Dhyana In Buddhism

In the oldest texts of Buddhismdhyāna, dhyana or jhāna is the training of the mind, commonly translated as meditation, to withdraw the mind from the automatic responses to sense-impressions, and leading to a “state of perfect equanimity and awareness (upekkhā-sati-parisuddhi).” Dhyāna may have been the core practice of pre-sectarian Buddhism, in combination with several related practices which together lead to perfected mindfulness and detachment, and are fully realized with the practice of dhyana.

In the later commentarial tradition, which has survived in present-day Theravādadhyāna is equated with “concentration,” a state of one-pointed absorption in which there is a diminished awareness of the surroundings. In the contemporary Theravāda-based Vipassana movement, this absorbed state of mind is regarded as unnecessary and even non-beneficial for awakening, which has to be reached by mindfulness of the body and vipassanā (insight into impermanence). Since the 1980s, scholars and practitioners have started to question this equation, arguing for a more comprehensive and integrated understanding and approach, based on the oldest descriptions of dhyāna in the suttas.

In Chán and Zen, the names of which Buddhist traditions are the Chinese and Japanese pronunciations, respectively, of dhyānadhyāna is the central practice, which is ultimately based on Sarvastivāda meditation practices, and has been transmitted since the beginning of the Common Era.


Dhyāna, from Proto-Indo-European root *√dheie-, “to see, to look,” “to show.” Developed into Sanskrit root √dhī and n. dhī, which in the earliest layer of text of the Vedas refers to “imaginative vision” and associated with goddess Saraswati with powers of knowledge, wisdom and poetic eloquence. This term developed into the variant √dhyā, “to contemplate, meditate, think”, from which dhyāna is derived.

According to Buddhaghosa (5th century CE Theravāda exegete), the term jhāna (Skt. dhyāna) is derived from the verb jhayati, “to think or meditate,” while the verb jhapeti, “to burn up,” explicates its function, namely burning up opposing states, burning up or destroying “the mental defilements preventing […] the development of serenity and insight.”

Commonly translated as meditation, and often equated with “concentration,” though meditation may refer to a wider scala of exercises for bhāvanā, development. Dhyāna can also mean “attention, thought, reflection.”

Meditation Buddhism Monk Temple Panorama Buddhist

Meditation Buddhism Monk

The jhānas

The Pāḷi canon describes four progressive states of jhāna called rūpa jhāna (“form jhāna“), and four additional meditative states called arūpa (“without form”).

Preceding practices

See also: Buddhist meditation and Buddhist paths to liberation

Meditation and contemplation are preceded by several practices, which are fully realized with the practice of dhyāna. As described in the Noble Eightfold Path, right view leads to leaving the household life and becoming a wandering monk. Sīla (morality) comprises the rules for right conduct. Right effort, c.q. the four right efforts, aim to prevent the arising of unwholesome states, and to generate wholesome states. This includes indriya samvara (sense restraint), controlling the response to sensual perceptions, not giving in to lust and aversion but simply noticing the objects of perception as they appear. Right effort and mindfulness calm the mind-body complex, releasing unwholesome states and habitual patterns, and encouraging the development of wholesome states and non-automatic responses. By following these cumulative steps and practices, the mind becomes set, almost naturally, for the practice of dhyāna. The practice of dhyāna reinforces the development of wholesome states, leading to upekkhā (equanimity) and mindfulness.

The rūpa jhānas

Qualities of the rūpa jhānas

The practice of dhyāna is aided by ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing. The Suttapiṭaka and the Agamas describe four stages of rūpa jhānaRūpa refers to the material realm, in a neutral stance, as different from the kāma realm (lust, desire) and the arūpa-realm (non-material realm). Each jhāna is characterised by a set of qualities which are present in that jhāna.

  • First dhyāna: the first dhyāna can be entered when one is secluded from sensuality and unskillful qualities, due to withdrawal and right effort. There is pīti (“rapture”) and non-sensual sukha (“pleasure”) as the result of seclusion, while vitarka-vicara (“discursive thought”) continues;
  • Second dhyāna: there is pīti (“rapture”) and non-sensual sukha (“pleasure”) as the result of concentration (samadhi-ji, “born of samadhi”); ekaggata (unification of awareness) free from vitarka-vicara (“discursive thought”); sampasadana (“inner tranquility”); 
  • Third dhyānaupekkhā (equanimous; “affective detachment”), mindful, and alert, and senses pleasure with the body;
  • Fourth dhyānaupekkhāsatipārisuddhi (purity of equanimity and mindfulness); neither-pleasure-nor-pain. Traditionally, the fourth jhāna is seen as the beginning of attaining psychic powers (abhijñā).

Interpretation of the four dhyānas

While the jhānas are often understood as deepening states of concentration, due to its description as such in the Abhidhamma, and the Visuddhimagga, since the 1980s scholars and modern Theravādins have started to question this understanding.

Roderick S. Bucknell notes that vitarka and vicara may refer to “probably nothing other than the normal process of discursive thought, the familiar but usually unnoticed stream of mental imagery and verbalization.” Bucknell further notes that “[t]hese conclusions conflict with the widespread conception of the first jhāna as a state of deep concentration.”

According to Stuart-Fox, the Abhidhamma separated vitarka from vicara, and ekagatta (one-pointednes) was added to the description first dhyāna to give an equal number of five hindrances and five antidotes. The commentarial tradition regards the qualities of the first dhyāna to be antidotes to the five hindrances, and ekagatta may have been added to the first dhyāna to give exactly five antidotes for the five hindrances. Stuart-Fox further notes that vitarka, being discursive thought, will do very little as an antidote for sloth and torpor, reflecting the inconsistencies which were introduced by the scholastics.

Vetter, Gombrich and Wynne note that the first and second jhana represent the onset of dhyāna due to withdrawal and right effort c.q. the four right efforts, followed by concentration, whereas the third and fourth jhāna combine concentration with mindfulness. Polak, elaborating on Vetter, notes that the onset of the first dhyāna is described as a quite natural process, due to the preceding efforts to restrain the senses and the nurturing of wholesome states. Regarding samādhi as the eighth step of the Noble Eightfold Path, Vetter notes that samādhi consists of the four stages of dhyāna meditation, but

…to put it more accurately, the first dhyana seems to provide, after some time, a state of strong concentration, from which the other stages come forth; the second stage is called samadhija” […] “born from samadhi.”

According to Richard Gombrich, the sequence of the four rūpa jhānas describes two different cognitive states: “I know this is controversial, but it seems to me that the third and fourth jhanas are thus quite unlike the second.” Gombrich and Wynne note that, while the second jhāna denotes a state of absorption, in the third and fourth jhāna one comes out of this absorption, being mindfully aware of objects while being indifferent to them. According to Gombrich, “the later tradition has falsified the jhana by classifying them as the quintessence of the concentrated, calming kind of meditation, ignoring the other—and indeed higher—element.

Gethin, followed by Polak and Arbel, further notes that there is a “definite affinity” between the four jhānas and the bojjhaṅgā, the seven factors of awakening. According to Gethin, the early Buddhist texts have “a broadly consistent vision” regarding meditation practice. Various practices lead to the development of the factors of awakening, which are not only the means to, but also the constituents of, awakening. According to Gethin, satipaṭṭhāna and ānāpānasati are related to a formula that summarizes the Buddhist path to awakening as “abandoning the hindrances, establishing […] mindfulness, and developing the seven factors of awakening.” This results in a “heightened awareness,” “overcoming distracting and disturbing emotions,” which are not particular elements of the path to awakening, but rather common disturbing and distracting emotions. Gethin further states that “the exegetical literature is essentially true to the vision of meditation presented in the Nikayas,” applying the “perfect mindfulness, stillness and lucidity” of the jhanas to the contemplation of “reality,” of the way things really are, as temporary and ever-changing. It is in this sense that “the jhana state has the transcendent, transforming quality of awakening.”

Upekkhā, equanimity, which is perfected in the fourth dhyāna, is one of the four Brahmā-vihāra. While the commentarial tradition downplayed the importance of the Brahmā-vihāra, Gombrich notes that the Buddhist usage of the term Brahmā-vihāra originally referred to an awakened state of mind, and a concrete attitude toward other beings which was equal to “living with Brahman” here and now. The later tradition took those descriptions too literally, linking them to cosmology and understanding them as “living with Brahman” by rebirth in the Brahmā-world. According to Gombrich, “the Buddha taught that kindness—what Christians tend to call love—was a way to salvation.

Alexander Wynne states that the dhyāna-scheme is poorly understood. According to Wynne, words expressing the inculcation of awareness, such as satisampajāno, and upekkhā, are mistranslated or understood as particular factors of meditative states, whereas they refer to a particular way of perceiving the sense objects:

Thus the expression sato sampajāno in the third jhāna must denote a state of awareness different from the meditative absorption of the second jhāna (cetaso ekodibhāva). It suggests that the subject is doing something different from remaining in a meditative state, i.e. that he has come out of his absorption and is now once again aware of objects. The same is true of the word upek(k)hā: it does not denote an abstract ‘equanimity’, [but] it means to be aware of something and indifferent to it […] The third and fourth jhāna-s, as it seems to me, describe the process of directing states of meditative absorption towards the mindful awareness of objects.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, a western teacher in the Thai Forest Tradition, argues that the Visuddhimagga deviates from the Pāḷi Canon in its description of the jhānas, and warns against the development of strong states of concentration. Arbel describes the fourth jhāna as “non-reactive and lucid awareness,” not as a state of deep concentration.

The arūpas

See also: Formless Realm

Grouped into the jhāna-scheme are four meditative states referred to in the early texts as arūpas. These are also referred to in commentarial literature as immaterial/formless jhānas (arūpajhānas), also translated as The Formless Dimensions, to be distinguished from the first four jhānas (rūpa jhānas). In the Buddhist canonical texts, the word “jhāna” is never explicitly used to denote them; they are instead referred to as āyatana. However, they are sometimes mentioned in sequence after the first four jhānas (other texts, e.g. MN 121, treat them as a distinct set of attainments) and thus came to be treated by later exegetes as jhānas. The immaterial are related to, or derived from, yogic meditation, while the jhānas proper are related to the cultivation of the mind. The state of complete dwelling in emptiness is reached when the eighth jhāna is transcended.

The four arūpas are:

  • fifth jhāna: infinite space (Pāḷi ākāsānañcāyatana, Skt. ākāśānantyāyatana),
  • sixth jhāna: infinite consciousness (Pāḷi viññāṇañcāyatana, Skt. vijñānānantyāyatana),
  • seventh jhāna: infinite nothingness (Pāḷi ākiñcaññāyatana, Skt. ākiṃcanyāyatana),
  • eighth jhāna: neither perception nor non-perception (Pāḷi nevasaññānāsaññāyatana, Skt. naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāyatana).

Although the “Dimension of Nothingness” and the “Dimension of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception” are included in the list of nine jhānas taught by the Buddha (see section on nirodha-samāpatti below), they are not included in the Noble Eightfold Path. Noble Truth number eight is sammā samādhi (Right Concentration), and only the first four jhānas are considered “Right Concentration.” If he takes a disciple through all the jhānas, the emphasis is on the “Cessation of Feelings and Perceptions” rather than stopping short at the “Dimension of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception”.


Beyond the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception lies a state called nirodha samāpatti, the “cessation of perception, feelings and consciousness”. Only in commentarial and scholarly literature, this is sometimes called the “ninth jhāna“.


The time of the Buddha saw the rise of the śramaṇa movement, ascetic practitioners with a body of shared teachings and practices. The strict delineation of this movement into Jainism, Buddhism and brahmanical/Upanishadic traditions is a later development.

Invention or incorporation

According to Bronkhorst, the practice of the four dhyānas may have been an original contribution by Gautama Buddha to the religious practices of ancient India in response to the ascetic practices of the Jains. Kalupahana argues that the Buddha “reverted to the meditational practices” he had learned from Ārāḍa Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta. Wynne argues that Ārāḍa Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta were Brahmanical teachers, and that the attainment of the formless meditative absorption was incorporated from Brahmanical practices. These practices were paired to mindfulness and insight, and given a new interpretation. The stratification of particular samādhi experiences into the four jhānas seems to be a Buddhist innovation. It was then borrowed and presented in an incomplete form in the Mokṣadharma, a part of the Mahābhārata.

Thomas William Rhys Davids and Maurice Walshe agreed that the term samādhi is not found in any pre-Buddhist text but is first mentioned in the Tipiṭaka. It was subsequently incorporated into later texts such as the Maitrayaniya Upanishad. But according to Matsumoto, “the terms dhyana and samahita (entering samadhi) appear already in Upanishadic texts that predate the origins of Buddhism”.

Buddhist origins

The Mahasaccaka SuttaMajjhima Nikaya 36, narrates the story of the Buddha’s awakening. According to this story, he learned two kinds of meditation which did not lead to enlightenment. He then underwent harsh ascetic practices, with which he eventually also became disillusioned. The Buddha then recalled a meditative state he entered by chance as a child:

I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then—quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities—I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’

Originally, the practice of dhyāna itself may have constituted the core liberating practice of early Buddhism, since in this state all “pleasure and pain” had waned. According to Vetter,

[P]robably the word “immortality” (a-mata) was used by the Buddha for the first interpretation of this experience and not the term cessation of suffering that belongs to the four noble truths […] the Buddha did not achieve the experience of salvation by discerning the four noble truths and/or other data. But his experience must have been of such a nature that it could bear the interpretation “achieving immortality”.

Brahmanical influences

Alexander Wynne attempted to find parallels in Brahmanical texts to the meditative goals the two teachers claimed to have taught, drawing especially on some of the Upanishads and the Mokshadharma chapter of the Mahabharata.

Uddaka Ramaputta and Alara Kalama

The suttas describe how the Buddha learned meditative practices from two teachers, Uddaka Ramaputta and Alara Kalama. Alex Wynne argues that Uddaka Ramaputta belonged to the pre-Buddhist tradition portrayed by the Buddhist and Brahmanic sources, in which the philosophical formulations of the early Upanishads were accepted, and the meditative state of “neither perception nor non-perception” was equated with the self. Wynne further argues that the goal of Alara Kalama was a Brahminical one. Evidence in the Chandogya Upanishad and the Taittiriya Upanishad suggests that a different early Brahminic philosophical traditions held the view that the unmanifest state of Brahman was a form of non-existence. According to Wynne, it thus seems likely that both element and formless meditation was learned by the Buddha from his two teachers, and adapted by him to his own system.

Brahmanical practices

Formless spheres

It appears that in early Brahminic yoga, the formless spheres were attained following element meditation. This is also taught as an option in the early Buddhist texts. The primary method taught to achieve the formless attainment in early Buddhist scriptures, on the other hand, is to proceed to the sphere of infinite space following the fourth jhāna.

Reversal of the creation of the world

Wynne claimed that Brahminic passages on meditation suggest that the most basic presupposition of early Brahmanical yoga is that the creation of the world must be reversed, through a series of meditative states, by the yogin who seeks the realization of the self. These states were given doctrinal background in early Brahminic cosmologies, which classified the world into successively coarser strata. One such stratification is found at TU II.1 and Mbh XII.195, and proceeds as follows: self, space, wind, fire, water, earth. Mbh XII.224 gives alternatively: Brahman, mind, space, wind, fire, water, earth.

In Brahmanical thought, the meditative states of consciousness were thought to be identical to the subtle strata of the cosmos. There is no similar theoretical background to element meditation in the early Buddhist texts, where the elements appear simply as suitable objects of meditation. It is likely that the Brahmanic practices of element-meditation were borrowed and adapted by early Buddhists, with the original Brahmanic ideology of the practices being discarded in the process.

Investigation of self

On this point, it is thought that the uses of the elements in early Buddhist literature have in general very little connection to Brahmanical thought; in most places they occur in teachings where they form the objects of a detailed contemplation of the human being. The aim of these contemplations seems to have been to bring about the correct understanding that the various perceived aspects of a human being, when taken together, nevertheless do not comprise a “self.” Moreover, the self is conceptualized in terms similar to both “nothingness” and “neither perception nor non-perception” at different places in early Upanishadic literature. The latter corresponds to Yajnavalkya’s definition of the self in his famous dialogue with Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and to the definition given in the post-Buddhist Mandukya Upanishad. This is mentioned as a claim of non-Buddhist ascetics and Brahmins in the Pañcattaya Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 102.2). In the same dialogue in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya draws the conclusion that the self that is neither perceptive nor non-perceptive is a state of consciousness without object. The early Buddhist evidence suggests much the same thing for the eighth absorption or jhāna, the state of “neither perception nor non-perception”. It is a state without an object of awareness, that is not devoid of awareness. The ninth jhāna that is sometimes said to be beyond this state, the “cessation of perception and sensation”, is devoid not only of objectivity, but of subjectivity as well.

Criticism of Wynne

The Brahmanical texts cited by Wynne assumed their final form long after the Buddha’s lifetime. The Mokshadharma postdates him.

Early Buddhism

Main articles: Enlightenment in Buddhism and Nirvana

The Buddhist tradition has incorporated two traditions regarding the use of jhāna. There is a tradition that stresses attaining insight (bodhiprajñākenshō) as the means to awakening and liberation. But the Buddhist tradition has also incorporated the yogic tradition, as reflected in the use of jhāna, which is rejected in other sūtras as not resulting in the final result of liberation. One solution to this contradiction is the conjunctive use of vipassanā and samatha.

Five possibilities regarding jhāna and liberation

Schmithausen notes that the mention of the four noble truths as constituting “liberating insight”, which is attained after mastering the Rupa Jhānas, is a later addition to texts such as Majjhima Nikaya 36. Schmithausen discerns three possible roads to liberation as described in the suttas, to which Vetter adds a fourth possibility, while the attainment of Nirodha-Samapatti may constitute a fifth possibility:

  1. Mastering the four jhānas, whereafter “liberating insight” is attained;
  2. Mastering the four jhānas and the four arupas, whereafter “liberating insight” is attained;
  3. Liberating insight itself suffices;
  4. The four jhānas themselves constituted the core liberating practice of early Buddhism, c.q. the Buddha;
  5. Liberation is attained in Nirodha-Samapatti.

Rupa Jhāna followed by liberating insight

Main articles: Vipassana and Sampajañña

According to the Theravada-tradition, the meditator uses the jhāna state to bring the mind to rest, and to strengthen and sharpen the mind, in order to investigate the true nature of phenomena (dhamma) and to gain insight into impermanence, suffering and not-self. According to the Theravada-tradition, the arahant is aware that the jhānas are ultimately unsatisfactory, realizing that the meditative attainments are also anicca, impermanent.

In the Mahasaccaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 36), which narrates the story of the Buddha’s awakening, dhyana is followed by insight into the four noble truths. The mention of the four noble truths as constituting “liberating insight” is probably a later addition. Vetter notes that such insight is not possible in a state of dhyana, when interpreted as concentration, since discursive thinking is eliminated in such a state. He also notes that the emphasis on “liberating insight” developed only after the four noble truths were introduced as an expression of what this “liberating insight” constituted. In time, other expressions took over this function, such as pratītyasamutpāda and the emptiness of the self.

Rupa Jhāna and the arupas, followed by liberating insight

This scheme is rejected by scholars as a later development, since the arupas are akin to non-Buddhist practices, and rejected elsewhere in the canon.

Insight alone suffices

The emphasis on “liberating insight” alone seems to be a later development, in response to developments in Indian religious thought, which saw “liberating insight” as essential to liberation. This may also have been due to an over-literal interpretation by later scholastics of the terminology used by the Buddha, and to the problems involved with the practice of dhyana, and the need to develop an easier method.

Contemporary scholars have discerned a broader application of jhāna in historical Buddhist practice. According to Alexander Wynne, the ultimate aim of dhyana was the attainment of insight, and the application of the meditative state to the practice of mindfulness. According to Frauwallner, mindfulness was a means to prevent the arising of craving, which resulted simply from contact between the senses and their objects. According to Frauwallner, this may have been the Buddha’s original idea. According to Wynne, this stress on mindfulness may have led to the intellectualism which favoured insight over the practice of dhyana.

Jhana itself is liberating

Both Schmithausen and Bronkhorst note that the attainment of insight, which is a cognitive activity, cannot be possible in a state wherein all cognitive activity has ceased. According to Vetter, the practice of Rupa Jhāna itself may have constituted the core practice of early Buddhism, with practices such as sila and mindfulness aiding its development. It is the “middle way” between self-mortification, ascribed by Bronkhorst to Jainism, and indulgence in sensual pleasure. Vetter emphasizes that dhyana is a form of non-sensual happiness. The eightfold path can be seen as a path of preparation which leads to the practice of samadhi.

Liberation in Nirodha-Samapatti

According to some texts, after progressing through the eight jhānas and the stage of Nirodha-Samapatti, a person is liberated. According to some traditions someone attaining the state of Nirodha-Samapatti is an anagami or an arahant. In the Anupadda sutra, the Buddha narrates that Sariputta became an arahant upon reaching it.


Dhyana as concentration

Buddhagosa’s Visuddhimagga considers jhana to be an exercise in concentration-meditation. His views, together with the Satipatthana Sutta, inspired the development, in the 19th and 20th century, of new meditation techniques which gained a great popularity among lay audiences in the second half of the 20th century.


According to Henepola Gunaratana, the term “jhana” is closely connected with “samadhi“, which is generally rendered as “concentration”. The word “samadhi” is almost interchangeable with the word “samatha”, serenity. According to Gunaratana, in the widest sense the word samadhi is being used for the practices which lead to the development of serenity. In this sense, samadhi and jhana are close in meaning. Nevertheless, they are not exactly identical, since “certain differences in their suggested and contextual meanings prevent unqualified identification of the two terms.” Samadhi signifies only one mental factor, namely one-pointedness, while the word “jhana” encompasses the whole state of consciousness, “or at least the whole group of mental factors individuating that meditative state as a jhana.” Furthermore, according to Gunaratana, samadhi involves “a wider range of reference than jhana,” noting that “the Pali exegetical tradition recognizes three levels of samadhi: preliminary concentration (parikammasamadhi) […] access concentration (upacarasamadhi) […] and absorption concentration (appanasamadhi).”

Development and application of concentration

According to the Pāli canon commentary, access/neighbourhood concentration (upacāra-samādhi) is a stage of meditation that the meditator reaches before entering into jhāna. The overcoming of the five hindrances mark the entry into access concentration. Access concentration is not mentioned in the discourses of the Buddha, but there are several suttas where a person gains insight into the Dhamma on hearing a teaching from the Buddha.

According to Tse-fu Kuan, at the state of access concentration, some meditators may experience vivid mental imagery, which is similar to a vivid dream. They are as vivid as if seen by the eye, but in this case the meditator is fully aware and conscious that they are seeing mental images. According to Tse-fu Kuan, this is discussed in the early texts, and expanded upon in Theravāda commentaries.

According to Venerable Sujivo, as the concentration becomes stronger, the feelings of breathing and of having a physical body will completely disappear, leaving only pure awareness. At this stage inexperienced meditators may become afraid, thinking that they are going to die if they continue the concentration, because the feeling of breathing and the feeling of having a physical body has completely disappeared. They should not be so afraid and should continue their concentration in order to reach “full concentration” (jhāna).

A meditator should first master the lower jhānas, before they can go into the higher jhānas. According to Nathan Katz, the early suttas state that “the most exquisite of recluses” is able to attain any of the jhānas and abide in them without difficulty.

According to the contemporary Vipassana-movement, the jhāna state cannot by itself lead to enlightenment as it only suppresses the defilements. Meditators must use the jhāna state as an instrument for developing wisdom by cultivating insight, and use it to penetrate the true nature of phenomena through direct cognition, which will lead to cutting off the defilements and nibbana.

According to the later Theravāda commentorial tradition as outlined by Buddhagoṣa in his Visuddhimagga, after coming out of the state of jhāna the meditator will be in the state of post-jhāna access concentration. In this state the investigation and analysis of the true nature of phenomena begins, which leads to insight into the characteristics of impermanence, suffering and not-self arises.

Contemporary reassessment – the “Jhana wars”

While Theravada-meditation was introduced to the west as vipassana-meditation, which rejected the usefulness of jhana, there is a growing interest among western vipassana-practitioners in jhana. The nature and practice of jhana is a topic of debate and contention among western convert Theravadins, to the extent that the disputes have even been called “the Jhana wars.” Both academic scholars and contemporary practitioners have raised questions about the interpretation of the jhanas as being states of absorption which are not necessary for the attainment of liberation. While groundbreaking research on this topic has been done by Bareau, Schmithausen, Stuart-Fox, Bucknell, Vetter, Bronkhorst, and Wynne, Theravada practitioners have also scrutinized and criticised the samathavipassana distinction. Reassessments of the description of jhana in the suttas consider jhana and vipassana to be an integrated practice, leading to a “tranquil and equanimous awareness of whatever arises in the field of experience.”

Criticism of Visudhimagga

The Visuddhimagga, and the “pioneering popularizing work of Daniel Goleman,” has been influential in the (mis)understanding of dhyana being a form of concentration-meditation. The Visuddhimagga is centered around kasina-meditation, a form of concentration-meditation in which the mind is focused on a (mental) object. According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “[t]he text then tries to fit all other meditation methods into the mold of kasina practice, so that they too give rise to countersigns, but even by its own admission, breath meditation does not fit well into the mold.” According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “the Visuddhimagga uses a very different paradigm for concentration from what you find in the Canon.” In its emphasis on kasina-meditation, the Visuddhimagga departs from the Pali Canon, in which dhyana is the central meditative practice, indicating that what “jhana means in the commentaries is something quite different from what it means in the Canon.”

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana also notes that what “the suttas say is not the same as what the Visuddhimagga says […] they are actually different,” leading to a divergence between a [traditional] scholarly understanding and a practical understanding based on meditative experience. Gunaratana further notes that Buddhaghosa invented several key meditation terms which are not to be found in the suttas, such as “parikamma samadhi (preparatory concentration), upacara samadhi (access concentration), appanasamadhi (absorption concentration).” Gunaratana also notes that Buddhaghosa’s emphasis on kasina-meditation is not to be found in the suttas, where dhyana is always combined with mindfulness.

According to Vetter, dhyana as a preparation of discriminating insight must have been different from the dhyana-practice introduced by the Buddha, using kasina-exercises to produce a “more artificially produced dhyana”, resulting in the cessation of apperceptions and feelings. Kasina-exercises are propagated in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, which is considered the authoritative commentary on meditation practice in the Theravada tradition, but differs from the Pali canon in its description of jhana. While the suttas connect samadhi to mindfulness and awareness of the body, for Buddhaghosa jhana is a purely mental exercise, in which one-pointed concentration leads to a narrowing of attention.

Jhana as integrated practice

Several western teachers (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Leigh Brasington, Richard Shankman) make a distinction between “sutta-oriented” jhana and “Visuddhimagga-oriented” jhana, dubbed “minimalists” and “maximalists” by Kenneth Rose.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has repeatedly argued that the Pali Canon and the Visuddhimagga give different descriptions of the jhanas, regarding the Visuddhimagga-description to be incorrect.

According to Richard Shankman, the sutta descriptions of jhāna practice explain that the meditator does not emerge from jhāna to practice vipassana but rather the work of insight is done whilst in jhāna itself. In particular the meditator is instructed to “enter and remain in the fourth jhāna” before commencing the work of insight in order to uproot the mental defilements.

Keren Arbel has conducted extensive research on the jhanas and the contemporary criticisms of the commentarial interpretation. Based on this research, and her own experience as a senior meditation-teacher, she gives a reconstructed account of the original meaning of the dhyanas. She argues that jhana is an integrated practice, describing the fourth jhana as “non-reactive and lucid awareness,” not as a state of deep concentration. According to Arbel, it develops “a mind which is not conditioned by habitual reaction-patterns of likes and dislikes […] a profoundly wise relation to experience, not tainted by any kind of wrong perception and mental reactivity rooted in craving (tanha).

According to Kenneth Rose, the Visuddhimagga-oriented “maximalist” approach is a return to ancient Indian “mainstream practices,” in which physical and mental immobility was thought to lead to liberation from samsara and rebirth. This approach was rejected by the Buddha, turning to a gentler approach which results in upekkha and sati, equanimous awareness of experience.

In Mahāyāna traditions

Bodhisattva seated in dhyāna. Afghanistan, 2nd century

Bodhisattva seated in meditation. Afghanistan, 2nd century CE

Mahāyāna Buddhism includes numerous schools of practice. Each draw upon various Buddhist sūtras, philosophical treatises, and commentaries, and each has its own emphasis, mode of expression, and philosophical outlook. Accordingly, each school has its own meditation methods for the purpose of developing samādhi and prajñā, with the goal of ultimately attaining enlightenment.

Chan Buddhism

See also: ZenChan BuddhismZazenKorean SeonVietnamese Thiền, and Zen in the United States

Dhyāna is a central aspect of Buddhist practice in Chan, necessary for progress on the path and “true entry into the Dharma.”


In China, the word dhyāna was originally transliterated with Chinese: 禪那; pinyin: chánnà and shortened to just pinyin: chán in common usage. The word and the practice of meditation entered into Chinese through the translations of An Shigao (fl. c. 148–180 CE), and Kumārajīva (334–413 CE), who translated Dhyāna sutras, which were influential early meditation texts mostly based on the Yogacara meditation teachings of the Sarvāstivāda school of Kashmir circa 1st-4th centuries CE. The word chán became the designation for Chan Buddhism (Korean Seon, Zen).

While dhyana in a strict sense refers to the four dhyanas, in Chinese Buddhism dhyāna may refer to various kinds of meditation techniques and their preparatory practices, which are necessary to practice dhyana. The five main types of meditation in the Dhyana sutras are anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing); paṭikūlamanasikāra meditation, mindfulness of the impurities of the body; loving-kindness maitrī meditation; the contemplation on the twelve links of pratītyasamutpāda; and the contemplation on the Buddha’s thirty-two Characteristics.


Observing the breath
Venerable Hsuan Hua meditating in the Lotus Position. Hong Kong, 1953.

Venerable Hsuan Hua meditating in the Lotus Position. Hong Kong, 1953.

During sitting meditation, practitioners usually assume a position such as the lotus position, half-lotus, Burmese, or yoga postures, using the dhyāna mudrā. To regulate the mind, awareness is directed towards counting or watching the breath or by bringing that awareness to the energy center below the navel (see also ānāpānasati). Often, a square or round cushion placed on a padded mat is used to sit on; in some other cases, a chair may be used. This practice may simply be called sitting dhyāna, which is zuòchán (坐禅) in Chinese, and zazen (坐禅) in Japanese, jwaseon (坐禅) in Korean.

Observing the mind

In the Sōtō school of Zen, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content, is the primary form of practice. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference. Considerable textual, philosophical, and phenomenological justification of this practice can be found throughout Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, as for example in the “Principles of Zazen” and the “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen”. In the Japanese language, this practice is called Shikantaza.


Pointing to the nature of the mind

According to Charles Luk, in the earliest traditions of Chán, there was no fixed method or formula for teaching meditation, and all instructions were simply heuristic methods, to point to the true nature of the mind, also known as Buddha-nature. According to Luk, this method is referred to as the “Mind Dharma”, and exemplified in the story of Śākyamuni Buddha holding up a flower silently, and Mahākāśyapa smiling as he understood. A traditional formula of this is, “Chán points directly to the human mind, to enable people to see their true nature and become buddhas.”

Kōan practice

Main article: Kōan

Chinese character for "nothing" (Hanyu Pinyin: wú; Japanese pronunciation: mu; Korean pronunciation: mu). It figures in the famous Zhaozhou's dog kōan.

Chinese character for “nothing” (Hanyu Pinyin: wú; Japanese pronunciation: mu; Korean pronunciation: mu). It figures in the famous Zhaozhou’s dog kōan.

At the beginning of the Sòng dynasty, practice with the kōan method became popular, whereas others practiced “silent illumination.” This became the source of some differences in practice between the Línjì and Cáodòng schools.

A kōan, literally “public case”, is a story or dialogue, describing an interaction between a Zen master and a student. These anecdotes give a demonstration of the master’s insight. Koans emphasize the non-conceptional insight that the Buddhist teachings are pointing to. Koans can be used to provoke the “great doubt”, and test a student’s progress in Zen practice.

Kōan-inquiry may be practiced during zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), and throughout all the activities of daily life. Kōan practice is particularly emphasized by the Japanese Rinzai school, but it also occurs in other schools or branches of Zen depending on the teaching line.

The Zen student’s mastery of a given kōan is presented to the teacher in a private interview (referred to in Japanese as dokusan (独参), daisan (代参), or sanzen (参禅)). While there is no unique answer to a kōan, practitioners are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the kōan and of Zen through their responses. The teacher may approve or disapprove of the answer and guide the student in the right direction. The interaction with a Zen teacher is central in Zen, but makes Zen practice also vulnerable to misunderstanding and exploitation.


B. Alan Wallace holds that modern Tibetan Buddhism lacks emphasis on achieving levels of concentration higher than access concentration. According to Wallace, one possible explanation for this situation is that virtually all Tibetan Buddhist meditators seek to become enlightened through the use of tantric practices. These require the presence of sense desire and passion in one’s consciousness, but jhāna effectively inhibits these phenomena.

While few Tibetan Buddhists, either inside or outside Tibet, devote themselves to the practice of concentration, Tibetan Buddhist literature does provide extensive instructions on it, and great Tibetan meditators of earlier times stressed its importance.

Related concepts in Indian religions

See also: Dhyana in Hinduism

Dhyana is an important ancient practice mentioned in the Vedic and post-Vedic literature of Hinduism, as well as early texts of Jainism. Dhyana in Buddhism influenced these practices as well as was influenced by them, likely in its origins and its later development.

Parallels with Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga

See also: Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

There are parallels with the fourth to eighth stages of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, as mentioned in his classical work, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which were compiled around 400 CE by, taking materials about yoga from older traditions.

Patanjali discerns bahiranga (external) aspects of yoga namely, yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, and the antaranga (internal) yoga. Having actualized the pratyahara stage, a practitioner is able to effectively engage into the practice of Samyama. At the stage of pratyahara, the consciousness of the individual is internalized in order that the sensations from the senses of taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell don’t reach their respective centers in the brain and takes the sadhaka (practitioner) to next stages of Yoga, namely Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (mystical absorption), being the aim of all Yogic practices.

The Eight Limbs of the yoga sutras show Samadhi as one of its limbs. The Eight limbs of the Yoga Sutra was influenced by Buddhism.  Vyasa’s Yogabhashya, the commentary to the Yogasutras, and Vacaspati Misra’s subcommentary state directly that the samadhi techniques are directly borrowed from the Buddhists’ Jhana, with the addition of the mystical and divine interpretations of mental absorption. The Yoga Sutra, especially the fourth segment of Kaivalya Pada, contains several polemical verses critical of Buddhism, particularly the Vijñānavāda school of Vasubandhu.

The suttas show that during the time of the Buddha, Nigantha Nataputta, the Jain leader, did not even believe that it is possible to enter a state where the thoughts and examination stop.

Scientific studies

There has been little scientific study of these mental states. In 2008, an EEG study found “strong, significant, and consistent differences in specific brain regions when the meditator is in a jhana state compared to normal resting consciousness”. Tentative hypotheses on the neurological correlates have been proposed, but lack supporting evidence.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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