Ven. Ñāṇananda has primarily dealt with correcting mistaken notions regarding view. In The Mind Stilled: Nibbāna Sermon 01 he offers historical perspective on how this came about:legolas wrote:Yes, but also the subjugation of the suttas in their favour and the meditation practices that derived from them. These were the topics covered by the video, and I am interested in reading another monk make similar points (only better).
- There is a popular belief that the commentaries are finally traceable to a miscellany of the Buddha word scattered here and there, as pakiṇṇakadesanā. But the true state of affairs seems to be rather different. Very often the commentaries are unable to say something conclusive regarding the meaning of deep suttas. So they simply give some possible interpretations and the reader finds himself at a loss to choose the correct one. Sometimes the commentaries go at a tangent and miss the correct interpretation. Why the commentaries are silent on some deep suttas is also a problem to modern day scholars. There are some historical reasons leading to this state of affairs in the commentaries.
In the Āṇisutta of the Nidānavagga in the Saṃyutta Nikāya we find the Buddha making certain prophetic utterances regarding the dangers that will befall the Sāsana in the future. It is said that in times to come, monks will lose interest in those deep suttas which deal with matters transcendental, that they would not listen to those suttas that have to do with the idea of emptiness, suññatā. They would not think it even worthwhile learning or pondering over the meanings of those suttas.
There is also another historical reason that can be adduced. An idea got deeply rooted at a certain stage in the Sāsana history that what is contained in the Sutta Piṭaka is simply the conventional teaching and so it came to imply that there is nothing so deep in these suttas. This notion also had its share in the present lack of interest in these suttas. According to Manorathapūraṇī, the Aṅguttara commentary, already at an early stage in the Sāsana history of Sri Lanka, there had been a debate between those who upheld the precept and those who stood for realization. And it is said that those who upheld the precept won the day. The final conclusion was that, for the continuity of the Sāsana, precept itself is enough, not so much the realization.
Of course the efforts of the reciter monks of old for the preservation of the precept in the midst of droughts and famines and other calamitous situations are certainly praiseworthy. But the unfortunate thing about it was this: the basket of the Buddha word came to be passed on from hand to hand in the dark, so much so that there was the risk of some valuable things slipping out in the process.
Also there have been certain semantic developments in the commentarial period, and this will be obvious to anyone searching for the genuine Dhamma. It seems that there had been a tendency in the commentarial period to elaborate even on some lucid words in the suttas, simply as a commentarial requirement, and this led to the inclusion of many complicated ideas. By too much overdrawing in the commentaries, the deeper meanings of the Dhamma got obscured.
- The role of jhāna as a condition for transcendent discernment is one of the most controversial issues in the Theravada tradition. Three basic positions have been advanced in modern writings. One, following the commentarial tradition, asserts that jhāna is not necessary for any of the four levels of Awakening and that there is a class of individuals — called "dry insight" meditators — who are "released through discernment" based on a level of concentration lower than that of jhāna. A second position, citing a passage in the Canon [AN 3.88] stating that concentration is mastered only on the level of non-returning, holds that jhāna is necessary for the attainment of non-returning and arahantship, but not for the lower levels of Awakening. The third position states that the attainment of at least the first level of jhāna is essential for all four levels of Awakening.
Evidence from the Canon supports the third position, but not the other two. As MN 117 points out, the attainment of stream-entry has eight factors, one of which is right concentration, defined as jhāna. In fact, according to this particular discourse, jhāna is the heart of the streamwinner's path. Second, there is no passage in the Canon describing the development of transcendent discernment without at least some skill in jhāna. The statement that concentration is mastered only on the level of non-returning must be interpreted in the light of the distinction between mastery and attainment. A streamwinner may have attained jhāna without mastering it; the discernment developed in the process of gaining full mastery over the practice of jhāna will then lead him/her to the level of non-returning. As for the term "released through discernment," MN 70 shows that it denotes people who have become arahants without experiencing the four formless jhānas. It does not indicate a person who has not experienced jhāna.
Part of the controversy over this question may be explained by the fact that the commentarial literature defines jhāna in terms that bear little resemblance to the canonical description. The Path of Purification — the cornerstone of the commentarial system — takes as its paradigm for meditation practice a method called kasiṇa, in which one stares at an external object until the image of the object is imprinted in one's mind. The image then gives rise to a countersign that is said to indicate the attainment of threshold concentration, a necessary prelude to jhāna. The text then tries to fit all other meditation methods into the mold of kasiṇa practice, so that they too give rise to countersigns, but even by its own admission, breath meditation does not fit well into the mold: with other methods, the stronger one's focus, the more vivid the object and the closer it is to producing a sign and countersign; but with the breath, the stronger one's focus, the harder the object is to detect. As a result, the text states that only Buddhas and Buddhas' sons find the breath a congenial focal point for attaining jhāna.
None of these assertions have any support in the Canon. Although a practice called kasiṇa is mentioned tangentially in some of the discourses, the only point where it is described in any detail [MN 121] makes no mention of staring at an object or gaining a countersign. If breath meditation were congenial only to Buddhas and their sons, there seems little reason for the Buddha to have taught it so frequently and to such a wide variety of people. If the arising of a countersign were essential to the attainment of jhāna, one would expect it to be included in the steps of breath meditation and in the graphic analogies used to describe jhāna, but it isn't. Some Theravādins insist that questioning the commentaries is a sign of disrespect for the tradition, but it seems to be a sign of greater disrespect for the Buddha — or the compilers of the Canon — to assume that he or they would have left out something absolutely essential to the practice.
All of these points seem to indicate that what jhāna means in the commentaries is something quite different from what it means in the Canon. Because of this difference we can say that the commentaries are right in viewing their type of jhāna as unnecessary for Awakening, but Awakening cannot occur without the attainment of jhāna in the canonical sense.
- Almost any book on early Buddhist meditation will tell you that the Buddha taught two types of meditation: samatha and vipassanā. Samatha, which means tranquility, is said to be a method fostering strong states of mental absorption, called jhāna. Vipassanā — literally "clear-seeing," but more often translated as insight meditation — is said to be a method using a modicum of tranquility to foster moment-to-moment mindfulness of the inconstancy of events as they are directly experienced in the present. This mindfulness creates a sense of dispassion toward all events, thus leading the mind to release from suffering. These two methods are quite separate, we're told, and of the two, vipassanā is the distinctive Buddhist contribution to meditative science. Other systems of practice pre-dating the Buddha also taught samatha, but the Buddha was the first to discover and teach vipassanā. Although some Buddhist meditators may practice samatha meditation before turning to vipassanā, samatha practice is not really necessary for the pursuit of Awakening. As a meditative tool, the vipassanā method is sufficient for attaining the goal. Or so we're told.
But if you look directly at the Pāli discourses — the earliest extant sources for our knowledge of the Buddha's teachings — you'll find that although they do use the word samatha to mean tranquility, and vipassanā to mean clear-seeing, they otherwise confirm none of the received wisdom about these terms. Only rarely do they make use of the word vipassanā — a sharp contrast to their frequent use of the word jhāna. When they depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying "go do vipassanā," but always "go do jhāna." And they never equate the word vipassanā with any mindfulness techniques. In the few instances where they do mention vipassanā, they almost always pair it with samatha — not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person may "gain" or "be endowed with," and that should be developed together.
- Can jhānic concentration penetrate things as they really are? Do we have to come out of jhāna in order to practice vipassanā? Is concentration the same as absorption? If jhānic concentration is the same as being absorbed by our object of focus then yes, we must leave jhāna to practice vipassanā. But, when we become absorbed into our object of focus, what we are practicing is "wrong" jhāna. When we practice "right" jhāna we will be able to see things as they really are.
When we read how the Buddha used his own fourth jhānic concentration, as described in many suttas, we have no reason to believe that he came out of jhāna to develop the three kinds of knowledge: knowledge of seeing the past, knowledge of seeing beings dying and taking rebirth, and knowledge of the destruction of defilements. The Buddha used the fourth jhāna for vipassanā.
Using the English word "absorption" to denote the deep concentration in the jhāna is very misleading. There are many mental factors in any jhāna and the meditator is quite aware of them. When you are aware of these mental factors you are not absorbed into them, but conscious of them or mindful of them. If you are absorbed in the subject you will not understand, nor remember anything.
- [W]ith the first meditation (paṭhamajjhāna) he [i.e. the Bodhisatta] was able to replace the hindrances with the meditation factors. Here it is well to note that the Bodhisatta put away the five hindrances by developing the first meditation, and not by any other means. Shortly after his enlightenment the Buddha came to the conclusion under the Goatherd’s Banyan that the sole way to the purification of beings is the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness. And the four foundations of mindfulness begin with a serenity (samatha) subject of meditation, namely, mindfulness of in-breathing and out-breathing (ānāpānasati)....
Meditation (jhāna) is therefore essential to the journey from here to the other shore. It is not to be treated lightly with sweeping statements like “It is found in outside (bahira) teachings, too, and so is not important.” We have seen how the Bodhisatta rejected the meditation taught by his former teachers who were outsiders (bahiraka), and the not-breathing meditation which, too, is an outside teaching, to follow the first meditation (jhāna) which finally led him to supreme enlightenment.
All the best,