Although the Jhanas appear very frequently in the discourses of the Buddha (suttas), now two and a half millenna later there is no generally agreed upon interpretation of what exactly these states of concentration are. This paper is a highly subjective attempt by one Jhana practitioner to simply list and categorize the various interpretations I have heard of here at the beginning of the 21st century. The information in this list is quite likely to not be totally accurate. If you can provide more details of a teacher's method, Please write me at !
The first broad categorization would be into "Sutta Style Jhanas" and "Visuddhimagga Style Jhanas". These two phrases are not ideal, but I use them until someone comes up with a better pair. "Visuddhimagga Style Jhanas" use a nimitta for access and involve very deep concentration. "Sutta Style Jhanas" do not require a nimitta and involve more accessible states of concentration.
The Jhanas as discussed in the suttas are accessible to many people. The suttas seem to indicate that they were just part of the monastics' training program; thus they were not a big deal and were accessible to many.
However, the Visuddhimagga states in section XII.8 that of those who undertake the meditation path, only one in 1,000,000 (at best) can reach absorption 1. We don't have to take this figure literally to begin to understand that the Jhanas as discussed in the Visuddhimagga are of a much deeper level of concentration than those described in the suttas. Basically, the Jhanas as described in the Visuddhimagga seem to be much more developed and systematized than those of the suttas. Even the factors given for the first four Jhanas are not the same: see The Traditional Factors of the 8 Jhanas.
So the following table lists the various interpretations I have encountered and gives a (hopefully somewhat accurate) picture of each of the interpretations. Each system is given by the name of the place or teacher that teaches (or taught) in the style:
Visuddhimagga Style Jhanas
Pa Auk Monastery (near Moulmein, Taninthayi Division, Burma) continues the genuine monastic tradition as preserved in the Visuddhimagga. The Jhanas taught there are a very deep absorption, and not surprisingly are not accessible by the majority of people who undertake learning them. The stories I hear are of about one-third of the monks and nuns being able to access them (with nuns doing a bit better than the monks). Lay practitioners from the West seldom report any success accessing these deep states except in the context of a multi-month retreat. Various access methods are taught including kasinas and anapanasati.
The Jhanas are used to generate a concentrated mind, which is then used to do the various insight practices outlined in the Visuddhimagga, and to undertake the systematic study of the mind as outlined in the Abhidhamma.
Shaila Catherine leads periodic retreats on jhana and insight practices. Her orientation to jhana is influenced by reflection on the suttas and practical experience accrued during twenty months of jhana-based retreat practice. Her interest in jhana began by attending a 10-day course with Leigh Brasington, followed by 14 months of jhana-based personal retreat at IMS, some months of Brahma Vihara practice guided by IMS teachers, and 5 months of retreat guided by the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw. When teaching jhana retreats, Shaila introduces the breath as the initial object (on an individual basis she may guide advanced students in the use of kasinas, Brahma Viharas, repulsive objects, or formless abidings). During week long jhana retreats Shaila typically emphasizes the deepening of concentration (with or without absorption), nurturing the arising and stabilizing of the nimitta to full absorption into the first jhana, discerning jhanic factors, and cultivating the qualities of happiness associated with jhana. Her methodology is detailed in her book, Focused and Fearless: A Meditator's Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity, published by Wisdom Publications 2008.
Ajahn Brahmavamso is a Theravadan Buddhist monk who lives in Western Australia. He studied extensively with Ajahn Chah in Thailand as well as in other places before settling in Australia. His definition of exactly what constituted a Jhana seems close to the depths indicated in the Visuddhimagga, but he says he teaches from the suttas and from his experience. His essays The Basic Method of Meditation and Travelogue to the four Jhanas outline his Jhana teaching. The primary access method he teaches is Anapanasati, which he refers to as "experiencing the 'beautiful breath'." His main emphasis is about the attitude of not getting the 'doer' or 'craving' or 'will' involved. He emphasizes finding happiness and joy in stillness. His main teachings are now to 'make peace, be kind & be gentle' which are the right intentions of the Noble Eightfold Path. So no matter what method or object of meditation one uses, one has to make sure to have the 'right intentions' of it. His dharma talks here explain this in more detail.
Sutta Style Jhanas
Christina Feldman uses the breath (anapanasati) as the access method to enter the Jhanas. The depth of absorption experienced by her students is definitely quite strong, but does not appear to be anything like that required by the two "Visuddhimagga" methods above. In an interview in the Inquiring Mind, Christina said that she wanted at least a month to work with a student in order for them to have sufficient time for the mind to become sufficiently concentrated to reach the Jhana.
Ayya Khema taught a level of absorption that at least some of her students could learn in a 10-day mediation retreat. Although the depth of concentration is not terribly strong in the first three Jhanas, she did want her students to be absorbed enough in the fourth Jhana that sounds stopped being heard, or at least seemed noticeably muffled. Ayya taught using the breath, Metta, and "sweeping" as access methods. She took The Graduated Training as her guide for what to do with the Jhanas: "With ones mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, one directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision" of things as they are.
Leigh Brasington, a student of Ayya Khema, teaches in her style, but wants a bit more absorption in the first Jhana than Ayya wanted, and is willing to accept less absorption in the fourth Jhana.
Venerable Amathagavesi, a Sri Lankan meditation master, taught the 4 rupa-jhanas as a precursor to vipassana practice. He used Metta and Asubha meditations to subdue aversion and craving in preparation for jhana practice. The yogi's mind is prepared to a specific degree of tranquility which can easily generate a jhanic experience by the force of a wish. Then he trains in the Mastery of Jhana; i.e. to enter, maintain and come out of jhana as one wishes. The yogi can explore the falling away or addition of jhana factors as he changes between jhana. The initial required intensity of jhana can be attained at a two-week retreat. However, advanced practitioners are encouraged to develop jhana to full strength. Access is through mindfulness of breath. Venerable Amathagavesi passed away June 11, 2007 at the age of 85.
Bhante Gunaratana teaches in a style that seems very much the same as is detailed in the Visuddhimagga. However, he too has students who can learn to become absorbed in a 10-day retreat, so the depth of absorption is seemingly not the same as in the Visuddhimagga. He mentioned in a private conversation with me that he wants his students to practice insight meditation while still in the jhanic state as described in MN 111 - One by One as They Occurred - which again seems to indicate a depth of absorption less than Visuddhimagga level. But in his book on the jhanas, he writes "Insight cannot be practiced while absorbed in jhana, since insight meditation requires investigation and observation, which are impossible when the mind is immersed in one-pointed absorption. But after emerging from the jhana, the mind is cleared of the hindrances, and the stillness and clarity that then result conduce to precise, penetrating insight." There are two books by him that provide more of his interpretation of the jhanas:
Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes the absorption in the Jhanas as not so total that one loses awareness of the body: "To be in Jhana is to be absorbed, very pleasurably, in the sense of the whole body altogether." He instructs his students to practice insight meditation while still in the jhanic state - again as described in MN 111 - One by One as They Occurred. See his article The Path of Concentration and Mindfulness.
Insight Meditation Society teaches Jhanas to some of the students in the three-month retreat each year. The access method is via Brahma-Vihara practices. The depth of absorption here seems to be limited by the student continuing to repeat the Metta (or other Brahma-Vihara) phrases while in the jhanic state. However, some students who have practiced using this method have indicated that they manage to drop the phrases and then enter into a deeper state of absorption. In private conversations, several people who have practiced using this method, have indicated that the essence of the states is the same as that they subsequently learned using Ayya Khema's method - only the access method was different.
The Pragmatic Dharma movement also teaches jhanas. It seems mostly they are working with the so-called "vipassana jhanas" which are 4 of The Sixteen Insight Knowledges. But they also do work with jhanas aimed at generating concentration, using some of the Sutta Style Jhanas techniques mentioned above.
An interesting thing that I have observed that holds for most teachers of Jhana is that they tend to regard all Jhana methods with concentration levels less than their own as "not authentic, not real Jhanas", and they tend to regard all methods with concentration levels stronger than their own as "indulging, not useful."
Given the diversity outlined above, several possible conclusions can be drawn:
Mistakes in the above are quite possible!
There are a number of different ways to interpret the ancient literature about the Jhanas.
We don't really know exactly what type of Jhanas the Buddha and his disciples were practicing.
Since it is very clear that the Buddha did not regard the Jhanas as anything more than a tool, what is really important is not so much which version you learn, but that you apply the jhanic state of mind to insight practice, either while still in the Jhana or immediately thereafter.
"[T]he kasina preliminary work is difficult for a beginner and only one in a hundred or a thousand can do it. The arousing of the sign is difficult for one who has done the preliminary work and only one in a hundred or a thousand can do it. To extend the sign when it has arisen and to reach absorption is difficult and only one in a hundred or a thousand can do it." Vsm. XII.8
Thus only 1 in 100 x 100 x 100 = 1,000,000 can reach absorption (Jhana) - using the most optimistic figures.