Is Jhana Necessary?
The word "jhana," or "absorption," refers to the strongest levels of concentration (tranquility) that can be attained. Many students ask if it’s necessary to attain this much concentration before beginning insight meditation (vipassana). In answer, Mahasi Sayadaw, one of the most renowned vipassana masters of modern times, said: "It is possible to begin straightaway with insight meditation without having previously developed full concentration in jhana" (Mahasi Sayadaw, Practical Insight Meditation, Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1971, p. 58).
Traditionally there are two approaches to the practice of insight meditation. In the first, the student develops concentration until reaching jhana. Afterwards he switches to the practice of vipassana meditation, and during the course of one day or one meditation session may alternate many times between abiding in jhana and coming out of it to practice vipassana.
The second is the method of bare ("dry") insight, in which the student goes straight to vipassana practice without prior training in concentration. Of this method, Nyanaponika Thera wrote, "Though the term bare insight (sukkha vipassana) does not occur in the canonical Collection of Discourses of the Buddha (sutta-pitaka), there are numerous texts in that collection which are illustrative of that method of meditation, that is… instances where the penetrative insight into reality is followed by the entry into the stages of holiness [levels of enlightenment], without prior attainment of the Absorptions." (The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, York Beach: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1988, p. 103.) The book in which this quote appears is one of the most highly regarded modern treatises on Buddhist meditation.
Nyanaponika Thera also points out that in some respects the method of bare insight is better suited to our contemporary times. In this busy age it is very difficult to find the conditions necessary for perfecting the absorptions. In his words:
We have to face the fact that, in this hectic and noisy age of ours, the natural quietude of mind, the capacity for higher degrees of concentration, and the requisite external conditions to cultivate both, have greatly decreased, compared with the days of old. This holds good not only for the West, but also, though in a lesser degree, for the East, and even for a not inconsiderable section of Buddhist monkhood. The principal conditions required for cultivating the absorptions are seclusion and noiselessness; and these are very rare commodities nowadays. In addition, environment and education have produced an increasing number of those types who will naturally be more attracted by, and adapted to, the direct development of Insight.
Under such circumstances, it would amount to a neglect of promising roads of progress if one were to insist rigidly on an exclusive approach through the absorptions, instead of making use of a method emphatically recommended by the Buddha himself: a method which is more easily adaptable to the current inner and outer conditions, and yet leads to the aspired goal. (The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, p. 104)
The renowned Thai teacher Achan Kor made another point. "You could, if you wanted to, precisely follow all the steps in the texts so as to develop strong powers of mental absorption (jhana), but it takes a lot of time." She writes. "It's not appropriate for those of us who are old and have only a little time left" (An Unentangled Knowing, Barre: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1995, p. 34).
Endorsement for the approach of bare insight can be found in the commentaries to the Pali canon. In Practical Insight Meditation, Mahasi Sayadaw remarks: "The Majjhima Nikaya commentary states… ‘Herein, some persons contemplate on the five aggregates of clinging as impermanent and so on without having previously developed tranquility... [i.e., jhana, or a lower level of absorption called "access concentration."] This contemplation is insight meditation’" (p. 59).
Another advantage to practicing "bare" insight rather than attaining jhana first is that the calmness of jhana is said to be so pleasurable as to become addictive for some people. Certain meditators become so attached to it they may get stuck there for years. Neglecting vipassana, they fail to make further progress on the path toward Nibbana, which is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practice. As one Sri Lankan meditation master explains, "A jhana attainer may remain attached to the bliss and calm of the jhanas and fail to take up insight meditation. Here one should specially bear in mind that not only jhanic bliss but even birth in the Brahma-worlds… is impermanent. The aim of Buddhism is not serenity but the peace of… Nibbana, which is attainable only through insight-wisdom. Hence one should devote oneself to insight meditation" (Ven. Matara Sri Nanarama Mahathera, The Seven Contemplations of Insight, Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1997, p. 129).
However, some concentration is necessary for insight meditation, but only the level called "momentary concentration," a much weaker degree than that of the absorptions. Anyone can achieve momentary concentration, since it doesn’t require any special aptitude or a completely silent environment.
The purpose of concentration in meditation is to inhibit the five mental hindrances: lust, anger, restlessness, doubt and sleepiness. However, this can be accomplished with strong momentary concentration; jhana is not necessary for suppressing the hindrances.
In the following passages Mahasi Sayadaw gives more detail about the function and characteristics of momentary concentration:
Though that concentration has only momentary duration, its power of resistance to being overwhelmed by opposition [i.e., the five hindrances] corresponds to that of access concentration [the strongest level of concentration after jhana].
In the Commentary to the Visuddhimagga [Path of Purification], in the explanation of the chapter relating to mindfulness of breathing, it is said thus: "'Momentary unification of mind' means the concentration of mind lasting only for a moment. For that (type of concentration), too, when it occurs uninterruptedly with its respective object in a single mode and is not overcome by opposition, fixes the mind immovably, as if in absorption."
"It occurs uninterruptedly with its respective object" refers to the uninterrupted continuity of the thoughts engaged in noticing; after noticing one object, one attends, in the same manner, to another that follows immediately; again, having noticed that object, one turns to the next one, and so on.
"In a single mode" means: though the objects to be noticed, as they present themselves, are numerous and varied, yet the force of concentration of the mind uninterruptedly engaged in noticing remains virtually on the same level. For what is meant here is: just as the first object was noticed with a certain degree of concentration, so the second, third, and other subsequent objects are noticed in each case with the same degree of concentration.
"Is not overcome by opposition": this means that the momentary concentration in its uninterrupted flow is not overwhelmed by the mental hindrances. "As if in absorption": this means that the strength of the momentary concentration is similar to that of concentration which has reached full mental absorption. However, such similarity of momentary concentration with fully absorbed concentration will become evident (only) when the methodical practice of insight reaches its culmination. (The Progress of Insight: A Treatise on Buddhist Satipatthana Meditation. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1994, pp. 6-7)
So we see it is not necessary to attain jhana before practicing insight meditation. There are no more excuses, no more reasons to put it off. The time to practice vipassana is now, today— even this very moment.