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Buddhism and the Jhanas
Kumar: I trust you are well.
James: Better than ever! Nice to hear from you, Kumar.
Kumar: I believe that the jhanas are a powerful technique to sharpen your mind so that insight might appear, take root and become integrated with your real life. It is also historically used as a tool to burn the mind of conditioning and residual karma. The insight is through vipassana practice since the jhanas do not lead to liberation by themselves. I am working backwards since I already know who I am but it is an excellent set of techniques to deepen your understanding of how the mind works.
James: Well, working backwards is always easier then working forwards because the seeking has stopped. As long as we are here action is required and the jhanas are as good a way as any to spend your time.
Kumar: In Hindu tradition doing jhanas would be like doing tapas, very useful for stilling the mind, burning karma and allowing the self to reflect in a pure mind. Enlightened or not, the mind needs to be carefully monitored all the time.
James: Yes, indeed.
Kumar: In my personal experience, doing tapas or jhanas is essential for maintaining equanimity and a calm, tranquil mind. I also realized the connection between the pranayama exercises taught in raja yoga and connecting to the non-experiencing witness through breath practice. It was a very powerful feeling knowing that breath can help connect the mind to the non-experiencing witness in a radically different way. Of course, the assumption is that you already know that you are the non-experiencing entity.
James: Yes, you can connect with the breath. It happens in the method I teach too but the big issue, as you say, is whether or not you know you are the non-experiencing witness. Seems your self-knowledge is firming up nicely.
Kumar: Actually, any meditation practice or scriptural study should suffice but one advantage of doing jhanas is the bliss the mind feels while meditating. It would be the Buddhist equivalent of bhakti yoga. Also, in these deep absorption states, the knowledge that “I am limitless awareness” will stick better and continue to grow.
There is some confusion in Buddhism about awareness/self as presented by Vedanta and non-self. When I asked the teacher if jhana arises in the mind or awareness, they had no idea what I was talking about. Nobody ever asked them this question before. Also, I asked who is the recognizer of the jhana state, because to recognize that you are in jhana, there has to be an element of recognition, otherwise you will have no idea what state you are in. Recognition necessarily has to happen in the mind because it is an instrument of the self and the mind is insentient except as illuminated by the awareness.
James: I am not surprised that they don’t know the self. That is our issue with Buddhism since time immemorial. I have yet to meet a Buddhist that understands it. There is a video on my website of a Buddhist – the only one I ever came across who seems to know what it is and that he is it – that seems to indicate that self-knowledge is alive somewhere in the Buddhist world, but it is very rare. They are doer-oriented, experience-oriented, particularly the jhana guys.
Kumar: Anyway, I found it odd that this obvious fact was lost to them. Maybe the concept of no-self is misinterpreted by Buddhists as a non-recognizing entity, I don’t know, but I wish they just said that it was awareness or the mind illuminated by awareness. I had a big discussion with my Zen teacher after the retreat but it seems in Buddhism they dance around the fact.
James: They don’t know, Kumar. When Buddhism left its Vedic roots it splintered into a myriad of ideas, most of them – I hesitate to say all – devoid of self-knowledge. They talk about it, they dance around it, but they do not have a valid means of self-knowledge.
Kumar: That said, I have no doubt it is a powerful practice, and stilling the mind allows one to see the conditioning of the mind as a whole. I can bet easy money that “choiceless awareness” that Krishnamurti talks about is using the practice of jhana to still the mind so that at some point in time the spark of awareness ignites.
James: This is probably true but, again, it just generates experience, and without a way to evaluate it apart from the jiva’s (always uninformed) interpretation it usually develops into another frustration and attachment. What do the Buddhists say is the purpose of the jhanas? We know they are good for getting a sattvic mind but what do they think they are accomplishing? There are a lot of other ways of getting a sattvic mind.
Kumar: Maybe if you sit long enough and you are an intelligent person, the insight that you are awareness might arise, but Vedanta is easier.
James: That’s right. We give them that. Meditation is called a leading error. It is a mistake but it can put you in the right arena and inquiry may develop and, like Ramana, you might just get that you are awareness.
Kumar: Historically Buddha had to differentiate himself from the Vedic culture so it is entirely possible that he articulated the same concepts slightly differently. When I was reading Buddhism I came across their renditions of Sanskrit words, and some of them were right, some were close and some were completely off the mark. The problem with Buddhism is that it can be whatever you want it to be. There are more Buddhisms than stars in the sky. Vedanta is Vedanta. It does not change because the object of knowledge… awareness… does not change. If you haven’t been taught, you will not get it.
Kumar: I am pretty sure when Buddha said anatman he meant that there was no permanent experiencing entity, which is correct.
James: That is true but concepts are just concepts. Their implied meaning can point to the self and deliver self-knowledge but unless the concepts are used in the proper way – we have a definite method for using concepts – they won’t remove ignorance, they will just supply definitions, more concepts – for objects in the apparent reality and for the self. Their problem is that they don’t know what enlightenment is. You have to know that the problem is ignorance and that getting a concept of who you are is still ignorance. What happened is that, as you say, the Buddha felt he had to differentiate himself from the Vedic culture which means he didn’t understand what it actually was at its heart. He was only looking at it from the religious/cultural level. The Brahmins were corrupt so he assumed that Vedanta was corrupt and he decided he would reform it or provide and alternative. He would never have done this had he been properly taught. And if he was enlightened it was not due to teaching. It was like Ramana’s, experiential, from which he probably extracted the knowledge. But we really don’t know. Nobody knows. Buddhism was cooked up many years after the Buddha and he didn’t write, or if he did it was lost to time. What we have are a few snippets of his words. And who knows exactly what he meant by them, or what those who remembered them did to them as they were handed down? I think you are right about his meaning of the word anatman. But this is not a teaching. It is one small idea that needs to be contexualized within a much broader framework if it is going to make sense.
Kumar: I hope your retreat went well. I am enjoying sitting still in silence and watching my breath unfold. The journey continues.
James: Good for you. I have been there and done that, as they say. Yes, the retreat was excellent. Take care of yourself, Kumar.
~ Much love, James