Jhana and Ñana

Jhana and Ñana, by Kenneth Folk

Five phases of concentration

Concentration means different things to different people. I'll first explain what I mean by concentration, then talk about current western Buddhist ideas and misconceptions about it, misconceptions that I believe have contributed greatly to the glass ceiling effect.

By concentration, I mean the focusing of the mind. This can be a very tight focus or a very diffuse focus, but in either case, the mind is gathered together in one place or direction. One way to illustrate this idea is to think of herding chickens. Chickens are interesting creatures in that, although they naturally tend to move together as a flock, they will not hesitate to scatter when they are agitated or startled. I will describe the five phases of herding chickens. Maybe someday I'll draw the five chickenherding pictures, ha, ha.

Phase one: With great effort and determination, you thrust yourself into the middle of the flock with the intention of focusing on just one chicken. The chickens, however, are much quicker than you, and scatter in all directions. You chase them, but the minute you get one of them in your sights, it veers off and scurries away. You turn your attention to the next nearest bird and continue the chase. You are not able to follow any one bird for more than a moment. The very act of singling out an individual chicken causes it to flee. You feel anxious and frustrated. This tendency of a chicken to flee when pursued, however, is built into the dynamics of chicken herding. It doesn't mean you are doing it wrong, it's all part of the natural unfolding of the process. Although you may be tempted to abandon chicken herding as futile, do not despair. With perseverance, phase two will eventually arise.

Phase two: You are able, through continuous focus and the application of just the right amount of effort (learned through trial and error) to single out one bird and stick to it like glue. Your eyes do not waver from the target. Wherever it goes, you are sure to follow. If it speeds up, you speed up. If it slows down, you slow down. When it turns left or right, you are right on its tail, at just the proper following distance. A subtle exhilaration arises and you feel happy and alert.

Phase three: Chickens are, after all, flock animals, and they like nothing better than to run together as a group. If you relax your gaze just slightly from the chicken in front of you, you will notice that you are now in the midst of an entire flock of chickens that are moving as one. You are part of the flock now. You let yourself sink into this experience, absorbing into and becoming one with the flock. There is much less effort required here than at stage two, which, in turn, required less than stage one. You feel a deep joy, a sense of unity with the world.

Phase four: Your attention becomes even more diffuse and you become aware of the edges of the flock. The bird in front of you almost disappears. You are now noticing the entire flock, all at once. Any effort to tighten the focus of awareness, or single out an individual bird would pull you back to the earlier stages. You surrender to the diffuse, almost effortless experience of the fourth stage of chicken herding. You feel a profound bliss. Having accomplished your end, you are now free to relish the fruits of your labor. It is good to be alive, surrendered to the flock.

Phase five: You are fully integrated with the flock, and have become just another chicken. You are effortlessly aware of not only the chickens, but of the entire barnyard. Whether standing or sitting, running uphill or down, happily grubbing for worms or painfully tripping over chicken wire, you have no preference. Everything is fine with you. This is the final phase of chicken herding.

The five phases of chicken herding correspond to the five phases of concentration. My wife pointed out to me the other day that if I wanted to talk about concentration I should carefully explain what I mean by the word, as many people think that concentration only refers to the very tight focus that I refer to as phase two. She is right that this must be very explicitly taught, because if a yogi believes that only a very tight focus qualifies as true concentration he or she will never relax enough to let the higher phases develop.

How does a yogi know whether to practice samatha or vipassana?

There are two very different instructions, depending on whether a yogi is pre- or post- fourth ñana. A pre- fourth ñana yogi, i.e. one who has not attained to the level of the Arising and Passing Away of Phenomena, must put his focus on penetrating the object. A post- fourth ñana yogi must concentrate. It's that simple. And the reason, in my opinion, that the western dharma scene has been so spectacularly unsuccessful in producing high levels of attainment in its students is that western dharma teachers give beginning instruction to intermediate and advanced students; they tell post- fourth ñana students to ratchet up the intensity of their vipassana, when they should be telling them to concentrate their behinds off.

This, in my opinion tragic situation, is due to a misunderstanding that arose out of a cultural difference. The western vipassana scene, as exemplified by Insight Meditation Society, is influenced primarily by Burmese Mahasi-style vipassana. It seems that Burmese people, by and large, concentrate so well that it is difficult for them to learn vipassana. This, at least, is the conventional wisdom, and my experience in Burma in the early and mid-'90's led me to believe that it is, although a stereotype, generally accurate. Burmese yogis very quickly attain a deeply concentrated state and it is all the teachers can do to get them to look clearly at an object. Westerners, on the other hand, have no concentration whatsoever. We watch television, drink coffee, and obsess endlessly about our careers and our relationships. We are so goal-oriented that if you so much as suggest to us that there is something to gain by striving we will strive from here to eternity. When Burmese monks give instructions that were designed for Burmese yogis to American yogis, the result is too much effort and too little concentration. Without concentration, the strata of mind that contain advanced insight are never reached. This leads to the chronic achiever, as Bill Hamilton put it, the yogi that has attained to the all important fourth ñana, but is unable, year after year, to attain to the Paths.

Once a yogi, whether American, Asian, or otherwise, reaches the fourth ñana, it is imperative that the teacher recognize this and change the instruction from effort to concentration. A post 4th ñana yogi is in no danger of becoming "lost in concentration." He or she has all the tools to deconstruct whatever object presents itself to the mind. The important thing now is to access the relevant mental strata. These strata are accessed through concentration. There are various techniques to encourage the development of concentration. Two of my favorites are counting the breath from one to ten, and kasina practice.

Two techniques for developing concentration

Counting the breath from one to ten

This deceptively simple but powerful practice is one of my favorites. While walking, sitting, or reclining, count each exhalation of the breath. When you arrive at ten, start over. The beauty of this practice is that it has a built-in feedback monitor. If the mind wanders, you will keep counting past ten, or lose count entirely. When that happens, start over at one. I like to do this practice while walking, and often use it as a warmup for sitting. If, for example, I plan to do kasina practice (described below), I find it helpful to attain a concentrated state before sitting down. This saves me the usual five to ten minutes of fidgeting and allows me to get directly to work. How do I know I am concentrated enough? Because I was able to count to ten two or three consecutive times without losing count. It takes the guesswork out of concentration.

Kasina practice

This is the gold standard practice for attaining "hard" concentration and jhana. A kasina is a colored disk that is used as a visual object. It doesn't much matter what color, but I favor pastels or earth tones. I use a cereal bowl. For years I carried around one of those cheap plastic bowls they use for bathing from tanks in Burma. Mine happened to be brown, about 8 inches in diameter. You prop the bowl up against the wall, sit a comfortable distance from it (about 5 to 8 feet) and stare at it. That's it. Your mind will go through the five chicken herding stages described above. At some point you will enter jhana. You will recognize it as an altered state of consciousness that feels very stable and very pleasant. Note that the first four jhanas correspond to chicken herding stages 2 through 5. Each jhana develops in the five stages, so it is like nested Russian dolls. Jhanas 5-8 are a subset of jhana 4, so there is always this nested relationship.

I have found both counting and kasina practices to be applicable to both retreats and daily practice at home. The more I go back and forth between deep concentration states and daily life activities, the easier it gets to make a quick and easy transition between them. In fact, there is a thing I sometimes do for my dharma friends that I call my "parlor trick," in which I sit down and cycle through all eight of the material and immaterial jhanas in less than two minutes. It doesn't look like much; I just sit there and shake and roll my eyes up into my head, holding up fingers to signal jhana numbers. (Although in the higher jhanas, I always forget which fingers to hold up and the signal system breaks down.) So they have to take my word for it that I attained all those jhanas. But I began doing it as a way to show people that jhanas aren't something abstract, or something for other people, but rather for ordinary people like us; they can be learned and cultivated to high levels and called up instantly, even during daily life. Also, I must admit, I began doing it as a way to rebel against a western Buddhist culture that teaches that it is wicked or shameful to admit that you "have the power of jhana." What rubbish.

Jhana, ñana, and Path

There is a relationship between jhana, ñana and Path. In 1995, I spent two months at Sayadaw U Kundala's monastery in Rangoon. U Kundala, a former disciple of the late Mahasi Sayadaw, is a senior monk, much beloved, and widely reputed to be an arahat. A few weeks into the retreat, I began reporting to U Kundala that I was experiencing hundreds of little flashes of cessation each day, like the winking out of consciousness for a moment. They came singly or in waves, and I could induce them at will. On the third day of my trying to explain this to him through the interpreter, a woman who spoke rather limited English, U Kundala's eyes lit up as he said "Oh! That is Magga Phala! (Path and Fruition, the culmination of one of the Four Paths of Enlightenment)."

"Yes," I said. "And it's not the first time this has happened. It also happened a couple of years ago in Malaysia, but I had to go through the whole Progress of Insight again." (As an aside, this is typical of U Kundala's openness in speaking to students about their progress, an attitude that spilled over into the entire community. During our interviews, U Kundala would talk to me about Second Path. Someone would overhear and spread the word, and soon people were coming from all over town to stare lovingly at the western yogi who was making such progress. People I didn't know would stop by my room to give me gifts, hoping to "gain merit" in so doing. One Burmese man took me home (with U Kundala's permission) to meet his family, and then drove me around the countryside exploring Buddhist temples. Throughout the day, he and his cousin asked me discreet questions about what it was like to have attained Second Path. After my retreat, everyone treated me like royalty, and one of the board members of the monastery volunteered to drive me to the airport. Once at the airport, we did not wait in the queue with the hundreds of others at the airport, but walked to the head of the line. The board member, obviously an important man, said a word in Burmese to the policeman at customs, who waived me through to the empty waiting room at the gate without so much as checking my ID. As I walked toward the gate, the man I was with shouted across the crowded airport, "You got two! Come back for a third!" One can easily see how this sort of thing could be a distraction, but I tell the story to illustrate how different the attitude is in some Burmese dharma communities from that of the American mushroom factory.)

U Kundala was very pleased with this development, and worked with me over the next few weeks to explore the new territory. He showed me that I could, by making a resolution, review the Fruition of either First or Second Path, and compare them side by side. Before attaining Second Path, however, I had had an exchange with U Kundala that completely changed my understanding of the ñanas (insight knowledges). I reported that I found myself able to call up any of the ñanas that I had experienced so far on the retreat and re-experience them in real time.

"Yes," he said. "Any jhanic experience can be reviewed by inclining the mind toward it."

Jhanic experiences? I was talking about insight knowledges. Was he saying that ñanas are jhanas? Yes, that is exactly what he was saying. Ñanas are jhanas, i.e. discrete concentrated states that are hardwired into our minds. This is why all yogis have similar ideas and insights when meditating, and they have them in an invariable sequence. There is an underlying structure, common to all humans, that can be developed through meditation. A yogi who has developed the first 16 of the insight knowledges (ñanas) for the first time has attained First Path. It's actually quite mechanical, predictable, and not particularly mystical when seen as a simple matter of human development.

As ñanas are jhanas, they can be lined up alongside the traditional pure concentration jhanas in order to better understand the territory. As the yogi develops the mind through insight and concentration, he is moving through a series of layers, or strata, of mind. Each layer has its own characteristics and contains within it the blueprint for a particular insight. The first ñana, for example, corresponds to the first jhana. That is, the stratum of mind being accessed is the same. To access that stratum with pure concentration results in the first jhana, a highly concentrated and pleasant absorption of mind. To access that same stratum using the investigative technique of vipassana results in the first insight knowledge, Knowledge of Mind and Body. Below is a list of all 16 ñanas, along with their corresponding jhanas:

1. ñana: Mind and Body (corresponds to 1st jhana) 2. ñana: Cause and Effect 3. ñana: Three Characteristics 4. ñana: Arising and Passing (corresponds to 2nd jhana) 5. ñana: Dissolution (corresponds to 3rd jhana) 6. ñana: Fear 7. ñana: Misery 8. ñana: Disgust 9. ñana: Desire for Deliverance 10: ñana: Re-observation 11: ñana: Equanimity (corresponds to 4th jhana) 12: ñana: Adaptation (one-time event) 13: ñana: Change of Lineage (one-time event) 14: ñana: Path (one-time event) 15: ñana: Fruition (corresponds to cessation, not considered a jhana) 16: ñana: Review

Notice that only four of the 16 ñanas have corresponding jhanas. (The immaterial jhanas 5-8 are a subset of the 4th jhana.) This is because the other ñanas, although jhanic states, are not stable. They are nexuses of energy where, for some reason, the energy roils around and does not rest comfortably. Being unstable (or as in the case of ñanas 12-14, one-time events), they are not places where a yogi can rest his mind. It is no coincidence that the pleasant ñanas have correponding samatha jhanas, whereas the upleasant ñanas do not. Stability is pleasant. Instability leads to fear, misery, disgust, etc. The system I am presenting here is my own contribution to the literature. While many agree that the jhanas and ñanas cover the same territory, the usual practice, following U Pandita, is to lump a bunch of ñanas together under the heading of one jhana and call it a "vipassana jhana." I prefer the method presented here as it is more precise, and because I believe it better represents the actual situation.

The 15th ñana, Fruition, is stable but is not considered a jhana. According to Theravada Buddhism, it is the direct apprehension of Nibbana. In any case, it is very pleasant and restorative to re-experience Fruition, and it is one of the benefits of attaining to any of the Four Paths of Enlightenment. Furthermore, far from being some esoteric practice only available to robed ascetics, it can be cultivated to the point where only a few seconds of concentration are required to get a taste of it. Waiting in line in the supermarket, for example, is one of my favorite places to experience cessation/fruition.

Bill Hamilton once said that First Path is not like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's more like you've been picking up gold pieces all along the way. First Path is just a pot to keep them in. (This applies to subsequent Paths as well.) One way to think of it is to consider that once you attain First Path, you "own" all of the states leading up to it, and can learn to call them up whenever you want. Whereas before Path even a yogi who has experienced the Arising and Passing once or many times is subject to falling below that level once his concentration weakens (as between retreats), the Sotaphanna, or Stream Enterer, cannot fall below the level of fourth ñana. This then becomes the platform upon which to begin building the scaffolding of jhanas and ñanas that lead to Second Path, and so on. Upon the attainment of Fourth Path, or arahatship, all of the nexes of energy have been developed, all of the strata of mind have been accessed and penetrated, and the physioenergetic development process is complete. From now on, the energy will recirculate in a stable pattern, and the yogi will feel no further pull toward this type of energetic development. He has unfettered access to all strata of mind, and is limited only by his concentration and his experience of navigating this territory. Needless to say, although there is a finite number of strata, the permutations and combinations of so many nexes of energy working in combination are effectively infinite and no one will ever master all there is to see and feel. The arahat is far from static. More importantly, the considerable energy that previously went into ascending the ladder is now freed up for other pursuits, be they mundane or sublime. Chop wood, carry water, anyone?

As a practical matter, having easy and immediate access to a variety of jhanas is not only fun and pleasant, it also supports non-dual practice and living-in-the-world practice, which, unlike physio-energetic development, have no end.

"Full enlightenment," then, as defined by the Theravada Buddhists, is not a mysterious process. It is purely a matter of accessing a finite number of strata of mind and seeing them clearly. Set 'em up and knock 'em down. The "seeing clearly" is automatic, or at least not difficult for anyone who has crossed the first Arising & Passing of Phenomena (4th ñana). So concentration is the whole game for an intermediate or advanced meditator. For those of a poetic or mystical bent, it could even be a disappointment to learn that we are dealing with such a mechanistic process. Nevertheless, such is the situation as I see it. In any case, the subjective experience is far from dry, and there is no need to abandon the infinitely mysterious non-dual practice while developing the jhanas.

Kenneth Folk

January 2009