GATHERING FRUIT AND PLANTING SEEDS:
THE FIRST WESTERN CONFERENCE ON
JHANA PRACTICE IN THERAVADA BUDDHISM
Over a four-day period ending on the Summer Solstice of 2001, a group of Asian monastic and western lay teachers and students gathered at a retreat center in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. The occasion was a unique event: the first known conference in a Western country on the significance of the Jhanas (meditative absorptions) in relation to other Theravada meditation techniques, as taught and practiced in both Asia and the West.
Through Dharma talks, sitting practice, and wide-ranging discussions, participants focused on two related subjects: (1) the received traditions of Jhana teachings and practice as taught by the Buddha and transmitted down through the ages (gathering fruit); and (2) the present and future development of Jhana teaching and practice in the West (planting seeds). Sharing the fruits of the tradition was accomplished primarily by two Asian monastics exceptionally qualified to perform that task: Bhante Gunaratana, a Sri Lankan scholar/monk and spiritual leader of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia; and Sister Dipankara, a ten-precept nun based at the Pa Auk Monastery in southern Burma.
The Jhanas are mentioned repeatedly in the Buddha’s teachings as means for attaining progressively deeper states of concentration, thus making possible progressively deeper insights into the nature of Mind. Entry into the meditative absorptions also constituted Siddharta Gautama’s final practice, as life was leaving his body. Nonetheless, only in the last decade have the Jhanas begun to receive consistent public attention in the West, through the writings of monastics such as Ayya Khema and Thanissaro Bhikku. Among Asian Theravada teachers, the teaching of Jhana has traditionally been reserved for monks and nuns and (later) others with considerable practice experience with Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) and Satipatthana (mindfulness of the arising and passing of phenomena).
The conference was organized and hosted by Leigh Brasington. Since 1997, he has been leading retreats featuring the Jhanas in the United States at the request of his teacher, the late Ven. Ayya Khema, a Theravada nun of German ethnic lineage whose Sri Lankan teacher was the Ven. Nanarama Mahathera. In his opening remarks, Leigh set the intention for the conference by quoting from the Metta Sutta, recalling the Buddha’s teaching that true spiritual freedom includes honoring the views of others even though they may not be in accord with one’s own: “By not holding to fixed views, The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision, Being freed from all sense desires, Is not born again into this world.”. Leigh conveyed his hope that we would comparatively contemplate both the similarities and the differences among the various approaches to teaching and practicing the Jhanas, but not try to advocate any one point of view over others, or attempt to forge consensus over how the practice ought to be presented in the West.
Bhante Gunaratana had come to the conference directly from leading his first retreat openly announced as one at which the Jhanas were to be featured; this was to be followed by another such retreat later in 2001, and another in 2002. Bhante portrayed the Jhanas as an important partner or companion to Vipassana, in that the former technique can greatly enhance one’s ability to do the latter. When asked why he was just now beginning to emphasize the Jhanas in his retreat teaching, he responded that it was because Theravada practice in the West had now matured to the point where these teachings could be productively employed. He also observed that eventually the Jhanas should come to be seen as equal in importance to Vipassana (and in combination with it) as a means for the practice of freedom.
In her presentations, Sister Dipankara reinforced and expanded on this theme of interconnectivity. She described the training approach at her monastery, in which practitioners are successively taught Anapana, Jhana, Vipassana, and Metta. Once thoroughly familiar with each of these, students are then taught how to move among them during sitting practice, and how to determine when it is skillful and appropriate to undertake such movement. She also emphasized that no one of these practices should be seen as inherently superior to or more advanced than another; it is simply a matter of determining which practice is most appropriate to a given situation, and when movement from one to another is called for.
In the first of several presentations by Western teachers and practitioners, Leigh provided a summarizing overview of the approaches used by Bhante Gunaratana and Sister Dipankara, as compared with the instructional teachings of Ayya Khema and other Theravada monastics who teach the Jhanas, such as Achann Brahmavamso in Australia (himself a former student of Achann Chah), and the Mahasi approach in Burma. In this presentation, the differences among these approaches appeared to have more to do with questions of technique than of the overall role and meaning of the Jhanas within the Theravada family of meditation practices.
Marvin Treiger, on the faculty of Antioch University West in Los Angeles, presented the findings of research he has been conducting on the entry of new and relatively inexperienced meditators into Jhanic states. His results so far indicate that such encounters with extra-rational states of consciousness are probably much more common than is usually recognized among meditators at all levels of experience and expertise, whether on short or long retreats. This in turn drew attention to the issue of how such experiences are framed, interpreted, and put into practice context by whatever teacher a meditator is sitting with when such mind states arise.
Lloyd Burton, a faculty member at the University of Colorado, gave a presentation on the political history of Buddha Dharma in Asia and the United States as it relates to the introduction of new teachings, teachers, and practices. This provided context for the discussion that followed on how the emerging focus on the Jhanas in the West might affect teaching and practice at Theravada-based retreat centers and local sitting groups.
Allan Cooper was unable to attend the conference, but he did send an audio tape entitled 7 ways Samatha/Jhana Supports Vipassana which was played during the conference.
Near the end of the conference, Michael Freeman gave a talk and led a discussion focusing on the similarities between the Jhanas and related contemplative practices in other major religious traditions. Michael is the director of the Southwest Sangha self-retreat center near Silver City, New Mexico, which hosts meditators from a wide variety of religious traditions who wish to go on silent self-retreat in this stunning setting in the remote highlands near the Gila Wilderness. He pointed out that although the Jhanas may be relatively new to the experience of most Western practitioners of Theravada meditation methods, Jhana-like states of mind are familiar territory (as are techniques for achieving them) to many of the retreatants of other spiritual traditions who practice at his center.
Teachers and students alike affirmed that while the Jhanas represent an important means for the development of deep concentration, it is also a method that needs to be taken up at the appropriate time in one’s practice and – if at all possible – in consultation with a more experienced spiritual friend who can provide reflection, guidance, and perspective. At one point Bhante Gunaratana was asked what he thought would be the most skillful means of talking to other Western teachers and practitioners about the Jhanas, in order to create greater understanding and more support for this area of practice on the one hand, while not engaging in either the appearance or the reality of proselytizing on the other. Bhante’s answer was at once affirming and a little sobering. It is less a matter of what one says, he observed, than of how one is.
Leigh is already busy planning a second Western Jhana conference, now tentatively scheduled for mid 2003, conditional on the participation of additional monastic and lay teachers from both East and West, as well as students with some practice experience with the Jhanas. For updates on developments as they occur, visit his website at http://www.leighb.com.
Photo of Participants
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