Insight Journal: Your new book, Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhānas, came out this October. Can you tell us a little about it?
Leigh Brasington: The first part is basically the instructions I give during a retreat. I start out by saying, “You can’t learn the jhānas from a book, but if you want to learn the jhānas from a book, here’s the best that I can do.” There’s an introduction to what the jhānas are, as well as a bit about the necessary prerequisites like sīla, guarding the senses, and abandoning the hindrances.
Part Two looks at the description of the jhānas that’s given in the suttas and talks about what the words actually mean and why I said what I said in the first part of the book. Finally, there’s an appendix, which is more or less a brain-dump of other information on the jhānas.
IJ: When I took your course, I was impressed by how pragmatic your approach was. There’s no mystery or magic. It’s a series of steps that you can learn in the same way that you would learn to play a musical instrument or swing a baseball bat.
LB: The jhānas are actually quite mechanical once you learn the steps and have sufficient “talent,” which the majority of people do. People come to me all the time and say, “I’m no good at concentration,” and then do just fine with the jhānas. Once you learn the steps and know what to do, it’s just a matter of cranking it out.
It’s all very practical, and it’s something that a large number of people can learn to do. When used properly—that is, as a warm-up exercise for insight practice—it’s going to benefit your spiritual growth.
IJ: What’s the connection between sīla and the ability to concentrate?
LB: Sīla is the foundation for the entire spiritual path. If you’re not acting ethically, the other techniques are not going to serve you. You’ve got to have that orientation for any of this stuff to work.
IJ: Do you think that in some sense the jhāna states can help us be more equanimous about the existential fear that creates what’s sometimes called “the god hole?”
LB: The jhānas do strengthen equanimity. By the time you come out of the fourth jhāna you are in a very equanimous mind state: “Concentrated, pure, sharp, bright, wieldy, and given to imperturbability.” That imperturbability is very useful for examining reality. And examining reality with an equanimous, less ego-centric mind state gives you a much better chance of understanding what’s going on. Understanding what’s going on—insight into the nature of reality—means that you can act in harmony with the way things are. Acting in harmony with the way things are generally goes a whole lot better than acting at cross-purposes. So the jhānas in and of themselves don’t fill the god hole or anything like that, but they do improve one’s ability to gain insight into what’s happening and therefore allow the opportunity to act in harmony with what’s happening.
I consider the jhānas a warm-up exercise for insight practice. If you’re running a race, you have to stretch your calves first—you’ve got to get limber. But you’ve still got to run the race. The race is insight practice.
IJ: How do you understand the meaning of kamma (Skt. karma) and the value of understanding the concept of kamma?
LB: The word kamma literally means “action.” At the time of the Buddha its most common usage was ritual action. For example, let’s say that you’re a farmer and you need a good harvest. You’ve got to get the gods on your side, but you don’t know how to do it. So you go to a brahmin who does know how to do it, and you pay him to do a sacrifice for you. If he does the ritual correctly, you’ll have a good harvest. But the Buddha says it’s really all just cause and effect. It has nothing to do with ritual action. And then he redefines kamma as intention: “Kamma, oh monks, I declare is intention.” (AN 6:63)
To take a gross example, if you join an urban gang, the first thing the gang does is make you go out and commit a crime, in part so that you’ll become accustomed to committing crimes. Every time you have the intention to do something and you do it, it becomes easier for you to do it again. This is how neural plasticity works; even at the level of intention, we’re changing how our brains are wired. Of course, there are going to be other results of action, but I tend to look at kamma in the personal sense of how intentions program—and reprogram—the mind.
IJ: You’ve been practicing and teaching the jhānas for some time now. What’s changed over the years, either in terms of how you teach or how you practice?
LB: Probably the biggest change is understanding exactly what they are. I was sitting a lot of retreats up at IMS’s Forest Refuge, and at one point I decided to throw out everything except “sit and follow my breathing.” My mind has a tendency to get concentrated and go into these jhānic states, but I didn’t try to go into them. I just observed what was going on as best I could, without any reference to previous instructions.
At another time, I decided to try to work with the fairly cryptic stock phrases about the jhānas that are found in the suttas, taking them as best I could as instructions. Spending that time playing with the jhānas formed the basis for the second part of my book.
One thing I’ve discovered along the way is that the level of concentration that I get to on a ten-day course or a month-long course or that my students get to is probably not the level the Buddha and his disciples were getting to, because they were doing this practice full-time.
On long retreats, particularly during the two retreats I’ve done with Pa Auk Sayadaw, I was able to get deeply concentrated and then work with the same jhāna states I initially learned from Ayya Khema. The experiences I had during those retreats more closely matched the way they’re described in the suttas.
So then the question becomes, “If what I’m teaching is at a lesser level of concentration than what the Buddha was teaching, is that of any value, or should I just be teaching what he taught?” I’ve decided that, given that I’m working with lay students who come on retreat for ten or twenty days, it’s much more important to teach something that people can actually learn and use than to hold out for something that most people don’t have the time to properly develop. If someone wants to take their concentration to the level the Buddha was teaching, I can help with that as well. Basically, they just have to stay much longer in access concentration before moving into the first jhāna.
IJ: Why is it helpful to have some sense of the historical layers in the early Pāli texts?
LB: If you read the suttas, you either have to accept everything, or you’ve got to pick and choose. Now, if you accept everything, you’re going to have to deal with a huge number of contradictions because the Buddha was not doing metaphysics. He didn’t care that he contradicted himself when he talked to a Jain compared to when he talked to an Ājīvika or someone else. He was trying to get people to understand and then do the practice so that they could get free of dukkha. So if you’re going to accept everything as true, you’ve got to accept all the contradictions, and you’ve also got to accept things like a newborn infant walking seven steps to the north and declaring, “I’m King of the World, this is my last birth.” (MN 123)
I’m personally much more interested in what was really going on at the time of the Buddha. It turns out that there’s a wide variety of factors affecting the existence of each sutta. Many record the Buddha encountering someone who had a certain outlook, and he teaches from a perspective that person can understand. Other suttas were composed after the Buddha’s death to help organize the sangha or to raise the status of the Buddha.
My basic understanding is that the suttas were probably composed over a period of 150 years, starting with the Buddha and his 45-year ministry, and continuing for approximately a hundred years after his death.
I’m most interested in asking, “What did the historical Buddha actually teach?” That requires identifying the earliest teachings and then finding out what exactly those earliest suttas are saying.
Some of the suttas that most scholars agree are later compositions are nevertheless very much in harmony with the Buddha’s teaching. The most striking example would be the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. My opinion is that it’s probably an anthology of the Buddha’s teachings that was composed a number of years after his death. But it’s good Buddhadharma because the various practices it outlines are also contained in texts that I would tend to say are much earlier. So it’s a brilliant anthology even if the Buddha wasn’t in the land of the Kurus giving those exact instructions.
IJ: How do you find and maintain a balance between practice and study?
LB: There’s actually a sutta that says that if you’re going to study it’s got to be informed by practice. (AN 5.73) I don’t think it’s possible to understand what the suttas are saying without practicing what the suttas are saying. They’re instructions.
For example, reading the rules to the game of Monopoly can never give you the experience of the cutthroat deals and all the excitement when you’ve got four houses on Boardwalk and somebody lands on it. It’s the same thing with reading the suttas. Just reading them can never give you the thrills and spills and everything else that you get from actually doing the practice.
Studying the early texts has certainly changed the way I practice, but I’m very happy I started out just doing the practice, even though initially I didn’t really have much of a clue what I was doing. Practice gave me enough of a foundation so that when I finally approached the texts, I had some chance of understanding what was going on in them. Practice is what’s going to set us free. Practice is what’s going to reduce the dukkha in our lives, and study will help us practice more effectively.
IJ: How do you hold the “miracles” that are frequently described in the suttas?
LB: I’m not particularly interested in believing that back in those days people could walk on water and fly through the air. Some of the suttas that talk about that stuff were composed when it was becoming quite important to almost deify the Buddha. Remember, Buddhism was competing for both adherents and favors from the government. To get that support, one of the things you could do was make your founder seem god-like, with fire and water shooting out of his hands and things like that. So some of the miraculous stuff that’s found in later suttas can be understood in this way.
But you also find miracles in some of the earlier suttas. The Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) is probably the most well known and certainly the most interesting explanation of the Gradual Training. It says that after the fourth jhāna, when your mind is “concentrated, clear, sharp, bright, malleable, wieldy, and given to imperturbability,” one of the things you can do is incline and direct your mind to making a mind-made body. Following that, being one, you can become many; being many, become one; appear and disappear; walk on water; fly through the air; dive into the earth; pass through walls and ramparts unimpeded; wield mastery over the body as far as the Brahma realms.
But my background in physics asks, “How is that possible?” Interestingly enough, one of my students in Portugal who’s done a lot of work with lucid dreaming mentioned that it’s possible to go directly from a waking state into a lucid dream. You don’t have to go to sleep, start dreaming, and then realize you’re dreaming. You can actually teach yourself to go directly in. It’s called Wake-Induced Lucid Dreaming (WILD) and it sounds a lot like the state of mind one has coming out of the fourth jhāna. The main difference is that instead of investigating reality with insight practice, you go into a lucid dream. It’s not really clear in the sutta what making a mind-made body is about, but I’m postulating it’s learning to lucid dream on demand. And what do you do in a lucid dream? Fly through the air, walk on water, etcetera.
Now you might be saying, “Yeah, but there’s no proof of that in the suttas. You’re just making all this up.” But actually there is a sutta (AN 3:60) where a brahmin and the Buddha are having a discussion about miracles—walking on water, flying through the air, knowing the minds of others, and, most importantly, the miracle of instruction. The brahmin says the former two miracles only benefit the one who does them. The Buddha agrees. In other words, they are private experiences, which is exactly what you would expect from a lucid dream.
Now I’m not saying that knowing the minds of others or hearing sounds at a distance are necessarily lucid dreams. They’re examples of what we call ESP. Science says, “We can’t detect it.” But there certainly is a phenomenon known as ESP. If you talk about ESP, people know what you’re talking about. Whatever it is, whether it’s people simply not doing the math and realizing that something has a high probability, or wishful thinking, or subtly picking up body cues or something like that, these occurrences do seem to be enhanced by a concentrated mind. So it seems to me that there’s a perfectly rational explanation for all of those miracles. Now, fire and water coming out of people’s hands—I think that’s just later stuff trying to deify the Buddha.
IJ: What role do you think Buddhism will play in the world over the coming decades?
LB: Can Buddhism save the world? Yes. But so can a lot of things if they’re done really well! Can Deep Ecology save the world? Yes, definitely! Can real Christianity save the world? Yes. All of these things can if you go to the heart of their teachings, which in all cases have what we could call ethics or concern beyond one’s own selfish interests. That’s what it’s going to take to save the world—getting enough momentum in the direction that takes us beyond selfish interests. Realizing the interconnected, collective nature of the planet—that’s what it’s going to take.
Can Buddhism do that? Potentially, yes. Is it likely? Probably not, but that shouldn’t stop us from using Buddhism, both in its secular and traditionally orthodox forms, to push in that direction. One of the bases of real, genuine Buddhism is this concern for non-harming, for recognition of the collective boat that we’re all in, and that if there’s a leak in your end of the boat, it also matters to me.
IJ: What makes the Buddha different than so many other spiritual teachers?
LB: The Buddha had a very deep background in the multiple spiritual traditions of his time: Brahmanism, Jainism, the Ājīvikas, and all the other traditions that were floating around. So when someone came to him, they probably revealed their background, perhaps by the way they were dressed or their mannerisms or just an explicit interchange. The Buddha then knew enough about the worldview of that person’s tradition to basically take what they knew and just tweak it slightly. He could give them another way of looking from where they were already standing that would help them with their practice—help them do what they needed to do to understand dukkha and the end of dukkha. So if we look at his teachings, realize the absolute importance of understanding the background against which the Buddha is speaking, and interpret the teachings in the framework of that background (rather than 21st century modernism), we have a much better chance of understanding what the Buddha was actually saying.
My favorite story concerning this is the famous Bāhiya Sutta. (Ud 1.10) Bāhiya of the Bark Cloth comes and throws himself at the Buddha’s feet and begs for teachings while the Buddha is on alms-round. The Buddha relents after being asked three times and gives him this practice: “In seeing, let there be just seeing, in hearing, just hearing, in sensing, just sensing, in cognizing, just cognizing. When you can do that, Bāhiya, there’s no you in that, no you in this, no you in between. Just this is the end of dukkha.” And Bāhiya becomes fully awakened just from that little teaching.
So how did the Buddha know to give that particular teaching to that particular person? Well, Bāhiya is wearing bark cloth, which marks him as a follower of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, one of the earliest Upanishads, which makes a big deal about trees. Bāhiya is dressed as a tree because he’s a tree worshipper! There’s a part of that Upanishad that says, “In seeing, there’s the unseen seer. In hearing, the unheard hearer. In sensing, the unsensed sensor. In cognizing, the uncognized cognizer—that is your atman, your soul, your self.” And the Buddha says, “No, it’s not. In seeing there’s just seeing.”
Bāhiya had probably been doing this practice for years, and the Buddha just tweaks it slightly. Because he can tell from the way Bāhiya was dressed what his practice background was, he gives a nice short teaching, and the guy wakes up. The Buddha was able to do this not only because he was a genius, but also because he knew what was being taught in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad and many, many other spiritual traditions. The most amazing thing about the Buddha is not that he woke up, but that he was able to teach other people to wake up. That’s really astounding.