Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as the Actualization of Insight (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism) 1st Edition
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This book offers a new interpretation of the relationship between 'insight practice' (satipatthana) and the attainment of the four jhànas (i.e., right samàdhi), a key problem in the study of Buddhist meditation. The author challenges the traditional Buddhist understanding of the four jhànas as states of absorption, and shows how these states are the actualization and embodiment of insight (vipassanà). It proposes that the four jhànas and what we call 'vipassanà' are integral dimensions of a single process that leads to awakening.
Current literature on the phenomenology of the four jhànas and their relationship with the 'practice of insight' has mostly repeated traditional Theravàda interpretations. No one to date has offered a comprehensive analysis of the fourfold jhàna model independently from traditional interpretations. This book offers such an analysis. It presents a model which speaks in the Nikàyas' distinct voice. It demonstrates that the distinction between the 'practice of serenity' (samatha-bhàvanà) and the 'practice of insight' (vipassanà-bhàvanà) – a fundamental distinction in Buddhist meditation theory – is not applicable to early Buddhist understanding of the meditative path. It seeks to show that the common interpretation of the jhànas as 'altered states of consciousness', absorptions that do not reveal anything about the nature of phenomena, is incompatible with the teachings of the Pàli Nikàyas.
By carefully analyzing the descriptions of the four jhànas in the early Buddhist texts in Pàli, their contexts, associations and meanings within the conceptual framework of early Buddhism, the relationship between this central element in the Buddhist path and 'insight meditation' becomes revealed in all its power.
Early Buddhist Meditation will be of interest to scholars of Buddhist studies, Asian philosophies and religions, as well as Buddhist practitioners with a serious interest in the process of insight meditation.
About the Author
Keren Arbel holds a PhD in Buddhist Studies and teaches at the Department of East Asian Studies in Tel Aviv University, Israel. Her research interests include early Buddhism, Buddhist Meditation, Indian contemplative traditions, and South Asian Buddhism.
- Publisher : Routledge; 1st edition (February 24, 2017)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 234 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1138937924
- ISBN-13 : 978-1138937925
- Item Weight : 1.05 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.25 x 0.75 x 9.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #4,729,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Over the past many years, I have studied, explored, reconciled, re-studied, and re-reconciled both the Pali Canon, countless meditation books (mainly in the Theravada tradition), as well as Tibetan Buddhist writings (B. Alan Wallace and the Dalai Lama among others) and Zen (Dogen et al.) in order to trace and map a meditative path that will truly work for me; but never with the resources and in the depth that Keren Arbel has done in her precious (and incredibly helpful) book “Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as the Actualization of Insight (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism).”
I have read and re-read this book, and I am continually amazed by (and grateful for) the honestly, perspicacity, and range of her studies and likewise by her clear and virtually unassailable conclusions. She has, in fact, helped me complete my meditative map, and for that I can never thank her enough.
Returning to what the Pali Canon actually says (and she is a Pali scholar), and while steering clear of the dangerous and somewhat annoying shoals of the seemingly countless modern opinions about what the Buddha actually meant or didn’t mean, Arbel has eloquently reconciled the four Jhanas with the Seven Factors Enlightenment with a clarity and touch of Truth that seem to spring from the mouth of Gotama himself.
Her book was indeed the helping hand I needed to complete my map. I view it as a precious gift to all sincere meditators.
P.S. This book is not inexpensive, but I must say and say again: it is worth every penny.
This is not a meditation manual, it is a ground-breaking book of Buddhist scholarship, but it is intentionally written, with rare clarity and elegant simplicity, to speak to serious readers who are not scholars, do not know a word of the ancient languages, and want to understand insight meditation.
At the core of the book is the argument that mainstream traditional and current approaches to meditation completely miss the point of the discussions of the four jhānas. You may be surprised to hear that, as a meditator, you should care about this. You should. Really. I will try to explain.
Over the years I have heard, more than once, the the four jhānas are states of deep absorption which one can safely forget about as he or she practices meditation. Arbel says quite the opposite: the descriptions of the four jhānas tell us exactly what it feels like to be free from the inside. These are descriptions of the stages of growth and development of Awakening on the most important level of all, the subjective experience of the practitioner. I think she proves it, chapter and verse.
I once saw video of a smart reporter asking the Dalai Lama about what the Dalai Lama’s many years of practice have done for him. The Dalai Lama said something like, “...when I meet people, I have less of the feeling of, how do you call it?, strangery.” Setting aside the beauty of the content of this answer, you will note that this world-class meditator and scholar chose to talk about simple subjective experience, what is feels like to meet people, to explain his understanding of progress on the road to Awakening and the gifts of Buddhist practice.
Even when this book gets technical, and it does, it has additional value on the most profound level. It rests on a deep and broad foundation of knowledge of Buddhist texts, and it is unfailingly guided by a clear grasp of what is most important. This means that it gives you a kind of Buddhist map, and compass, and points you to some of the most important, and beautiful, texts. It teaches you, as good teachers always do, by example. It shows you how to study Buddhism, and how to practice insight meditation, with a clear grasp of the big picture, the horizon.
What one gets, in short, is this: a detailed discussion linking the practice of insight meditation to attaining the jhānas, which Arbel sees as the subjective, experiential, results of a growing depth of insight into the nature of experience. The description of the four jhānas is nothing less than a sensitive phenomenology of gradual Awakening. As one understands the world more deeply, profoundly, and accurately, being-in-the-world, what it feels like to be alive, changes, becomes more peaceful. The jhānas are not altered states of consciousness generated by deep concentration and detached from life and phenomena, they are the experience of being intimately and serenely engaged with the world as the work of insight meditation awakens us and gives us a beautiful, serene, new world.
There are many teachings here that will delight the experienced insight meditator: from the detailed discussion of the seven “factors of awakening,” to a brilliant rethinking of the relationship between shamatha practice (calming) and vipassana practice (insight). It turns out they are inseparable, deep insight brings great peace. Makes sense to me. All these, and a great deal more, are the gifts of the book.
And, for those who like to go old-school, back to the source, here are the Buddha’s words about Awakening as they appear in the 36th of the middle-length discourses, to show how important the jhānas are:
"I thought: 'I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?' Then following on that memory came the realization: 'That is the path to Awakening.'
In keeping with Buddhist morality, which the book also explains and exemplifies beautifully, I want to say that Arbel is one of my teachers and you should, therefore, take what I say with that in mind. My best advice is this: download a sample of the book and check it out. There is a good chance you will want to read it, and will treasure it for a long time to come.
Wherever this book leads, I loved reading it. It affirmed or elucidated my understanding of the Dhamma regarding the nature of experience. I got an impression of Arbel as brave, bold, willing to think outside the box, which to me is laudable given her solid academic credentials.