The Concentration Models
The concentration models describe the general category of models that deals with how the shamatha jhanas and the stages of awakening align. At the far end of those which I consider to be some of the worst of these models, some models and modelers assert that awakening involves attaining some of the higher jhanas, particularly the fourth through eighth, and that the ability to attain these is awakening itself. I know a few meditators and a teacher or two who subscribe to these models. As these are transient states, this is not the sort of awakening that I consider worthwhile, though I do consider these states worthwhile for what they are and can do. The Buddha had a similar opinion, as he trained in these states and found them profound but unsatisfying, as they occur only in special circumstances and do not provide the deeper transformation—true liberation—he was looking for.
Only slightly better are the models that equate the various stages of awakening with the jhanas themselves, so that each of the various stages involves something like a permanent jhanic state. It is not that there aren’t some very interesting parallels between the paths and the jhanas that fractal-heads such as myself can’t help but notice, but that is not the same thing as the paths being permanent jhanic states, which they are not. No mind state is permanent.
There are some models of the stages of awakening which include criteria that people who are of a certain path can attain certain jhanas accessible to them only if they also have the requisite concentration skills. Specifically, there are five states corresponding to what are called “the pure abodes” (Pali: suddhavasa), which are some of the classically-described realms in the more general category of the fine-material realms (rupa-lokas). The old texts (e.g. AN 4.123) describe the fine-material realms as realms of existence associated with various degrees of jhanic bliss. The specific five pure abodes in question are the abodes of the peerless devas or divinities, the clear-sighted devas, the beautiful devas, the untroubled devas, and the devas not falling away, which are part of the standard thirty-one realms of existence you can find mentioned in the book The 31 Planes of Existence, by Venerable Bhante Suvanno, transcribed by Jinavamsa, as well as online at www.accesstonisight.org (a great website, by the way), that correspond to special jhanas that only anagamis and arahants can attain.
These are traditional, canonical models and hold up moderately well to reality testing. Thus, the model implies not only that people who have attained those levels of realization with solid concentration skills might be able to attain those abodes, but also that those who can attain them must be at least anagamis if not arahants according to the traditional four-path model. Thus, some who can attain these jhanas sometimes use this standard bit of Theravada theory as part of their justification for whatever label they use for their level of insight.
I have had fun tinkering with the jhanas that I think correspond to these realms. Descriptions of these vary by practitioner, but here are my descriptions of two of them that I spontaneously ended up in past the eighth jhana, being another interesting option beyond that post-eighth junction point (P8JP) already mentioned. For the first one, take the bliss of the second jhana, the breadth of the fourth jhana, the sense of pervading presence of the sixth jhana, and then add a massive dose of gratitude, as if this is the gratitude jhana, as though something has gone so perfectly right and you can deeply and fearlessly feel appreciative of it.
For the second one, extend the state out in a much more diffuse way, such that there is the more diffuse, cool bliss of the third jhana, add in something of the fourth jhana in terms of the evenness and breadth, and then add a massive dose of contentment and relaxation, like the most relaxed you would be during the best massage in the most perfect spa after the most satisfying day of your life. My experiments past those first two yielded contradictory results, but those first two should give you a sense of what this general territory can be like. These are remarkably healing, complete, pervasive, satisfying, and heartfelt states, and the descriptive “pure” applies quite nicely. Early on I barely noticed them and would jump as fast as I could from the eighth jhana to Fruition and the cessation of perception and feeling (described in just a bit). Now I know better and sometimes take the time to enjoy them. They write ease, beauty, clarity, well-being, and contentment onto the mind.
While I am discussing unusual states, I should point out there are actually quite a few of them out there, further highlighting how the old texts simply don’t give us enough terms and concepts to categorize the wild and kaleidoscopic world of meditative experiences. Here’s another one of the more interesting ones: it’s also somewhere in that territory that seems basically like pure presence, like being a super-pervading watcher, with the quality of its self-perception dominant. This has a very different quality from the sixth jhana, Boundless Consciousness, and in my opinion is far superior, and at points I have been so impressed by it that I have been tempted to consider it one of the highest of the temporary states that involve experience. I can see why people who chance into these might be compelled to ascribe to them some ultimate status, or “ground of being”, “self”, as well as to use them as visions of a final endpoint of the path, but, being conditioned and being specific states, they end. So beware of yet another of the dangerous golden chains that would tempt you to stop there and fail to progress further.
Be careful to realize that jhanas are moldable by intention and vision, meaning that people can learn how to sculpt, craft, and engineer jhanas to fit their specifications, either by combining certain elements of various jhanas to make a fusion jhana, or by dreaming up new things to amplify into a pervasive state just by the power of strong concentration. Two of many weird examples from my own experiments are what I call “the lidocaine jhana” and “the crushy love jhana”. I am not saying that these are necessarily a good idea, just mentioning them to give examples of what is possible with a concentrated mind.
For the first one, I woke up from a nap before work and was lying on my arm. It had fallen asleep, I took that feeling of numbness and extended it out just like you would take any other sensation that you wanted to cultivate into a jhana and spread it to fill my entire body from head to toe with that odd, numb sensation. It was about equal parts creepy and restful, but the fact that it could be done was most intriguing.
In the second, this feeling of the best, most intoxicating part of crushy love, like you might feel in junior high school, just showed up for no obvious reason without any specific person that it was taking as the object of this feeling. I took it and expanded it out to fill my whole body. It clearly had some second jhana elements to it, but it also had its own distinct qualities in terms of emotional feel. It is so helpful to notice that feelings we usually associate with specific people can be just states that we simply create out of nothing but the states themselves. Similarly, a vast range of states can be achieved by just inclining to any feeling we have ever felt and, if we practice well, we can learn to combine them in unusual and amazing ways to suit our various tastes. This is obviously both a possible skillful exploration of the power of intention and attention, as well as possibly a trap for those who are more on the jhana-junkie end of the spectrum of personality types.
The territory out there/in here seems to be limited only by our imagination and concentration ability. I have imagined staging a friendly contest among high-level practitioners to dream up states that are even better than the ones I know, so that we can play with attaining them and seeing if there are any limits to the thing. The list of all the exotic celestial or deva realms found in the old texts lends credence to the view that there might not be. I realize this may seem like a contradiction to earlier statements I have made about being able to master concentration practices absolutely. It is. Actually, the only axis you can master absolutely is the one people think is the least attainable, that of naturally perceiving all phenomena as they are.
The take-home is that, as models of enlightenment go, the jhanic criteria, while lots of fun in terms of inspiring cool avenues of exploration, are not that reliable. People at lower levels of fundamental awakening who have powerful concentration abilities and who understand that this territory is malleable can get themselves into states that seem essentially the same as those that people of a certain level of realization are supposed to be able to attain. Unfortunately, there is no obvious, foolproof, objective way to sort out exactly what they have done. Thus, beware of using the concentration models as your primary criteria for assessing awakening, though certainly be informed by all the nifty options that may await you when you gain certain levels of insight. In that same vein, we get to one of the best options of them all …