbana) by permanently removing greed, hate, and ignorance (about the nature of this world or Tilakkhana): “Ragakkhayo Nibbanan, Dosakkhayo Nibbanan, Mohakkhayo Nibbanan“.

  • This can also be stated as, “one needs to remove 7 anusaya” or equivalently “10 samyojana” to attain Nibbana. At the Sotapanna stage one removes 2 anusaya and 3 samyojana; see, “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbana“.
  • The most commonly used evaluation is that a Sotapanna has removed the three samyojana of sakkaya ditthi, vicikicca, and silabbata paramasa.
  • Therefore, a critical first step for attaining magga phala is to be exposed to the correct interpretations of anicca, dukkha, anatta; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.
  • The second step is of course to grasp the anicca (and dukkha and anatta) sanna to some extent; see, “What is Sanna (Perception)?“.

3. Jhäna (sometimes written as “dyäna“) can provide blissful bodily sensations. These arise due to the “cleansing of the physical body and the nervous system” induced by “defilement-free” thoughts.

  • Even this second phenomenon of jhana is completely outside the realm of modern science. Scientists cannot explain jhanic phenomena, but soon they will not be able to ignore these as “hallucinations”, because more and more people are attaining jhana.

4. There are two main factors that come into play in cultivating jhanas.

  • Some people have cultivated jhanas in their recent previous lives and are able to get into anariya jhanas very quickly. For a few it comes without any effort, just lying on the bed (by the way this can be any person who lives a moral life, whether exposed to Buddha Dhamma or not).
  • The second factor involves the “cleansing of the physical body”, as we discuss below.

5. My late Noble teacher, Waharaka Thero, has given the following simile to explain this “cleansing process” as well as to describe the main difference between a jhana and magga phala.

  • I hope you have at least heard about — preferably seen — an old oil lantern with a glass enclosure where the wick is soaked in oil or gasoline that comes up through the wick from a built-in reservoir.
  • If gasoline is contaminated, the glass enclosure gets dirty quickly. In the same way, our defiled thoughts leads to a “contamination effect” in our physical body.
  • Many body ailments, including bodily pains and even diseases COULD BE reduced by cleansing one’s mind. Of course, those initially arise due to kamma vipaka, and the stronger ones may not be overcome by this process; see, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.

6. Our thoughts can be compared to the burning wick and the physical body to the glass enclosure, in the above simile. When the thoughts become defiled, the body will be “contaminated” giving rise to discomforts and even diseases. We will discuss the causes below.

  • The glass enclosure of the lamp needs to be taken out and cleaned in order to get the lamp to shine bright again, i.e., to make the “body of the lamp” clean again.
  • In contrast, there is a built-in mechanism for our bodies to be cleansed.
  • This built-in mechanism is our cittaja kaya or our thoughts. We can state the basic mechanism this way: The javana citta in our thoughts (cittaja kaya) produce good or bad energy fields called utuja kaya. These are actually rupa at the suddhashtaka stage (very fine), which are analogous to electromagnetic waves in physics.
  • Bad thoughts associated with dasa akusala lead to the contamination of the body, and good thoughts generate utuja kaya that can clean-up such contamination.
  • The “Search box” on the top right can be used to find more relevant posts, if one needs more information on these terms.

7. This utuja kaya can and does affect our physical body. This is why people who are depressed, or have high levels of anger or greed, are more likely to be subjected to ailments and diseases, and people with joyful mindsets have relatively healthy bodies.

  • This effect can be enhanced via niramisa sukha that arises due to “moral living”. The more one stays away from the dasa akusala, the more happier one becomes, and starts feeling “sukha” in the body itself. It may not be fast, but it definitely happens over time.
  • It can be much more enhanced by comprehending Tilakkhana. The difference here is that one will then stay away from dasa akusala mainly because one would have realized the fruitlessness and danger of seeking sensual pleasures by committing dasa akusala.

8. I have discussed — starting with basics — how our thoughts can affect our well-being in the “Living Dhamma” section. Understanding those basic concepts is crucial in order to understand deeper concepts and to do Anapana and Satipattana bhavana effectively as discussed later in that section.

  • When defiled thoughts are suppressed at least for short times (during a desana or while reading Dhamma), one’s mind becomes joyful and one will be able to get samadhi for a short time (tadanga pahäna).
  • If one spends more and more time doing such activities, the length of this calm mindset (samadhi) can be lengthened, even up to weeks (vishkambana pahäna). Three types of pahäna are discussed in “Suffering in This Life – Role of Mental Impurities“.
  • That may not be jhana yet, but it is possible to get into jhana by increasing one’s efforts by either samatha or vipassana meditation.
  • For some people, it is easier to get jhana, because they had cultivated jhanas in recent previous births as we mentioned above.

9. The power of the javana citta are increased when one is in samadhi and is even more when one gets to a jhana. The “body cleansing effect” is enhanced and one starts feeling joy in the face, sukha in the body.

  • This can be compared to the wick in the oil lamp generating a “high-power laser light” that automatically cleans the dirty glass enclosure.
  • That bright “utujaya kaya“, which are also called “kirana” (or electromagnetic waves in physics), can burn those long-accumulated “bad deposits” in our bodies and also “straighten out” the nervous system.
  • This is the first confirmation of the effect of the mind on the body for someone starting on the Path. One can actually convince oneself that the body CAN BE affected by one’s thoughts.

10. All this can be done by just SUPPRESSING the pancanivarana for long times, see, “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances“.

  • Even before the Buddha, ancient yogis were able to get to jhana by SUPPRESSING defiled thoughts or pancanivarana. They did this mainly by staying away from sensual objects (usually in a forest or in an isolated place).
  • In fact, they were able to cultivate powerful abhinna and even travel through the air. Therefore, it is possible that those who get into the fourth anariya jhana will also experience the “white light” surrounding them.
  • As long as one’s mind can be kept away from greedy and hateful thoughts such states of samadhi and jhana can be maintained for long times (vishkambana pahäna).
  • This is related to the fact how people can go to even anariya meditation retreats (breath meditation) and attain a sense of peace for many days at a stretch. However, when they come back and get back into the regular lifestyle, it slowly fades.

11. The problem is that those effects, no matter how powerful, are only temporary with anariya jhana. They have not removed the root cause for getting attached to greed and hate. They remain hidden deep down as anusaya/samyojana.

12. Now we are getting closer to see the difference between anariya and Ariya jhana.

  • The main difference difference between them is that Ariya jhana are permanent, since they are attained via REMOVING and not just SUPPRESSING some of those anusaya/samyojana.
  • Once removed via wisdom (panna) when attaining the Sotapanna stage of Nibbana, some of those anusaya/samyojana are permanently removed from one’s mind (ucceda pahäna).
  • After that, no matter how strong an attractive/hateful sense input comes in, strong defiled thoughts CANNOT arise in a Sotapanna; see, “Akusala Citta – How a Sotapanna Avoids Apayagami Citta“, and other relevant posts in the “Sotapanna Stage of Nibbana“.

13. The remaining key to the puzzle is that it is possible to attain magga phala just by getting into samadhi and not necessarily to jhana.

  • There are many types of people based on their gathi (personalities) and capabilities: saddha, viriya, samadhi, sati, panna. In fact, the suttas in the Tipitaka are separated to five Nikayas based on that so that each individual can study appropriate suttas for him/her, see, “Nikaya in the Sutta Pitaka“.
  • Without getting into details, people with predominantly panna indriya can attain magga phala without going through jhana.
  • Others normally go through jhanas to attain magga phala. This is not clear-cut, but just to get an idea.

14. The bottom line is that jhanas can be quite helpful in getting to magga phala. Furthermore, one may attain both within reasonably short times. But magga phala (at least the Sotapanna stage) comes before Ariya jhana are attained.

  • The reason is that ucceda pahana mentioned in #12 that is necessary for the Ariya jhana, cannot take place unless one has “seen” the Tilakkhana and attained the Sotapanna stage.
  • One normally attains Ariya jhana by recalling the (stage of)  Nibbana that one has seen, and the “cooling down” that one has thus experienced; see, “Power of the Human Mind – Ariya Jhanas“.

15. For people with high levels of panna, even brief state of samadhi, called tadanga pahana (see #8 above) is enough to attain the Sotapanna stage. A famous example is Bahiya Daruchiriya who attained the Arahantship upon hearing just a single verse.

  • Then there are accounts of many people who attained the Sotapanna stage via vishkambana pahäna (see #8 and #10 above), mainly while listening to a desana by the Buddha.
  • For example, Alavaka yaksa (not a niraya yaksa but a deva yaksa) threatened the Buddha just before sitting down to listen to a desana and attained the Sotapanna stage during the desana. Angulimala chased the Buddha with the intention of killing him, but attained the Sotapanna stage immediately afterwards.
  • More information on the three kinds of pahäna can be found at, “What Are Kilesa (Mental Impurities)? – Connection to Cetasika“.

16. Therefore, there can be people with magga phala without any anariya or Ariya jhana.

  • If there are people with magga phala without jhana, they cannot not experience the “jhanic sukha” in the body. Even though they do not generate “bad thoughts” to further contaminate their bodies, they have not cleansed the old contaminants. Jhanic javana citta (that can run continuously for long times, compared to just 7 javana citta in a normal citta vithi) are like laser beams that can clean contaminants in the body even in an anariya jhana; see, #4 of “Citta Vithi – Processing of Sense Inputs“.
  • In the simile of #5 above, this is like a wick not emitting any more smoke, but the glass enclosure not yet cleaned.
  • Of course, it would be easier for a person with magga phala to attain Ariya jhana, and they will not attain anariya jhana.

17. Finally, from the above discussion it appears that the only way to confirm the attainment of the Sotapanna stage is to see whether one has removed the three samyojana (sanyojana) of sakkaya ditthi, vicikicca, and silabbata paramasa; see, “Sakkaya Ditthi is Personality (Me) View?“.

  • And that cannot be determined by anyone else, but oneself.

This is a critical post that is of importance to many people on the Path. If I have made any mistakes I need to correct them. So, please don’t hesitate to comment if you see anything inconsistent or wrong.

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