Neuroscience and Buddhist Meditation

Can Meditation Change Your Brain Contemplative Neuroscientists Believe It CanOne of the very endearing aspects of Buddhism for many Westerners is the Buddha’s encouragement that we “come and see” for ourselves. It is, in the early texts at least, a religion of practice, of personal cultivation, and intellectual curiosity and satisfaction.

It’s a religion for idiots who screw up a lot, but who aren’t afraid to keep trying and are willing to work at it. In my early years as a Buddhist, through the help of a succession of wonderful meditation teachers, I was very earnest in my meditative practice. These days I’m quite lazy about it. I’ll either have to pick it up again to solve the mystery below, or I can rely on your helpful suggestions and experiences.

My last post was about a lecture by Prof Richard Gombrich, in which he talks briefly about the Buddhist meditation states known as the jhanas. This spurred an interesting and ongoing conversation between myself and Doug Smith, who writes for the Secular Buddhist Association.

You can listen to or download (by right-clicking) Prof Gombrich’s talk here. At about 27 minutes in, he discusses the jhanas – meditative absorptions (sometimes called ‘trances’ but this is misleading).

Have a listen.

The ‘Cliffs Notes’ version of that section of his talk go as follows:

  1. In the 1st jhana: you have to have first rid yourself of all sensual desires and other ethical fetters of the mind. Here you have vitakka - thinking and vicara - examining, along with delight and happiness (piti & sukha).
  2. In the 2nd jhanavitakka - thinking and vicara - examining disappear. The mind is now one-pointed: ekodibhāvaṃ. Gombrich argues that here there is no thought. (Here there is still delight and happiness)
  3. In the 3rd jhana: delight and happiness are replaced by equanimity, upekkhā. One-pointedness is no longer mentioned, and instead the meditator is said to be sato ca sampajāno, aware and cognizant. 
  4. In the 4th jhana: equanimity and awareness are purified upekkhāsatipārisuddhiṃ (parisuddhim being ‘purified’).

Prof. Gombrich then admits that what comes next might be a bit controversial. He suggests that the 3rd and 4th jhanas are quite unlike the 2nd. He suggests the thought experiment: would a meditator (in any of these states) notice a flashing light or loud noise in his/her vicinity. Gombrich thinks that in the 3rd/4th he would notice but in the 2nd he wouldn’t.

What comes next is a bit technical, but basically, the later tradition lumps these all in the service of ‘calming’ meditation, which is then opposed to the more advanced ‘insight’ meditation practice. What Prof Gombrich (I believe) is suggesting, is that in fact these 3rd and 4th jhanas are more akin to ‘insight’ practice then to ‘calming.’

He then discusses recent neurological findings regarding the activity of the left and right brain.  The right side is our ‘awareness’ side, roughly speaking, while our left side is our linguistic and ‘analysis’ side. This is a simplification (there are whole books and plenty of journal articles to read to find out the ins and outs of left-right brain interaction), but Gombrich’s point is that the 2nd jhana develops the analytical side of the left brain to it’s peak, and then shifts to right-brain awareness in the 3rd/4th jhanas.


Gombrich is quite aware that his comments are preliminary here, but he urges us to (re)-understand the Buddha’s teaching in our own vocabulary, which for many these days is that of neuroscience.

Cyanide and Happiness -

Sometimes we misunderstand things. (image via

Doug Smith, mentioned above, alerted me to one of his teachers, Leigh Brasington, a virtual treasure-trove of practice and analysis of the jhanas. But he also questioned Gombrich’s understanding of what actually happens in the jhanas (from an admittedly ‘beginners mind’ point of view).

This is where your input would be helpful. The more I think about it, and recollect those early days when I did experience some of these states with regularity, the more I doubt Gombrich’s suggestion that the 3rd and 4th jhanas are really phenomenologically (experientially) different from the first two.

But – maybe. Maybe the first two jhanas are the process of ‘honing’ the analytical side of the brain – or silencing it, or focusing it… The image that comes to mind most for me is something like making oneself into a drill — or perhaps a diver on a high-jump. The key is entering in – one-pointedly and fully immersing yourself; but at some point you ‘break through’ in a way and experience expansiveness, a sort of ‘kung-fu’, 360 degree awareness that can only really work because the analytic side has been so perfectly focused that it simply drops away.

Yet, according to tradition, the jhana meditations are done with an object, so even when one-pointedness drops away, the attention is still in the object. Check out the many links compiled by Leigh Brasington for a great discussion of this fact.

So two issues arise here:

  1. Was the early tradition* correct to interpret that some object of meditation is needed? (Brasington suggests that they were not.)
  2. Is there a clear ‘break’ between the 2nd and 3rd jhanas, further glossed over by the tradition, that we need to re-examine?

* The distinction here is between ‘what the Buddha said’ (generally isolated to the Sutta and Vinaya Pitaka) as opposed to later commentarial traditions, which reached their height in Buddhaghosa’s Vissudhimagga or “Path to Purification”.

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  • Doug

    Thanks for this, Justin. One concern I have with Gombrich’s take is that the narrowness of focus he sees in J2 may simply be an experiential holdover from the fading away of vitakka and vicara, and hence not be intended to distinguish J2 from J3-J4. That is the way the process feels to me experientially, at any rate. But I am a beginner at jhana and so would welcome other interpretations about what Gombrich might be after here.

  • Dr. Dion Peoples

    As skillfull as I am in jhanas – NOBODY ever asks me… –people see me now as whatever, and NEGLECT to RECOLLECT that I was a bhikkhu with genuine-experience. When I was a BHIKKHU, I always did jhana-meditation… I took with me (as a lone forest-bhikkhu), the Abhidhammattha-Sangaha, and between me and the forest, was this book, which I examined over and over, and worked my way through jhanas. Now: working with the Pali-grammar/vocabulary is a different matter, and you also have to comprehend that when you have a list of jhanas what you are going through are minute-stages from such nit-picky examinations of the various stages… yet, you may sit and progress from that sitting/being-alone stage trough the various predetermined stages, and ultimately arrive at the jhana of your determination. Did I have to over-analyze my experience making mountains of confusion from some molehill – NEVER. I just ‘performed/experienced’ the bliss, which could actually become addictive. :-) I love the ‘jhanas’, it is what I perform… but it is ‘my experience’ – and someones’ experience could vary.

    If I tell you: in such and such a book it says this or that… well: I think you have access to all the texts, we all know what they say. I’m not sure if the book-compilers were effective meditators (and I am not making any criticism), so maybe they just put down what they determined. I find just DOING JHANAS is more important, and: YOU KNOW WHEN YOU GET THERE! :-)

    As for neurosciences, you didn’t know that I am studying this material behind the Zizek material… and writing on neurosciences and the Buddhist brain is my next endeavor! :-)

  • Stephen Schettini

    I’m confused when Buddhists get excited about the jhanas. Didn’t the Buddha reject them as pointless?

    • Leigh Brasington

      He only rejected them as an END, not as a MEANS. You find him recommending them in over a hundred suttas.

      • Justin Whitaker

        Hi Stephen, welcome back – the jhanas are taught throughout the suttas and never, as far as I know, rejected. In the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) for instance, they are taught as that which is to be done, and in MN 111 (which I owe thanks to Doug Smith for sending to me) we find them as a practice of Sariputta, who is extolled as “wise, of great discernment, deep discernment, wide… joyous… rapid… quick… penetrating discernment…” I’m not sure where the idea of the Buddha rejecting them came about. If there are hints of this in the suttas or early tradition, I don’t know about them.

        Hi Leigh – welcome to you as well. I’ve been warned that you might stop by. :) As I mentioned to one friend, I wonder if the disagreement (if there is one in the very end) isn’t between approaches – you coming from a study/practice approach and Prof Gombrich coming from a more linguistic/contextual approach. That may oversimplify things, but I hope that his ideas contribute to your understanding and vise versa; or at least that the rest of us can find ourselves enriched by both of you.

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  • Robert M. Ellis

    This is interesting. I’m very much convinced of the idea that meditation, at whatever level, integrates left and right brain functions: a point that has seemed clear to me since reading Iain McGilchrist’s fascinating and highly recommended book, The Master and his Emissary (see my review at However, I don’t see how a discontinuous shift can occur between 2nd and 3rd jhana. One reason for this is that every advance in the temporarily integrated state that is jhana has to be an advance in integration, and integration involves increasing equality and balance between the hemispheres rather than a predominant shift from one to the other. Another reason is that the account of the second jhana given above is contradictory: Gombrich claims that the meditator in second jhana becomes insensitive to external stimuli because of a left-brain focus, when the stilling of vicara and vitarka would mean the opposite – the end of left-brain focus and thus a right-brain focus.

    The third and fourth jhanas can also not be a matter of insight, if one understands insight as permanent integration of left-brain processes across time. Insight is not a state one can attain at one moment of heightened awareness, but rather a process that dialectically integrates moments of heightened awareness with the results of thinking and reflection.

    So I have to admit that the concept of jhana seems a lot more useful than the analysis of the jhanas. They may correspond to something in the experience of meditators, but if so it seems to have been too neatly analysed. It may well be that Buddhist meditators to some extent experience these jhanas because they expect to do so and structure their experience in that way (confirmation bias), but I find it difficult to believe that this is a universally-applicable analysis. There cannot be such distinct stages in the development of jhana, because they would involve the imposition of left-brain representations on an experience that involves moving beyond such representations. There can only be jhana in general with continuing degrees of refinement, and insight as a separate issue not necessarily dependent on jhana.

    If you ask whether these points are based on experience, then I would only claim personally to have experienced the first jhana. However, I also think that is enough for one to have some direct understanding of what jhana is. It is not just a question of traditional accounts vs. experience that confirms or disconfirms them, but of whether we can improve the traditional model in a way that relates better to the whole of our wider experience – of the brain, of the process of integration, and of the spiritual, moral and epistemological effects of meditation. It is that wider experience and our capacity to learn from it that seems to count for more here than appeals to specific experience of the higher jhanas not put into that wider context and subject to confirmation bias.

  • http::// Leigh Brasington

    I have great respect for Prof. Gombrich and have found his books to be very helpful. But he’s simply wrong in his lecture – concentration deepens when going from J2 to J3 & J4. The best I can offer to further this discussion is my web page at

    And you are correct that my different opinion comes from a practice perspective rather than a linguistic/literature perspective. Unless one has practiced jhanas, the cryptic description in the suttas is very hard to understand.

    Robert suggests that the jhanas “integrate left and right brain functions.” He’s correct – I’ve meditated several times with EEG tracking and that finding is immediately apparent at J1 and continues all the way to J8.

    To elaborate my reply to Stephen: The idea that the Buddha rejected jhanas seems to arise from MN 26 where he leaves each of his 2 teachers because their jhana practice did not lead to awakening. He later (see MN 36) figured out that the jhanas were a means, not an end.

    Justin, you also ask “Was the early tradition correct to interpret that some object of meditation is needed? (Brasington suggests that they were not.)” See DN 9 – verses 10-16 to see what the objects are for each J1 – J7 — the phrase “His former true but subtle perception of…” points to the object for each jhana (e.g. “equanimity and happiness” for J3, “neither happiness nor unhappiness” for J4.

    • Doug

      Hi Leigh,

      I think then the question re. Gombrich is why the “oneness of mind” comes in at J2 (DN 9 verse 11), and then disappears in J3-J4 (DN 9, v. 12-13). As I say, my assumption was that the experience of “oneness of mind” in J2 comes in because of the passing of vitakka and vicara (“thinking and examining” in your linked translation), and should be read as continuing in J3-J4, even though “oneness of mind” doesn’t actually appear in the text.

      Is this correct?

      • Leigh Brasington

        Correct. The continuing “factors” are not always mentioned, but they are certainly necessary.

        It’s clear that the jhana description in the suttas is not meant to be complete – it’s just something to give you the basic idea of each of the jhanas. At the time of the Buddha, if you needed more details, you went and studied with a jhana master. That’s still a good idea ;-)

  • Ted Meissner

    Stephen, you might be referring to the lack of need to practice Jhanas 5-8, the “supra mundane” attainments. Part 8 of the Eightfold Path does discuss Jhanas 1-4, and they are referenced in the story of Gotama’s death.

  • Josh Lamson

    Hi Justin-

    This is a fairly recent book that I’m surprised doesn’t get more attention:
    What seems clear to me is that there is no consensus on jhana, what it is, how to accomplish it, what it can do. For example, Alan Wallace teaches a model in The Attention Revolution in which someone sitting 8 hours at a stretch without moving, in a state of absorption, is described as only 5/9 of the way to access concentration! “jhana factors” are essentially a moot point for almost everyone in that interpretation. Ajahn Thanissaro teaches a user-friendly form in which the jhana factors are noticeable and usable right away. Well, sort of right away. Shankman’s book is good in that it puts a number of systems alongside one another. Culadasa in Tucson teaches retreats in which he compares different systems and then lets students choose what they’re most attracted to. I don’t want to say that jhana is relative, and whatever a person say it is, it is, but it’s clear to me that there are a number of systems that use the vocabulary of the Canon in internally consistent ways to talk about very different phenomena. You also have people in the Zen and Tibetan (and non-Buddhist) traditions using entirely different vocabulary to talk about what sometimes sound like the same states. Personally, I just go with the instructions that make the most sense to me and are the most fun:)

    As for Mr. Schettini’s question as to whether the Buddha rejected jhana, my read is that he practiced (with his two teachers prior to enlightenment) not jhana but the aruppas- the formless attainments, sometimes called jhanas and placed after the four rupa jhanas in a hierarchical sequence, but not the same as them. In this read, the four rupa jhanas are uniquely Buddhist, and are a necessary part of the path. (This of course doesn’t agree with Buddhaghosa, but he has an internally consistent way of describing jhana in which it is really a separate practice from those directed at awakening, and the province of just a few virtuosos). That explains then the Buddha’s break with his earlier teachers. Interesting scholarly support for this idea is in Geoffrey Samuels, The Origins of Yoga and Tantra (fantastic book!)- he says the aruppas and the brahma viharas may well predate the Buddha- he may have taken these from the existing ascetic tradition and added his own innovations on top of them (of course, what in the world does that actually mean? The signifiers survive, but the signified…?).

    I’m probably a moron to write this, since anything about jhana on the net can quickly grow pages long threads! I hope this comes across as one man’s opinion and not as an attack on anyone else’s preferred method or interpretation. It seems clear to me also that many many Buddhists have gotten good results without using the framework or the language of jhana at all.

    As for the neuroscience angle, I couldn’t even begin to say! Be well :)

  • lee rogers

    I’m going to concur with Josh (above) that there is no consensus on the Jhanas, and the current stream of discussion varies quite widely. From my own experiences, accessing the various absorptions isn’t necessarily hard, but developing the discipline to abide in & progress through them consistently surely takes practice. In many texts eight Jhanas are cited, but in others there are nine (4 material, 5 immaterial). And in some interpretations Nirvana is the 9th Jhana (cessation of aggregates #3 & #4, notions/views & compositions (incl. self)), with four different samadhi-form concentrations, including the Jhanas, Samatha, and Vipassana.

    And then there’s the four types of Samadhi concentration development, each with a different goal:
    A pleasant abiding in this current life via the Jhanas;
    Knowledge and the divine eye (achieved by concentration on light);
    Mindfulness and clear comprehension (Vipassana); and the destruction of the taints — achieved through concentrative mindfulness of the rise and fall of the five aggregates.
    ( Anguttara Nikaya IV.41 )

    If you’re feeling confused, welcome to the club….

  • jacob

    There are four consequences, and only four, of mastering the jhanas – 7 times returner, 1 time returner, non-returner, and arahant. – Buddha

  • Andrea Collisson

    I am not in a position to respond to the question about Gombrich and left right brain matters. But i wanted to make some other comments relating to other points in the thread. I would also pointed out that i also haven’t attained jhana yet. My points are:
    1. I’ve just recently read Ajahn Brahm’s book Mindfulness Bliss and Beyond. A. Brahm is a big big jhana fan and practitioner. I recommend his book for its excellent readability among other things. I would say its quite a bit better than Bhante Gunaratana (which i had also only recently read) for the insights its gives into the jhanas and how to get there. A Brahm’s book is very compelling but leaves me with some doubts and some questions as well. But one very surprising point he makes is that insight does not arise in jhana states but comes afterwards when one’s mind is affected by the bliss of jhana. But i would highly recommend this book above all because of how he explains lots of stuff about mindfulness and the hindrances in terms of practicing meditation and how they affect ones depth of meditation. I”d say this book is a must read and i am convinced that the writer is writing from experience. He also has some great little tips for meditation.
    2. When one starts talking about buddhism and using buddhist terms you can be absolutely certain that when one person uses one term, another person is thinking it means something altogether different. The more i read and learn about buddhism, the more i see this going on and it makes it all very confusing at times. For instance the word jhana. What did it mean in the buddha’s day. Ven. U. Vimalaramsi (who wrote a great little booklet called The Anapanasati Sutta) seems to have different meanings for words like jhana and samadhi and tips a whole load of mud on the matter of terms and meanings, and translations. For instance he asserts that Samadhi does not mainly mean concentration but tranquility and that concentration is a minor meaning. So what does that do to the eightfold path and where does it leave Jhana. I know for Vimalaramsi, he thinks the buddha does not teach jhana at all but then his fine explanation of vipassana seems pretty close in some ways. And i don’t know if he is straining after deep absorption states or altered states of consciousness or what. This interpretation (he gives no academic argument for these claims but i believe if pressed he could demonstrated how he arrives at these conclusions) makes a real mess of all the talk about jhanas and vipassana and what they had to do with the buddha himself. But Josh, above, does shed a bit of light on these matters that confirm what i’ve only heard indicated in a roundabout way. For instance that the buddha did jhanas with his earlier teachers but they were not quite the same as the jhanas which came after. This would confirm A Brahms view that the buddha invented the jhana’s (as practiced in theravada/thai forest tradition.

    Bhante Sujato goes further in his History of Mindfulness and argues that mindfulness was around before the buddha and was not his invention which tips a bucket of mess on the idea i had that mindfulness was the buddha’s innovation. Anyway its all very messy. And i don’t know if anyone will ever make a really convincing arguement about all these things. Bhante Sujato has has a knack for making very dry academic writing a pleasure to read so someone might want to have a go at it. In one section he tries to spell out what meditation was known before the buddha but because he seems to assume his readers have a lot more knowledge than i certainly do and uses insufficient source quotes to be convincing on some points so i remain uncertain about all his arguements. However i do believe he has made a thorough study and has tried to be honest in his findings. I just want to see more evidence in a way that is convincing. Sometimes that means i wish he had both a quote in pali and in english. But i’m quite off the track here. Take it as an aside.
    3. Certainly Justin, i think the way ajahn brahm writes about the jhanas you would have a clear response to your questions re gombrich.

    • lee rogers

      As I understand it, the essential case for the Jhanas is that they are best integrated with Vipassana (& vice versa). All this is heresay on my part, but I’ve noted some teachers claim that their reading indicates that Gotama didn’t *teach* Jhanas #5 – #8 until later (although he studied them before his awakening), and he didn’t initially teach a distinction between Insight & Concentration practice. From what I’ve gleaned from Zen & Ch’an teachers, they take a similar approach whereas many Theravadin teachers make a proscriptive distinction between Vipassana (preferable) & Jhana meditation (to be avoided).

      However, the four Samadhi-form states are actual goals as stated in the Anguttara Nikaya (IV.41), so it’s all been set out & explained in the core canon, but various teachers are going to have their preferences based on what they’ve observed has worked for themselves and their students. The problem with Jhanas alone is that they are secular from Just-Experiencing, so they are not an end-all, but a means to fully develop & employ Insight.

      The Jhanas are instructive to where Insight can take us because we can abide in a mix of a Concentrative & Insight states, with a “Just-Experiencing” Insight state fortified by facile or pleasant Concentration. But the end-goal of Awakening is built primarily on Just-Experiencing, so it’s understandable that it’s emphasized, and indulging in absorptions is eschewed. As I’ve come to understand it, this is where Gotama did indeed break away from Yogic asceticism by emphasizing real-life experience over absorptive states, with Nirvana being the *Same* as Samsara, but with Aggregates #3 & #4 fully attenuated (or at least mitigated or ameliorated).

      This is why we read that the post-awakening state for a meditator is the **same** as the pre-awakening, except that those artifacts of Self & personality aren’t so hard-wired, and can be opted in or out, case depending.

      As for Left- vs. Right-brain distinctions in various states, my theory is this: The serial Karmic-processing dominance of the Left Brain is primarily concerned with Aggregates/Skandas 3 & 4 (notions/views & composites), and attenuation of Left-brain serial logic, cause & effect is representative of the goal of getting outside of Karmic determinism (i.e. liberation). I’m mostly basing this theory on the story of Jill Bolte, a neuro-anatomist who suffered a stroke that impinged on her brain’s own Left hemisphere (a sub-cortical hematoma). You can see her Talk TED account of her harrowing experience here:

  • Justin Whitaker

    Many thanks for the ongoing comments everyone. I had the opportunity to see a lecture by Dr Elena Antonova BSc PhD last night and asked her about the left/right brain changes. These first came to everyone’s attention back in 2004/5 with the work of Richard Davidson and Matthieu Richard (et al). She stated that Davidson himself wasn’t so sure about the left/right differences that had been proposed then, and her own results, using an accomplished Dzogchen meditator, showed integrated brain activity in the state of “Open Presence.”

    She suggested (I’ll try to write more about this soon) that some of the problem is the different techniques used to study what meditators are doing – both in terms of control studies and the activities engaged in by advanced meditators (Dzogchen, loving-kindness, Zen?). She said she didn’t know of any studies specifically conducted on Theravadin practitioners. Other problems/difficulties abound, but that’s just one of them to be aware of.

    Her website:

  • lee rogers

    Perhaps another way to frame this is to say that the Left Brain – as the serial processing, threat-assessment & problem-solving engine of Ego and Self – is largely concerned with the cause-and-effect Karmic problems of Samsara (with Ego running a protection racket with Self, Self paying Ego off in the currency of Identity… ;) )

    In Nirvana, Skandhas #3 & #4 are ameliorated (the two that keep us stuck in our Karmas – notions/views & composites(incl. Self). This is why it is often stated that Nirvana is just like Samsara (but without the paper bag over our heads).

    So in a sense, Awakening is the penultimate phase of the Right Brain (volition, awareness) training the Left Brain (reaction, Self, Ego) to behave itself. Coming back to your question, are Jhanas 1 & 2 really so different from 3 & 4, well it’s probably something that works on a continuum, just as Jhanas 1 – 4 are designated as the “Material Jhanas” and Jhanas 5 – 8(or 9) are the “Immaterial.”

    That certain brain areas are more or less activated in a particular Jhana might be reflected in brain scans, but I would expect neural site activation to be a matter of degree, not the discrete on-off phases of a state-machine. Brain scans only reflect the bulk effects of some very fine-grain experiences.

    To avoid repeating myself, see my other comment on this article:

  • Robert M. Ellis

    What Lee’s theories, and much of the rest of this discussion, seems not to take into account is that the left hemisphere has no sense of time. Jhana may thus temporarily integrate right and left brain functions, but this is a temporary state and does nothing to integrate contradictory beliefs or desires represented by the left hemisphere at different times. That’s what I’d take insight to be doing – integrating different states of the left hemisphere across time using the right. But that’s the very thing that makes it impossible to incorporate insight into the merely temporary state of jhana.

    I’m also unconvinced by those above (like Dion and Leigh) who seem to be claiming that they’ve experienced it all and it will all make sense when you’ve experienced it. I wouldn’t want to deny your experience, of course. But can you really truthfully say that the traditional accounts give the only possible or helpful way of understanding what you have experienced? Can you really rule out confirmation bias? Claims about the eighth jhana don’t seem that different to me to claims about nirvana, and these in their turn not much different to claims of having experienced God: in any of these cases the claims make cannot in practice be checked or even made fully meaningful by most people, and rest only on traditional authority. They are thus metaphysical claims. Is the meditator who believes he is experiencing the eighth jhana as described in the scripture really doing anything very functionally different from the Christian who interprets his experience of the beauty and complexity of the world in terms of God’s creation – i.e. interpreting an ambiguous experience in a framework that is far from necessary to it?

    • lee rogers

      Robert, it’s the right hemisphere that has no sense of time. Serial processing, being a left-brain function, includes the perception of passing time. Attention deficits entail a distorted time sense along with difficultly in cognitive processing — everything seems to take *forever* to a child with ADHD.

      I would agree that Insight would be the more integrative approach, and I will add that this is b/c it puts concentration in the service of just-experiencing.

      As for subjective framing, yes that’s been a long-standing concern, and yet the basic technique of Just-Sensing for instance appears to be consistent not only across meditators but also traditions. The matter of a votary working within the paradigm or assumptions of one framework versus another? Just-Experiencing has been employed in Zen, Dzogchen & Theravadin schools, but their own particular methods might entail gradual, sudden or meditation rubrics or curricula that are reflected in their verbal instructions. The experience might be much the same, but the development process might vary. This is a problem, but it’s a wholly different concern from *interpretation* through a framework because there is little in the way of vicarious *interpretation* of *direct experiece* (as in Just-Seeing, etc.).

  • Nick Wallingford

    From what I’ve learned from Alan Wallace, whom is the foremost expert on this topic, there is a great mis-understanding of the term “jhanas.” Modern-day teachers throw around the word jhana like it’s some sort of snack to be enjoyed during break time..when in fact it takes a minimum of 5000 hours of continuous shamatha meditation (usually more around 10,000hours-in a conducive meditative, quiet environment) to even ‘cross the threshold’ and achieve Shamatha..which is the base-level of the 1st jhana. So lets sit down a take some baby breaths before moving on to advanced stages of this practice, shall we? ;)

    • lee rogers

      Nick, I wouldn’t take anything from anyone on hearsay – foremost expert or otherwise.

      I’ll give you an example of what precocious luck can bring anyone attempting meditation. I spent 10 minutes meditating & inadvertently hit upon a rare one (not a Jhana) known as the Blue Consciousness or Blue Pearl. Some advanced meditators (particularly Siddha, but also Zen) use it as a reference point. In my case when I bumped into it I also utterly ruined my practice by pursuing & playing with it.

      Jhanas: While Gotama worked with the ascetics he spent two years working in what are now known as Jhanas 5 – 8 (immaterial), and yet he didn’t teach them until late in his Sangha. Even more paradoxically, for a time he didn’t even teach Jhanas 1 – 4 (material Jhanas). How come? He didn’t think they were “necessary” to enumerate, that they were just part of standard **Insight Concentration** (Samadhi in general, of which there are four goals & methods). Why not? Maybe b/c he hadn’t needed them himself to reach awakening? Dunno!?

      Look at it this way, there are so many **authoritative voices** in the monastic traditions whose agendas & opinions about the Jhanas vary widely.

      There are the Anti-Jhana (pro-Vipassana) teachers a great many of whom are Theravadin. So when you cite Alan Wallace & his 2.5 man-year Shamatha I have to wonder: Really? Then how did Gotama manage to do it?

      Countering that voice of authority are the quasi-shamanic Pro-Jhana Ecstatic Buddhist/Fourth Wheelers (Jhana addicts if you ask a Theravada monastic), many of whom claim they pretty much live in a shamatha access state all the time & use it for their Insight practice.

      Shamatha & the Jhanas are a natural organic state of concentration, one is accessed by a variety of practitioners of varying backgrounds & styles. Fully developing the ability surely takes practice, but the same is true for Just-Sensing – a precocious glimmer of the experience can happen to anyone, but fully developing the skill might well entail 2 man years of steady practice.

    • Leigh Brasington

      A careful reading of the suttas of the Pali Canon and of the concentration section of the Visuddhimagga leads to the inevitable conclusion that there are multiple systems that are referred to by the word “jhana.” Alan Wallace’s system is just one among many, and more closely matches the Visuddhimagga than the suttas. For a discussion of the various interpretations, see my web page at

      As for me, I figure that whatever the Buddha was doing is good enough for me to work with as a starting point. But the bottom line is “can you do something that enhances your concentration as a prelude to your investigation of ‘what’s actually happening’?” If someone is hung up on strict definitions rather than actually practicing what they are capable of doing, they are missing the opportunity to enhance their understanding of reality.

      • lee rogers

        Thank you Leigh, that’s the most salient take-away from all this. It seems any time the Jhanas come up, the discussion devolves into what *is or isn’t* possible for a lay novitiate. The attitude has always perplexed me, but lately I’ve felt it really belies a sort of insidious privilege being staked out by an insular or self-referencing clergy.

        Although I demur on some of the emphasis by the Ecstatic Buddhist movement (Jeffrey Brooks, et al), I agree with their complaint that there’s an underlying – if inadvertent – anti-liberation theme in some orthodox teachers.

        That an unsympathetic tone is taken toward a laity, where an *unqualified* proscriptive and discouraging stance is taken against Jhana experimentation naturally comes across as an authoritarian kind of pedagogy, with what amounts to peremptory bans on discussion, much less experimentation.

        But it’s turning around – 10 years ago online discussion of the Jhanas was unheard of, and web searches revealed little if any mention, anywhere. Today it’s a wholly different story.

  • Dr. Dion Peoples

    To the respectful gentleman above: my monastic-experience was for myself. I never had the goal to be some advanced spiritual teacher (this is my I am now a professor, not a book-writing guru!). As I parallel a claim/assertion discoverable in the Tipitaka, and mixed with your nice comment: I’ve tasted the truth of Nibbana, but I remain humble as it was only my experience, and there was no one around to talk about it, not even the squirrel resident in my cave could respond to any questions: so I had to put in the work for myself… of course guided by the Abhidhammattha-Sangaha, perhaps as a mere signpost or point of reference, maybe at times a map… but there is no 5000-10000 hours necessary, as someone humorously posted above. I had the genuine intention to sit & walk… and performed….and attainments came without expectations. Anyhow, due to the prohibition about discussing attainments as a bhikkhu, it was only later, now that I am teaching, that I might, “might” discuss the issue more in-depth with my monastic-students (I lecture to international Bhikkhus), but I take it as my personal-venture, and use this as a basis for some moral/ethical situations for which I am responsible as their teacher. I am still in the context of the monastery when teaching. I stress the practice (personalized) rather than the analytical approach from deciphering a J2 from a J3… -this is not on my “syllabus”, so to speak any longer, as now my attention is towards boosting their critical thinking skills.

    • lee rogers

      I know what you mean about experiences arising without expectation! So, is it precocious luck? Or is it that these abilities are innate & might arise in some individuals sooner than others? Why not be open minded about this & allow that access varies across individuals as well as across situations (within one individual)?

  • Dr. Dion Peoples

    I have some typos in my post, please forgive them. I did not see them as I was writing. Somewhere, “this is my” should read as “this is why”… Sorry for that :-)

  • Robert M. Ellis

    @Lee, regarding temporal sequencing and the hemispheres. My source is Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary p.76. Apologies in advance for quoting him at the length that is required to get across this rather complex but crucial point.

    ” What is called temporal sequencing is an ambiguous concept. Such sequencing, depending on what one means by that, may be right-hemisphere dependent, or, at least where the sequence has no ‘real world’ meaning, as it would in a narrative, left-hemisphere dependent – the understanding of narrative is a right-hemisphere skill, the left hemisphere cannot follow a narrative. But sequencing, in the sense of the ordering of artificially decontextualised,unrelated, momentary events, or momentary interruptions of temporal flow – the kind of thing that is as well or better performed by the left hemisphere – is not in fact a measure of the sense of time at all. It is precisely what takes over when the sense of time breaks down. Time is essentially an undivided flow: the left hemisphere’s tendency to break it up into units and make machines to measure it may succeed in deceiving us that it is a sequence of static points, but such a sequence never approaches the nature of time, however close it gets.”

    The experience of time passing is thus a right-hemisphere preserve that the left hemisphere lacks. This problem can also be seen in Zeno’s Paradoxes, where a left-hemisphere approach denies the experience of extension in both time and space in defiance of everyday experience. All the left hemisphere can handle is the idea of time passing, or sequences that stand in for or represent temporal sequence. This would mean that the sense of timelessness that might arise in jhana may come from getting beyond the limitations of a restricted idea of time in the left hemisphere and fully engaging with experienced rather than just represented sequence.

    To reiterate my earlier point, then, if insight involves the integration of ego-representations that are isolated in time, that’s unlikely to happen in the kind of short period during which jhana can be sustained, even by experts. That isolation in time can be experienced whenever we’re inconsistent – we believe and/or desire one thing at one time but something else at another. It seems that jhana doesn’t necessarily help with this, at best setting up some indirect conditions that might help with integration. A lot of Buddhist tradition seems consistent with this point, with the exception of Zen, which insists on the unity of samatha and vipassana. In other words, advanced meditators who have lots of jhana can still be very unintegrated and their understanding of conditions inadequate. No doubt many of them would be happy to admit this.

    • lee rogers

      Narrative is a funny thing. Intrinsic narrative, one that’s self-directed, I might suspect is different from following an extrinsic narrative. Googling for time perception & brain hemispheres and the discussion is largely about the left hemisphere’s dominance. I’m left with the impression that there’s a great deal to learn about attention and cognition, and that our old assumptions might be flawed. I don’t know… :)

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