Ñanas and Jhanas

Kenneth Folk

Jhana, Ñana, and Path

There is a relationship between jhana, ñana and Path. In 1995, I spent two months at Sayadaw U Kundala's monastery in Rangoon. U Kundala, a former disciple of the late Mahasi Sayadaw, is a senior monk, much beloved, and widely reputed to be an arahat. A few weeks into the retreat, I began reporting to U Kundala that I was experiencing hundreds of little flashes of cessation each day, like the winking out of consciousness for a moment. They came singly or in waves, and I could induce them at will. On the third day of my trying to explain this to him through the interpreter, a woman who spoke rather limited English, U Kundala's eyes lit up as he said "Oh! That is Magga Phala! (Path and Fruition, the culmination of one of the Four Paths of Enlightenment)."

"Yes," I said. "And it's not the first time this has happened. It also happened a couple of years ago in Malaysia, but I had to go through the whole Progress of Insight again." (As an aside, this is typical of U Kundala's openness in speaking to students about their progress, an attitude that spilled over into the entire community. During our interviews, U Kundala would talk to me about Second Path. Someone would overhear and spread the word, and soon people were coming from all over town to stare lovingly at the western yogi who was making such progress. People I didn't know would stop by my room to give me gifts, hoping to "gain merit" in so doing. One Burmese man took me home (with U Kundala's permission) to meet his family, and then drove me around the countryside exploring Buddhist temples. Throughout the day, he and his cousin asked me discreet questions about what it was like to have attained Second Path. After my retreat, everyone treated me like royalty, and one of the board members of the monastery volunteered to drive me to the airport. Once at the airport, we did not wait in the queue with the hundreds of others at the airport, but walked to the head of the line. The board member, obviously an important man, said a word in Burmese to the policeman at customs, who waived me through to the empty waiting room at the gate without so much as checking my ID. As I walked toward the gate, the man I was with shouted across the crowded airport, "You got two! Come back for a third!" One can easily see how this sort of thing could be a distraction, but I tell the story to illustrate how different the attitude is in some Burmese dharma communities from that of the American mushroom factory.)

U Kundala was very pleased with this development, and worked with me over the next few weeks to explore the new territory. He showed me that I could, by making a resolution, review the Fruition of either First or Second Path, and compare them side by side. Before attaining Second Path, however, I had had an exchange with U Kundala that completely changed my understanding of the ñanas (insight knowledges). I reported that I found myself able to call up any of the ñanas that I had experienced so far on the retreat and re-experience them in real time.

"Yes," he said. "Any jhanic experience can be reviewed by inclining the mind toward it."

Jhanic experiences? I was talking about insight knowledges. Was he saying that ñanas are jhanas? Yes, that is exactly what he was saying. Ñanas are jhanas, i.e. discrete concentrated states that are hardwired into our minds. This is why all yogis have similar ideas and insights when meditating, and they have them in an invariable sequence. There is an underlying structure, common to all humans, that can be developed through meditation. A yogi who has developed the first 16 of the insight knowledges (ñanas) for the first time has attained First Path. It's actually quite mechanical, predictable, and not particularly mystical when seen as a simple matter of human development.

As ñanas are jhanas, they can be lined up alongside the traditional pure concentration jhanas in order to better understand the territory. As the yogi develops the mind through insight and concentration, he is moving through a series of layers, or strata, of mind. Each layer has its own characteristics and contains within it the blueprint for a particular insight. The first ñana, for example, corresponds to the first jhana. That is, the stratum of mind being accessed is the same. To access that stratum with pure concentration results in the first jhana, a highly concentrated and pleasant absorption of mind. To access that same stratum using the investigative technique of vipassana results in the first insight knowledge, Knowledge of Mind and Body. Below is a list of all 16 ñanas, along with their corresponding jhanas:

1. ñana: Mind and Body (corresponds to 1st jhana) 2. ñana: Cause and Effect 3. ñana: Three Characteristics 4. ñana: Arising and Passing (corresponds to 2nd jhana) 5. ñana: Dissolution (corresponds to 3rd jhana) 6. ñana: Fear 7. ñana: Misery 8. ñana: Disgust 9. ñana: Desire for Deliverance 10: ñana: Re-observation 11: ñana: Equanimity (corresponds to 4th jhana) 12: ñana: Adaptation (one-time event) 13: ñana: Change of Lineage (one-time event) 14: ñana: Path (one-time event) 15: ñana: Fruition (corresponds to cessation, not considered a jhana) 16: ñana: Review

Notice that only four of the 16 ñanas have corresponding jhanas. (The immaterial jhanas 5-8 are a subset of the 4th jhana.) This is because the other ñanas, although jhanic states, are not stable. They are nexuses of energy where, for some reason, the energy roils around and does not rest comfortably. Being unstable (or as in the case of ñanas 12-14, one-time events), they are not places where a yogi can rest his mind. It is no coincidence that the pleasant ñanas have correponding samatha jhanas, whereas the upleasant ñanas do not. Stability is pleasant. Instability leads to fear, misery, disgust, etc. The system I am presenting here is my own contribution to the literature. While many agree that the jhanas and ñanas cover the same territory, the usual practice, following U Pandita, is to lump a bunch of ñanas together under the heading of one jhana and call it a "vipassana jhana." I prefer the method presented here as it is more precise, and because I believe it better represents the actual situation.

The 15th ñana, Fruition, is stable but is not considered a jhana. According to Theravada Buddhism, it is the direct apprehension of Nibbana. In any case, it is very pleasant and restorative to re-experience Fruition, and it is one of the benefits of attaining to any of the Four Paths of Enlightenment. Furthermore, far from being some esoteric practice only available to robed ascetics, it can be cultivated to the point where only a few seconds of concentration are required to get a taste of it. Waiting in line in the supermarket, for example, is one of my favorite places to experience cessation/fruition.

Bill Hamilton once said that First Path is not like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's more like you've been picking up gold pieces all along the way. First Path is just a pot to keep them in. (This applies to subsequent Paths as well.) One way to think of it is to consider that once you attain First Path, you "own" all of the states leading up to it, and can learn to call them up whenever you want. Whereas before Path even a yogi who has experienced the Arising and Passing once or many times is subject to falling below that level once his concentration weakens (as between retreats), the Sotaphanna, or Stream Enterer, cannot fall below the level of fourth ñana. This then becomes the platform upon which to begin building the scaffolding of jhanas and ñanas that lead to Second Path, and so on. Upon the attainment of Fourth Path, or arahatship, all of the nexes of energy have been developed, all of the strata of mind have been accessed and penetrated, and the physioenergetic development process is complete. From now on, the energy will recirculate in a stable pattern, and the yogi will feel no further pull toward this type of energetic development. He has unfettered access to all strata of mind, and is limited only by his concentration and his experience of navigating this territory. Needless to say, although there is a finite number of strata, the permutations and combinations of so many nexes of energy working in combination are effectively infinite and no one will ever master all there is to see and feel. The arahat is far from static. More importantly, the considerable energy that previously went into ascending the ladder is now freed up for other pursuits, be they mundane or sublime. Chop wood, carry water, anyone?

As a practical matter, having easy and immediate access to a variety of jhanas is not only fun and pleasant, it also supports non-dual practice and living-in-the-world practice, which, unlike physio-energetic development, have no end.

"Full enlightenment," then, as defined by the Theravada Buddhists, is not a mysterious process. It is purely a matter of accessing a finite number of strata of mind and seeing them clearly. Set 'em up and knock 'em down. The "seeing clearly" is automatic, or at least not difficult for anyone who has crossed the first Arising & Passing of Phenomena (4th ñana). So concentration is the whole game for an intermediate or advanced meditator. For those of a poetic or mystical bent, it could even be a disappointment to learn that we are dealing with such a mechanistic process. Nevertheless, such is the situation as I see it. In any case, the subjective experience is far from dry, and there is no need to abandon the infinitely mysterious non-dual practice while developing the jhanas.

Kenneth Folk January 2009