Difference Between Jhāna and Stages of Nibbāna

March 24, 2017; revised July 11, 2021; April 19, 2024 

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

  • The first assumption is wrong, and the second is true if one has attained an Ariya jhāna (which can be defined as the removal of kama raga, not merely suppressing it.) Thus, one with an “Ariya jhāna” would be at least an Anāgāmi who has cultivated jhāna.
  • We can resolve these issues by looking into what jhāna and magga phala mean.

2. One attains magga phala (various stages of Nibbāna) by permanently removing greed, hate, and ignorance (about the nature of this world or Tilakkhana):rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo—idaṁ vuccati nibbānan’ti.”.

  • This can also be stated as “one needs to remove seven anusaya” or, equivalently, “10 saṁyojana” to attain Nibbāna. At the Sotapanna stage, one removes two anusaya and three saṁyojana; see “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna.”
  • The most commonly used evaluation is that a Sotapanna has removed the three saṁyojana of sakkāya diṭṭhi, vicikicchā, and silabbata parāmāsa.
  • Therefore, a critical first step for attaining magga phala is to be exposed to the correct interpretations of anicca, dukkha, and anatta; see “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations.”
  • The second step is, of course, to grasp the anicca (and dukkha and anatta) saññā to some extent; see, “What is Sanna (Perception)?“.

3. Jhāna (sometimes written as “dyāna“) can provide blissful bodily and mental sensations. These arise due to the “cleansing of the physical body and the nervous system” induced by “defilement-free” thoughts; see “Jhānic Experience in Detail – Sāmañ­ña­phala Sutta (DN 2)“.

  • Jhāna are mental states corresponding to the rupāvacara and arupāvacara realms; they still belong to “this world” of 31 realms. Just like the human realm is “more peaceful in general” than the animal realm, jhānic states are   “more peaceful in general” than the human realm.
  • We all have been born in most of the 31 realms (except for the realms reserved for the Anāgāmis) uncountable times and thus had attained those jhānic states uncountable times in previous lives.
  • Even this second phenomenon of jhāna is completely outside the realm of modern science. Scientists cannot explain jhānic phenomena, but soon, they will not be able to ignore these as “hallucinations” because more and more people are attaining jhāna.

4. two main factors come into play in cultivating jhānā.

  • Some people have cultivated jhānā in their recent previous lives and are able to get into anāriya jhānā 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 discussed below. This means the actual physical body with its nervous system, in addition to cleansing the mind.

5. My late Noble teacher, Waharaka Thero, used the following simile to explain this “cleansing process” and describe the main difference between a jhāna 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 lead to a “contamination effect” in our physical bodies.
  • Many body ailments, including bodily pains and even some diseases, COULD BE reduced by cleansing one’s mind. Of course, those initially arise due to kamma vipāka, and this process may not overcome the stronger ones; see, “What is Kamma? – Does Kamma determine Everything?“.

6. Our thoughts can be compared to the burning wick and the physical body of 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 lamp’s glass enclosure needs to be removed and cleaned in order for it 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 kāya, or our thoughts. The primary mechanism is that javana citta in our thoughts (cittaja kāya) produces good or bad energy fields called utuja kāya. These are rupa below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage (very fine), analogous to electromagnetic waves in physics.
  • Immoral thoughts associated with dasa akusala lead to the contamination of the body, and good thoughts generate utuja kāya that can clean up such contamination.
  • If you need more information on these terms, the “Search box” at the top right can be used to find more relevant posts.

7. This utuja kāya (an energy field) 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 nirāmisa sukha that arises due to “moral living.” The more one stays away from the dasa akusala, the happier one becomes and starts feeling “sukha” in the body. It may not be fast, but it happens over time.
  • Comprehending Tilakkhana can enhance it much more. 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 Ānāpāna and Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā effectively, as discussed later in that section.

  • When defiled thoughts are suppressed at least for a short time (during a desana or while reading Dhamma), one’s mind becomes joyful, and one can get samādhi for a short time (tadaṅga pahāna).
  • If one spends more and more time doing such activities, the length of this calm mindset (samādhi) can be lengthened, even up to weeks (vikkhambhana pahāna). Three types of pahāna are discussed in “Suffering in This Life – Role of Mental Impurities.”
  • That may not be jhāna yet, but it is possible to get into jhāna by increasing one’s efforts through either Samatha or Vipassanā meditation.
  • As we mentioned above, it is easier for some people to cultivate a jhāna because they have cultivated jhānās in recent previous births.

9. The power of a javana citta is increased when one is in samādhi and is even more when one gets to a jhāna. The “body cleansing effect” is enhanced, and one starts feeling joy in the face and 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 “utuja kāya,” 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 SUPPRESSING pañcanīvaraṇa for a long time; see “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances“.

  • Even before the Buddha, ancient yogis were able to get to jhāna by SUPPRESSING defiled thoughts or pañca nīvaraṇa. They did this mainly by staying away from sensual objects (usually in a forest or an isolated place).
  • They were able to cultivate powerful abhiññā and even travel through the air. 
  • As long as one’s mind can be kept away from greedy and hateful thoughts, such states of samādhi and jhāna can be maintained for a long time (vikkhambhana pahāna).
  • This is related to the fact that how people can go to even anāriya meditation retreats (breath meditation) and attain a sense of peace for many days at a stretch. However, it slowly fades when they return and get back into the regular lifestyle.

11. The problem is that those effects are only temporary with jhāna without magga phala. They have not removed the root cause of getting attached to greed and hate. They remain hidden deep down as anusaya/saṁyojana.

12. Now, we are getting closer to seeing the difference between anāriya and Ariya jhāna (as defined in #1).

  • The main difference between them is that an Ariya jhāna is permanent since they are attained via REMOVING and not just SUPPRESSING the kāma rāga anusaya/saṁyojana.
  • Once removed via wisdom (paññā) when attaining the Sotapanna stage of Nibbāna, some anusaya/saṁyojana are permanently removed from one’s mind (uccheda pahāna).
  • After that, no matter how strong an attractive/hateful sensory input comes in, defiled thoughts (of apāyagāmi strength) CANNOT arise in a Sotapanna; see “Akusala Citta – How a Sotapanna Avoids Apayagami Citta” and other relevant posts in the “Sotapanna Stage of Nibbāna.”

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

  • There are many types of people based on their gati (personalities) and capabilities: saddha, viriya, samādhi, sati, paññā. The suttās in the Tipiṭaka are separated into five Nikāyā based on that so that each individual can study appropriate suttā for him/her, see “Nikāya in the Sutta Piṭaka.”
  • Without getting into details, people with predominantly paññā indriya can attain magga phala without going through jhāna.
  • Others can go through jhānā to attain magga phala. This is not clear-cut, but to get an idea.

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

  • The reason is that uccheda pahānā mentioned in #12, which is necessary for the Ariya jhāna, cannot occur unless one comprehends the Tilakkhana and attains the Sotapanna stage.
  • One typically attains Ariya jhāna by recalling the (stage of)  Nibbāna 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 paññā, even a brief state of samādhi, called tadaṅga pahānā (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 vikkhambhana pahāna (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. He attained the Sotapanna stage during the desana. Angulimala chased the Buddha with the intention of killing him but attained the Sotapanna stage immediately afterward.
  • More information on the three kinds of pahāna can be found in “What Are Kilesa (Mental Impurities)? – Connection to Cetasika“.

16. Therefore, there can be people with magga phala without any jhāna.

  • If there are people with magga phala without jhāna, they cannot experience the “jhānic sukha” in the body. Even though they do not generate “bad thoughts” to further contaminate their bodies, they have not cleansed the old contaminants. Jhānic javana citta (that can run continuously for long times, compared to just seven javana citta in a normal citta vithi) are like laser beams that can clean contaminants in the body even in an anāriya jhāna; 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 is not yet cleaned.
  • Of course, it would be easier for a person with magga phala to attain Ariya jhāna. However, there could be Ariyas below the Anāgāmi stage with anāriya jhāna; they will be born in the corresponding Brahma realm and will attain Nibbāna from there.

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 saṁyojana (sanyojana) of sakkāya diṭṭhi, vicikicchā, and silabbata parāmāsa; see, “Sakkaya Diṭṭhi is Personality (Me) View?“.

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

18. April 28, 2018:  I found a desana by Waharaka Thero where he presents clear evidence that jhāna is not necessary to attain magga phala:

  • The main point Thero makes is that we know that there are jāti Sotāpannas born in the human realm. But if a jhāna was REQUIRED to attain the Sōtapanna stage, then that person WOULD NOT be born in the human realm, but in a Brahma realm corresponding to that jhāna.

More information with references to suttās at: “Samādhi, Jhāna (Dhyāna), Magga Phala.”

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