The last limb of the eight-fold yoga of Buddha is Jhana or meditative obsorbtion. Most of these methods of meditation are taught by Buddha and later developed further and systematized in the Theravada school of Buddhist regarded as “nihilistic” by rival schools. But there is nothing nihilistic in this system of meditation. On the contrary, it is a great attempt at exploration of the inner space and raising toward a higher consciousness beyond the rational mind. There are eight stages of Jhana. The first four are described as Jhana with form and last four are formless. In the following passage, Buddha describes the first four Jhanas.
So I, brahman, aloof from the pleasures of the senses, aloof from unskilled states of mind, entered into the first meditation which is accompanied by initial thought and discursive thought, is born of aloofness and is rapturous and joyful.
By allaying initial and discursive thought, with the mind subjectively tranquillised and fixed on one point, I entered into and abided in the second meditation which is devoid of initial and discursive thought, is born of concentration, and is rapturous and joyful.
By the fading out of rapture, I dwelt with equanimity, attentive and clearly conscious: and I experienced in my person that joy of which the ariyans say: “Joyful lives he who has equanimity and is mindful,” and I entered into and abided in the third meditation.
By getting rid of joy, by getting rid of anguish, by the going down of my former pleasures and sorrows, I entered into the fourth meditation which has neither anguish nor joy and is entirely purified by equanimity and mindfulness.
What is precisely the discipline followed here? In the first stage the thinking mind is allowed to dwell and contemplate on the objects of meditation. In the second stage, the thinking mind is stilled and focused on a point. In the subsequent stages, the mind is inwardly detached from all emotional states of joy and anguish, until all emotions in the heart are stilled in a state of increasing serenity, equanimity and detachment. This is done not by struggling with thoughts and feelings but by inner detachment and equanimity and an alert mindfulness. When there is no clinging attachment or preferences to thoughts and feeling, they pass, leaving the mind and heart tranquil and free. Another important point to note here is that Buddhist yoga gives not much importance to inner joy and ecstasy of the emotional kind which are regarded as obstacles to spiritual progress. Buddhist yogis gave a much higher importance to peace and serenity than to ecstasy. Inner states of concentration may be accompanied by mental or vital exaltration. If a yogi gets attached and clings to these joys he cannot progress further. Buddhist yogi, Ashwagosha, making a clear distinction between joy and bliss states:
“What are the difference between joy and bliss? Buoyancy is joy, ease of mind is bliss. Tranquility of mind is bliss concentration of mind is joy. Joy is coarse, bliss is fine.”
In this stage of form-focusing meditative practices, the seeker was asked to meditate on objects like Buddha, Sangha, Sila Peace, corpse, death, earth, air fire. Each seeker is given an object of meditation which is in harmony with his natural temperament. For example, devotional type are given subjects like Buddha, Sangha; passionate or sensual type are asked to meditate on the body-consciousness; dull and unstable on the respiration. The main objective of the discipline is to achieve an intense one-pointed concentration on the object which blots out the senses and stills the thinking and emotional mind. In the higher stages of concentration it raises or penetrates beyond the particular object into the universality or essence of the object. For example, when the meditator concentrates on a mud pot as a symbol of the earth, as the concentration progresses, the perception raises from the particular and the material to the immaterial, universal, and abstract principle of earth.
The next four Jhanas are the formless meditations which are describes as:
- Realisation of the sphere of ‘space-infinity’
- Realisation of the sphere of ‘consciousness-infinity’
- Realisation of the sphere of ‘no-thing-ness’
- Realisation of the sphere of neither ‘perception-nor-nonperception’
In this more advanced stages of formless meditation, the yogi turns his focus inward with more and more progressive widening of his consciousness on subjects which leads to the expansion of his awareness like infinity of space and infinity of consciousness. The last two stages indicate a state of being were the very sense of objective and subjective existence, “no-thing” is dissolved or transcended in something which can be described as neither consciousness or unconsciousness “neither perception-nor-nonperception.” And above the eight states is the Nirvana, which is described as:
“—a realm where there is neither the earth nor water, neither fire nor air, neither ether nor consciousness—neither this world nor any other world, neither sun nor moon.”
The Buddhist yogi Ashwagosha, in his classic work on Buddhist Yoga provides detailed and comprehensive guidance on how to traverse these eight stages of Jhana. For example, Ashwagosha describes how at each stage, the yogi makes an objective assessment of the content and quality of his consciousness, notes its limitations, intuitively perceives a higher and more perfect state beyond it and makes a conscious effort to raise towards the next stage. This shows, by around 500 A.D, when Ashwagosha lived, these meditational techniques were more or less systematized into a science. The Buddhist scholar Winston states that these Jhanic meditations are the “paradigm of meditation techniques in its highest classical Indian form” and ancestors of all the later Buddhist meditative practices.
Reference: Winston L. King, Theravada Meditation