Vitakka, Jhana, and Brahma Vihara Bhavana in Vism. Instructions

S M, modified 3 Months ago at 2/26/23 7:40 PM
Created 3 Months ago at 2/26/23 7:38 PM

Vitakka, Jhana, and Brahma Vihara Bhavana in Vism. Instructions

Posts: 11 Join Date: 12/30/22 Recent Posts
The Vism. poses a structured way to perform Brahma Vihara bhavana and to attain the jhanas, but I'm confused about how one properly practices this method beyond second jhana since there seems to be the use of vitakka in much of the instructions.

The steps for metta, karuna, and mudita are the same: one pervades the abiding to one of four to five individuals (usually self, dear, neutral, and hostile person) until one "breaks down the barriers" and reaches at least first jhana:

43. Thus the sign and access are obtained by this bhikkhu simultaneously with the breaking down of the barriers. But when breaking down of the barriers has been effected, he reaches absorption in the way described under the earth kasina without trouble by cultivating, developing, and repeatedly practicing that same sign.At this point he has attained the first jhána, which abandons five factors, possesses five factors, is good in three ways, is endowed with ten characteristics, and is accompanied by loving-kindness. And when that has been obtained, then by cultivating, developing, and repeatedly practicing that same sign, he successively reaches the second and third jhánas in the fourfold system, and the second, third and fourth in the fivefold system. (Vism. IX.43 308)

First question: if second and third jhana can be reached using this method, how does one go beyond first jhana if one must switch to different persons to break down the barriers? Isn't this the work of vitakka?

Anyway, once at least first jhana is reached and the barriers have been broken, the user has developed "versatility" with the sign and stops pervading it to the four persons. Instead, the user pervades the sign in all directions:

44. Now, it is by means of one of these jhánas beginning with the first that he “Dwells pervading (intent upon) one direction with his heart endued with lovingkindness, likewise the second direction, likewise the third direction, likewise the fourth direction, and so above, below, and around; everywhere and equally he dwells pervading the entire world with his heart endued with lovingkindness, abundant, exalted, measureless, free from enmity, and free from affliction” (Vibh 272; D I 250). For this versatility comes about only in one whose consciousness has reached absorption in the first jhána and the rest. (Vism. IX.44 309)

These pervasions are referenced as the “unspecified pervasion in five ways", the "specified pervasion in seven ways", and the "directional pervasion in ten ways” which equals 132 directions plus four absorptions each to equal 528 directions total (Vism. IX.49 309). There comes a point in nearly every metta bhavana instruction that I've encountered where the user is instructed to literally pervade metta in all 132 directions to all beings, specifying each direction and each being to be pervaded.

Second question: is this even the right way to practice the pervasions? The Vism./Vibh. seem to imply that these types of pervasions are really to denote a general sense of "everywhere" and "everything"; otherwise, how else is one to get into second and third jhana by directing the metta in one of ten directions? This again sounds like the work of vitakka. My rationale comes from further commentary in the Vism.:

47. Everywhere, etc., is said for the purpose of showing unspecified pervasion. Herein, everywhere means in all places. Equally (sabbattatáya): to all classed as inferior, medium, superior, friendly, hostile, neutral, etc., just as to oneself (attatá); equality with oneself (atta-samatá) without making the distinction, “This is another being,” is what is meant. Or alternatively, equally (sabbattatáya) is with the whole state of the mind; not reserving even a little, is what is meant. Entire (sabbávant): possessing all beings (sabbasattavant); associated with all beings, is the meaning. World is the world of beings. (Vism. IX.47 309)


55. And all the remaining [terms] should be understood as synonyms for “all beings” used in accordance with ordinary speech as in the case of the term “beings.” Of course, there are other synonyms too for all “beings,” such as all “folks,” all “souls,” etc.; still it is for clarity’s sake that “The mind-deliverance of loving-kindness is [practiced] with unspecified pervasion in five ways” is said and that only these five are mentioned. (Vism. IX.55 311)

56. Those who would have it that there is not only a mere verbal difference between “beings,” “breathing things,” etc., but also an actual difference in meaning, are contradicted by the mention of unspecified pervasion. So instead of taking the meaning in that way, the unspecified pervasion with lovingkindness is done in any one of these five ways. (Vism. IX.56 312)

The idea of pervading or "radiating" each abiding to all beings in all directions seems to be the only way one can do these pervasions without involving vitakka to a sufficient degree which in theory should allow one to move past the first jhana. My hunch is that the descriptions of the pervasions utilize repetition to provide tacit emphasis that the user is to pervade the abidings "everywhere" towards "everything" in order to further develop the sign (e.g., breaking down the barriers). The use of the semicolon in the Vibh. 272 reference connecting the directional pervasions and the unspecified pervasions further drives this home since the purpose of a semicolon is "to link two independent clauses that are closely related in thought", per Wikipedia. Furthermore, the original passage uses "Thus" instead of a semicolon:

[272] The four illimitables — Herein a bhikkhu dwells with mind accompanied by loving-kindness, suffusing one direction. Also a second direction. Also a third direction. Also a fourth direction. Thus, above, below, around, everywhere, identifying himself with all, he dwells suffusing the world of all (beings) with mind accompanied by loving-kindness, extensive, sublime, unlimited, without enmity, without illwill. (Vibh 272)

Even Venerable Sujiva in his book Loving-Kindness Meditation states the following about unspecified pervasion:

Definitely one cannot visualise all beings. One has only to bear in mind just what it means. It is as if one does not have any object, only the metta for all beings is developed. As concentration deepens one cannot help but notice that it often occurs in an expanded nature, and is very light and blissful. (Page 45)

I'm hoping some knowledgable folks here can help me better understand this. I've posited a logical approach where one first "breaks down the barriers" till one reaches first jhana, then pervades the abiding in all directions till one reaches third jhana. Afterwards, one emerges from third jhana and practices the next abiding - the first three of which are metta, karuna, and mudita in that order. After third jhana is reached from mudita, one emerges and practices upekkha till fourth jhana is reached straight from access.

Am I missing something here or is my interpretation correct?

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