Leigh Brasington

Leigh Brasington joins us to speak about what the Pali canon suttas have to say about practicing the jhanas.

In traditional Theravadin Buddhism, there’s this thing called the Eightfold Path. It is the process by which we abandon the fetters, those pesky things that lead us to regular encounters with dissatisfaction in life. The last part of that, samatha, is two meditative practices: one focused on a wide awareness, the other on a singular awareness. Today, we see references to the first of those as insight, or vipassana, or satipatthana, the four foundations of mindfulness, probably the most recognized term in Western culture thanks to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. And for many people, things end there, without much attending to the eighth part of the path, the focusing of attention on one object to a degree of concentration and indistractability called jhana.

Leigh Brasington is a student of Venerable Ayya Khema, and has been teaching jhana meditation since the early 90’s. His interest is a naturalistic approach to concentration meditation, and helping people understand that deeper meditative states of mind can be helpful off the cushion, and can be attained.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Cinnamint tea.


“There are no nouns, just some slow moving verbs.” — Leigh Brasington


Leigh Brasington Interview from Britton Lab on Vimeo.

Web Links

Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez

The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. The track used in this episode is “Aki” from his CD, Inner Thoughts.

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  1. Mark Knickelbine on April 20, 2013 at 10:01 am

    I have yet to listen to the podcast, but I do want to point out that the phrase for concentration in the 8fold path is samadhi, not jhana. In fact not even all jhana teachers claim that it is necessary to practice the 4 or 8-stage jhanas in the Pali texts in order to fulfill the 8fold path, and the relationship and relative importance of samadhi and vipassana has been a controversy for two millenia. John Peacock, for instance, says that he has no personal interest in jhana practice at all. And at least one scholar suggests that the 8-stage jhanas probably have more to do with Brahmanic cosmology than Gotama’s teachings. I’m not knocking it because I haven’t tried it, but we should be careful about mistaking Theravadin orthodoxy for the dharma.

    • Doug Smith on April 20, 2013 at 10:23 am

      Hi Mark,

      I think in the suttas, samma samādhi (right concentration in the Eightfold Path) is generally defined as success in the jhānas. Leigh has an essay on this HERE.

      Though I do recall hearing that there is some controversy whether according to the suttas one really needs to attain all the jhānas to reach enlightenment (not to mention the formless attainments), or whether only the first jhāna is necessary, etc.

      • Mark Knickelbine on April 22, 2013 at 1:49 pm

        I would note that in texts like the Dhammapada and the Sutta Nipata, monks are simply described as “absorbed in jhana” — the multi-tiered system in the pericopes is not referenced in the earliest texts. Then we have the four-level system, and then the eight. It is tempting to see this increasing emphasis on ranked levels of meditation achievement as co-evolving with the notion that nibbana is only for monks and that householders are out of luck. Certainly if 10-day retreats or an hour of daily meditation are requirements, many modern householders will be left behind.

  2. Doug Smith on April 21, 2013 at 8:36 am

    Loved the talk, thanks to Ted and Leigh! I took a daylong on the jhānas with Leigh at NYIMC last year, and found him an amazingly clear teacher. The morning after the class I was able to get to the first jhāna, after which I discussed it with him at a Sunday session he was leading on dependent origination. Later using his instructions I could get to the first four. (I still can’t get anywhere near the formless attainments, FWIW).

    When I’d meditated alone in the early 90s I’d sometimes had experiences of joy and happiness come up from nowhere. I didn’t understand them, and didn’t know how to make them reappear. Leigh’s clear instructions clicked for me.

    I’ve subsequently discussed this with other teachers, and read around a bit, and I know that for some Leigh’s relatively light-level ‘sutta jhānas’ aren’t the “real” jhānas. Many view jhāna as states of complete absorption, with the nimitta (some internal sign, like a visual appearance of light) as an essential component. (Leigh has an essay on the nimitta HERE).

    At any rate it doesn’t really matter for me what one calls them. They are at least superficially identical to the states described in the suttas, they are very pleasant, and I find when I do them that they help my mindfulness practice. So I don’t really see any downside.

    I find one of the most crucial issues with jhāna is that they are related to having gotten over the hindrances. But there is some feedback there as well: attaining the first jhāna provides energy through the “pīti” that Leigh described, which can itself work to eliminate sloth-and-torpor. So sometimes when I’m feeling tired, getting myself to the pīti state actually wakes me up, and makes the rest of my sitting period more productive.

    That said, it takes time and effort to go through the jhānas, so I do them rarely. My practice when I do them has been to get through the first four and then spend time afterwards doing mindfulness.

    Recently I read somewhere a suggestion that one really should perfect each jhāna in turn, rather than moving through them. (I can’t claim to have perfected any of them). So I’ve tried to keep myself in the first jhāna for longer periods of time. Since I actually find the first one the least pleasant of the four, that’s a bit problematic.

  3. mikec on April 21, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Great talk, Ted. Always love having jhanas being discussed here.

    Jhanas crowd the line between True and Woo. They really happen, they really can be experienced and cultivated but until lately it’s been in the setting of people who believe they are precursors to knowing past lives and floating around the house, reading the minds of your cats.

    Love Leigh’s website. Has great essays and really elucidates the different approaches and presuppositions teachers have on jhana.

    And you don’t need crazy retreat time. 45 minutes everyday, well spent, will get you to piti/sukha. Piti’s great, but sukha is such a body soother, any pains in the body or any headache just washes away into pleasant comfortability. That’s when you feel like you can sit for hours. Anyone who’s doing some kind of insight practice, I don’t know how they hang in there without a foundation of single object concentration to at least calm the waters.

    • Doug Smith on April 22, 2013 at 4:44 am

      45 minutes everyday, well spent, will get you to piti/sukha.

      Yep, we do about an hour a day, +/-.

  4. Dana Nourie on April 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Oh this was fascinating! I had no idea there were two schools of thought on the jhanas, and Leigh’s methods interest me. Funny he brought up hands, because recently I discovered my concentration stays out of my head better if I focus on the feel of my hands. I also like the idea of focusing on a smile. I will have to try that!

    Looking at Leigh’s schedule now. Hey, Ted, we should grab one of the 2014 dates and do a retreat with Leigh!

    Leigh, that is so exciting that you knew and learned from Ayya Khema. I’m a huge fan of her books! Going to go all through your site. Hello, to a fellow programmer geek too:-)

    I’ve been wanting to explore the jhanas more because I’m curious about the experience, what effects it has on the rest of daily life, and really curious about brain effects. But boy this mind has had a short attention span lately!

    This talk gets me excited to keep working on it.

  5. David S on April 23, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    A timely podcast for me, today I was re-reading Richard Shankman’s, The Experience of Samadhi prior to coming across this episode tonight. If anyone is interested in more thoughts on the jhanas I’d suggest it. It includes interviews with various teachers on their understandings of the place of jhanas within Buddhist practice. Leigh is one of those interviewed. It will give you a broad view of this experience, its occurrence in the literature and various interpretations.

    I find it interesting and a bit confusing how it seems like a wide variety of experiences can be thought of as being jhanic. I’ve had a couple of very altered-consciousness meditative experiences that fall into this category. The qualities listed in the readings seem to have a broad range, yet when looked at through the aspects listed appear to have a form of experience which is common in essence if not the specifics of one’s experiences themselves. I guess differing objects of concentration and differing levels of absorption mixed with differing minds results in various experiences.

    Even though the experiences I have had were very interesting. One question I have is why are such experiences being promoted as having a greater effect on insight? Are the experiences themselves the “proof” of the 3 marks of existence by their lack? By having an experience of absorption without a self/other subject/object is that better than understanding it intellectually that I am a composite of multiple phenomena? Is it really any better? Even with the religious tones it left me with (yes, I am an Atheist and yep it left me with such a feeling the first time) I wonder if this type of insight is really any more meaningful than what I already know to be. Do I need more verification?

    This is a question I ask of insight practice as well. The hook comes from hearing those Buddhist teachers continuously talking as if having meditative insights ARE better and deeper. Yet I don’t know if I agree after all I have experienced.

    • mufi on April 24, 2013 at 7:01 am

      I have similar questions, Dave. As far as I know (and I hope others will correct me if I’m wrong), there is little to no scientific research on the specific effects of either insight/vipassana or jhana techniques, as opposed to whatever generic effects that they share with, say, MBSR (which has been researched to a relatively extensive degree).

      That said, I admit that I’m also intrigued by vipassana & the jhanas on anecdotal grounds – that is, based on the subjective reports of their practitioners (especially those who are more of a secular/scientific bent).

      Still, I think I’ll remain focused for now on my current practice. It’s just nice to know that there are other horizons waiting beyond this one.

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