American University
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posted on 2023-08-05, 07:28 authored by Henepola Gunaratana

This work provides an analytical study of the jhanas, an important set of meditative attainments in the contemplative discipline of Theravada Buddhism. Despite their frequent appearance in the texts, the exact role of the jhanas in the Buddhist path has not been settled with unanimity by Theravada scholars, who are still divided over the question as to whether they are necessary for attaining nibbana. The primary purpose of this dissertation is to determine the precise role of the jhanas in the Theravada Buddhist presentation of the way to liberation. For source material the work relies upon the three principal classes of authoritative Theravada texts--the Pali Tipitaka, its commentaries, and its subcommentaries. 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 jhana attainment, and second, the function of the jhanas in realizing the ultimate goal of Buddhism, nibbana or final liberation from suffering. Regarding the first issue it is shown that Theravada Buddhism treats the process of jhana attainment from a philosophical perspective which views the mind as a complex of factors alterable by methodical training. The eight attainments of jhana--four fine material jhanas and four immaterial jhanas--are examined individually in terms of their components and in their progressive scale of development. Also discussed are the supernormal powers of knowledge (abhinnas) resulting from jhana and the connections between the jhanas and rebirth. Regarding the second issue, the work brings to light several significant findings concerning the soteriological function of the jhanas. Fundamental to the conclusions in this area is the discovery that the Theravada tradition distinguishes two kinds of jhana, one mundane (lokiya), the other supramundane (lokuttara). Mundane jhana, comprising the eight attainments, belongs to the concentration group of the threefold Buddhist discipline--morality, concentration, and wisdom. Supramundane jhana is the mental absorption immediately concomitant with the higher realizations called the supramundane paths and fruits, which issue from the full threefold discipline. Theravada Buddhism regards the mundane jhana 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 belong to the "vehicle of serenity" utilize jhana 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 jhana. But supramundane jhana pertains to the experience of all meditators who reach the paths and fruits, since these latter always occur in the level of jhanic absorption. The dissertation also explains the two approaches to meditation and shows how they lead by stages to the higher realizations. The supramundane jhanas are examined analytically both in themselves and in comparison with their mundane counterparts. Also discussed are two additional attainments connected with the jhanas--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 jhana is investigated. The conclusion emerges that though liberation from suffering, the ultimate goal of the discipline, is attainable by wisdom with or without mundane jhana, Theravada Buddhism places additional value on liberation when it is accompanied by mastery over the jhanas and skill in the modes of supernormal knowledge.



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Source: Dissertation Abstracts International, Volume: 41-10, Section: A, page: 4420.; Ph.D. American University 1980.; English


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