Mental factors in the jhanas

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This article includes content from Keeping the Breath in Mind on Access to Insight, by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 Access to insight icon 50px.png
Editornote image from pexelsdotcom 60x40px.png Editor's note: Ajahn Lee includes ekaggatarammana as a factor on the first jhana. Other explanations do not include this factor.

Mental factors in the jhanas refers to the mental factors that are present in the jhanas.

This article presents an explanation by Ajaan Lee of the mental factors present with the jhanas, within the context of meditation on the breath.

Mental factors on the first jhana

Brief explanation

To think of the breath is termed vitakka, directed thought. To adjust the breath and let it spread is called vicara, evaluation. When all aspects of the breath flow freely throughout the body, you feel full and refreshed in body and mind: This is piti, rapture. When body and mind are both at rest, you feel serene and at ease: This is sukha, pleasure. And once you feel pleasure, the mind is bound to stay snug with a single preoccupation and not go straying after any others: This is ekaggatarammana, singleness of preoccupation. These five factors form the beginning stage of Right Concentration.

Detailed explanation

Jhana means to be absorbed or focused in a single object or preoccupation, as when we deal with the breath.

1. The first jhana has five factors. (a) Directed thought (vitakka): Think of the breath until you can keep it in mind without getting distracted. (b) Singleness of preoccupation (ekaggatarammana): Keep the mind with the breath. Don't let it stray after other concepts or preoccupations. Watch over your thoughts so that they deal only with the breath to the point where the breath becomes comfortable. (The mind becomes one, at rest with the breath.) (c) Evaluation (vicara): Gain a sense of how to let this comfortable breath sensation spread and connect with the other breath sensations in the body. Let these breath sensations spread until they're interconnected all over the body. Once the body has been soothed by the breath, feelings of pain will grow calm. The body will be filled with good breath energy. (The mind is focused exclusively on issues connected with the breath.)

These three qualities must be brought together to bear on the same stream of breathing for the first jhana to arise. This stream of breathing can then take you all the way to the fourth jhana.

Directed thought, singleness of preoccupation, and evaluation act as the causes. When the causes are fully ripe, results will appear — (d) rapture (piti), a compelling sense of fullness and refreshment for body and mind, going straight to the heart, independent of all else; (e) pleasure (sukha), physical ease arising from the body's being still and unperturbed (kaya-passaddhi); mental contentment arising from the mind's being at ease on its own, undistracted, unperturbed, serene, and exultant (citta-passaddhi).

Rapture and pleasure are the results. The factors of the first jhana thus come down simply to two sorts: causes and results.

As rapture and pleasure grow stronger, the breath becomes more subtle. The longer you stay focused and absorbed, the more powerful the results become. This enables you to set directed thought and evaluation (the preliminary ground-clearing) aside, and — relying completely on a single factor, singleness of preoccupation — you enter the second jhana (magga-citta, phala-citta).

Mental factors on the second jhana

The second jhana has three factors: rapture, pleasure, and singleness of preoccupation (magga-citta). This refers to the state of mind that has tasted the results coming from the first jhana. Once you have entered the second level, rapture and pleasure become stronger because they rely on a single cause, singleness of preoccupation, which looks after the work from here on in: focusing on the breath so that it becomes more and more refined, keeping steady and still with a sense of refreshment and ease for both body and mind. The mind is even more stable and intent than before. As you continue focusing, rapture and pleasure grow stronger and begin to expand and contract. Continue focusing on the breath, moving the mind deeper to a more subtle level to escape the motions of rapture and pleasure, and you enter the third jhana.

Mental factors on the third jhana

The third jhana has two factors: pleasure and singleness of preoccupation. The body is quiet, motionless, and solitary. No feelings of pain arise to disturb it. The mind is solitary and still. The breath is refined, free-flowing, and broad. A radiance — white like cotton wool — pervades the entire body, stilling all feelings of physical and mental discomfort. Keep focused on looking after nothing but the broad, refined breath. The mind is free: No thoughts of past or future disturb it. The mind stands out on its own. The four properties — earth, water, fire, and wind — are in harmony throughout the body. You could almost say that they're pure throughout the entire body, because the breath has the strength to control and take good care of the other properties, keeping them harmonious and coordinated. Mindfulness is coupled with singleness of preoccupation, which acts as the cause. The breath fills the body. Mindfulness fills the body.

Focus on in: The mind is bright and powerful, the body is light. Feelings of pleasure are still. Your sense of the body feels steady and even, with no slips or gaps in your awareness, so you can let go of your sense of pleasure. The manifestations of pleasure grow still because the four properties are balanced and free from motion. Singleness of preoccupation, the cause, has the strength to focus more heavily down, taking you to the fourth jhana.

Mental factors on the fourth jhana

The fourth jhana has two factors: equanimity (upekkha) and singleness of preoccupation, or mindfulness. Equanimity and singleness of preoccupation on the fourth jhana are powerfully focused — solid, stable, and sure. The breath property is absolutely quiet, free from ripples, crosscurrents, and gaps. The mind, neutral and still, is free of all preoccupations with past and future. The breath, which forms the present, is still, like the ocean or air when they are free from currents or waves. You can know distant sights and sounds because the breath is even and unwavering, acting like a movie screen that gives a clear reflection of whatever is projected onto it. Knowledge arises in the mind: You know but stay neutral and still. The mind is neutral and still; the breath, neutral and still; past, present, and future are all neutral and still. This is true singleness of preoccupation, focused on the unperturbed stillness of the breath. All parts of the breath in the body connect so that you can breathe through every pore. You don't have to breathe through the nostrils, because the in-and-out breath and the other aspects of the breath in the body form a single, unified whole. All aspects of the breath energy are even and full. The four properties all have the same characteristics. The mind is completely still.

The focus is strong; the light, aglow.
This is to know the great frame of reference.
The mind is beaming & bright —
like the light of the sun
that, unobstructed by clouds or haze,
illumines the earth with its rays.

The mind sheds light in all directions. The breath is radiant, the mind fully radiant, due to the focusing of mindfulness.

The focus is strong; the light, aglow... The mind has power and authority. All four of the frames of reference are gathered into one. There is no sense that, "That's the body... That's a feeling... That's the mind... That's a mental quality." There's no sense that they're four. This is thus called the great frame of reference, because none of the four are in any way separate.

The mind is firmly intent, centered & true, due to the strength of its focus.

Mindfulness and alertness converge into one: This is what is meant by the one path (ekayana-magga) — the concord among the properties and frames of reference, four in one, giving rise to great energy and wakefulness, the purifying inner fire (tapas) that can thoroughly dispel all obscuring darkness.

As you focus more strongly on the radiance of the mind, power comes from letting go of all preoccupations. The mind stands alone, like a person who has climbed to the top of a mountain and so has the right to see in all directions. The mind's dwelling — the breath, which supports the mind's prominence and freedom — is in a heightened state, so the mind is able to see clearly the locations of all Dhamma fabrications (sankhara) — i.e., elements, khandhas, and sense media (ayatana). Just as a person who has taken a camera up in an airplane can take pictures of practically everything below, so a person who has reached this stage (lokavidu) can see the world and the Dhamma as they truly are.

In addition, awareness of another sort, in the area of the mind — called liberating insight, or the skill of release — also appears. The elements or properties of the body acquire potency (kaya-siddhi); the mind, resilient power. When you want knowledge of the world or the Dhamma, focus the mind heavily and forcefully on the breath. As the concentrated power of the mind strikes the pure element, intuitive knowledge will spring up in that element, just as the needle of a record player, as it strikes a record, will give rise to sounds. Once your mindfulness is focused on a pure object, then if you want images, images will appear; if sounds, sounds will arise, whether near or far, matters of the world or the Dhamma, concerning yourself or others, past, present, or future — whatever you want to know. As you focus down, think of what you want to know, and it will appear. This is ñana — intuitive sensitivity capable of knowing past, present, and future — an important level of awareness that you can know only for yourself. The elements are like radio waves going through the air. If your mind and mindfulness are strong, and your skills highly developed, you can use those elements to put yourself in touch with the entire world so that knowledge can arise within you.

When you have mastered the fourth jhana, it can act as the basis for eight skills:

  1. Vipassana-ñana: clear intuitive insight into mental and physical phenomena as they arise, remain, and disband. This is a special sort of insight, coming solely from training the mind. It can occur in two ways: (a) knowing without ever having thought of the matter; and (b) knowing from having thought of the matter — but not after a great deal of thought, as in the case of ordinary knowledge. Think for an instant and it immediately becomes clear — just as a piece of cotton wool soaked in gasoline, when you hold a match to it, bursts immediately into flame. The intuition and insight here are that fast, and so differ from ordinary discernment.
  2. Manomayiddhi: psychic powers — the ability to use thoughts to influence events.
  3. Iddhividhi: the ability to display supra-normal powers, e.g., creating images in certain instances that certain groups of people will be able to see.
  4. Dibbasota: the ability to hear distant sounds.
  5. Cetopariya-ñana: the ability to know the level — good or evil, high or low — of other people's minds.
  6. Pubbenivasanussati-ñana: the ability to remember previous lifetimes. (If you attain this skill, you'll no longer have to wonder as to whether death is followed by annihilation or rebirth.)
  7. Dibbacakkhu: the ability to see gross and subtle images, both near and far.
  8. Asavakkhaya-ñana: the ability to reduce and eliminate the effluents of defilement in the heart.

These eight skills come exclusively from the centering the mind, which is why I have written this condensed guide to concentration and jhana, based on the technique of keeping the breath in mind. If you aspire to the good that can come from these things, you should turn your attention to training your own heart and mind.

This article includes content from Keeping the Breath in Mind on Access to Insight, by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 Access to insight icon 50px.png