MCTB The Vipassana Jhanas


The vipassana jhanas are a way of describing the stages of insight that is a bit more broad than the map that breaks the stages down into sixteen ñanas. They are two descriptions of the same territory, and both have their uses. The vipassana jhanas differ from the concentration jhanas (samatha jhanas) in that they include the perception of the Three Characteristics, rather than the “pure” samatha jhanas that require ignoring the Three Characteristics to get them to appear stable and clean. However, the two may share many qualities, including very similar widths of attention and other aspects. There are eight vipassana jhanas, the first four that are formed, and the last four that are formless, with the odd exception of the fact that the eighth vipassana jhana (Neither Perception Nor Yet Non-Perception) cannot be easily investigated, as it is generally too subtle to clearly reveal the Three Characteristics. Thus, calling it a vipassana jhana is a bit problematic. However, it is part of the standard pattern of progress, so is worthy of inclusion, and helps explain some of the material found in the old texts.

Remember how I mentioned in the chapter called Concentration vs. Insight that the original texts used the same four or eight jhanas to delineate the states of concentration and the stages of insight? Remember how I said that the delineation of the stages of insight didn't occur until the later commentaries? In the second half of the Twentieth Century, considerable work was done to try to resolve these maps. As with most terminological issues in the spiritual life, there is some disagreement about just how the jhanas and the stages of insight line up, and I will touch on these in this chapter.

The practical application of delineating the vipassana jhanas is that the traps that awaited us in the samatha jhanas can arise during the progress of insight, and so being able to apply the body of advice that deals with these occurrences can be very helpful. For instance, we may be going along in the progress of insight but get stuck when we stop investigating rapture, which is a part of the early jhanas and also of some of the early insight stages. Thus, realizing that there are some relationships between the samatha and vipassana jhanas can keep us on the lookout for aspects of our experience that we may be missing or artificially solidifying, as it is so tempting to do so. Going the other way, if we have some mastery of a set of insight stages, we can use these stages to learn get into samatha jhanas by concentrating on solidifying their predominant positive qualities.

There are also those who say that the jhanas and stages of insight do not line up at all, but this is too doctrinal, not in accord with what one experiences on the cushion (or in some other posture), and doesn't help resolve the problems created in the original texts of the Pali Canon. For those who are still die-hard traditionalists and believe that the jhana terminology only applies to pure concentration practices, I offer the following quotation from the Buddha found in my favorite Sutta, 111, “One by One as They Occurred”, in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, as translated by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi:



And the states in the first jhana – the applied thought, the sustained thought, the rapture, the pleasure, and the unification of mind; the contact, feeling, perception, volition, and mind; the zeal, decision, energy, mindfulness, equanimity and attention – these states were defined by him one by one as they occurred; known to him they arose, known to him they were present, known to him they disappeared. He understood thus: “So indeed, these states, not having been, come into being; having been, they vanish.”



Those with traditional views can squirm and pontificate any way they like, but this guy is clearly maintaining an extremely fast, consistent and precise investigation of impermanence and is thus clearly doing insight practices.

To digress for just a moment into another rant, the guy the Buddha is talking about here is none other than my hero, Sariputta, who incidentally is often the whipping boy of much ridiculous and degrading Mahayana propaganda. Don’t get me wrong, the Mahayana has done some great things in its day, but ragging on someone with this level of skill and insight is just hypocritical and arrogant beyond reason. The Buddha says that Sariputta goes on to do very precise and powerful insight practices high up into the formless realms and attains to very liberating insights. I often hear Nouveau Tibetan Buddhists making comments that clearly indicate that they feel themselves to be quite qualified to denigrate his practice and don’t seem to notice how ironic this is, as they are almost always those whose own spiritual progress doesn’t qualify them to lick the muddy sandals of someone with a fraction of Sariputta’s talents. When one in a thousand of the meditators I meet who make these absurd and insulting statements about Sariputta can do what he could do or understand what he understood, I’ll eat this book. You have no idea how good it feels to write paragraphs like this one.

Back to business. All of this map stuff is only helpful if it keeps you practicing clearly and in a way that brings results. I will discuss more of the pros and cons of maps soon enough.

MCTB Bill Hamilton's Model

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