March 2, 2019; revised January 3, 2020
1. The jhānic experiences in the first four jhāna are clearly described by the Buddha in the “Sāmaññaphala Sutta (DN 2)“.
- There are many conceptions about what it feels like to be in different jhānic states. Therefore, it is good to have a description by the Buddha to get a good idea about the experience.
- It is a long sutta, and I will provide the English translation for the sutta’s relevant sections. The Pāli version can be found in the link above.
2. Jhānic experiences in Ariya and anariya jhānās may have some common features since these jhānās correspond to mental states of rūpavacara Brahma realms. However, the Buddha clearly stated that anariya jhāna are “burdened” and not as peaceful as Ariya jhānās; see, “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)– Akuppā Cētōvimutti“.
- To get into jhāna, one must transcend (elevate one’s mindset above) the sensual realms (kāma lōka).
- This means one’s mind needs to be devoid of any sensual thoughts (kāma rāga) and dasa akusala AND focused on thoughts of renunciation and compassion (savitakka/savicāra). In any sutta describing the jhānic experience, there is this phrase: “So vivicceva kāmehi, vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati..“.
- Translated: “Withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from akusala thoughts, and engaged in thoughts of renunciation and compassion, he enters and remains in the first jhāna..”.
Experience in the First Jhāna
3. “Withdrawn from sense pleasures, withdrawn from akusala thoughts, he enters and dwells in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by savitakka and savicāra (applied and sustained moral thoughts). His mind is filled with joy (piti), and the whole body is suffused and filled with bodily happiness (sukha) born from withdrawal from sense pleasures (kāma) and akusala thoughts. This rapture and happiness suffuse his entire body. (It should be noted that vitakka/vicāra or kāma and akusala thoughts are not completely removed in the first jhāna).
- “Great king, suppose a skilled bath attendant or his apprentice were to pour soap powder into a metal basin, sprinkle it with water, and knead it into a ball so that the ball of soap-powder be pervaded by moisture, encompassed by moisture, suffused with moisture inside and out, yet would not trickle. Similarly, the great king, the bhikkhu, drenches, steeps, saturates and suffuses his entire body with the rapture and happiness born of seclusion. This, great king, is a visible fruit of a life abstaining from kāma and akusala.
Experience in the Second Jhāna
4. “Further, great king, with the removal of vitakka/vicāra (but savitakka/savicāra remain), the bhikkhu enters and dwells in the second jhāna, which is accompanied by internal confidence and unification of mind, is without applied and sustained thought, and is filled with the rapture and happiness born of concentration. He drenches, steeps, saturates, and suffuses his body with this rapture and happiness born of concentration so that there is no part of his entire body which is not suffused by this rapture and happiness.
- “Great king, suppose there was a deep lake whose waters welled up from below. It would have no inlet for water from the east, west, north, or south, nor would it be refilled from time to time with showers of rain; yet a current of cool water, seeping through underground channels, would maintain the water level, so that the entire lake is filled to the brim. Similarly, the great king, the bhikkhu, drenches, steeps, saturates, and suffuses his body with the rapture and happiness born of concentration so that his entire body is suffused with this rapture and happiness. This too, great king, is a visible fruit of a life abstaining from kāma and akusala.
Experience in the Third Jhāna
5. “Further, great king, with the fading away of rapture ( piti or joy is lost), the bhikkhu dwells in equanimity, mindful and clearly comprehending, and experiences happiness with the body. Thus he enters and dwells in the third jhāna, of which the noble ones declare: ‘He dwells happily with equanimity and mindfulness.’ He drenches, steeps, saturates and suffuses his body with this happiness free from rapture so that his entire body is suffused with this happiness.
- “Great king, suppose in a lotus pond there were blue, white, or red lotuses that have been born in the water, grow in the water, and never rise above the water, but flourish immersed in the water. From their tips to their roots, they would be drenched, steeped, saturated, and suffused with cool water so that there would be no part of those lotuses not suffused with cool water. Similarly, the great king, the bhikkhu, drenches, steeps, saturates, and suffuses his body with happiness free from rapture so that this happiness suffuses his entire body. This too, great king, is a visible fruit of a life abstaining from kāma and akusala.
Experience in the Fourth Jhāna
6. “Further, great king, with the abandoning of bodily pleasure (sukha), the bhikkhu enters and dwells in the fourth jhāna, which is neither pleasant nor painful and contains mindfulness fully purified by equanimity. He sits suffusing his body with a pure bright mind so that there is no part of his entire body not suffused by a pure bright mind (one’s physical body no longer is felt, and only a “white light” is discerned; that white light is the only “rupa” left to be cognized).
- “Great king, suppose a man were to be sitting covered from the head down by a white cloth so that there would be no part of his entire body not suffused by the white cloth. In the same way, great king, the bhikkhu sits suffusing his body with a pure bright mind, so that there is no part of his entire body not suffused by a pure bright mind. This, too, is a visible fruit of a life abstaining from kāma and akusala.
The sutta now proceeds to describe what could be further accomplished by the bhikkhu.
- “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. He discerns: ‘This body of mine is endowed with form, composed of the four primary elements, born from mother and father, nourished with rice and porridge, subject to inconstancy, rubbing, pressing, dissolution, and dispersion. And this consciousness of mine is supported here and bound up here.’
- In other words, the bhikkhu can now see the ādīnava (drawbacks) and the burden of carrying one’s own physical body.
Essential Background to Attain Jhāna
7. Sāmaññaphala Sutta is an excellent sutta which also discusses in detail how one can set up the necessary background to attain jhāna.
- It is too long a sutta to be discussed in a post. One could read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s English translation to get a good idea: “The Sāmaññaphala Sutta.” It is a pdf file that one can download.
8. Also note that while the abandonment of the 10 types of micchā diṭṭhi is needed for even anariya jhānās.
- Ariya jhānās require a level of comprehension of Tilakkhana also, and thus only Ariyā (Noble Persons) can attain them; see, “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)– Akuppā Cētōvimutti“.
Eventual Outcomes of Ariya and Anariya Jhāna
9. Both types of jhāna lead to rebirth in corresponding Brahma realms. However, those with anariya jhāna will come back to the human realm at the end of their lifetime and could be born in the apāyās in the future.
- On the other hand, those who have cultivated Ariya jhānās will never come back to kāma lōka, let alone apāyās. They will attain Nibbāna (Arahanthood) in Brahma realms.
10. This is clearly explained in the “Paṭhamanānākaraṇa Sutta (AN 4.123)” and several other suttā.
For example, regarding those who have cultivated the first anariya jhāna: “Idha, bhikkhave, ekacco puggalo vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati. So tadassādeti, taṃ nikāmeti, tena ca vittiṃ āpajjāti. Tattha ṭhito tadadhimutto tabbahulavihārī aparihīno kālaṃ kurumāno brahmakāyikānaṃ devānaṃ sahabyataṃ upapajjāti. Brahmakāyikānaṃ, bhikkhave, devānaṃ kappo āyuppamāṇaṃ. Tattha puthujjano yāvatāyukaṃ ṭhatvā yāvatakaṃ tesaṃ devānaṃ āyuppamāṇaṃ taṃ sabbaṃ khepetvā nirayampi gacchati tiracchānayonimpi gacchati pettivisayampi gacchati“.
- Translated: “An individual, withdrawn from kāma rāga, withdrawn akusala, enters and remains in the first jhāna filled with joy (piti), and the whole body is suffused and filled with bodily happiness (sukha). If he does not lose the jhāna at death, he is born among the Brahmakāyika devas, who have a life span of an eon. These normal humans (puthujjano), having used up all the life-span of those devas, may go to hell (niraya), to the animal realm, and the state of the hungry ghosts (peta)“.
On the other hand, those who have attained the first Ariya jhāna: ” Bhagavato pana sāvako tattha yāvatāyukaṃ ṭhatvā yāvatakaṃ tesaṃ devānaṃ āyuppamāṇaṃ taṃ sabbaṃ khepetvā tasmiṃyeva bhave parinibbāyati.”
- Translated: “But a disciple of the Blessed One, having stayed there, attains Nibbāna from there.”
11. The same is stated about those who have attained the second, third, and fourth anariya jhāna. None of them is free from the apāyās.
- On the other hand, those who have cultivated Ariya jhāna attain Nibbāna from those corresponding Brahma realms.
12. Finally, this discussion about getting rid of (or at least suppressing) any sensual thoughts or kāma rāga may discourage those new to Buddha Dhamma.
- That should not be the case; see, “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?” and “Starting on the Path Even without Belief in Rebirth.”