Jhānas As Easily Accessible Insight Practice: Everything You Know About “Meditative Absorptions” Could Be Wrong
Jhānas are meditative states commonly viewed as concentration practice that may be used to facilitate insight meditation, but I and many teachers and scholars see them as important insight practice in themselves. They are much easier to access than commonly assumed, without requiring high levels of concentration, and extremely useful for meditation progress.
I am neither a Buddhist theologist nor a Pāli scholar, but I am a jhāna aficionado. This article is intended neither as a piece of scholarship nor a guide to attaining the jhānas, but rather as a perspective on what jhānas are (and even more importantly, aren’t) and why my idea of them differs from many popular sources yet is still supported by a number of teachers and scholars.
What Are the Jhānas?
Originally, the Pāli word jhāna meant just meditation, but it came to refer to distinct, pleasant states that can be attained by meditation. In jhānas, certain jhāna factors, listed in the Buddhist suttas (scripture), are present in the mind while many ”unwholesome” mind states are absent. Each of the first four jhānas is based on a certain state of mind. For example, the first jhāna is a state of joy and bliss, while the fourth jhāna is characterized by equanimity. These distinctions are widely agreed on. But to say any more than that, you end up with a more or less controversial take.
There are usually considered to be eight jhānas. The first four are form or (fine) material (rūpa) jhānas and the next four are formless ones (arūpa). Sometimes only the first four are counted as jhānas proper — jhānas 5–8 are seen as variations of the fourth jhāna or something different altogether. You normally learn and enter them in order, though it’s possible to skip some of them.
While either four or eight jhānas is the standard number, sometimes cessation, the ultimate goal of practice, is considered to be the ninth jhāna, though this is somewhat unusual. Some sources also mention additional jhānas, such as Pure Land jhānas only accessible to very advanced meditators, or other jhānas that surpass the numbering system altogether.
There is a common claim that jhānas were a type of meditation practice popular before the Buddha. This has been used to deduce that while the suttas clearly portray Shakyamuni Buddha using jhāna practice during the night of reaching Buddhahood, it could not have been the core of his practice, or his predecessors would have awakened, as well, and he wouldn’t have brought anything new to the pursuit of enlightenment.
Keren Arbel’s scholarly book Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhānas as the Actualization of Insight challenges this view, however, and posits that while the later Hindu Upanishads and Jain sutras mention ”jhānas”, the term was likely both borrowed from Buddhism (instead of the other way around) and their descriptions of jhānas clearly refer to different states.
Are the Jhānas Based on Concentration?
Buddhist literature often divides meditation into concentration practices (samatha) and insight (mindfulness) practices (vipassanā). However, many teachers see this division as problematic — they are distinct but mutually supportive aspects of practice rather than separate pursuits. Commonly, jhānas are portrayed as deep states of concentration and that you need very high levels of concentration to attain, for many a feat achievable only during retreat conditions.
The high concentration is typically created by a practice of breath meditation (ānāpānasati), but can also be done with other methods, such as kasiṇa (gazing), visualization, mantra or mettā (loving-kindness) meditation. When concentration reaches a sufficient level, this is known as ”access concentration”, as you use it to access the jhānas. This idea of jhānas is also depicted by Leigh Brasington in his popular 2015 book Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhānas, which describes what the jhānas feel like and how to move between them.
Small children sometimes spontaneously enter the jhānas, which may seem like a bizarre claim in light of the previous paragraphs. In the depiction of the Buddha’s awakening, he recalls having reached the first jhāna as a child and upon remembering the experience, he realized that ”this is the path to awakening”. Then again, the Buddha is considered a semi-mythical creature by some, but Brasington mentions in his book that about 10% of his students report similar childhood experiences. Not to be outdone by the Buddha, Daniel Ingram recounts in his popular book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book attaining the fourth jhāna when he was three or four.
The term ”access concentration”, central to e.g. Brasington’s approach, does not originate from the suttas, but Visuddhimagga, a 5th-century commentarial work central to Theravāda Buddhism. The Visuddhimagga lists the sequence of jhānas accepted elsewhere not as actual jhānas but mere pre-conditions to reaching the first jhāna. As a result, some people hold such extraordinarily strict views of the jhānas that e.g. Brasington’s jhānas would not be considered real jhānas or are disparagingly called ”jhāna lites”. The Visuddhimagga view has been widely criticized as excessively strict and as a misrepresentation of what the Buddha said (e.g. in this research article by Roderick S. Bucknell). Many scholars have also suggested that Buddhaghosa, its author, did not meditate himself. Some sources thus talk of sutta jhānas and Visuddhimagga jhānas separately.
Almost every source characterizes the jhānas as deep states of concentration, but this is not true of all types of jhānas. You could best describe the jhānas as feedback loops — Brasington’s Right Concentration also includes this depiction, besides describing them as states of high concentration. The first jhāna, for example, is delight feeding on itself: feeling so much joy that you feel joyful about that feeling itself and it keeps building up. This makes it much easier to conceive how children could accidentally access such states.
Instead of breath meditation, you can use mettā or loving-kindness meditation to access the jhānas. Right Concentration discusses this, but gives the impression that accessing jhāna through mettā isn’t that different from using the breath. I find this very misleading.
For those who are able to arouse strong feelings of loving-kindness, it gives you a powerful shortcut to the jhānas compared to pure concentration meditation. The emotional tone of deep loving-kindness is very close to the tone of the first jhāna, which is joy, or better described as bliss, rapture or delight (pīti). You do not need to reach a high level of concentration as such: it is sufficient to feel a lot of meditative joy/bliss and build a feedback loop around it just by really feeling into the mettā. Some people manage to learn this in a matter of days, as a friend of mine did, based on me telling him just the contents of the previous sentence. With enough practice, it’s possible to learn to access the first jhāna in seconds.
Some meditators are not happy about this approach, pointing out that then your concentration will not be as strong. The traditional idea of jhānas is that they should be as deep as possible, e.g. by attaining a very strong level of concentration, stronger than is needed for access concentration alone, before entering the jhānas. At first glance, this makes sense intuitively — the deeper the better — but in this article, I try to portray arguments as to why deep jhānas may in fact be less helpful than lighter ones.
Concentration vs. Insight Aspects
According to many teachers, including Leigh Brasington, deep one-pointed jhānas are used as tools for insight: once you exit the jhānas, your mind is very sharp and this state is ideal for insight meditation. However, in the lighter jhānas, you can do insight practice while you are still in the jhāna. This is also the central approach of tranquil wisdom insight meditation or TWIM, developed by Theravādin monk Bhante Vimalaramsi based on the suttas and described in several freely available books written by him and his senior students. The TWIM approach to jhānas is detailed in David Johnson’s book The Path to Nibbana.
Vimalaramsi divides jhānas into one-pointed absorption jhānas and tranquil aware jhānas. Despite their different nature, they follow the same sequence, e.g. in both types of jhānas the first one is based on bliss and the fifth on infinite space. But Vimalaramsi asserts that it is a big mistake to use one-pointed concentration to access the jhānas: that is what the Buddha initially learned from his teachers and found unhelpful, until he realized that he should use the tranquil aware jhānas instead, like the one he had entered as a child. The sutta narrative where the Buddha learned some of the higher jhānas from his previous teachers, found them unhelpful yet suddenly realized the first jhāna was helpful, has confused many people, and I find this one of the most sensible explanations for it.
Vimalaramsi contends that the usual idea of what jhānas is supposed to be is based both on the Visuddhimagga and on the mistranslations of some Pāli words. Samādhi is usually translated as concentration, but he is not the only one to disagree with that, and ekaggatā is often rendered as one-pointedness. According to Vimalaramsi, ekaggatā means ”tranquility, peacefulness, and stillness of mind. It doesn’t mean one-pointed or absorption, but rather, collected and unified.” I’ve seen several other sources also translate it as the mind being collected or unified. Vimalaramsi refers to Ven. Madavela Punnaji’s translations. The Path to Nibbana maintains:
”In the Anupada Sutta, it says the meditator observes many factors as they go through the jhānas. But they are already in the jhānas seeing these factors and don’t need to come out to observe this. In fact, as soon as the jhāna disappears, so do the jhāna factors. They don’t exist outside the jhāna. You can’t observe them later.
The powerful, happy concentration jhāna state that the mind has just emerged from has suppressed all the craving that was causing the suffering in the first place. What was the craving that was being suppressed? It was the hindrances. What is the goal of meditation? Eliminating the hindrances and purifying the mind. In your practice, if we push the hindrances aside with strong concentration, how can we ever hope to understand them and their root cause?”
Other Views on the Jhānas
Well-known Theravādin monk, translator and scholar Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu also espouses the idea that jhānas should be light states with awareness and mindfulness. Another article of his contains long sutta references on this. Bhante Gunaratana, also a Theravādin monk and author, supports the same view in his article Should we come out of Jhāna to practice Vipassanâ? stating that ”If Jhānic concentration is the same as being absorbed by our object of focus then yes, we must leave Jhāna to practice Vipassanā [insight]. But, when we become absorbed into our object of focus, what we are practicing is ”wrong” Jhāna. When we practice ”right” Jhāna we will be able to see things as they really are.”
It should not be surprising, then, that Bhante Gunaratana’s answer to the question in his headline is no, you should not come out of the jhāna, and he presents clear and sensible arguments, based on the suttas, as to why not — the idea isn’t there, while insight practice in the jhānas is. Curiously, Gunaratana used to endorse the Visuddhimagga view of the jhānas in his writings in the 1980s and possibly for longer, but appears to have since changed his mind.
Keren Arbel’s opinion should not come as a surprise either, considering her book’s full title Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhānas as the Actualization of Insight. In Arbel’s view, the jhānas in themselves are clearly insight practice. Emerging from the jhānas to initiate insight practice doesn’t make sense nor is it in the suttas. It is a creation of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, where the jhānas are completely different states, anyway.
While most sources present jhānas as concentration stages, Daniel Ingram’s colossal Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (available online in its entirety) takes a bit of a ”middle way” approach. He describes jhānas as states accessed with concentration that can be used for either concentration or insight practice, offering a spectrum situated between the two aspects, though he warns of a ”weak half-insight, half-concentration hybrid” devoid of the benefits of either aspect. Ingram considers the eighth jhāna the only one where insight practice is impossible, as it is beyond perception, but that after coming out of it, the mind is very ripe for insight.
Culadasa, in the jhāna appendix of his popular meditation guide The Mind Illuminated, states that ”A reasonable conclusion, therefore, is that all states of absorption in meditation, of any degree, are jhāna, provided they are wholesome, stable, and associated with the jhāna factors.” That sounds like a nice compromise! Except as mentioned before, some teachers believe the ”right” type of jhāna are not absorptions. The Mind Illuminated introduces three different types of jhānas, whole body jhānas (also called ”very lite”), pleasure jhānas (”lite”) and luminous jhānas (deep), all of which also follow the same sequence as other types, though it notes that this is far from a conclusive list.
More On TWIM
Tranquil wisdom insight meditation generally uses mettā ”optimized” for the tranquil aware jhānas: you only send metta to yourself and a close friend to really deepen and intensify the feelings of metta. However, in some cases, breath meditation is used instead. The ”6Rs” of relating to distraction with six relaxation-based steps are also considered a core part of TWIM.
Bhante Vimalaramsi believes in the importance of all the jhānas, including the formless ones, especially the eighth jhāna where craving is at the lowest possible level before nibbāna. On the other hand, Keren Arbel doesn’t consider the formless spheres as jhānas at all, like mention of four jhānas in the title of her book suggests.
Some sources state that mettā can only take you to the third jhāna, but Vimalaramsi believes this shown incorrect by the Haliddavasana Sutta (SN 46:54). In TWIM, metta is used to enter the jhānas up to the fourth, after which it naturally transforms into compassion and then to the other brahmavihārās (joy and equanimity). For the eighth jhāna, all of these emotions are abandoned.
I have practiced TWIM since 2017 and find it a highly effective and pleasant form of meditation, which I have successfully used to access all the eight jhānas. To me, it is clear from my results that it is a powerful insight practice. Initially I also found Right Concentration useful, especially a few times when I was slightly confused by the instructions for progress in The Path to Nibbana. However, Brasington supports several common ideas that I disagree with — that jhānas are concentration states accessed by high levels of concentration (including when you access them with metta) and you should leave them for insight practice.
Benefits and Downsides of the Jhānas
There are different views as to whether jhānas are something essential for awakening. Some view jhānas as highly useful but inessential; others see them as mildly beneficial or even just as a distraction. A few opinions fall somewhere in-between, such as that merely the first jhāna is necessary or that only the attainment of the two highest stages of enlightenment requires mastery of the jhānas. Keren Arbel in Early Buddhist Meditation posits jhānas as requisite for enlightenment, based on the suttas, but it does seem a bit extreme.
Arbel also notes: ”If, as argued by Walpola Rāhula [a well-known Theravādin monk and professor], ’all these mystic states, according to the Buddha, have nothing to do with Reality, Truth, Nirvana,’ why are they described in eighty-six different places in the Nikāyas and mainly in the context of awakening?”
Even among those who consider the jhānas beneficial, there are basically three different types of explanations as to why. One is the high concentration ”sharpening” the mind, the second is them being wholesome states that prevent the mind from accessing unwholesome states and the third is that they allow for the mind to investigate the three characteristics (especially impermanence). Several authors endorse multiple of these. TWIM claims that absorption jhānas allow you to see the three characteristics, but only tranquil aware jhānas let you see deeply into dependent origination.
”Jhāna junkie” refers to someone who gets hooked on the pleasant qualities of the first jhānas, forgetting about insight or progress. Daniel Ingram in particular warns sternly of this multiple times in his book. Others counter that someone like that likely has an addictive personality anyway, and it’s much healthier to be addicted to beneficial mental states than something else. Bhante Vimalaramsi states that absorption jhānas can be addictive, but tranquil aware jhānas are not. Ajahn Brahm disagrees emphatically and poetically with the whole concept: ”Simply put, Jhāna states are stages of letting go. One cannot be attached to letting go. Just as one cannot be imprisoned by freedom.”
The jhānas can be profound experiences and meditators sometimes confuse attaining them with enlightenment. This can happen with the early jhānas, because of their either ecstatic or profoundly equanimous qualities, but supposedly with the seventh jhāna, ”the space of infinite nothingness”, in particular, with its extremely restful subtlety. Jhānas, however, are just passing states, while awakening is an ongoing experience of transformation (though some disagree with this).
Jhānas can also have lasting effects, however. Entering the first jhāna for the first time permanently transformed some aspects of my inner emotional landscape and worldview. For a friend of mine, who was able to attain the first jhāna very quickly with mettā combined with his regular relaxation practice, it was a deeply transformative experience that he considered even more life-changing than mine. Curiously, after my first encounter with most of the jhānas, but not subsequently, I also noticed a significant increase in body mindfulness for several days. I haven’t heard of this phenomenon described elsewhere.
I wonder if others are experiencing longer-term effects of the jhānas, but it’s not supposed to happen, so they don’t report it. A lot of the Buddhist community is unfortunately very prescriptive; if you encounter something unusual, it’s easily taken as a sign that you’re doing something wrong.
As discussed in the article, a lot of the jhāna discourse itself is also focused on “right” and “wrong” jhānas, but for those skeptical of the utility of the “lite” jhānas, I recommend trying them out. You might just be pleasantly surprised.