Top positive review
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A skillful exploration into Buddhist meditation
on October 8, 2004
--This wonderful book, despite its somewhat misleading title, is a modern commentary on Buddhism's Jhanas, or supreme meditative contemplations (others might use terms like "peak spiritual experiences" or "liberated states of awareness."). The Jhanas include eight levels of conscious awareness, and they appear to be the mystical "mystical experiences" that so many pilgrims from so many religious traditions have sought for so many centuries. This book gives a Buddhist perspective on them, although the methodology for approaching and assessing the Jhanas are subjects of some debate within the Buddhist community.
--Ayya Khema, a well-respected Buddhist nun, centers her book around a little-known part of Buddhist scripture called the Potthapada Sutta, in which a well-meaning but unsophisticated student asks the Buddha how to achieve the highest level of conscious awareness. The Buddha often answered such complicated questions very simply and with some humor, but he now takes the reader into a journey full of wisdom and depth. Instead of answering the student directly, he defers the answer until he has addressed the preparation needed to comprehend the question. The Buddha clearly indicates that the higher mental states should be approached indirectly, carefully, and with great ethical and mental preparation. Such preparation usually takes tremendous effort and personal change, but without them, chasing after something like the "highest conscious states" may not only be useless but a dangerous source of attachment and delusion. Far from being an esoteric spiritual cookbook, Buddhism demands adequate awareness, a practiced discernment of existence, and an ethical "guarding of the sense doors." Only then can the various Jhanas be productively accessed, although they are not simply "obtained" by our own efforts. Liberation depends on comprehending existence, not manipulating it.
--Ayya Khema then gives a superb commentary on the Buddha's description of the Jhanas, and discusses what they mean for us. The author suggests the Buddha viewed these supreme mystical experiences far differently from many other religious leaders. Although the Jhanas are a supremely wonderful and useful place for the mind to be, they too are subject to arising and passing away, and are not the End of the Road. Instead, their value is to allow the mind to become so clear and so focused that Insight Meditation becomes more, well, insightful. As the author puts it, the Jhanas can have indispensible value in "understanding experience," and in managing the questions of old age, suffering, and death. When all becomes still and one becomes kind, all becomes obvious.
--Ayya Khema has artfully described a wonderful teaching. She has introduced us to steps on the spiritual journey that many of us had not expected to take -- those of discipline, renunciation, heightened awareness, and decency. Life isn't easy, but it can be positive for one who pays attention and changes accordingly.
--This book deserves the attention of anyone interested in this dimension of Buddhist meditation. You may also want to consider a directed Jhana retreat, such as one of those found on her student Leigh Brasington's website.
--I should add the Potthapada Sutta is not only an excellent commentary on the Jhanas, it gives superb advice about the overall Buddhist path.