Great Western Jhanic Diffusion

Jhana seems to be a pretty hot (or touchy) topic for internet Buddhists, recently due in part to the efforts and gradual influence of Jeffrey S. Brooks (a.k.a. Jhanananda).

Jeff is a “self-ordained” monk who lives out of his van in the southwestern US, often traveling to teach or take up retreat or temporary residence at various locations. His teaching is marked by open discourse on “jhanas” (ecstatic states of concentration beyond the physical senses), which is supposedly a big no-no in open Buddhist discussions. Discussions on an individual’s progress in meditative absorption should be in secret between student and teacher, and the jhanas are (according to Jeff) not encouraged among the Buddhist orthodoxy. It’s a rule, such as the one delegating that monks cannot brag about their attainments or abilities achieved during or by meditation.

There are a number of reasons Jeff ruffles a few feathers in his open discourse.

The first is that he is not a Buddhist teacher recognized by any legitimate lineage or heritage — his radical opinions are his own. It seems he was not allowed into his local Theravada or Zen monastic lineages for reasons that are not entirely clear and so one can only speculate upon. He says he was rejected proper ordination for his individual progress in jhana; others have said he simply was seeking official recognition as a realized individual and Buddhist teacher and so was refused.

Also, Jeff’s discourses are overwhelmingly concentrated on the jhanas. Indeed, his entire message seems to be that the jhanas are the meat and potatoes of the Buddhist path and that one’s path can only progress by experiences in these mental absorption states. He emphasizes that the Eight-Fold path actually arises from deep suffusion in jhana. This goes against the way jhanas are introduced early on in Buddhist meditation practice; they are rarely emphasized, similarly to magic powers, because they easily become obstacles and create conscious intentions in the mind of the student.

Additionally, there’s his method of discourse. Jeff appears on many Buddhist message boards (such as E-Sangha or the Buddhist Society of Western Australia) and proceeds to describe his experiences in great detail. It’s interesting reading, for sure, and the guy isn’t lying about his experiences. However, there is a sort of evangelical strain to his preaching. He decries others for censoring him, criticizes other Buddhist teachers, claims his own path as being the only one with real understanding, and talks about how he’s a martyr long before anyone does anything except tell him his jhana-obsession is questionable. At the very least, he is as extreme in his viewpoint as the most extreme people who oppose him.

And then there’s the fact that he is never satisfied with a discussion unless it’s a matter of deference to his opinion. You give him a forum to speak and it becomes a soapbox for his extreme views. At that point it doesn’t even matter what his agenda is — you just don’t want to listen to someone presenting themselves in that manner.

I’m not particularly dismissive of Jeff and his actual work, though. I do think his project is cool, the way he’s provided detailed accounts of the jhanas and their characteristics is actually quite useful, and his cross-cultural/spiritual allusions and comparisons are a welcome teaching tool as well. I’ve spoken to him via e-mail a bit, and he’s always been cordial and responsive.

The thing is, I really see Jeff as more of a yogi than a Buddist teacher. His path seems to be one of a certain kind of indulgence, an extreme path that yields high metaphysical and esoteric results. Buddhism is a religion that is for all branches of life and people, not just the elite meditators among us. Sadhus, yamabushi, shamans and so on are not spiritual gurus for the masses in the way monks, priests, ministers and abbots are. The former are more like ascetics who bear the fruit of meditative results, whether they’re fully enlightened or not. I’m not denigrating either group, and the path meets somewhere in the middle. But you don’t teach crazy metaphysical jazz to laypeople and every internet nerd on the web because it doesn’t help them simplify their life; it’s not improving their social obligations. The Buddha’s teachings were contemporary to Confucius and Socrates, and emphasized new social obligations in a way that modified the caste system in India.

The jhanas are important on the path to awakening and developing deeper concentration, but come on… Enlightenment isn’t a jhana, and yet that’s exactly what Jeff seems to be saying about it.

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7 Responses to “Great Western Jhanic Diffusion”

  1. “The true spirit of meditation is being alive to the moment. Moment to moment realisation is potential in your present experience”. Vajradaka. http://communicatingmeditation.wordpress.com

  2. […] about (and yes, I’m aware that the jhanas are not the end in themselves, I’ve already nailed that one, thank you very much), they’re inclined to just get bored once their lives are running smooth […]

  3. Thank-you wizardsmoke. I am honored that you would find my work of interest to comment upon. I found your blog to be the most even handed of the critiques of my work that I have found so far. I would only correct you on two points. I would call myself a mendicant who is a mystic.

    Love to all, Jhananda

  4. Thank-you Wizard Smoke, for taking such an interest in my work to post a blog on it. However, you have gotten just a few things not quite right about my work. My point is that by following the first 7 folds of the Noble Eightfold Path one arrives at the 8th fold, which is defined only in terms of jhana in the suttas. This is purely canonical truth that cannot be refuted truthfully.

    It has been my experience that by meditating to the point of experiencing the 4 jhanas every time I meditate, and meditating thus three or more times a day, I have given rise to a tranquil and still mind, equanimity, freedom from stress and anxiety (dhukkha) and intuitive, revelatory insight into myself, the nature of life and existence, and the path and philosophy of enlightenment (dhamma).

    While I have found that the above meditation style leads to all of the psychic powers that are described in the suttas; nonetheless, I have not at all found those psychic powers have misled me in anyway, instead I found insight into myself, the nature of life and existence, and the path and philosophy of enlightenment (dhamma). In fact I did NOT go looking for those psychic powers. Instead I only meditated to depth in the 8 stages of contemplation (samadhi) where I could experience communion and union (yoga) with the spiritual dimension (akasha).

    It just turns out the psychic powers are simply the natural product of the meditation methodology that I described above. And, I have received emails from hundreds of people who have meditated as rigorously and consistently as I have, and they too have found the same fruit (phala) of attainment of psychic powers as I have.

    If one were to research the reasons why I was marginalized by the Buddhist priesthood, one will find that it was solely because of my fruitful (phala) of attainment of psychic powers.

    Unfortunately, by marginalizing me and others, the Buddhist priesthood have not demonstrated knowledgeable guidance to those who, like myself, have fruit (phala) of attainment of psychic powers. Thus, I speak openly about my insights and attainments to encourage others with similar attainments to find the guidance that they are not finding in the oppressive and suppressive environment that the Buddhist priesthood has created surrounding the fruit (phala) of attainment of psychic powers.

  5. I didn’t approve the comments before because my blog has been on hiatus, but for some reason you responded again 6 months later with a different attitude.

    Yeah dude, religious groups are bureaucratic organizations! They don’t care about your attainments! The way you parrot on about this stuff sounds sociopathic or like you have your own weird ambitious agenda.

  6. Since both Patanjali and Siddhartha Gautama defined success in their contemplative models in terms of ‘phala’ and they defined ‘phala’ in terms of charismatic phenomena, such as: religious experience, OOBEs, etc., and I do as well; whereas, priests of various religions reject these phenomena, and you call me sociopathic, then it sounds like you are in with the priests, while I am in with the mystics.

  7. I’m not sure I’m with the priests, my man. I do appreciate what you do, your site/talks are really cool, and you are correct in that a proper contemplative environment/community is hard to find in modern religion. I just don’t know why you talk about yourself and your quest so much.

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