Dhyāna | Jhāna

Dhyāna | Jhāna
Dhyāna | Jhāna

1. Dhyāna in Buddhism

In the oldest texts of Buddhism, Dhyāna (Sanskrit: ध्यान) or Jhāna (Pāḷi: झान) is the training of the mind, commonly translated as meditation,

to withdraw the mind from the automatic responses to sense-impressions, and leading to a state of perfect equanimity and awareness (upekkhā-sati-pariśuddha).

Dhyāna may have been the core practice of pre-sectarian Buddhism, in combination with several related practices which together lead to perfected Mindfulness and detachment.

In the later commentarial tradition, which has survived in present-day Theravāda, Dhyāna is equated with concentration, a state of one-pointed absorption in which there is a diminished awareness of the surroundings.

In the contemporary Theravāda-based Vipassana Movement, this absorbed state of mind is regarded as unnecessary and even non-beneficial for the 1st stage of awakening, which has to be reached by Mindfulness of the body and Vipassanā (insight into impermanence).

Since the 1980s, scholars and practitioners have started to question these positions, arguing for a more comprehensive and integrated understanding and approach, based on the oldest descriptions of Dhyāna in the Suttas.

In Buddhist traditions of Chan and Zen (the names of which are, respectively, the Chinese and Japanese pronunciations of Dhyāna) it is the central practice, ultimately based on Sarvāstivāda meditation techniques transmitted since the beginning of the Common Era.

2. Etymology

The terms Dhyāna, Pāḷi Jhāna, come from Proto-Indo-European root with meaning to see, to look, to show.

In the earliest layer of Sanskrit text of the Vedas it refers to imaginative vision and associated with goddess Sarasvatī with powers of knowledge, wisdom and poetic eloquence.

This term developed into word with meaning to contemplate, meditate, think, from which Dhyāna is derived.

Commonly translated as meditation, and often equated with concentration, though meditation may refer to a wider scale of exercises for bhāvanā, development.

Dhyāna can also mean attention, thought, reflection.

The Jhānas

The Pāḷi Canon describes 4 Jhānas or progressive states of Jhāna called Rūpa Jhāna (Form Jhāna), and 4 additional meditative attainments called Arūpa (without form).

Preceding practices

Meditation and contemplation are preceded by several practices, which are fully realized with the practice of Dhyāna.

As described in the Noble Eightfold Path, Right View leads to leaving the household life and becoming a wandering monk.

Sīla (morality) comprises the rules for Right Conduct.

Right Effort, or the 4 Right Efforts, aim to prevent the arising of unwholesome states, and to generate wholesome states:

This includes indriya saṁvara (sense restraint), controlling the response to sensual perceptions, not giving in to lust and aversion but simply noticing the objects of perception as they appear.

Right Effort and Mindfulness calm the mind-body complex, releasing unwholesome states and habitual patterns, and encouraging the development of wholesome states and non-automatic responses.

By following these cumulative steps and practices, the mind becomes set, almost naturally, for the practice of Dhyāna.

The practice of Dhyāna reinforces the development of wholesome states, leading to upekkhā (equanimity) and Mindfulness.

3. The Rūpa Jhānas

Qualities of the Rūpa Jhānas

The practice of Jhāna is aided by Ānāpānasati, Mindfulness of breathing.

The Sutta Piṭaka and the Agamas describe 4 stages of Rūpa Jhāna.

Rūpa refers to the material realm, in a neutral stance, as different from the kāma-realm (lust, desire) and the Arūpa-realm (non-material realm).

Each Jhāna is characterised by a set of qualities which are present in that Jhāna.

1) 1st Jhāna:

entered when one is secluded from sensuality and unwholesome mental factors;

there is pīti (rapture) and non-sensual sukha (pleasure) as the result of seclusion and Right Effort, while Vitarka-Vicāra (discursive thought) continues.

2) 2nd Jhāna:

is pīti (rapture) and non-sensual sukha (pleasure) as the result of concentration (Samādhi-ji, born of Samādhi);

Ekaggata (unification of awareness) free from vitarka-vicāra (discursive thought);

sampasadana (inner tranquillity).

3) 3rd Jhāna:

Upekkhā (equanimous; affective detachment), mindful, and alert, and senses pleasure with the body.

4) 4th Jhāna:

Upekkhā-sati-pāri-śuddhi (purity of equanimity and Mindfulness); neither-pleasure-nor-pain;

traditionally, the 4th Jhāna is seen as the beginning of attaining psychic powers (abhijñā).

Interpretation of the 4 Jhānas

In the commentarial tradition, the development of Jhāna is described as the development of 5 mental factors (Sanskrit: Caitasikas; Pāḷi: Cetasika) that counteract the 5 hindrances:

  1. vitakka (applied thought) counteracts sloth and torpor (lethargy and drowsiness)
  2. vicāra (sustained thought) counteracts doubt (uncertainty)
  3. pīti (rapture) counteracts ill-will (malice)
  4. sukha (non-sensual pleasure) counteracts restlessness-worry (excitation and anxiety)
  5. ekaggata (one-pointedness) counteracts sensory desire

The Arūpa Āyatanas

Grouped into the Jhāna-scheme are 4 meditative states referred to in the early texts as Arūpa-Āyatanas.

These are also referred to in commentarial literature as Arūpa-Jhānas (formless or immaterial Jhānas), corresponding to the Arūpa-loka (translated as the formless realm or the formless dimensions), to be distinguished from the 1st 4 Jhānas (Rūpa Jhānas).

In the Buddhist canonical texts, the word Jhāna is never explicitly used to denote them; they are instead referred to as Āyatana.

However, they are sometimes mentioned in sequence after the 1st 4 Jhānas (other texts, e.g. MN 121, treat them as a distinct set of attainments) and thus came to be treated by later exegetes as Jhānas.

The Formless Jhānas are related to, or derived from, yogic meditation, while the Jhānas proper are related to the cultivation of the mind.

The state of complete dwelling in emptiness is reached when the 8th Jhāna is transcended.

The 4 Arūpa-Āyatanas/Arūpa-Jhānas are:

5) Infinite Space (Pāḷi ākāsānañcāyatana, Skt. ākāśānantyāyatana)

6) Infinite Consciousness (Pāḷi viññāṇañcāyatana, Skt. vijñānānantyāyatana)

7) Infinite Nothingness (Pāḷi ākiñcaññāyatana, Skt. ākiṁcanyāyatana)

8) Neither Perception nor Non-Perception (Pāḷi nevasaññānāsaññāyatana, Skt. naivasaṁjñānāsaṁjñāyatana)

Although the Dimension of Nothingness and the Dimension of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception are included in the list of 9 Jhānas taught by the Buddha, they are not included in the Noble Eightfold Path.

Noble Truth number 8 is Sammā Samādhi (Right Concentration), and only the 1st 4 Jhānas are considered Right Concentration.

If he takes a disciple through all the Jhānas, the emphasis is on the Cessation of Feelings and Perceptions rather than stopping short at the Dimension of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception.


Beyond the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception lies a state called Nirodha Samāpatti, the cessation of perception, feelings and consciousness.

Only in commentarial and scholarly literature, this is sometimes called the 9th Jhāna.


Textual accounts

The Mahāsaccaka Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 36, narrates the story of the Buddha's awakening.

According to this story, he learned 2 kinds of meditation from 2 teachers, Uddaka Rāmaputta and Āḷāra Kālāma.

These forms of meditation did not lead to liberation, and he then underwent harsh ascetic practices, with which he eventually also became disillusioned.

Buddha then recalled a meditative state he entered by chance as a child:

I thought: “I recall once, when my father the Śākya was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree,

then—quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskilful mental qualities—I entered & remained in the 1st Jhāna: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.

Could that be the Path to Awakening?”

Then following on that memory the realization came:

“That is the path to Awakening.”

Originally, the practice of Dhyāna itself may have constituted the core liberating practice of early Buddhism, since in this state all pleasure and pain had waned.

4. Early Buddhism

The Buddhist tradition has incorporated 2 traditions regarding the use of Jhāna.

There is a tradition that stresses attaining Insight (Vipassanā) as the means to awakening (Bodhi, prajñā) and Liberation (vimutti, Nibbāna).

But the Buddhist tradition has also incorporated the yogic tradition, as reflected in the use of Jhāna, which is rejected in other sūtras as not resulting in the final result of liberation.

One solution to this contradiction is the conjunctive use of Vipassanā and Śamatha.

According to the Theravāda-tradition, the meditator uses the Jhāna state to bring the mind to rest, and to strengthen and sharpen the mind, in order to investigate the true nature of phenomena (dhamma) and to gain insight into impermanence, suffering and not-self.

According to the Theravāda-tradition, the Arahant is aware that the Jhānas are ultimately unsatisfactory, realizing that the meditative attainments are also Anicca, impermanent.

In the Mahāsaccaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 36), which narrates the story of the Buddha's awakening, Dhyāna is followed by Insight into the 4 Noble Truths.

Such Insight is not possible in a state of Dhyāna, when interpreted as concentration, since discursive thinking is eliminated in such a state.

The emphasis on Liberating Insight developed only after the 4 Noble Truths were introduced as an expression of what this liberating insight constituted.

In time, other expressions took over this function, such as Pratītyasamutpāda and the Emptiness of the self.

According to some texts, after progressing through the 8 Jhānas and the stage of Nirodha-Samāpatti, a person is liberated.

According to some traditions someone attaining the state of Nirodha-Samāpatti is an Anāgāmi or an Arahant.

In the Anupada Sutta (MN 111), the Buddha narrates that Sāriputta became an Arahant upon reaching it.

5. Theravāda

Dhyāna as concentration

Buddhaghoṣa’s Visuddhimagga considers Jhāna to be an exercise in concentration-meditation.

His views, together with the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, inspired the development, in the 19th and 20th century, of new meditation techniques which gained a great popularity among lay audiences in the 2nd half of the 20th century.


According to Henepola Gunaratana, the term Jhāna is closely connected with Samādhi, which is generally rendered as concentration.

The word Samādhi is almost interchangeable with the word Śamatha, serenity.

According to Gunaratana, in the widest sense the word Samādhi is being used for the practices which lead to the development of serenity.

In this sense, Samādhi and Jhāna are close in meaning.

Nevertheless, they are not exactly identical, since certain differences in their suggested and contextual meanings prevent unqualified identification of the 2 terms.

Samādhi signifies only one mental factor, namely one-pointedness, while the word Jhāna encompasses the whole state of consciousness, or at least the whole group of mental factors individuating that meditative state as a Jhāna.

Furthermore, according to Gunaratana, Samādhi involves a wider range of reference than Jhāna, noting that the Pāḷi exegetical tradition recognizes 3 levels of Samādhi:

  1. preliminary concentration (parikamma Samādhi)
  2. access concentration (upacāra Samādhi)
  3. absorption concentration (appana Samādhi).

Development and application of concentration

According to the Pāli Canon commentary, access/neighbourhood concentration (upacāra-samādhi) is a stage of meditation that the meditator reaches before entering into Jhāna.

The overcoming of the 5 hindrances mark the entry into Access Concentration.

Access Concentration is not mentioned in the discourses of the Buddha, but there are several Suttas where a person gains Insight into the Dhamma on hearing a teaching from the Buddha.

At the state of Access Concentration, some meditators may experience vivid mental imagery, which is similar to a vivid dream:

They are as vivid as if seen by the eye, but in this case the meditator is fully aware and conscious that they are seeing mental images. This is discussed in the early texts, and expanded upon in Theravāda commentaries.

As the concentration becomes stronger, the feelings of breathing and of having a physical body will completely disappear, leaving only pure awareness.

At this stage inexperienced meditators may become afraid, thinking that they are going to die if they continue the concentration, because the feeling of breathing and the feeling of having a physical body has completely disappeared.

They should not be so afraid and should continue their concentration in order to reach full concentration (Jhāna).

A meditator should 1st master the lower Jhānas, before they can go into the higher Jhānas.

The early Suttas state that the most exquisite of recluses are able to attain any of the Jhānas and abide in them without difficulty.

According to the contemporary Vipassana Movement, the Jhāna state cannot by itself lead to Enlightenment as it only suppresses the defilements:

Meditators must use the Jhāna state as an instrument for developing wisdom by cultivating insight, and use it to penetrate the true nature of phenomena through direct cognition, which will lead to cutting off the defilements and Nibbāna.

According to the later Theravāda commentarial tradition as outlined by Buddhaghoṣa in his Visuddhimagga, after coming out of the state of Jhāna the meditator will be in the state of post-Jhāna Access Concentration:

In this state the investigation and analysis of the True Nature of phenomena begins, which leads to insight into the characteristics of impermanence, suffering and not-self arises.

Contemporary reassessment

While Theravāda-meditation was introduced to the west as Vipassana-meditation, which rejected the usefulness of Jhāna, there is a growing interest among Western Vipassana-practitioners in Jhāna.

The nature and practice of Jhāna is a topic of debate and contention among Western convert Theravādins.

Both academic scholars and contemporary practitioners have raised questions about the interpretation of the Jhānas as being states of absorption which are not necessary for the attainment of Liberation.

Theravāda practitioners have also scrutinized and criticised the Śamatha-Vipassana distinction.

Reassessments of the description of Jhāna in the Suttas consider Jhāna and Vipassana to be an integrated practice, leading to a tranquil and equanimous awareness of whatever arises in the field of experience.

6. In Mahāyāna traditions

Mahāyāna Buddhism includes numerous schools of practice.

Each draw upon various Buddhist sūtras, philosophical treatises, and commentaries, and each has its own emphasis, mode of expression, and philosophical outlook.

Accordingly, each school has its own meditation methods for the purpose of developing Samādhi and Prajñā, with the goal of ultimately attaining Enlightenment.

Chan Buddhism

Dhyāna is a central aspect of Buddhist practice in Chan, necessary for progress on the path and true entry into the Dharma.


In China, the word Dhyāna was originally transliterated with Chinese channa and shortened to just Chan in common usage.

The word and the practice of meditation entered into Chinese through the translations of An Shigao (fl. c. 148–180 CE), and Kumārajīva (334–413 CE),

who translated Dhyāna sutras, which were influential early meditation texts mostly based on the Yogācāra meditation teachings of the Sarvāstivāda school of Kaśmīra circa 1st-4th centuries CE.

The word Chan became the designation for Chan Buddhism (Korean Seon, Vietnamese Thien, Japanese Zen).

While Dhyāna in a strict sense refers to the 4 Dhyānas,

in Chinese Buddhism Dhyāna may refer to various kinds of meditation techniques and their preparatory practices, which are necessary to practice Dhyāna.

The 5 main types of meditation in the Dhyāna Sūtras are:

  1. Ānāpānasati (Mindfulness of breathing);
  2. Paṭikūlamanasikāra meditation, Mindfulness of the impurities of the body;
  3. loving-kindness Maitrī meditation;
  4. the contemplation on the 12 links of Pratītyasamutpāda;
  5. the contemplation on the Buddha's 32 Characteristics.


Observing the breath

During sitting meditation, practitioners usually assume a position such as the lotus position, half-lotus, Burmese, or yoga postures, using the Dhyāna mudra.

To regulate the mind, Awareness is directed towards counting or watching the breath or by bringing that awareness to the energy centre below the navel.

Often, a square or round cushion placed on a padded mat is used to sit on; in some other cases, a chair may be used.

This practice may simply be called sitting Dhyāna.

Observing the mind

In the Sōtō school of Zen, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content, is the primary form of practice:

The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.

Considerable textual, philosophical, and phenomenological justification of this practice can be found throughout Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō, as for example in the Principles of Zazen and the Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen.

In the Japanese language, this practice is called Shikantaza.


Pointing to the nature of the mind

In the earliest traditions of Chan, there was no fixed method or formula for teaching meditation, and all instructions were simply heuristic methods, to point to the true nature of the mind, also known as Buddha-nature.

This method is referred to as the Mind Dharma, and exemplified in the story of Śākyamuni Buddha holding up a flower silently, and Mahākāśyapa smiling as he understood.

A traditional formula of this is, Chan points directly to the human mind, to enable people to see their true nature and become Buddhas.

Kōan practice

At the beginning of the Song dynasty, practice with the Kōan method became popular, whereas others practiced silent illumination. This became the source of some differences in practice between the Linji and Caodong schools.

A Kōan, literally public case, is a story or dialogue, describing an interaction between a Zen master and a student. These anecdotes give a demonstration of the master's insight.

Koans emphasize the non-conceptional insight that the Buddhist teachings are pointing to. Koans can be used to provoke the great doubt, and test a student's progress in Zen practice.

Kōan-inquiry may be practiced during Zazen (sitting meditation), Kinhin (walking meditation), and throughout all the activities of daily life.

Kōan practice is particularly emphasized by the Japanese Rinzai school, but it also occurs in other schools or branches of Zen depending on the teaching line.

The Zen student's mastery of a given Kōan is presented to the teacher in a private interview (referred to in Japanese as dokusan, daisan, or sanzen).

While there is no unique answer to a Kōan, practitioners are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the Kōan and of Zen through their responses. The teacher may approve or disapprove of the answer and guide the student in the right direction.

The interaction with a Zen teacher is central in Zen, but makes Zen practice also vulnerable to misunderstanding and exploitation.


Scholars say that modern Tibetan Buddhism lacks emphasis on achieving levels of concentration higher than Access Concentration:

One possible explanation for this situation is that virtually all Tibetan Buddhist meditators seek to become Enlightened through the use of Tantric practices.

These require the presence of sense desire and passion in one's consciousness, but Jhāna effectively inhibits these phenomena.

While few Tibetan Buddhists, either inside or outside Tibet, devote themselves to the practice of concentration, Tibetan Buddhist literature does provide extensive instructions on it, and great Tibetan meditators of earlier times stressed its importance.