MCTB Bill HamiltonS Model

The vipassana jhana model I like the most, because it is the one that most clearly fits with my extensive investigation of the vipassana jhanas, is the one that was used by the late, great Bill Hamilton. He was also quite a mighty meditator in his own right, if a highly under-appreciated one. True, he was a quirky old bat on a good day, but he also died an arahat and a mighty scholar who had complete mastery of the formless realms. There was nothing particularly spectacular about Bill’s life other than his understanding of it, and he died in poverty and obscurity in basic denial of the severity of his pancreatic cancer. I have never met anyone who had given the question of the vipassana jhanas more consideration, and his fascination with complex models was remarkable. A quick digression here about Bill, as I dedicated this book to his memory...

Bill Hamilton was not only a meditation master, he was also a rogue teacher and basically felt like an outcast from the modern international Vipassana community. The guy was basically too smart, too uncompromising, too scholarly, and too dedicated to non-watered-down dharma and to absolute mastery to be a popular mainstream teacher. He didn’t teach to make people feel good about themselves, win friends, or attain to power, fame or money.

His obscurity was a tragic loss for the many people who didn't know about him. However, for me and a few others who knew about him and were willing to put up with the fact that he was basically a strange, suspicious, perhaps paranoid, and fairly quirky dude, Bill Hamilton was just what we were looking for.

Bill seemed to live for the sole purpose of sharing his dharma rather than for flying around the world, making money, or being popular. Unlike the few other Western dharma teachers with his level of mastery, you could call Bill on the phone and talk for hours about this stuff, and then you could do it again. His very unpopularity made him a true and accessible teacher. The other nice things about Bill were that he would talk about actual mastery (though you had to drag it out of him) and also had incredibly high standards that I found quite refreshing.

Bill also taught in a very interesting way. His style was basically to seem extremely skeptical that any of your descriptions of any experiences could really have anything to do with the attainment of anything. This was basically quite irritating, but it made his students question deeply whether or not they were really experiencing what they thought they were and so look more deeply at the truth of each moment. It also served as a helpful counterbalance to his interest in models and specifically named levels of attainment. His teaching style didn't win him many friends, but it was powerful and served his ends. Part of my fantasy is that a bit of his edge, uncompromising attitude and deep understanding may have come through in this work, though it must be stated explicitly that Bill never let on that he was particularly impressed with anything I ever described in my own practice.

Back to discussing Bill's Vipassana Jhana model. The table below explains which ñanas fall into which jhanas, and is a re-arrangement of the table at the beginning of the chapter on the Progress of Insight:

First Vipassana Jhana

1-3: Mind and Body, Cause and Effect, Three Characteristics

Second Vipassana Jhana

4: The Arising and Passing Away

Third Vipassana Jhana

5-10: The Dark Night

Fourth-Eighth Vipassana Jhanas

11-14: Equanimity, Conformity, Change of Lineage, Path

Thus, when in each of those ñanas, one can learn something from its jhana aspect, and when in each of the jhanas one can notice what insight territory is available there. Further, as the division between samatha and vipassana is actually not nearly so straightforward as some would make it out to be, there can be a lot of natural movement back and forth that can occur between vipassana jhanas and samatha jhanas even when trying to keep to just one side. As the Three Characteristics are always presenting themselves, even in seemingly created, blissful, stable samatha territory, those with strong mindfulness and concentration may have to work to avoid perceiving them. Also, those doing strong insight practice may again and again chance into territory that has a more samatha feel, and if they are expecting things to be purely by the ñana descriptions they may get lost or confused by this. Lastly, those who have attained at least stream entry are constantly cycling through the ñanas from the fourth to the eleventh and then to Fruition, so even if they try to do pure samatha practice, the pull towards each next ñana/vipassana jhana is strong, and they basically are always from then on doing some fusion of the two even when they try to keep things purely on the samatha side.

I will illustrate the vipassana jhanas with a description of some candle-flame meditation I did when on retreat and playing around with the samatha jhanas by using kasinas. Kasinas are various traditional practices that involve using physical objects such as colored disks, candles, etc. as a starting point to attain samatha jhanas, powers and the like. They are described in the standard references I list in the chapter on the the Concentration States.

The retreat when I first really nailed down the details of the vipassana jhanas was a seventeen day retreat that I went on when I was an anagami (the third stage of awakening in one of the models of awakening, to be discussed shortly). I didn't begin playing with this territory until around the second week of the retreat, and by that point my concentration was very strong and flexible. It didn't take me more than a day before I could go through the following cycle. Initially, I would stare at a candle flame until I really could stay with it, then there would be a natural shift, I would close my eyes, and I would see the visual purple phenomena where the afterimage of the flame was burned onto my retina.

This would fade in a few seconds to be replaced by a red dot in the center of my visual field. The red dot was clear, very round, pure, bright and seemingly stable. However, within a minute or so it would begin to shake, roll off to one side, and I would notice all sorts of things about how intention and observation messed with the position, stability, and clarity of the dot. First seeing the dot is the first samatha jhana, and in this case is the equivalent of Mind and Body, where mental phenomena become clear external objects. Noticing things about intention influencing the position and stability of the dot is cause and effect.

Shortly thereafter this would become irritating and the dot would begin to shake, shudder, split up, spin off to one side or the other, and generally seem to misbehave quite on its own. This was the entrance to the Three Characteristics. After a while of this, practice would shift, become naturally stronger, and this slightly larger red dot would appear in the center again that stayed there on largely its own, but it had a gold spinning star in its center that would spin on its own with a speed and direction that varied with the phase of the breath, which I noticed when I broke my focus enough. This addition of motion, the image happening on its own, and somewhat wider attention (wider dot), not to mention bliss when I broke my concentration a bit and focused on my body, is the entrance to the second vipassana jhana.

The red dot with the spinning gold star would gradually acquire purple, green and blue rings around its outside, and then there would be a sudden shift where the red dot would vanish and be replaced by a slightly larger black dot. The black dot initially would seem to be a good focus, but quickly the area around the black dot got more interesting, with many very complex multi-point stars all circling slowly around it, getting wider and wider, with the interference patterns between them getting more and more complex, while the black dot faded somewhat, but to what was unclear. This addition of a problem perceiving the center but with complex patterns of experience with multiple frequencies going out to the periphery marks the early and middle phases of the third vipassana jhana. Further, as the thing got wider, there was this slightly disconcerting feeling that attention was out of phase with the visuals.

As the complex patterns around the outside began to become more spherical as the edges wrapped around towards me, they began to be made out of lines that had more of a rainbow quality to them, with many complex motions and manifold symmetry. This was harder to pay attention to and simultaneously comprehend it all, marking the mature third vipassana jhana and the later stages of the Dark Night. Note, as this was being done with almost no fixation on psychological content and with very strong concentration, I did not have any of the typical feelings that sometimes accompany this territory when it cycles through with less concentration. Instead, it stayed at the level of geometry, image and light except when I widened my attention somewhat to notice other aspects.

This complex sphere on which was unfolding more and more complex patterns would then shift to something far more inclusive of space and the center of attention, thus becoming much more three-dimensional. At this point, things seemed to happen on their own, but in a silent, clear, all-encompassing way that was way beyond the second jhana, and this marks the entrance to the fourth vipassana jhana.

As things would organize, there would arise all sorts of images, from Buddhas to black holes, from brilliantly formed Tantric images (Vajrasattva with consort, etc.) to complex abstract, three-dimensional designs that included the whole field of attention, all made of rainbow lines, luminous, living, and very clear. I could end the cycle with essentially any image I wished with an ease I had never previously achieved. If I had not previously determined an image to end with, the surprises were just as good as anything I came up with and sometimes better. The point is that if you get your concentration strong enough, you can do these things also.

Shortly after the clear image would arise, attention would shift to include the fundamental characteristics of the whole thing at a level that was perfectly inclusive of what ordinarily would be called subject and object, and Fruition would arise as the whole thing vanished through one of the Three Doors, but with a clarity that is rare. Then I would open my eyes, stare at the flame, and do it all again. Each cycle took about ten to fifteen minutes, but I could linger in each stage for longer if I consciously resisted the pull to move onward.

While obviously this example involves very clean samatha-like images, very strong concentration, and was done by an advanced practitioner under relatively special conditions, this candle flame technique can be very interesting, and in classes I have taught some were able to quickly get to the later jhanas without too much time or effort. Some people just seem to have a natural ability to visualize, or focus on a mantra, or some other object, and it makes a lot of sense of draw on these natural tendencies. It can also be fun to develop these fronts even if this is not your strong suit, as it helps expand the range of your practice. Thus, consider playing around with using other objects and focuses at times, as they can bring different perspectives.

To give another example, using a different object, if one is using a mantra, one may notice that at some point one shifts to being able to stay with mantra clearly and perceive it as an object, which is the first jhana, starting with Mind and Body. Once the mantra is clear, one may notice all sorts of things about the process of mentally creating the mantra, such as the stream of intentions being followed shortly behind by the string of the mantra itself, in turn followed slightly behind by the mental echo of the perception of the mantra, making what appear to be three separate streams of the mantra. This is direct insight into Cause and Effect, and as the Three Characteristics of each of these streams become clear, the first jhana matures.

Then the mantra will shift to presenting itself, and will become very clear, as if it is reciting itself. This is obviously the second jhana, and one may experience A&P-like phenomena around here. As the practitioner shifts into the third jhana, the mantra gets wide in the stereo field, complex, with interesting harmonies if one is so inclined, and yet it may seem to be out of phase with attention or it may seem distorted, annoying, like something that was once beautiful but has become noisy. One may experience Dark Night-related phenomena in this phase. As the shift to the fourth jhana comes, the mantra may become part of a very wide, more quiet background, as attention becomes inclusive. Other fourth jhana-like or high equanimity-like phenomena may occur around here.

Thus, the vipassana jhana model can really help people line up experiences across objects, traditions, and practitioners, as they get to the common ground of spiritual terrain in a more fundamental way than the ñanas may, as those with strong concentration abilities may dodge a lot of the emotional side effects that are emphasized by that map, and those using different objects may experience that same fundamental territory in ways that are quite different from my descriptions. However, now that you know the vipassana jhanas, if you practice well or ask good questions of those you speak with, you should have a much easier time of lining things up and making sense of things.

Another thing that can help is noticing that each jhana has its smaller aspects that can be classified in a manner different from the ñanas, and here I refer to what Bill labeled the sub-jhanas. As I mentioned in the section on the samatha jhanas, each jhana, vipassana or otherwise, has its sub-phases. Initially, the jhana is new, fresh, clear, but perhaps a bit unsteady as the mind gets used to it (first sub-jhana), then it really comes into its own (second sub-jhana), then the flaws and limits of the jhana are perceived (third sub-jhana), then there is some sort of balanced synthesis of these that at once allows the flaw and begins to incorporate the pull towards that which comes next (fourth sub-jhana).

In this way, it is possible to see models within models within models, and if you practice long and clearly enough with the models in mind you will run into this aspect of things. The warnings about the problems with the models go ten times or more for the sub-jhana models and deeper fractal theories of meditation terrain. They are a largely endless subject whose usefulness is debatable and whose perils are well known. Consider yourself duly warned!

MCTB Fractals

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