Jhāna, Jhāya, and Jhāyi – Different Meanings

June 23, 2022; revised October 17, 2022

Jhāna, jhāya, and jhāyi are interrelated and can have different meanings depending on the context. In particular, it can refer to “contemplation/meditation in general” or “specific meditative states transcending the sensual realm,” i.e., “jhānic states.”

Jhāya – To Contemplate or Meditate

1. In the process of explaining the difference between Ariya (Buddhist) and anariya (non-Buddhist) meditations, the Buddha gave an analogy in the “Sandha Sutta (AN 11.9).” You can read the English translation in the above link. But let me briefly describe the analogy. (Note that in the topic of the Pāli version, “Sandha” is erroneously replaced by “Saddha.”)

  • In the days of the Buddha, specially trained horses were a major division of an army. Such horses are “thoroughbreds” (“assājānīyo.”) There, “assā” are horses, and “ajānīyo” means “thoroughbreds/special breed.” They don’t think much about the food and spend time training and thinking about it. At the beginning of the sutta, the Buddha tells Sandha, “Ājānīyajhāyitaṁ kho, sandha, jhāya” or “Sandha, meditate like a thoroughbred.”
  • In contrast, an inferior horse (“assakhaḷuṅko“) spends the whole day thinking about food: “Assakhaḷuṅko hi, saddha, doṇiyā baddho’ yavasaṁ yavasan’ti jhāyati” or “An inferior horse, tied up by the feeding trough, thinks all the time about eating: ‘Fodder, fodder!” (“yava” means fodder or dried hay.)
  • This sutta reveals one ordinary meaning of the word jhāya” with the meaning of “to contemplate” because a horse can do that too. 

2. So, the Buddha admonishes bhikkhu Sandha that he should meditate like a “thoroughbred horse” and not like an inferior horse.

  • Thus, the word jhāyi referred to meditation (not merely thinking random thoughts) in the same sutta. That is the most common usage in the suttas.
  • Then  the Buddha points out that an anariya yogi meditates by taking a worldly object (earth, water, fire, air, etc.) AND also with hidden defilements in mind. In contrast, Ariyas (Noble Persons) “don’t meditate dependent on the earth, water, fire, and air. They don’t meditate dependent on the dimension of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, or neither perception nor non-perception. They don’t meditate dependent on this world or the other world. They don’t meditate dependent on what is seen, heard, thought, known, attained, sought, or explored by the mind.” to quote from the English translation in the above link.
  • We will discuss that below.
  • Note that jhāya means “to meditate,” jhāyi means “meditator,” and jhāna refers to a specific meditative state. Samādhi is the general result of meditation, but as we will see, there are “immoral” or “micchā samādhi,” but those never lead to jhāna. Both Ariya- and anariya- meditations lead to jhāna, but they have different qualities. It is possible to reach Nibbāna with or without going through jhanic states.
Types of Meditators (jhāyī)

3. “Adhiṭṭhānahāravibhaṅgain the Tipitaka Commentary “Nettipararana” explains the types of meditators: Jhāyī”ti ekattatā. Tattha katamo jhāyīAtthi sekkho jhāyī, atthi asekkho jhāyī, nevasekkhanāsekkho jhāyī, ājāniyo jhāyī, assakhaluṅko jhāyī, diṭṭhuttaro jhāyī, taṇhuttaro jhāyī, paññuttaro jhāyī. Ayaṁ vemattatā.”

Translated: Jhāyī means to “meditate.” What are the different types? Those who meditate can be Noble Persons in training (sekkho,) Noble Persons who completed training (Arahants or asekkho), and others (average humans or neither sekkho nor asekkho). Then some meditate like a “thoroughbred horse” (ājāniyo), and others like an “inferior horse” (assakhaluṅko). We can also categorize based on the goal: to cleanse views (diṭṭhuttaro,) dispel attachments (taṇhuttaro,) and cultivate paññā (paññuttaro.) Those are the various types.

  • The next paragraph describes various types of samādhi attained by those meditators (jhāyī): “Samādhī”ti ekattatā. Tattha katamo samādhi? Saraṇo samādhi, araṇo samādhi, savero samādhi, avero samādhi, sabyāpajjo samādhi, abyāpajjo samādhi, sappītiko samādhi, nippītiko samādhi, sāmiso samādhi, nirāmiso samādhi, sasaṅkhāro samādhi, asaṅkhāro samādhi, ekaṁsabhāvito samādhi, ubhayaṁsabhāvito samādhi, ubhayato bhāvitabhāvano samādhi, savitakkasavicāro samādhi, avitakkavicāramatto samādhi, avitakkaavicāro samādhi, hānabhāgiyo samādhi, ṭhitibhāgiyo samādhi, visesabhāgiyo samādhi, nibbedhabhāgiyo samādhi, lokiyo samādhi, lokuttaro samādhi, micchāsamādhi, sammāsamādhi. Ayaṁ vemattatā.”
  • It will take the whole post to explain those. But I have highlighted the ones that we will be discussing. Lokiya samādhi is reached via any meditation unrelated to lokuttara samādhi (on the Noble Path.) Micchā samādhi is reached via immoral reflections, for example, by a master thief planning a robbery. Sammā samādhi can be two types, with the lokuttara category leading to Nibbāna. Note that jhāna is not explicitly cited here, but it is a particular type of samādhi that can be lokiya (anariya) or lokuttara (Ariya.)
Ariya and Anariya Meditations

4. In two related suttas to the sutta in #1 above, “Saññā Sutta (AN 11.7)” and “Manasikāra Sutta (AN 11.8),” the Buddha explained the difference between Ariya and anariya meditations more clearly.

  • In the first sutta, Ven. Ananda asks the following question. See Ref.1 for the Pāli quote that I will translate (I have modified the English translation from the link; you can compare the two translations). Let us start with the first part of the quote in Ref. 1.

“Would it be possible, Bhante, for a bhikkhu to get to samādhi (samādhipaṭilābho) WITHOUT taking in the pathavisaññā of pathavi (neva pathaviyaṁ pathavisaññī assa)? (Note that “assa” here means “to take in.”)

  • Here, Ven. Ananda refers to using a kasina object made of clay (pathavi.) When a yogi focuses on a clay ball, his mind stops jumping to stray thoughts of greed, anger, or ignorance. That can lead to a calm mind, and depending on the person, it can even lead to anariya jhāna.
  • Then Ven. Ananda asks the same question about using other types of kasina objects: “na āpasmiṁ āposaññī assa, na tejasmiṁ tejosaññī assa, na vāyasmiṁ vāyosaññī assa.Yogis typically use a bowl of water and fire to latch onto āpo saññā and tejo saññā.
  • That last one on “taking in the vāyo saññā refers to the breath meditation. So, it should be clear that Ānāpānasati is NOT breath mediation. Also, see “Saññā – What It Really Means.”

5. One could reach the fourth anariya jhāna with those techniques. Once there, an anariya yogi can get to the first arupavacara samāpatti by focusing on the “infinite space.” After getting there, he can move to the next samāpatti by concentrating on the “infinite viññāṇa.” In this way, he can proceed to the nevasaññānāsaññāyatana samāpatti. Throughout that process, the yogi will focus on a lokiya object (belonging to this world); thus, all those are lokiya samādhi.

  • Finally, Ven. Ananda asks if a samādhi is possible WITHOUT focusing on anything in this world (that we perceive as humans: idhalokasañña) or even in paraloka (as a gandhabba or beings in other realms.)
  • Therefore, the question raised by Ven. Ananda is, “Is it possible to get into a samādhi WITHOUT going through such a process?
The focus of Ariya- Meditations

6. The Buddha says (Ref. 2) that there is such a meditation without taking in a saññā of a “lokiya entity.” But that is possible only for a Noble Person (Ariya) who has “seen Nibbāna,” i.e., who has gotten to Sammā Samādhi. They can focus on that Nibbāna that they have SEEN (at their level or stage.) Of course, only an Arahant can contemplate the “ultimate release” that they reached.

  • That is: “etaṁ santaṁ etaṁ paṇītaṁ, yadidaṁ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānan’ti” OR “This is peaceful; this is excellent—that is, the stopping of all saṅkhāra, the letting go of all bonds to the rebirth process, the ending of craving, stopping of rebirth, cessation of the world, nibbāna.” I have highlighted the deviations from the English translation in the link.
  • That is the verse an Ariya recites/contemplates to reach samādhi. Some of those at or above the Anāgāmi stage may get to Ariya jhānā that way. Those below the Anāgāmi stage may get to anariya jhānā that way. There is nothing wrong with that. It is good to cultivate even an anariya jhānā AFTER attaining the Sotapanna/Anugāmi
  • It is just that even the first Ariya jhānā is possible only after the Anāgāmi stage; see “Possible Outcomes of Meditation – Samādhi, Jhāna, Magga Phala.”
  • The second sutta in #4, “Manasikāra Sutta (AN 11.8),” has the same explanation. It focuses on mansikāra instead of saññā.
  • Arahants also cultivate samādhi, as mentioned in #3 above. In particular, paññāvimutti Arahants may do that to reach Ariya jhānā so that they can have a “blissful experience in the present life.” Let us look at another sutta to discuss that.
Four Uses of Ariya Samādhi – Samādhibhāvanā Sutta

7. The “Samādhibhāvanā Sutta (AN 4.41)” explains that samādhi bhāvanā is of four types:

  • (i) for a blissful experience in the present life (diṭṭhadhammasukhavihārāya or diṭṭhadhamma sukha vihārāya, where “diṭṭhadhamma” means “in this life,”)
    (ii) for gaining knowledge and vision (ñāṇadassanappaṭilābhāya),
    (iii) for gaining mindfulness and awareness to cultivate  Satipaṭṭhāna/Ānāpānasati (satisampajaññāya), and,
    (iv) to attain Arahanthood via the ending of defilements (āsavānaṁ khayāya).
  • Note that the usage of samādhi bhāvanā is in that order. However, occasionally, some get to the Arahant stage within a short time, like Ven. Culapanthaka or Minister Santati. In such a case, (i) comes last since they go through (ii), (iii), and (iv) quickly.
  • Also, note that (i) above may or may not involve jhāna. It can be samādhi without jhāna.
  • In (ii) through (iv,) one must engage in Vipassanā Bhāvana to cultivate insight once getting to Samatha. See #9 below.
Critical to Understanding Nibbāna

8. We need to start by looking at the FUNDAMENTAL idea of Nibbāna.

  • Even though relatively little suffering manifests in realms higher than the human realm, a “living being” spending most of the Saṁsāric journey in the lowest four realms (apāyās) filled with suffering. Thus, the Buddha taught that this world of 31 realms is filled with suffering.
  • “Full Nibbāna” (Parinibbāna or the “complete release from suffering”) is attained at the death of an Arahant. That Arahant will not be reborn in any of the 31 realms.
  • I must keep repeating those basics because many people have not grasped those ideas. I want to emphasize the foundation.
Cultivating Vipassanā

9. Thus, any meditation where the focus of the mind is a “worldly object” (a clay ball, a bowl of water, breath, etc.) It CAN NOT be a Buddhist meditation.

  • Instead of contemplating worldly things, one MUST reflect on their unfruitful nature. That is vipassanā meditation (as explained in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118) and even more detail in the “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10)”. We will discuss those.
  • Suppose someone with magga phala likes to cultivate jhāna (with Samatha meditation). In that case, they should contemplate the Nibbāna that they have experienced (at that level) as we discussed above: “‘etaṁ santaṁ etaṁ paṇītaṁ yadidaṁ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānan’ti.”
  • While anariya yogis get to Samatha (and anariya jhāna) with the traditional kasina and breath meditation (detailed in Visuddhimagga), Ariyas (Nobel Persons) attain Ariya jhāna with the above verse.
  • Those who have not reached the Sotapanna stage can get to Samatha samādhi by living a moral life and listening/reading about Dhamma concepts. That will calm the mind enough to cultivate vipassanā (insight meditation) on the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana. There is no need to do kasina/breath meditations. See,Sīla, Samādhi, Paññā to Paññā, Sīla, Samādhi.”
“Jhāyi” Can Mean “To Burn”

10. Finally, there is another meaning of jhāyi. We can see that from the following verse in the “Saṁyojana Sutta (SN 12.53): “Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, telañca paṭicca vaṭṭiñca paṭicca telappadīpo jhāyeyya.”

That means: “Just like an oil lamp depended on oil and a wick to burn.”

  • That oil lamp will burn only if there is enough oil. When the oil runs out, the wick will burn quickly and extinguish.
  • In the same way, when taṇhā ceases (taṇhā nirujjhati) there is no more fuel for the Saṁsāric journey: “Taṇhānirodhā upādānanirodho” leads to bhava and jāti nirodha in the Paṭiloma Paṭicca Samuppāda. That is the end of rebirth and Nibbāna!

1. “Siyā nu kho, bhante, bhikkhuno tathārūpo samādhipaṭilābho yathā neva pathaviyaṁ pathavisaññī assa, na āpasmiṁ āposaññī assa, na tejasmiṁ tejosaññī assa, na vāyasmiṁ vāyosaññī assa, na ākāsānañcāyatane ākāsānañcāyatanasaññī assa, na viññāṇañcāyatane viññāṇañcāyatanasaññī assa, na ākiñcaññāyatane ākiñcaññāyatanasaññī assa, na nevasaññānāsaññāyatane nevasaññānāsaññāyatanasaññī assa, na idhaloke idhalokasaññī assa, na paraloke paralokasaññī assa, yampidaṁ diṭṭhaṁ sutaṁ mutaṁ viññātaṁ pattaṁ pariyesitaṁ anuvicaritaṁ manasā, tatrāpi na saññī assa; saññī ca pana assā”ti?

2. “Siyā, ānanda, bhikkhuno tathārūpo samādhipaṭilābho yathā neva pathaviyaṁ pathavisaññī assa, na āpasmiṁ āposaññī assa, ..

After completing that verse, the Buddha explains what a Noble Person focuses the mind on in the next verse: “Idhānanda, bhikkhu evaṁsaññī hoti: ‘etaṁ santaṁ etaṁ paṇītaṁ, yadidaṁ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānan’ti.

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