jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Discussion of meditation in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions.

jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby /johnny\ » Fri Aug 03, 2012 1:38 am

many chan/zen teachers do not recommend traditional jhana meditation and instead teach silent illumination, among others (in japanese shikantaza, although i think this is a dogen version of it and is a little different).

is one better than the other?

are they technically the same once you get into the higher jhanas?

in practicing jhana i have had states of great bliss and wonderful peace. this is characteristic of lower jhana and that's as far as i've gotten. through this and general mindfulness (satipatthana) i have had some insights into reality (nothing special, don't jump on me for making huge claims or anything), but only while in daily life, not while meditating.

from my understanding, once you get into the higher jhanas you may start having insight into reality.

what happens when you practice silent illumination?

how does one progress when practicing dogen zen? silent illumination is frequently described in stages, whereas dogen zen is just non-doing. how does it work? how is that different from just day dreaming? or perhaps more acutely: how could one develop any mental discipline without any framing, structure, or goals? don't get me wrong, i love dogen's work, i just find him very enigmatic!
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby catmoon » Fri Aug 03, 2012 3:45 am

To really answer these questions, one would have to completely master jhana AND the various Zen meditations.

As for the lower jhanas, insights can be gained from any of them (I'm pretty sure) but they go deeper into the nature of things as you go along. Don't let yourself get stuck in the first jhana. It can turn you into a bliss junkie. Push on.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby /johnny\ » Fri Aug 03, 2012 3:48 am

catmoon wrote:To really answer these questions, one would have to completely master jhana AND the various Zen meditations.

As for the lower jhanas, insights can be gained from any of them (I'm pretty sure) but they go deeper into the nature of things as you go along. Don't let yourself get stuck in the first jhana. It can turn you into a bliss junkie. Push on.


yeah good point. i am looking for any information on this. ancient manuscripts by masters, or users that think they understand both, or people who know people and can explain it by repeating what they have heard, the traditional stance of certain zen schools, etc.

most zen schools do not teach jhana as far as i know, so there must be a reason.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby DarwidHalim » Fri Aug 03, 2012 8:47 am

Although jhana may not be emphasize, it doesn't mean the perfection of samadhi can be ignored.

In the 6 paramitas - Perfection of Concentration is the jhana which is talked about.

The difference is then whether you want to reach that samadhi through your breathing or through Vipassana, it doesn't matter.

At the end - you must be able to still perfectly in freeing from any delusions (deceivers) even for a single instant.

Even shikantaza teaches jhana.
The ability to just stay perfectly at the present moment is jhana.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby /johnny\ » Sat Aug 04, 2012 6:27 am

DarwidHalim wrote:Although jhana may not be emphasize, it doesn't mean the perfection of samadhi can be ignored.

In the 6 paramitas - Perfection of Concentration is the jhana which is talked about.

The difference is then whether you want to reach that samadhi through your breathing or through Vipassana, it doesn't matter.

At the end - you must be able to still perfectly in freeing from any delusions (deceivers) even for a single instant.

Even shikantaza teaches jhana.
The ability to just stay perfectly at the present moment is jhana.


so silent illumination and shikantaza do lead into jhana, just not the same progression as usual?
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby DarwidHalim » Sat Aug 04, 2012 9:01 am

Yes. They lead to perfect samadhi (jhana) together with perfect vipassana (insight).

Zen master who said that jhana is not important or inferior, just show that they are too arrogant.

You can ask themself, without the power of jhana (samadhi), how can they maintain their vipassana insight?

If they don't have jhana, whatever insight they have realize will be covered up again by dualistic view.

If bodhidharma doesn't master jhana or samadhi, how can he stayed with his vipassana insight in the cave for years?
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby Mal » Sat Sep 22, 2012 2:14 pm

/johnny\ wrote:from my understanding, once you get into the higher jhanas you may start having insight into reality.


Where does that understanding come from? According to Shankman, the Visuddhimaga suggests that a "bare-insight worker" can experience insight without experiencing jhana at all. Jhana's are fun though :smile:
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby Indrajala » Sat Sep 22, 2012 2:58 pm

/johnny\ wrote:many chan/zen teachers do not recommend traditional jhana meditation and instead teach silent illumination, among others (in japanese shikantaza, although i think this is a dogen version of it and is a little different).


In Chan Buddhism jhāna is considered a "Hīnayāna" practice while silent illumination is Mahāyāna, and by virtue of that distinction the latter is supposed to be superior.

I have been told silent illumination is more direct and swift than jhāna, though I remain unconvinced about that, given my own personal experiences and that the Buddha very clearly taught jhāna as a primary meditation method. His own meditation system was basically centered on jhāna above all else.

There is nothing particularly "Hīnayāna" about it anyway because early Mahāyāna thinkers like Nāgārjuna advocated it as well. It is through dhyāna/jhāna and prajñā that one readily achieves liberation from saṃsāra, and then one is in a proper position to engage on the bodhisattva path.

I believe for most people jhāna is quite difficult as it demands a lot of sacrifice and isolation. You can't be running around working, chatting with people, worrying about dinner and subjecting the mind to even mild cravings like music or desire for human contact. This means even an ordinary monastic life is not really conducive to cultivating jhāna given the constant social interaction and jobs that need to be done.

The Buddha suggested we find a place far away enough from people that we could not hear the cry of a cow. That means isolating yourself from chatter and people altogether (getting away even from the villages). This is of course easy to do for a few days, but how about several weeks, or months?

You seldom see such an approach in Zen or Chan, where monasticism is spiritually empowered and seen as an essential part of practice. For instance, just look at how much Dogen emphasized the importance of the Tenzo (cook) position in a monastery.

The Chan approach in my opinion is actually easier and perhaps friendlier than what Śākyamuni had originally suggested in respect to meditation. Instead of having the comforts, security and warmth of a monastic environment with all your friends, you were actually supposed to leave the flock for a time if you wanted to seriously and genuinely master the jhānas. Addressing the desire for human contact goes hand in hand with isolating yourself for a time from people.

I've been told by Chan proponents that it is better to "deal with the real world" as your practice and do Chan meditation based on that context; not isolate yourself from it as it would somehow compromise your ability to live in the real world, though I don't think this is true. The point is to cultivate your meditation in isolation and advance yourself before going back to the community, where hopefully you'll be in a much better position to benefit others than before.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby kirtu » Sun Sep 23, 2012 12:34 am

Huseng wrote:I believe for most people jhāna is quite difficult as it demands a lot of sacrifice and isolation.


Considering jhāna as samadhi (jhāna is more than just samadhi though) - samadhi is not quite difficult after one has begun to experience it in meditation. Samadhi does not necessarily demand a lot of sacrifice and isolation - it does demand serious retreat though.

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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby lobster » Sun Sep 23, 2012 6:34 am

Jhana is the focus and samadhi the experience.
In other words you can practice jhana, the means but samadhi is not inevitable or always present,
it is just more likely to be increasingly present.

jhana can become less distracted by obstacles as it is a practiced and acquired skill.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby Astus » Sun Sep 23, 2012 6:57 pm

Shikantaza is not something you maintain, rather it is not maintaining our delusions. Just sitting is a way to express the basic Zen method of no-thought (in the following translations of Dogen's works put as "before thinking"). As you can see yourself, Dogen explicitly denied that shikantaza is some sort of absorption or gradual technique. That way he subscribed to pure sudden enlightenment teaching, as it is the hallmark of Zen.

Dogen says (Zazengi, all translations from WWZC),

"Having aligned body and mind, exhale deeply. Sitting in balance and stillness like a mountain, think of "not-thinking." How? Be "Before Thinking."
This is the essence of zazen. Zazen is not meditation. It is the Dharma Gate of great ease and joy. It is stainless realized-practice."


Saying the same with more words (Fukanzazengi),

"Once you have found your posture, breathe in and out deeply, sway left and right and then settle firmly and steadily. Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Be Before Thinking. These are the basics of zazen.
What I call zazen is not developing concentration by stages and so on. It is simply the Awakened One's own easy and joyful practice, it is realized-practice within already manifest enlightenment. It is the display of complete reality. Traps and cages spring open. Grasping the heart of this, you are the dragon who has reached his waters, the tiger resting in her mountains. Understand that right here is the display of Vast Reality and then dullness and mental wandering have no place to arise."


He also said (Zanmai-O-Zanmai),

"Sit in the full lotus posture with the body. Sit in the full lotus posture with the mind. Free of "body" and "mind", sit in the full lotus posture.
My late Master, the Old Buddha, said, "Practising Zen is dropping through the bodymind. Just sitting is primordial realization. Offering incense and worshipping the images of the Awakened Ones, chanting the names of the Awakened Ones, repentance, reciting the Discourses and other religious rituals are not necessary.""


At another place (Sankon Zazen Setsu),

"No practice whatsover can be measured against zazen. ... In perfect ease go, stay, sit and lie down. Seeing, hearing, understanding and knowing are all the natural display of the Actual Nature."
"There is no such thing as the real mind. Ridding yourself of delusion: that's the real mind."
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby robby » Thu Dec 27, 2012 1:59 pm

Silent illumination 默照禪 seems to another Soto Zen term for just sitting 只管打坐 or r祇管打坐 ( shikan taza). iirc, there is also koan contemplation or kanna zen 看話禪 of Rinzai. All of these appear to be versions of sitting meditation or za-zen 坐禪? As you likely know, Zen is a transliteration of dhyana; which is jhana in Pali. However, it is usually not generally used in the same sense of dhyana / jhana; which I gather is translated as 靜慮 or joryo (a Japanese reading).

My take, right now, is that dhyana / jhana / 靜慮 is best translated as absorption. This kind of narrowly focused meditation seems to be right concentration, #8 in the 8-fold path. I am seeing it, in the Buddhist sense, as a subset of concentration in general, or samadhi 三昧. Jhana is sometimes referred as concentration meditation. Some schools seem to discourage it, and suggest mindfulness, insight, just sitting, or devotional chanting instead. However, some objective studies seem to suggest that even basic instruction in jhana meditation improves intelligence. The biggest downside of jhana seems to be that too much, just like too much book study, can make one "spacy" and perhaps withdrawn or self absorbed.

My understanding is that jhana involves focusing on a single object, like a plain circle, or the breath. There are 5 hindrances that will arise; which are overcome by the 5 factors of concentration (some sources list 6 factors). There are then four levels of form or fine material absorptions. and 4 levels of formless or immaterial absorption. Some sources used to call the formless absorptions samapatti or attainments, but I have not seen that for a while. Cessation attainment or nirodha samapatti is sometimes given as a 9th jhana.

There are also the terms parikamma or preliminary concentration, upacara samadhi or neighborhood concentration / access concentration, and appana samadhi or fixed concentration. Then there is also khanika samadhi, a fluid or moment-to-moment concentration. Also, we have the distinction between Calm Abiding (samatha / shamatha) meditation and clear seeing or insight (vipassana / vipashyana) meditation. 止觀 (shikan), as used by the Tiantai School, is a translation of shamatha-vipashyana; which is samatha-vipassana in Pali. This shikan 止觀 literally means to stop and to observe; it's not the same as Zen School shikan 只管; which means "just" or "only. "

Some sources give preliminary, neighborhood, and fixed concentration as three stages of calm abiding or samatha meditation; then fluid concentration as the concentration of clear seeing, insight or vipassana meditation. Calm abiding might be complete absorption, to the point of tuning everything else out; while Insight is being wakefully alert and observing with discerning awareness. Just sitting and silent illumination might be exercises to take one directly to clear seeing or insight.

Also, insight or observation (vipassana) and fluid concentration are sometimes associated with Mindfulness Meditation or sati / smriti 念; which is #7 in the 8-fold path. There is the practice called cattaro satipaṭṭhana or four establishments of mindfulness -- the observation of body, feelings, mind, and mental objects. My understanding is that Deity Yoga and Open Presence Meditation are also sometimes associated with establishing Mindfulness.

If that is not enough to sort out, there is also Right Effort, also known as the Fourfold Struggle; #6 in the 8-fold path. This appears to be a generic mental exercise to reform motivation by (1) blocking and (2) letting go of counterproductive mental states; while (3) cultivating and (4) maintaining constructive mental states. We can re-condition our own minds; replace sloth with enthusiasm, drowsiness with determination. recklessness with mindfulness, annoyance with tolerance, enmity with kindness, greed with generosity, and so on.

Oh, and there is also the Samadhi Sutta; which talks about four cultivations of concentration. These appear to be (1) the Four Fine Material Absorptions, (2) Perception of [inner] Light Meditation, perhaps a variation of formless absorption? (3) the Four Establishments of Mindfulness Meditation, and (4) Direct Observation of the Rising and Falling of the Five Clinging Aggregates, perhaps a kind of vipassana?

I am beginning to sort of see how all this might fit together. I apologize for any errors, and take blame for any confusion I may have inadvertently caused.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby songhill » Thu Dec 27, 2012 5:08 pm

"Everywhere people are saying that when you become still you will become awakened. But I say that when you become awakened you will become still." ~ Dahui

The meditation by which the Bodhisattva (Siddhartha) became buddha/awakened was dhyâna (Pali, jhâna). The elements of dhyâna are different than mozhao (silent illumination) which is associated with the Caodong or Soto tradition. The fiercest critic of mozhao chan was Dahui Zonggao. Dahui's chief criticism of mozhao was that it was a quietistic practice which is devoid of wisdom (prajñâ). According to Dahui, mazhao was not concerned with awakening but, instead, focused on silence. Dahui claimed that silent illumination practitioners do not believe in enlightenment. He said they call enlightenment madness, or secondary. Mazhao, by Dahui's description, can only lead to a soteriological dead-end; certainly not the enlightenment of the Buddha.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby lowlydog » Thu Dec 27, 2012 5:43 pm

songhill wrote:The meditation by which the Bodhisattva (Siddhartha) became buddha/awakened was dhyâna (Pali, jhâna).


Jhana meditation existed before the buddha, the buddha realized and mastered the 8th jhana but still had not achieved full awakening.

Using this high level of concentration to observe the mind body phenomenon is what caused wisdom to arise and this experiencial wisdom fully liberated Siddhartha.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby songhill » Thu Dec 27, 2012 6:09 pm

lowlydog wrote:
songhill wrote:The meditation by which the Bodhisattva (Siddhartha) became buddha/awakened was dhyâna (Pali, jhâna).


Jhana meditation existed before the buddha, . . .


Not in the Buddha's form of it i.e., the four dhyânas.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby lowlydog » Thu Dec 27, 2012 6:12 pm

songhill wrote:Not in the Buddha's form of it i.e., the four dhyânas.

Can you provide a link to some more info? :thanks:
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby songhill » Thu Dec 27, 2012 6:41 pm

lowlydog wrote:
songhill wrote:Not in the Buddha's form of it i.e., the four dhyânas.

Can you provide a link to some more info? :thanks:


On the subject of the Buddha's meditation, the best book is Johannes Bronkhorst's The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India. Hope this helps: http://goo.gl/CcMW8
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby lowlydog » Thu Dec 27, 2012 6:59 pm

Hi songhill,

Are you talking about lokuttara jhanas? I'm not prepared to read a book at the moment but thanks for the link.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby robby » Fri Dec 28, 2012 10:01 am

lowlydog wrote:
songhill wrote:The meditation by which the Bodhisattva (Siddhartha) became buddha/awakened was dhyâna (Pali, jhâna).


Jhana meditation existed before the buddha, the buddha realized and mastered the 8th jhana but still had not achieved full awakening.

Using this high level of concentration to observe the mind body phenomenon is what caused wisdom to arise and this experiencial wisdom fully liberated Siddhartha.


There are various views on this. Some would say that the higher jhanas lead to insight. Others might say that the jhanas are supplemental practices, that lead to samatha (calm abiding) and that vipassana (direct insight) is achieved through cattaro satipatthana ; the four establishments of mindfulness.

I tend to think it is either or both and a bit more.

The Samadhi Sutta gives dittha-dhamma-sukha-vihara; blissful abiding in the here and now, as the attainment from rupa jhana; the four fine material absorptions. Then, what appears to be a kind of formless meditation. perception of [inner] light mediation, is mentioned. The attainment from this is called yathabhuta-nana-dassana; knowing and vision of reality as-it-is. Some sources give nirodha samapptti; attainment of cessation, as an ultimate 9th jhana,

The Samadhi Sutta also gives sati-sampajanna ; mindfulness with Complete Discerning Alertness as the attainment from cattaro satipatthana the four establishments of mindfulness. Then, observation of the rising and falling of the Five Clinging Aggregates is mentioned. From this, Asava-khaya; the elimination of inflows and outflows, is attained. In the Satipatthana Suttam the Buddha ends by saying "This is the only way, o bhikkhus, for the purification of the minds of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the cessation of dukkha, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Unbinding (nirvana), namely the Four Establishments of Mindfulness."

Elsewhere, the Luminosity Sutta seems to say that the mind becomes defiled, thus preventing clear discernment. Citta Bhavana; cultivation of the mind, frees one from defilement. This makes the mind luminous, and one is able to discern correctly. I would say the cultivation of the mind includes Correct Effort, Correct Concentration, and Correct Mindfulness, They all work together.

Given busy lifestyles, it is difficult to do everything. Over the ages, some teachers have tried to come up with simpler, less complicated practices that include all three elements. Others focused on one of them. Still others abandoned contemplative practices in favor of devotional practices. Everyone here is sorting it out in their own way. The important thing is to make a sincere effort to practice something that works for us each day, I'd say strive for a minimum of 20 minutes every morning and 20 minutes evening evening.
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Re: jhana vs silent illumination or other zen methods

Postby robby » Fri Dec 28, 2012 11:16 am

Huseng wrote:
/johnny\ wrote:many chan/zen teachers do not recommend traditional jhana meditation and instead teach silent illumination, among others (in japanese shikantaza, although i think this is a dogen version of it and is a little different).


I believe for most people jhāna is quite difficult as it demands a lot of sacrifice and isolation. You can't be running around working, chatting with people, worrying about dinner and subjecting the mind to even mild cravings like music or desire for human contact. This means even an ordinary monastic life is not really conducive to cultivating jhāna given the constant social interaction and jobs that need to be done.

The Buddha suggested we find a place far away enough from people that we could not hear the cry of a cow. That means isolating yourself from chatter and people altogether (getting away even from the villages). This is of course easy to do for a few days, but how about several weeks, or months?.


I pretty much concur with everything you wrote, especially the "I remain unconvinced." I find it useful to keep an open mind. As for jhana / dhyana, the Buddha seemed to be saying one needs a distraction free environment to pursue this. That is hard to find, even in the remote, quiet area where I presently reside. However, I think the basic concepts and methods can be adapted. The five hindrances / veils arise when there is an effort to concentrate on any sort of mental exercise, such as academic study. Then the 5 factors of concentration help one overcome these, and become absorbed in the task at hand, Some studies suggest that even rudimentary instruction and application improves components of intelligence, such as the ability to tune out distractions, reading comprehension, conceptual thought, and memory.

Personally, I have, since early childhood, found it is rather easy to concentrate, to completely tune things out, and become thoroughly absorbed in abstract visualization and / or conceptualization. This tended to annoy family members and teachers, because they found it hard to get my attention. They also found it hard to understand, especially after I put the paper or book down and just contemplated. They'd wonder what I was staring at; which was nothing at all, as I had closed the 5 external sense doors. OTOH, I have known a lot of people who can get completely absorbed in tasks that involve some interesting or attractive sensory contact; such as a TV show, music (playing or listening), or artwork (composing or appreciating). I have been pondering on why not music, the more spiritual kind that is harder to appreciate, not necessarily the sensory entertainment kind that draws one in, as an object of jhana meditation? It tunes out the primary sensory distraction of noise. How is it different from using a visual object like a colored disk?

One more thing, the biggest problem I have experienced with abstract absorption was coming back out of it. I'd feel giddy and spacy. Fixed, narrowly focused concentration is not conducive to tasks like driving a car. I have found mindfulness, alertness, observation, grounding, and balancing related exercises, as means of developing a more fluid concentration, useful.
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