This work provides an analytical study of the jhānas, an important set of meditative attainments in the contemplative discipline of Theravāda Buddhism. Despite their frequent appearance in the texts, the exact role of the jhānas in the Buddhist path has not been settled with unanimity by Theravāda scholars, who are still divided over the question as to whether they are necessary for attaining nibbāna. The primary purpose of this dissertation is to determine the precise role of the jhānas in the Theravāda Buddhist presentation of the way to liberation.
For source material the work relies upon the three principal classes of authoritative Theravāda texts – the Pāli Tipi:aka, its commentaries, and its sub-commentaries. To traditional canonical investigations modern methods of philosophical and psychological analysis are applied in order to clarify the meanings implicit in the original sources.
The examination covers two major areas: first the dynamics of jhāna attainment, and second, the function of the jhānas in realizing the ultimate goal of Buddhism, nibbāna or final liberation from suffering.
Regarding the first issue it is shown that Theravāda Buddhism treats the process of jhāna attainment from a philosophical perspective which views the mind as a complex of factors alterable by methodical training. The eight attainments of jhāna – four fine material jhānas and four immaterial jhānas – are examined individually in terms of their components and in their progressive scale of development. Also discussed are the supernormal powers of knowledge (abhiññās) resulting from jhāna and the connections between the jhānas and rebirth.
Regarding the second issue, the work brings to light several significant findings concerning the soteriological function of the jhānas. Fundamental to the conclusions in this area is the discovery that the Theravāda tradition distinguishes two kinds of jhāna, one mundane (lokiya), the other supramundane (lokuttara). Mundane jhāna, comprising the eight attainments, belongs to the concentration group of the threefold Buddhist discipline – morality, concentration, and wisdom. Supramundane jhāna is the mental absorption immediately concomitant with the higher realizations called the supramundane paths and fruits, which issue from the full threefold discipline.
Theravāda Buddhism regards the mundane jhāna as neither sufficient nor indispensable for reaching liberation. They are insufficient as they only suppress the defilements and must be supplemented by wisdom. They are optional rather than indispensable since they need not be developed by all practitioners. Meditators belonging to the “vehicle of serenity” utilize jhāna to produce the concentration required as a basis for wisdom, meditators belonging to the “vehicle of bare insight” can employ a lower degree of concentration without achieving mundane jhāna. But supramundane jhāna pertains to the experience of all meditators who reach the paths and fruits, since these latter always occur at a level of jhānic absorption.
The dissertation also explains the two approaches to meditation and shows how they lead by stages to the higher realisations. The supramundane jhānas are examined analytically both in themselves and in comparison with their mundane counterparts. Also discussed are two additional attainments connected with the jhānas – fruition and cessation.
Finally, by means of a canonical sevenfold typology, the relation of the various grades of liberated individuals to the accomplishment of mundane jhāna is investigated. The conclusion emerges that though liberation from suffering, the ultimate goal of the discipline, is attainable by wisdom with or without mundane jhāna, Theravāda Buddhism places additional value on liberation when it is accompanied by mastery over the jhānas and skill in the modes of supernormal knowledge.