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Wrong concentration, wrong view
on 14 October 2012
The jhanas are a central part of the practice taught by the Buddha, mentioned repeatedly throughout the Pali Canon and it is refreshing to see many contemporary teachers returning to the teaching of them as an alternative to the "dry insight" vipassana meditation which was only recently developed in the 20th century. In this book Ajahn Brahm says he teaches the jhanas, which he characterises as a kind of anaesthetic coma where the senses are turned off and all sense of the body and the outside world is lost. As an example of how literally he means this, he even tells the story of one of his students who fell into the state that he espouses and was rushed to hospital by his wife because she thought he had died. According to his definition, if you can sense anything, you're not in a jhana.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) these kinds of states are not what the Buddha taught as jhana. If they were, then the Pali Canon, which is full of descriptions of jhana, would be full of descriptions of monks in death-like comas. It isn't. In fact, the Buddha taught eight successive jhanas, the first four of which are states of heightened whole body awareness. Note the important difference - heightened awareness of the body, not unawareness of the body. Thought and feeling also play important parts in the first four jhanas, called the form jhanas. It is only the latter four jhanas which are called formless, where the awareness of form fades away, and these last four are not necessary for awakening.
Brahm also states that to get into jhana it is essential to have to have a "nimitta". He says that for most people this will be an imaginary bright light accompanied by a feeling of bliss. The trick is to develop this light and the feeling of bliss then get sucked into them. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, since few people experience this light) nothing like this is taught by the Buddha as part of the development of jhana. He doesn't mention the light. The feelings of bliss arise and then are allowed to continue and die down when they get uncomfortable, becoming joy and then equanimity, all with full body awareness. Attention is kept with the meditation object (usually the body or the breath) and not allowed to get sucked into the feelings.
These may seem like technical nit-picks, but they're very important. The kind of one-pointed absorption concentration (as distinct from the Buddha's whole body awareness concentration) that Brahm recommends can be developed, but it's got a lot to do with aversion, one of the three kilesas. Firstly, the desire for this kind of absorption is based on aversion for the world and is simply an extreme version of sticking your fingers in your ears and humming, closing your eyes and pretending that the world doesn't exist and neither do you. These states can sometimes be pleasant and restful and another Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Fuang, used them during an operation on his kidney because he didn't trust the anaesthetist. So they can be helpful in some ways in the short term, but they're not the jhana that the Buddha taught. The problem is that because they are based on a reduction rather than an increase in awareness, they don't help the development of insight. The second connection with aversion is when you come out of these states. As Ajahn Brahm says in the book, the world looks worse when you come out and the sense of dukkha is increased, because the world seems jarring compared with the peaceful anaesthetised state that you've just left. If indulged in for too long and too often, these absorption states that Brahm describes can lead to a kind of meditation hangover, a longing to go back to the absorbed state, an increase in distress with the world and aversion to it, even anger and mental instability, which Brahm bizarrely takes this simply to be an increase in sensitivity to the dukkha that was already there in the world rather than an unhelpful and possibly harmful effect of his technique. All meditation techniques can lead to an increase in the awareness of dukkha, but the strong and stable peace developed during the whole body jhanas taught by the Buddha leads to an increase in mental and emotional stability and an enhanced ability to deal with the world in a steadier and less reactive way.
Another problem is that a minority of people experience a nimitta as described by Brahm and this has led to an experience of striving and failure in many meditators trying diligently to follow his instructions. This is a pity because jhanas as taught by the Buddha are fairly easily obtainable by most people if they practice correctly and diligently, just as most people can learn a musical instrument or a foreign language with good teaching and enough practice.
In order to try and fit his own teaching into the Buddha's framework, Brahm attempts a bizarre reworking of the Buddha's teaching on breath meditation, the Anapanasati Sutta, taking it as a linear progression and splitting it between the third and fourth tetrads by inserting jhana between steps twelve and thirteen. In fact the sutta doesn't work like that. You can work on all four tetrads at once, and the development of jhana accompanies this work at all stages. Luckily the sutta is actually quite clear in itself. The Buddha's formula for jhana as a state of enhanced whole body awareness is also very clear and is probably one of the most, if not the most, repeated pericope(s) throughout the Pali Canon. The only way that Brahm can attempt to make his teaching fit with the Buddha's is to redefine perfectly ordinary Pali words like "kaya", "vitakka" and "vicara", to mean something completely different from what they mean everywhere else.
Brahm's attitude to other views of jhana is defensive and un-monk-like, to say the least. He accuses Thich Nhat Hanh of "irrational stubbornness based on bhavatanha, the craving to be" (probably more accurately translated as "craving for becoming"). (In passing, there may be something in this, since, as Brahm rightly says, Hanh bizarrely teaches that the Buddha didn't teach jhana at all and that all those repeated passages were inserted into the Pali Canon record of his teaching conversations after his death. Indeed, in recent years Hanh has seemed preoccupied with his own "continuation", and one's "continuation" is a central theme of his teaching). Brahm's accusation is ironic, as it would be quite plausible to see Brahm's own teaching of what he calls jhana as based on vibhavatanha, craving for non-becoming, non-existence, not to be. The problem is that you can't deal with your defilements by closing your eyes, sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending that you're free of defilements. You have to go the other way and increase your awareness of what you're doing, not decrease it.
The idea that there is no self is central to Brahm's teaching in this book, even though the Buddha taught that any kind of view about "the self" was wrong view and would not lead to awakening and release. Brahm refers to the Sabbasava Sutta where he says a question such as "Who am I?" is called by the Buddha unwise attention. Brahm recommends asking a different question such as "What is it that I take to be me?". Unfortunately questions such as this are also on the list of those defined as unwise by the Buddha in exactly the same paragraph. In the very next paragraph Brahm's stated view "I have no self" is explicitly defined as wrong view, along with all other views about "the self". Selective scholarship to say the least, and Brahm is a full time monk and I'm just a bloke who has studied the suttas in my spare time. The question as to whether there is a self, of whatever kind, is one which the Buddha refused to answer when explicitly asked.
So, a potentially harmful meditation technique which was not taught by the Buddha, teaching based on mistranslations and selective quotations, and a self-view in explicit contradiction of the Buddha's teaching as laid out in the suttas of the Pali Canon. Ajahn Brahm is undeniably a nice bloke, but really, this is pretty shocking for a senior Theravada monk.