The Pāḷi Jhāna Formula
The standard jhāna formula is as follows:
Idha bhikkhave vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja vihārati. (DN 22 Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta)
Here monks, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful phenomena, a monk enters and remains in the first jhāna, which includes directed thought and evaluation, as well as joy and pleasure born of seclusion.
We can examine the jhāna formula by comparing the various terms mentioned in it with other occurrences of those and related terms found throughout the suttas.Quite secluded from sensual pleasures (vivicceva kāmehi)
The first relevant sutta passage is one that occurs in various suttas. For example, AN 6.63 Nibbedhika Sutta states:
Monks, there are these five strands of sensual pleasure (kāmagunā). Forms cognizable by the eye: desirable, lovely, agreeable, endearing, sensually enticing, tantalizing. Sounds cognizable by the ear... odors cognizable by the nose... flavors cognizable by the tongue... tactual objects cognizable by the body: desirable, lovely, agreeable, endearing, sensually enticing, tantalizing.
It is clear that the sensual pleasures referred to in the jhāna formula that are to be withdrawn from prior to entering jhāna, include these five types of external
objects referred to as strands of sensual pleasure
which are desirable, lovely, agreeable, endearing, sensually enticing, and tantalizing
There are a couple of points worth mentioning here. Firstly, these five strands of sensual pleasure are all external
sensory objects. As such, they correspond to objects within the five external sensory spheres (bāhirāyatanā). Thus, these five sensory objects do not include in-and-out breathing, which is considered internal, nor the internal felt-sense of the body. The strands of sensual pleasure also do not include the apperception of foulness with regard to the thirty-one parts of the body and the nine stages of corpse decomposition. Apperception of foulness is a mental phenomenon.
Secondly, these five strands of sensual pleasure are those external sensory objects that are considered to be desirable, lovely, agreeable, endearing, sensually enticing, and tantalizing
. And so it isn’t all
sensory objects whatsoever that the meditator need to withdraw from. The meditator needs to withdraw from those external sensory objects which are sensually enticing and tantalizing, as stated here. This withdrawal is facilitated by removing oneself from inappropriate environments for meditation and by abandoning the hindrance of desire for sensual pleasure (kāmacchanda). Both are necessary prerequisites for entering the first jhāna.
As for the relationship between the withdrawal from inappropriate environments and external sensory objects MN 150 Nagaravindeyya Sutta informs us that one practicing for the removal of passion resorts to a remote location:
[T]hose venerable ones resort to remote jungle-thicket resting places in the forest. For there are no forms cognizable by the eye there of a kind that they could look at and delight in. There are no sounds cognizable by the ear there of a kind that they could listen to and delight in. There are no odors cognizable by the nose there of a kind that they could smell and delight in. There are no flavors cognizable by the tongue there of a kind that they could taste and delight in. There are no tactual objects cognizable by the body there of a kind that they could touch and delight in.
Continuing with AN 6.63, we can see that a clear distinction is made between sensual pleasures (kāmā) and the five strands of sensual pleasure (kāmagunā). After defining the five strands of sensual pleasure in the previous passage, the Buddha states:
But monks, these are not sensual pleasures (kāmā). They are called strands of sensual pleasure (kāmagunā) in the discipline of the noble ones.
The resolve of passion is a man’s sensual pleasure.
The world’s beautiful things are not sensual pleasures.
The resolve of passion is a man’s sensual pleasure.
The beauties remain as they are in the world,
While the wise remove desire for them.
Here the Buddha is differentiating sensual pleasures (kāmā) which are the resolve of passion (saṅkapparāga), from the beautiful external sensory objects of that passion, pertaining to which the wise remove desire. The removal of this passionate desire is a major theme of the dhammavinaya. This removal begins with practicing sense restraint (indriya saṃvara), developing the thought of renunciation (nekkhamma vitakka), and is progressively accomplished through the integration of the three path aggregations of ethical conduct (sīla), meditation (samādhi), and discernment (paññā). This eventually culminates in the fruition of the path which includes the complete elimination of the mental outflow of sensuality (kāmāsava).
What these discourses imply is that sensory objects are not inherently “kāma” in and of themselves. MN 13 Mahādukkhakhandha Sutta tells us that the strands of sensual pleasure are the allure of kāma. SN 3.12 Pañcarāja Sutta confirms that the very forms, sounds, odors, flavors, and tactual objects which are agreeable to one person, are disagreeable to another.
Thus external sensory objects are only strands of sensual pleasure if they are agreeable, sensually enticing and tantalizing. And Itivuttaka 72 informs us that renunciation is the escape from sensual pleasures.
In SN 36.19 Pañcakaṅga Sutta the Buddha tells Ven. Ānanda that whatever pleasure or happiness arises in dependence on the five strands of sensual pleasure is called sensual pleasure. And MN 66 Laṭukikopama Sutta states that this sensual pleasure is:
[A] filthy pleasure, a worldly pleasure, an ignoble pleasure. And I say that this pleasure is not to be cultivated, not to be developed, not to be pursued, that it is to be feared.
Based on these statements it follows that any visible objects of the nine stages of corpse decomposition (DN 22, MN 10) associated with the apperception of foulness, or the visible sphere consisting of “the ridges and hollows, the rivers and ravines, the tracts of stumps and thorns, the mountains and irregular places” associated with the apperception of forest (MN 121), which are engaged for developing calm (samatha) in the course of attaining jhāna, cannot be strands of sensual pleasure. If they were, any concomitant pleasure and happiness which would arise in dependence upon these sensory objects would be inappropriate and not worth development (bhāvanā).
This distinction between the five strands of sensual pleasure and the appropriate objects to be employed for mental development is indicated in SN 47.6 Sakuṇagghi Sutta, which clearly differentiates between the five strands of sensual pleasure and the four applications of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhānā). In this discourse one is instructed to avoid wandering into the range of the five strands of sensual pleasure and instead remain in one’s own proper range of the four satipaṭṭhānas:
Do not stray, monks, into what is not your own range and is the domain of others. Māra will gain access to those who stray into what is not their own range and is the domain of others. Māra will get a hold on them.
And what, for a monk, is not his own range and is the domain of others? The five strands of sensual pleasure.... These, for a monk, are not his own range and are the domain of others.
Move, monks, in what is your own range, your own ancestral domain. Māra will not gain access to those who move in their own range, their own ancestral domain. Māra will not get a hold on them.
And what, for a monk, is his own range, his own ancestral domain? The four applications of mindfulness. Which four? Here monks, a monk remains contemplating the body in the body, ardent, fully aware, mindful, having removed covetousness and unhappiness with regard to the world. He remains contemplating feelings in feelings ... mind in mind ... phenomena in phenomena, ardent, fully aware, mindful, having removed covetousness and unhappiness with regard to the world. This, for a monk, is his own range, his own ancestral domain.
With the four applications of mindfulness as the cause for entering and remaining in jhāna, one doesn’t attend to, or partake in any of the five external strands of sensual pleasure. MN 26 Pāsarāsi Sutta states that this allegorically blinds Māra. And as SN 35.115 Dutiyamārapāsa Sutta tells us, if one doesn’t seek delight or grasp onto any sensually enticing phenomenon, then one is said to have escaped from Māra’s snare.Secluded from unskillful phenomena (vivicca akusalehi dhammehi)
Returning to the jhāna formula, we can next investigate the withdrawal from unskillful phenomena (akusala dhammas). MN 13 Mahādukkhakkhandha Sutta states that bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, and mental misconduct (kāyena duccarita, vācāya duccarita, manasā duccarita) have sensuality as their cause and source. MN 9 Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta elaborates on these three types of misconduct by giving the standard tenfold list of misconduct:
Taking life is unskillful, taking what is not given is unskillful, sexual misconduct is unskillful, lying is unskillful, abusive speech is unskillful, harsh speech is unskillful, gossip is unskillful, covetousness is unskillful, aversion is unskillful, wrong view is unskillful.
AN 3.102 Paṃsudhovaka Sutta tells us that this level of bodily, verbal, and mental misconduct are coarse defilements. This sutta goes on to state that thoughts of sensual pleasure, thoughts of aversion, and thoughts of harmfulness are considered middling defilements. And thoughts of one’s friends and relatives, thoughts of one’s homeland, and thoughts of not wanting to be disliked are considered subtle defilements. With the abandoning of all of these types of defilement there remain only thoughts related to the dhamma. But one still has to develop one’s mind so that it grows steady inwardly, settles down, and grows unified and concentrated.
And in SN 45.22 Akusaladhamma Sutta, we read that wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness, and wrong concentration are unskillful phenomena. Conversely, the same discourse states that skillful phenomena are right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. And as we have already seen, right concentration (sammāsamādhi) is defined as jhāna.
And so it’s evident that the unskillful phenomena that are to be withdrawn from prior to entering jhāna and while remaining in jhāna are all coarse, middling, and subtle defilements which are unskillful dhammas of body, speech, and mind. And this is accomplished by developing the noble eightfold path.