Buddha Taught Dhyana
The Buddha taught “meditation” in a number of ways. I have put the word in quotes because there are several Sanskrit words that get translated as “meditation” and none of them fully corresponds with the English word, either in its traditional or its modern sense. One of these words is dhyana. Dhyana is the word from which the word Zen is derived. However, most Zen teaches only one form, namely shikantaza, and it bears only a very distant relationship to what Shakyamuni taught under this heading. The Buddha generally taught four or eight dhyanas. From here on I am talking about dhyana as taught by Shakyamuni and as decrobed in the Pali texts.

Generally speaking, the dhyanas are states of rapture rather than open awareness. They start with a focus and this focus is only left when they move into trance-like states. This is rather different from what is mostly taught these days.

Conditions for Dhyana
There is actually no verb “to dhyana” so the equivalence with “to meditate” is loose. Dhyanas are states that one might enter into and explore rather than procedures or things to do. Their occurrence is dependent upon certain conditions.

The basic conditions are
1. Desire for and delight in the Dharma (MN64,11).
2. Seclusion: dhyana occurs when a person is alone and enjoying being so.
3. Sobriety: the practitioner is not engaged in the pursuit of sensual pleasures. This implies being clean of drugs, not have indulged overly in food, and being generally adapted to a basically ethical lifestyle.
4. An initial wholesome focus. There are many suitable subjects. The most suitable are the objects of refuge – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

I shall not go into the details of the eight different dhyanas here except to say the the first involves applied and sustained thought, the second, third and fourth constitute a progression from rapture to equanimity, the four higher dhyanas are open to different interpretations and I will give a teaching on the matter when time allows. For the purpose of this present teaching, a general sense of the dhyanas as being about states of rapture and equanimity, spaciousness and the deeper mind will suffice.

The Purpose of Dhyana
The Buddha says that the purpose of entering these states is to overcome the “five fetters”. The five fetters are

1. obsession with one's own body
2. perplexity
3. attachment to conventions
4. obsession with sense pleasures
5. ill-will

The Paradox
So the dhyanas are valuable for this purpose and in sutta 64 it says that they lead to the Deathless. However, we might ask how this comes about and the answer turns out to be somewhat paradoxical. In sutta 52 we learn that the reason that the practitioner turns to the Deathless is that he realises that these very dhyanas themselves are conditioned and volitional and since everything that is volitional and conditioned is impermanent, they do not constitute a suitable goal. It is by realising the insufficiency of the dhyanas that the practitioner is induced to turn to the Deathless.

So, exploring one or more of these dhyana states may have two possible outcomes. The first is that, because of one's devotion to the Dharma one will become one who after death is going to be reborn in a Pure Land and will attain nirvana there without returning to this life. It is clear in the Pali texts that this is seen as the less good outcome. The best outcome is that the practitioner realises through this experience that no state that comes about through volition and conditions – in other words, through self-power – can lead to nirvana and if the practitioner becomes steady in this realisation then he or she will “turn to the Deathless” and, by doing so, enter nirvana.

So there is an interesting paradox here. Dhyana can lead one to nirvana by bringing one to the realisation that dhyana cannot get one to nirvana. In other words, in order to get to nirvana one has to know that nothing else does the trick and the only way to know that is to try those other things that seem most likely to do the trick and find out that they don't.

This is not Sallekha
The other possibility also exists, namely that turning to the Deathless or being so devoted to the Dharma that one is later reborn in a Pure Land could both occur without one ever attempting the dhyanas. So there can be salvation with dhyana and salvation without dhyana.

This ambivalence about the dhyanas is brought out even more clearly in the Sallekha Sutta (MN8) which is sometimes considered to be one of the most important suttas. The sutta as a whole is about sallekha, which means the attitude of “this is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself” by which a person is freed from wrong view. Here again the Buddha describes the eight dhyanas in exactly the same formulaic way as in many other suttas, but at the end of his description of each of them, he says, “A person practising thus may think that by doing so they are practising sallekha, but this is not what the Buddhas call sallakha.” He then says that the first four dhynas are merely pleasant abidings and the four higher ones are merely peaceful abidings.

A Mixed Message
It rather appears, therefore, that the Buddha faced a situation not so different from that which pertains today in which large numbers of people think that meditation is a method by which they can reach some kind of final spiritual goal and that that is the essence of what Buddhism is about. The Buddha himself, however, seems to say that the best you can achieve by dedicating yourself to meditation is that the dedication may be rewarded even if the meditation isn't, or that, it could be that through realising that the meditation does not achieve what one thought that it did one might, at that point, “turn to the Deathless” rather as he himself had done when he found that asceticism did not work.

All of this leaves us with a mixed message. According to Buddha, meditation of the dhyana type can help us overcome the “lower fetters,” it is a pleasant or peaceful abiding, and we may learn things from the experience. However, it is not, in itself, the cause of spiritual awakening except in the same indirect sense that anything can be at the point where we give it up. Furthermore, dhyana meditation is, in any case, somewhat different from contemporary meditation and it is questionable whether there is any basis in the teaching of Shakyamuni for such methods as “choiceless awareness” such as are very popular these days. One imagines, however, that the Buddha would have had a similar attitude to contemporary methods as he did to those of his own day. So the verdict is that meditation is fine, good and useful but not essential and not everything that it is often cracked up to be.

The Fundamental Point
Perhaps the most crucial and fundamental point, whether you meditate or not, and whether you ever enter a dhyana state of not, is that all states and methods that are “conditioned and volitional” are impermanent and are therefore not the Deathless and are therefore not nirvana and not the goal of Buddhism as Shakyamuni taught it. Volitional means deriving from self-power. The Deathless refers to Other Power. So at the very core of what was taught by Shakyamuni Buddha is the key observation that it is when they discover that self-power does not do the trick that people make the vital shift and find true faith.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks Dharmavidya. I suppose that it sort of stands to reason that applying a fundamentally conditioned mind such as the human mind to anything, can only lead to a conditioned outcome!! If that makes sense? However, I do believe that we can reduce the degree of conditioning by aligning ourselves with the Buddhas, like a healthy replacement for the insidious attachment to the world, which forms the basis for Samsara. My meditation these days is much more about spending quality time with Amida, who seems to appreciate it as much as i do! Namo Amida Bu(  :

Yes, see today's teaching.

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