When we study The Anapanasati Sutta by Venerable U. Vimalaramsi and Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond by Venerable Ajahn Brahm, we notice that these two prominent teachers diverge on the issue of which steps of the meditation represents which jhanas.
The Buddha did not specify which steps represented which jhanas. Since there are sixteen steps and technically only eight stages of meditation (four jhanas and four immaterial attainments), there is no one-to-one correlation between the steps and specific stages.
Both agree that going to a secluded location and putting mindfulness “in front” is a preliminary step that must be practiced as a prelude to the sixteen (16) step meditation.
STEP 1: Ven. UV: After going to a secluded spot and putting mindfulness up front, the practitioner breaths in and out, mindfully. In the Buddha’s words: “Ever mindful in breathes in, mindful he breaths out.”
STEP 1: Ven. AB: After going to a secluded spot and putting mindfulness up front, the practitioner follows the two-step procedure of present moment awareness and silent present moment awareness.
STEP 2: Ven. UV: Step 2 is watching the long and short breaths.
STEP 2: Ven. AB: Step 2 is watching the long and short breaths.
STEP 3: Ven. UV: Step 3 is breathing in to experience the whole body of the breath, and breathing out to experience the whole body of the breath.
STEP 3: Ven. AB: Step 3 is full sustained attention on the whole body of the breath.
STEP 4: Ven. UV: Step 4 is breathing in to tranquilize the body formation, and breathing out to tranquilize the body formation. Ven. UV states that this is the most important instruction in Tranquil Wisdom meditation. Whenever tension arises, we have to let it go, drop it, soften and smile. He also states in his explanation of the fourth step that no nimitta will ever arise if the Buddha’s instructions are followed carefully.
STEP 4: Ven. AB: Step 4 is the arising of the moment-by-moment awareness of the breath that arises naturally from full sustained attention on the whole body of the breath. There is no real disagreement here; being aware of the breath of the moment must surely tranquilize the body formation.
STEP 5: Ven. UV: Step 5 is the arising of the joy of the first two (2) jhanas. This marks the begining of the divergence of the two explanations of the sutta.
STEP 5: Ven. AB says that joy (piti) arises at step 5 but it is not the joy of the first jhana.
STEP 6: Ven. UV says that step 6 is to breath in experiencing happiness and to breath out experiencing happiness..
STEP 6: Ven. AB holds that step 6 is the arising of happiness (sukha) but that no jhana state has yet arisen. This is the stage of “the beautiful breath.”
STEP 7: The third jhana arises at step 7 according to Ven. UV. The Buddha says this step is breathing in experiencing the mental formation and breathing out experiencing the mental formation. Vague! No wonder that two thinking teachers can arrive at different conclusions.
STEP 7: The breath becomes a mind object according to Ven. AB. This is the step where the breath of the beautiful breath is gone and only the beauty remains, like the grin of the Cheshire cat. A beautiful metaphor from the Ven. A.B.
STEP 8: The fourth jhana arises at step 8 under Ven. UV’s understanding. In the Buddha’s words, this step is very similar to step 7 and is equally vague: Breathing in tranquilizing the mental formation and breathing out tranquilizing the mental formation.
STEP 8: Under Ven. AB’s understanding, when only the beauty remains, and that beauty alone is experienced for a considerable length of time, the mind eventually enters into a serene calmness that sets the stage for the appearance of a nimitta. He explains that step 8 is the Still Forest Pool of which his teacher Ajahn Chah spoke.
STEPS 9-12 are not jhana steps in the teaching of Ven. UV. They are the steps of experiencing the mind, gladdening the mind, stilling the mind, and liberating the mind. These are the same words the Buddha used to describe these steps.
STEP 9: Ven. AB teaches that the ninth step is the step where the nimitta, the sign of Nirvana, arises. The nimitta is the mind that is experienced, i.e., the mind sees the mind.
STEP 10: Ven. A. B. teaches that the tenth step, gladdening the mind, is one of polishing the nimitta to make it stronger.
STEP 11: Ven. A.B. teaches that the eleventh step, sustaining the nimittta, ensures that the polished nimitta is sustainable, thereby ensuring that the jhanas will be reached.
STEP 12: Ven. A.B. teaches that the twelfth is the step where all of the jhanas and material attainments can appear. The meditator may not reach all eight stages because each stage must be passed through to get to the next higher one. However, a weak nimitta (which arises from weak following of the precepts; no nimitta at all will appear if the precepts are not followed) will probably fail to produce an experience of the first jhana.
As the polished nature and sustainable strength of the nimitta are enforced by prolonged polishing and strengthening at the tenth and eleventh steps, the meditator experiences the stages of jhana, in the order experienced by the Buddha, even all the way to Nirvana if the mind is truly pure, the five hindrances are overcome, and dependent origination is realized both forwards and backwards.
In the teachings of Ven. UV, the final four steps, Steps 13-16, are as follows:
STEP 13: The first and second immaterial attainments (that of infinite space and infinite consciousness) arise from meditation on impermanence;
STEP 14: The third immaterial attainment (that of nothingness) arises from meditation on fading away;
STEP 15: The fourth immaterial attainment (that of neither perception nor non-perception) arises from meditation on cessation; and
STEP 16: Something beyond the fourth immaterial attainment arises from meditation on relinquishment. Although not quite “Supramundane Nibbana,” this final stage of the meditation is “very close” to Nirvana, which arises only when dependent origination is seen backwards and fowards and when the stage of neither perception nor non-perception is transcended by cessation of perception and feeling.
STEPS 13-16: Ven. A. B. teaches that the final four steps are post-jhana stages of the meditation. The superpower mindfulness developed by the jhana experience is therefore harnessed to contemplate the four subjects that the Buddha refers to in the final four steps (impermanence, fading away, cessation, and relinquishment).
Ven. Ajahn Brahm also opines that those four objects of post-jhana contemplation were intended by the Buddha to be examples of the subjects that could be contemplated with the super power mindfulness developed by the jhana experience.
So why not contemplate a Zen koan once that super power mindfulness has been developed?
To summarize, under Ven. AB, the jhanas and the immaterial attainments arise at Step 12, if they arise at all, and the number of stages experienced depends upon the purity of the mind.
Under Ven. UV, the first two jhanas arise at stage 5, the third jhana arises at stage 6, the fourth jhana arises at stage 8, and the four immaterial attainments arise at steps 13-16. Ven. UV agrees with Ven. AB that no jhanas arise in the presence of a defiled mind, i.e., one that does not follow the precepts.
These rather striking differences in teachings arise from the fact, as already noted, that there are sixteen steps and only four jhanas and four immaterial attainments. And the Buddha made no clear connection between the sixteen steps and the jhanas and immaterial attainments so reasonable minds can assign different jhanas and immaterial attainments to different steps.
It is helpful to study the words of both teachers. It helps us to realize that we need to overcome the tyranny of words and to see the moon that both teachers are pointing at.