Advanced Jhana Classification

Advanced Jhana Classification, by Daniel M. Ingram

Here is a proposed method of classifying the jhanas that is more sophisticated and flexible than the original simple classification system found in the Pali texts and commentaries. It is basically the system I use in my head, and yet I realized that I haven't written it down anywhere in quite this fashion. I hope that one day something like this system is converted to something more secular, such that it can serve as a technical shorthand or language for discussing meditative attainments in general. Until then, here goes with the serious geekery:

The basic building blocks of the system are the jhanas, which briefly noted are as follows:

  • 1. First Jhana: involved narrow attention, sustained effort
  • 2. Second Jhana: involved slightly wider attention, more motion of objects, and is significantly more effortless
  • 3. Third Jhana: involves wider field of attention with center of attention out of phase, and has distinct phase problems in general
  • 4: Fourth Jhana: involved more naturally spacious attention and has a much more balanced sort of attention than the previous ones
  • 5: Boundless Space: a byproduct of noticing the spacious aspect of the 4th jhana
  • 6. Boundless Consciousness: a byproduct of noticing the conscious aspect of the 5th jhana
  • 7. Nothingness: like the 3rd jhana version of the formless realms in that it is like Boundless Space except that the phase of attention is tuned to anything but that and also not to anything else, so it notices that there is nothing there in that space, sort of like the advanced phase problem version of 3rd jhana taken to an extreme
  • 8. Neither Perception Nor Yet Non-Perception: what happens when you detune even from the already very strangely off-tuned 7th jhana and don't even notice that: the pinnacle of phase out-ed-ness without even attention to that

Add to this the notion that these 8 jhanas can fall on a continuum from hard to soft, meaning that you can be really, really into the jhana or in a softer, less absolute version of that same territory that is still different from what I will loosely call "ordinary" consciousness, whatever that is, and yet not in it as hard as is possible. This falls into shades of grey and may often involve transitioning from one way of perceiving things to the other.

Add to this that these 8 hard or soft jhanas can also be more analog or digital, more smooth or vibratory/fluxy, and thus there is an axis of development that relates to how samatha or how vipassana they are, how concentration heavy or how insight heavy, how seemingly stable vs how discontinuously they are perceived.

Add to this the notion that you can actually be in a sub-jhana aspect of each of those 8 jhanas, such that you could be in the 4th subjhana of 3rd jhana, for instance, or the 8th subjhana aspect of 1st jhana, just to take it to extremes, which can easily occur in those with strong concentration.

Add to this the notion that you can actually split this finer, into sub-subjhanas, meaning, for instance, that you could be in the 7th subsubjhana of the 3rd subjhana of the 4th jhana, just to make it interesting, or the 4th subsubjhana of the 1st subjhana of the 3rd jhana, which just happens to be Dissolution, which is an insight stage, which brings me to the next layer of complexity, adding in insight stage, or ñana terminology.

The insight stages of specific relevance are the first 11, namely:

  • 1. Mind and Body
  • 2. Cause and Effect
  • 3. The Three Characteristics
  • 4. The Arising and Passing Away
  • 5. Dissolution
  • 6. Fear
  • 7. Misery
  • 8. Disgust
  • 9. Desire for Deliverance
  • 10. Reobservation
  • 11. Equanimity

Note that you can break these down by subjhanas and subsubjhanas and also subñanas and subsubñanas. Beyond about 3 levels it gets less useful, but I can really see distinct uses for those 3 levels of complexity.

Add to this that different focuses of practice, namely different objects, can really color how these present, with mantras and visualization objects producing really different effects or experiences of these variously classified stages and states than, say, vibrations or the breath or bliss, or whatever.

Thus, for instance, to really use this, one might have been really applying effort on the breath and gotten into something that was highly effortful but the breath became abstract and then vanished along with the body and all that was left was some sort of slowly shifting vague thing in space that is now nearly entirely formless and yet there is still somehow this really heavy first jhana effort, narrow vibe to the thing and it happened early in a retreat. You could classify this numerous ways, but I would tend to call that something like the moderately balanced insight/concentration part of the 7th subjhana of the 1st jhana.

When I tend to think in shorthand about these things, I tend to use notation in my brain that looks like this:

bj1.j7: meaning balanced (b) samatha/vipassana 7th subjhana part of 1st jhana

Or, to give another example using alternate notation for another experience:

ñ5.sj3.ñ11: meaning the Equanimity part of the 3rd samatha jhana part of Dissolution, where ñ demarcates that the number that follows it is a ñana, and the sj demarcates that the number that follows it refers to the smooth or samatha aspect of the 3rd jhana.

Or, to give another example:

ñ11.vj4.vj6: meaning the Boundless Consciousness sub sub aspect of the 4th vipassana subjhana aspect of Equanimity, which sounds needlessly picky until you notice enough to realize that that sub sub aspect can easily be found and experienced.

Or, to give another example:

sj4.sj8: meaning the 8th subjhana of the 4th jhana, which would be distinguished from proper 8th jhana in my mind by the continued presence of form, or, to get even more precise:

hsj3.hsj4: meaning the hard (h) 4th subjhana aspect of hard 3rd samatha jhana, as opposed to:

ssj3.ssj4: meaning the soft (s) 4th subjhana aspect of soft 3rd samatha jhana.

Or even:

h!sj6: meaning simply really hard straightforward Boundless Consciousness

Or, to get more simple:

hsj8: meaning the hard samatha jhana version of the 8th samatha jhana, which I personally consider redundant for a few reasons: one, you can't investigate the 8th jhana, as isn't possible if it really is 8th, and two, because true 8th is always hard if it is actually 8th as I think of it, and if it wasn't, then it probably was j4.j8 or something like that.

Or, you could be fluxing way up in the formless aspects of Equanimity, something I might label:

ñ11.hvj7 for really hard versions of the fluxing of the Nothingness aspect of Equanimity, and by hard I mean really well developed, not stable, just so there is no confusion about this.

Or, if you managed to get one of the Three Doors off of that, those 3 moments would be:

ñ12.hvj7, ñ13.hvj7, ñ14.hvj7, with the h's being redundant, as the 12-14th ñanas (Conformity, Change of Lineage and Path) being always hard, meaning fully developed by definition, and the designations of subñana actually meaning something slightly different here, as they don't have subjhanic aspects, being only one moment as they are, but referring to the object they took to see the full truth of completely.

Yes, there are the Pure Land jhanas, which I tend to label 9, 10, etc, depending on how many you think there are, which is debated, but let's keep those numbers open.

There is also a special place I refer to as the post-8th junction point, a nexus of options that open once you have been to some version of the 8th jhana or perhaps after j4.j8, which seems to do it pretty well also, but not quite as well.

In this system, you can say things really quickly, like the instructions for getting Nirodha Samapatti would be to rise naturally from sbj1 to sbj7, enter j8, come out, resolve and enter NS, meaning that you should use a softer version of the jhanas 1-7 with a balance of samatha and vipassana aspects without having either predominate, enter 8 proper, come out to the post-8th JP, and enter NS.

You can also detail nuanced aspects of certain phases of practice, such as the different phases of the A&P, Dissolution, and Equanimity, which have many little aspects to how they develop and where you can take them.

Or, you can add the object, such as:

light.hñ4.sj2 Meaning that, at that moment or phase of practice, the light that some see in the hard version of the insight stage of the A&P was taken as object and practice took on more of a 2nd samatha jhana feel, meaning the light showed itself and wasn't vipassinized or seen as pulses, but instead was more of a concentration object at that phase and the light showed itself on its own and didn't require sustained attention to manifest.

And you can add duration, such that you might note light.hñ4.sj2.5minutes: meaning that you stared at the white light for 5 minutes in that subjhanic phase of the A&P.

There are numerous pitfalls in thinking about things in this way, and one can easily make really large mistakes, such as mistaking 1.7 for 7.1 and things like that, but realizing that this sub-aspect nature of things is even possible allows one to ask the question and hopefully also provides a way to sort out 1.7 from 7.1, which are developmentally really, really different and have profoundly different implications for practice.

In this classification scheme, you can allow for all sorts of things, such as Alan Wallace's 1st jhana, which might be written h!!!sj1.24hours, meaning that it is really, really, really hard and lated 24 hours, or certain people's versions of the formless realms which also are really light and actually contain form, and I think of as s!!!sj1.7, meaning the really, really, really soft version of some formed version of the Nothingness aspect of 1st jhana, as they are making effort to see it and are so light they can talk in it.

Anyway, you get the idea, and hopefully some of this nuance of aspects and terminology will help people describe and categorize their experiences, as well as utilize the standard advice for various phases and aspects as they apply to those experiences for deepening in them and also realizing what is possible beyond them.