on September 17, 2006
For over thirty years, Ajahn Brahmavamso has been a monk in the Thai "forest tradition," a branch of Theravada Buddhism known for its strict adherence to both the spirit and the letter of the Buddha's teachings. Tibetan Buddhism is exotic and Zen is aesthetically pleasing, but for the meditation that led the Buddha himself to enlightenment, we must look to the Theravadans.
Now one of the best-known faces of Buddhism in the world (although just becoming known in the States), Ajahn Brahm is one of the most admired meditation teachers in the world, and this book shares EVERYTHING. You can take this book to your hut in the woods (or spare bedroom in your house) and work its plan to ultimate bliss.
I was lucky enough to meet Ajahn Brahm last year in Chicago at Transitions Book Place, when he was visiting in support of his book of teaching stories, Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? (An excerpt from the interview with him appears below.) As wonderful and inspiring as his first book is, Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond is what we've all been waiting for, an encapsulation of the meditation wisdom Ajahn Brahm has cultivated since 1973.
If you're interested at all in what happiness comes from meditation, PLEASE do yourself a favor and read this book. It is everything I had hoped it would be -- and let me tell you, that was a tall order after meeting the writer himself!
Q. People call you "the Elvis of Buddhism," "the Seinfeld of Buddhism." They want to make you into a celebrity. Do you ever have difficulty reconciling that with being a monk--and not just a monk, but a forest monk, which is very different from living as a famous person?
A. You know, I think one of the first times when it really hit me is I was giving a talk in Singapore. There was a huge crowd of five thousand, cheering as if they were watching a basketball match or something. Huge crowd. In the front where I was sitting, I was just by myself on this huge stage. As I walked in, I thought, now what am I doing? But then I thought of my teacher, Ajahn Chah. I thought he would be very happy that I was spreading Dhamma to so many. So you never think of yourself; you think of your teachings. You think of what you're doing, rather than who's doing it. So you actually depersonalize everything.
Q. That's how you avoid the cult of personality?
A. [You get] where you can actually play the role without being the role, so you get up there and you can really connect with your audience. You can enjoy the interaction between yourself and five thousand [other people]. That way you are not shortchanging the Dhamma. Too often, people -- because they're concerned about their ego -- don't actually put themselves forward enough to be able to present the Dhamma in a beautiful way. Whatever you believe in, you just give it everything you've got, you go for broke. If you're going to talk to ten people, it might as well be ten thousand. It's the same as how I'm talking to you now. You just connect and just give a talk to the very best you can, and then off you go. So it's very powerful. If you've got a good teaching, then go out there and give it.
Q. Do you see yourself and your popularity as a vehicle for the Dhamma?
A. Sure, yeah, sure. I mean, when I started [as abbot and giving talks], I thought, "Well, I'll give it everything I've got. If it works, great. If it doesn't work, I can be a nice, peaceful, solitary monk." So you've got nothing to lose.
Q. It's funny. You almost have to disguise your useful teachings in an entertaining and funny way --
A. Packaging, that's what it is.
Q. -- but you're known for being totally scrupulous to the Vinaya. In the evening, you'll have orange juice while other people are having their steak dinners, things like that. That gives you a kind of authority that simply being a monk or an abbot doesn't necessarily confer, because there are scandals every day with religious figures.
A. That's correct, yeah.
Q. So what do you think that the Theravada tradition as practiced and taught by Western monastics has to offer that maybe the other traditions don't?
A. I think it's just clarity. Clarity and simplicity. That just shows that you can keep all your rules scrupulously without being uptight. If you see a person who really keeps those rules, they just so easily go along with it and they're just relaxed because it's one of those almost, like, koans of life--the more rules you keep, the more freedom you feel. People think, "Ah, if you keep precepts and you keep these rules, you feel just so enclosed. You can't go where you want. You can't do what you want." But [monastics] don't feel it that way at all. All these rules -- I can't do this, I can't do that -- seem so free and liberating.
Q. And part of the clarity of the Theravada is that there are not a lot of cultural accretions added to it.
A. That's right. Of all of the types of Buddhism, Theravada has been the least cultural and most international. [As] a Theravadin, I can go to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, and the other traditions -- old traditions and new traditions -- and know exactly what I'm doing. Like last night, I stayed in the Sri Lankan temple in Toronto. Tonight is in the Thai temple [in Chicago]. So you just fit in so easily. If you're a Theravadin monk or nun, it's like having a Diner's Club card or gold card, and you can go to any of these hotels called "monasteries" in the whole world and get free bed and board. [Laughs.] It's a great, great club to join.
on June 13, 2011
Presently when you learn meditation almost any teacher will tell you that what you are learning is from the master himself. However this unusual english book is method specific and teaches the same method that the Buddha himself was practicing and teaching in over 32 suttas of the Tripitaka. It teaches you in a practical way how to develop samadhi. Very rare to find in modern Buddhist writings.Though many reviews on here might question the validity of Ajahn Brahms teaching, they are not following Buddha's actual teaching but merely repeating the cultural constructs of Buddhist practice as learned through the voices of teachers.
When reading some of the reviewers, you have to wonder if anyone anymore actually reads through the Buddhas teaching (Tripitaka)? Or they just repeat like parrots what they learn from teachers who are not the Buddha?
If you have read more than just the standard suttas like the sattipattana etc.?
Buddha recommends jhana in over 32 suttas. In fact there is no where in the 3 sets of sutta's that Buddha teaches meditation where he also does not mention jhana. This is because it was meant to be the precursor to Vipassana. He does not recommend styles of practice like U BA Khin's (S.N. Goenka) or various other supposed vipassana styles. Have you read the LAM RIM (from Tibetan Buddhist) teachings of Tsong Kha Pha? you can actually find jhana being taught in there.
Buddha taught a system of meditation called Samatha Vipassana. The 1st part was the development of concentration and serenity or samadhi. This has 8 stages and is what Ajahm Bhram has been generous enough to teach openly. Once you have acquired Samatha you can then use your samadhi to acquire Vipassana; often translated as insight thought literally means clear seeing like clairvoyance (also can mean burning away).
I can understand that you might have a bias towards jhana teaching if you have not been able to access jhana. However Because Buddha never teaches Samatha without emphasizing Jhana, because it was his practice and because if you have gone into jhana you can see the night and day differences between practicing vipassana with and without it, this is why Ajahn Brahm is so intense on it. It is also a reaction against all the years of, quite frankly (lets be honest) fear of Jhana practice promoted out into the field by Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzburg, Goenka, U BA Khin and and several others who were sure about what they were sure about. Even now in these reviews there is someone warning people saying, " you better read what ajan sumeddo or ajhan chah says!" rather than, "you should read what the source teaching says". Fascinating, and we wonder why a teaching degenerates.
In the 70's there were several American Jews who were traveling in Asia and happened upon what was the dominant teaching style of meditation at that time which was the Mahasi Sayadaw and U Bha Khin style of body scan. They referred to thier methods as Vipassana practices. These Americans studied these methods and brought them back to the U.S. American practitioners here such as Kornfield, Salzberg and others pushed this method hard. Practicing in this way however is known in the Visshudhimagga as being a dry insight practitioner because you have generated no samadhi, no jhana-absorption. Practicing in this way can bring some insight but not much joy or serenity because that is not the nature of the practice. It can also never take you to other of Buddhas realizations like Sunyata.
As I have said in another review, Americans have been given a one sided view of Buddha's practice which they eagerly accept from thier teachers, (who can blame anyone for trusting their teacher) however because most Americans do not read the sutras themselves they do not actually see the way Buddha teaches his method of meditation (see the Pottapadda sutta: Digha Nikaya). I highly recommend a short free article by the Theravada monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu. It is called "One tool among many; the place of Vipassana in Buddhist practice".
By the way, just because Kornfield, Salzberg and the other Americans came back and wrote books does not make them any more expert than any other Buddhist monk. In fact, they got a lot wrong and are recently coming to terms with the fact that they have been teaching an incomplete system; this presently shows as the IMS has been hosting more and more Jhana teachers like Catherine, Brahm and the great Pa Auk Sayadaw. They pushed the body scan method for many years but have recently began to see that there has been a very superficial understanding of Samatha.
This is a highly illuminating book from a very serious practitioner of meditation. Someone who has devoted his life to learning and elucidating the Buddhas own methodology. What is funny about reviews on this book is the Americans and others who have not dedicated their complete lives to practice (being a monk) tell us whether or not this book can provide enlightenment or not? If they already have the enlightenment then why even read this book in the 1st place?
on March 4, 2007
Ajahn Brahm is certainly one of the most dynamic and charismatic Buddhist speakers nowadays. His Friday Night Dhamma talks and seminars have now gained worldwide acclaim and have even won over my mother. Indeed, along with Ajahn Sucitto and Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Brahm was one of the first masters I encountered when I was first introduced to Theravadan Buddhism. His talks have since provided me with a lot of inspiration over the years and have helped me through some very trying times. His previous book "Truckload of Dung" contains many of his jokes, stories and anecdotes that neatly illustrate the main aspects of Buddhism and is vintage Ajahn Brahm at his best.
I must confess, however, that I found his latest book "Mindfulness, Bliss..." along with his most recent Dhamma talks on enlightenment to be somewhat troubling, not necessarily in their content, but in their absolute tone or attitude towards Buddhist practice and enlightenment. While this book contains many useful insights and references about jhanas, his relentless and recurring insistence that experiencing and attaining jhanas is the only true way of achieving enlightenment, borders on the dogmatic and could be misleading especially for beginners in Dhamma practice.
His assertion that achieving or experiencing jhanas is either the best or only way to enlightenment flies in the face of other teachings by renowned meditation masters including more senior teachers such as Ajahn Sumedho and even his own teacher Ajahn Chah. The jhanic bliss or nimittas experienced during meditation should not be attached to, nor do they in themselves constitute enlightenment and nor are they a necessary or sufficient condition for enlightenment. Jhanas and nimittas are just concepts and conditions of the mind, possibly helpful along the path (indeed, they have been for me at certain times), BUT they are neither more nor less than that and do not constitute the sole purpose of meditation, nor are they the pinnacle of Buddhism nor do they represent the totality of Dhamma practice. Please read Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Chah on this subject.
As Ajahn Chah used to say, there are many roads to enlightenment and achieving deep jhanas is but one possible portal; however, danger lurks if one gets attached to these blissful states or if one becomes too eager to experience them and depressed if one doesn't. Then they can become a defilement and impede healthy spiritual development. Really, jhanas and nimittas just happen, if they happen at all.
Furthermore, the focus on discovering one's own past lives and reincarnations is yet another common spiritual red-herring found in this lastest book and a few of Ajahn Brahm's latest Dhamma talks (though curiously absent in his earlier talks). I find this a bit disappointing since one of the cornerstones of Buddhism is to be at ease with the Unknowable, to be fine with the Uncertain and not to waste too much time on the Speculative (such as past lives and reincarnations). This is really the realm of other more esoteric forms of Buddhism and New Age speculation. It's especially mystifying since Ajahn Brahm used to devote a considerable amount of his time alerting practioners to these dangers and advising them to put more practical effort into here-and-now mindfulness.
I also found it interesting that Ajahn Brahm uses a lot of heavy scriptural references to support his claims in this book (one wonders if Ajahn Sujato had a partial hand in ghost-writing this book) and yet he often dismisses reliance on scriptural references in his Friday Night Dhamma talks since "these scriptures weren't written by the Buddha anyway." If "Mindfulness, Bliss" were merely presented as an anectdotal reference, or simply as a shared experience or even as a "viewless view" of what can and might happen during meditation, I think it's usefulness would increase dramatically.
It is vital to carefully read Jack Kornfield's excellent foreward, a thinly veiled caveat, before immersing yourself in this book. Furthermore, if you are a beginner to Buddhism or meditation, to gain proper perspective on this subject, I'd strongly suggest reading a few classics before tackling this lastest from Ajahn Brahm:
Ajahn Chah - Food For The Heart
Ajahn Sumedho - The Mind And The Way
Jack Kornfield - A Path With Heart
Henepola Gunaratana - Eight Mindful Steps To Happiness
As the old Buddhist chesnut goes, "Never believe anything anyone tells you, not even the greatest and most famous master and not even the Buddha himself. Test it out for yourself."
3 stars for a thorough discussion of jhanas, minus 2 stars for the misleading tone of the book and the confusion it might cause those who may be new to Buddhism.
on June 3, 2015
Over the years as a practicing Buddhist I have read my share of books and manuals on meditation, especially those dealing with or touching upon Ānāpānasati and Jhāna. Initially I read these many books to learn from experienced meditators what to do and then, after I had accumulated quite a store of them, I re-read them to reconcile their different and sometimes conflicting messages.
Is Jhāna attainable these days, in this noisy, me-me-me world of ours? Some books hold that this is no longer possible (maybe one in a million, if that, can truly attain these deep absorptions, they say); other books skirt the issue altogether; while Ajahn Brahm courageously holds that: “Yes, it is possible.” And not only possible, but attainable by anyone, given the right intention, a virtuous life, and perseverance.
This book is a meditation manual, and now, looking over my book shelf of its many siblings and cousins, I clearly see that if I could only bring one of them with me to that clichéd desert island, this would be the one.
Ajahn Brahm is an intelligent man, and he reasons very clearly. His analysis of the applicable Pali Canon references and his reconciliation of apparently conflicting passages deserve applause.
His approach to Samādhi and Jhāna is logical and practical, and—above all—both understandable and doable. Setting out from the basics of meditation, navigating through the handling of hindrances, then treating mindfulness and the beautiful breath with both clarity and contagious enthusiasm, he leads you all the way from your initial sitting down and letting go of past and future, to—down the path a ways—enlightenment and Nibbāna.
This is a book (a manual, a friend) that invites and encourages practice, and as such (despite Jack Kornfield’s somewhat guarded introduction and recommendation) is what, in my view, the world desperately needs today.
In two words: Highly Recommended.
on December 3, 2006
This book has jolted me out of complacency with my meditation practice. I don't think it's really for beginners but if you've been meditating seriously and want to go deeper, this is an excellent guide. Ajahn Brahm is adamant about the importance of jhana to experience insight and he gives a step-by-step explanation of how to get there and what to expect along the way. Although I certainly haven't gotten there yet, the effort itself has helped my focus. This book has a straight-forward explanation of many of the Buddha's teachings (such as nibbana)in contrast with what is popularly understood.
on July 10, 2013
In this book, Ajahn Brahm reveals a blissful path to Nibbāna through the development of the jhānas. The jhānas are seldom taught nowadays, and even more seldom taught is the progression from jhāna to the "attainment of extinction" (nirodha-samapatti) or "cessation of apperception and feeling" (saññavedayitanirodha) which is a step on the path to the attainment of Nibbā'na. Using language and instructions that are down-to-earth. accessible and even fun, Ajahn Brahm teaches how we can progressively develop the 4 fine-material jhanas and the 4 formless jhānas up to the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, and then how to go beyond even this state to the cessation of apperception and feeling (saññavedayitanirodha) itself. This entire process from jhana to nirodha-samapatti/saññavedayitanirodha is often described in the Sutta Pitaka, sometimes referred to by the name "nine successive stages", and it leads to either the fruition of non-returnership or the fruition of arahantship.
Ajahn Brahm plays up the blissful aspect of this path through the jhānas, citing many instances in the sutta pitaka where the Buddha explicitly stresses and praises the pleasant and happy nature of jhānas and their cultivation. This makes it seem as if the Buddha really valued jhana and the bliss of jhāna above all else. However, these citations should ideally be placed in their proper context - in these Suttas, the Buddha was directly addressing Jain ascetics and ascetism which he stresses is painful, unnecessary and unprofitable. Even so, that message - that there exists a blissful path to enlightenment through the jhānas - is equally important for our times, when science, materialism, skepticism and the guilt complex has made us all a little wary and pessimistic of spiritual bliss; fearful and forgetful of spiritual happiness.
Ajahn Brahm interprets and presents the Ānāpānasati Sutta in a way that will be new and challenging for many people who are used to other interpretations of the Sutta like Buddhadasa Bhikku's. Where Buddhadasa Bhikku's interpretation reveals the 16 steps of ānāpānasati as a clear, logical and progressive vipassana practice on the 4 satipaṭṭhānas that culminates in nirodha-upassana (contemplation on extinction), Ajahn Brahm's interpretation reveals the 16 steps of ānāpānasati as a progressive development of the jhānas all the way to nirodha-samapati (attainment of extinction). Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's application of ānāpānasati relies more on the deliverance of wisdom (pañña-vimmutti). Ajahn Brahm's application of ānāpānasati relies more on the deliverance of mind (ceto-vimmutti). Both deliver the supramundane fruits if practiced correctly.
If Ajahn Brahm had just taught the path to deliverance through the jhānas, I would have given this book 5 stars and the review ends here. Unfortunately, Ajahn Brahm felt so strongly that enlightenment - including the first two stages of enlightenment - could only happen with and through the jhānas that he categorically denied any validity to other paths that do not rely on jhāna. His attachment to his view is SO strong, it leads him to virtually overlook Suttas, including some which he himself cited, which can be found on reading to directly attest to the existence of the path of pañña-vimmutti conferring deliverance through wisdom alone, without jhana. The ignoring of non-jhanic paths results in some gross inconsistencies in his presentation of enlightenment (esp. the first stage of stream-entry and the Noble Eightfold Path) that contradict scriptural evidence as well as logic.
For example, on pg. 223, Ajahn Brahm mentions the Mahavedalla Sutta's discussion of "right view", which he considers "another saying for the attainment of stream entry," which he in turn equates with jhāna. Actually, the relevant passage of the sutta states : "Friend, right view is assisted by five factors when it has deliverance of mind for its fruit and benefit, when it has deliverance of wisdom for its fruit and benefit..." This is basically saying that right view is supported by five factors when right view is directed towards i) deliverance of mind that confers the fruit of liberation through the jhānas, ii) deliverance of wisdom that confers the fruit of liberation through insight. This passage can just as equally be interpreted as an acknowledgement that jhānic mastery is not the only path to deliverance, and that there can also be a path of (dry) insight.
Ajahn Brahm then goes on to equate "samatha", one of the five conditions listed as supporting the two triggers to right view, as "jhāna". He tops it off by saying "The second of Ven. Sariputta's triggers for stream winning [he is referring to yoniso manasikāra or wise reflection, the 2nd condition for Right View which he conflates with Stream-Entry]...comprises the three supporting conditions of virtue, jhāna and insight, all rolled together as yoniso manasikāra." So, he is basically saying that jhāna = stream-entry (the fruit), = right view (the initial path factor) = samatha or serenity (the condition that supports the second trigger for the first path factor to arise), = samadhi or concentration (second factor of 3-fold training often equated with the Noble 8-fold path), = the entire path ("virtue(sila), jhāna(samadhi), insight(panna) all rolled together as one") = yoniso manasikara or wise consideration (the 2nd trigger of the 1st path factor, but which in Ajahn Brahm's logic becomes "virtue, jhāna and insight all rolled together as one"). Too much SIMPLIFICATION, CONFLATION and "rolling together as one" going on here, don't you think?
Here's a refutation: 1) Granted that the Path, with Right View as its first factor, arises upon Stream-Entry. This does not mean that the Path, Right View, or Stream-Entry are automatically equivalent or REDUCIBLE to Jhāna. 2) Samatha is rightly translated as "tranquility", which does not have to equate with or AMOUNT to jhāna or absorption. 3) Samadhi or concentration is of 3 kinds - momentary concentration, access concentration and absorption concentration, and only absorption concentration amounts to jhāna, so samadhi is not necessarily jhāna. 4) The path (consisting of sila/virtue, samadhi/concentration and panna/insight) does not have to include jhāna, because samadhi can refer to momentary or access concentration, which is enough basis for developing insight. Even if samadhi refers to jhāna, one cannot therefore say that the path IS jhana, because there are factors other than samadhi involved. 5) Wise attention, yoniso manasikāra, does not have to depend on jhāna, only on an adequate amount of tranquility, and it can operate PRIOR to stream-entry and PRIOR to the Path, because it is only a SUPPORTIVE CONDITION for right view. I am sorry to say this, but this is worst case of bad translation, blatant conflation and loose juggling of Pali terms and logic that I have ever come across, and it should not have happened. With such over-simplification, we really have to wonder: Is this what can happen when the one-pointedness of jhāna is not matched by the power of dissection conferred by Insight?!!
One more example. On pg. 225, Ajahn Brahm grudgingly turns to consider the question of "stream winning without Jhāna?" He says: "I cannot see a possibility of penetrating to the full meaning of anatta, dukkha and annicca without the radical data gained in a jhāna experience. Yet, there are some stories in the Tipitaka that suggest it might be possible." He gives "the most compelling passage" which concerns the 31 murderers sent by Devadatta to kill the Buddha. Ajahn Brahm's blind-spot becomes very visible to readers here. There are INNUMERABLE passages in the Sutta Pitaka that attests to stream-entry without jhana. For example, the story of Susima in the Samyutta Nikaya (S II, 127) recounts the declaration of final liberation by a number of bhikkus in the presence of the Buddha at Rajagaha. Upon being queried later by Susima about their jhanic attainments, these same bhikkus told him that they are "liberated through wisdom alone". Susima then goes and checks with the Buddha about how this can be, and the Buddha there and then leads him through a series of questions and answers that shows Sisima using his (Susima's) own example and understanding how one becomes liberated through wisdom alone, without jhānic attainments.
Really, how much clearer can it get that "liberation by wisdom alone" is not only possible, it has been done, verified as done, checked and double-checked, stamped and double-stamped, with the Buddha's own stamp of approval itself? Rather than accept the liberating power of insight, Ajahn Brahm chooses to attribute stream-entry without jhana to the power of FAITH alone (pg 226). Faith? When the Buddha has repeatedly taught people not to rely on faith and belief, but to rely on one's own discrimination, experience and insight? To quote Dr. Rahula in "What the Buddha Taught": "Buddhism is always a question of knowing and seeing, and not that of believing. The teaching of the Buddha is qualified as Ehi-passiko, inviting you to come and see, but not to come and believe." Without insight, surely faith can never confer the fruit of liberation, however strong it is. So, WHY should a learned member of the Sangha deduce that it was faith and not dry insight that delivered the fruit?
Ajahn Brahm related an incident where Ajahn Chah asks him "WHY?" after he has just come out of a beautiful meditation, and he was stumped for an answer. He says "I don't know". Ajahn Chah then tells him, "If anyone asks you 'Why?', the answer is "There is nothing." He then asks him if he understands and Ajahn Brahm says "Yes". But Ajahn Chah corrects him, saying "No you don't." Ajahn Brahm says that this episode with Ajahn Chah "summed up what this chapter on deep insight is all about." Perhaps, but could Ajahn Chah also be pointing to something else that he totally missed? Was Ajahn Chah pointing to the nothingness (cessation) obtained through insight, was he pointing to the nothingness that the jhanas must ultimately culminate in, was he pointing also to the nothingness of jhāna? Was he telling Ajahn Brahm not to cling to Jhana, not to make a big deal out of jhana, because it is nothing? (This BTW is the same pointing out a "dry vipassana" instructor would give to a student who starts to get light, rapture, happiness and etc - to disregard them because they are nothing but subtle defilements of the mind). If so, Ajahn Brahm never understood his master fully. Instead, he assumes that he does, and that it is us, the reader, who doesn't understand (see pg. 209). Make no mistake, much of what Ajahn Brahm says, including about the "dumping down" of Nibbāna, is very true and very important. This book is brave in its critique and vision, but the author becomes a little rash in his assertions, and his dogmatic adherence to his particular view and experience shows a lack of balance and impartiality - shows an imperfection of wisdom therefore. Could this be due to a failure to fully grasp that "Why?" directive given by Ajahn Chah many years ago?
Reflect on this: Just because Ajahn Brahm did not or could not attain stream-entry through dry insight, does it mean that nobody attained or can attain stream-entry through dry insight? Does he know the accumulated insight and virtues of everyone else? How does he know HOW MUCH insight it takes for another person to become enlightened? Some people just hear the dhamma and they SEE it and they get enlightened. Some people have to suffer greatly in life and then they see the dhamma and get enlightened. Some people have to practice vipassana before they see the dhamma. Some people have to develop jhāna and then do vipassana, then they see the dhamma. Some people do vipassana first, they see the dhamma, and that seeing gives them the purity and focus of mind to develop the jhānas successfully. The fact is, there are different kinds of people with different capabilities of insight and with different potentials for liberation in the world. The Buddha taught 40 kinds of meditation with innumerable possibilities for skillful combination and application because he recognized the different propensities, potentialities and needs of different people. The "one path" does not mean that there is only one path (satipaṭṭhāna or jhāna), it means the path that leads to to one goal of Nibbāna. So there are several "one paths" in the Dispensation of the Buddha, all leading to Nibbāna. Unfortunately, Ajahn Brahm does not think this way, because he doesn't know and doesn't use this kind of wise reflection (yoniso manasikāra) that operates independently of jhāna, and which leads to right view.
For those still confused over jhāna and dry insight, let me just point out that without the power of jhānic absorption (up to the 4th jhana at the very least) to drive it, ānāpānasati or any satipaṭṭhāana method might (only) reach up to the first two levels of enlightenment - stream-entry or once-returner. Without crowning insight to finish it, the development of jhānas might (only) lead to rebirth in the pure abodes in which one can complete the practice to gain liberation. But if one develops the jhānas and then undertakes dhamma-upassana (investigation of dhamma), this can lead to both cetto-vimmutti and pañña-vimutti, delivering the final two supramundane fruits - non-returner or arahantship, with arahantship being full enlightenment and final liberation in this very life. Don't you agree, that any one of these fruits are supremely rewarding to get, coming as it does with the iron-clad guarantee of final liberation? Why should those who get a fruit insist "my apple is best, only apples can satiate all hunger, and you can only get an apple by picking it up with your left hand," when there are apples, pears, melons and grapes on the table ready for the eating, and just as many ways to get them as there are hands, mouths and people?
I guess this book is an example of the jhānas' great ability to expand horizons of understanding, even as they harbor a great ability to create blind-spots. OVER-reliance on jhāna is not a good thing, if it can create such subtle attachment to views and blind-spots in understanding. I deduce: Jhāna by itself really does not guarantee wisdom! So, if your question is "WHY should I read this book, can it lead me to final liberation?" My answer is: "THERE IS NOTHING you can achieve WITHOUT INSIGHT!"
on March 19, 2007
First, a big Thank-You to Ajahn Brahm for writing this book. My meditation bookshelf now holds several volumes on the practice, but none comes even close to the clarity of "Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond". This book gave me some insights to the questions I had formed through my daily mediation practice. It also answered questions I didn't even know I had, prior to reading the book. Brahms utterly practical treatment of the stages of meditation lays out a path that the novice can follow. For example, all of my other books on the subject treat mindfulness of the breath as stepping stone #1 on the path of developing mindfulness. Only after reading Brahm's book did I realize that I've tried to start my practice with step #4! How about the foundation work of present moment mindfulness?
The book is also wittingly funny at times and contains some of the funny and enjoyable similes from "Who ordered this truckload of dung?". By the way, if you want to read a true delight, buy that book too! You'll love it.
I don't know about the Jhanas, and I am of course not sure if that is the only way to enlightenment. That's beside the point for me. Realistically, I'm not looking for enlightenment, just peace. On this endeavor, Ajahn Brahm's "Mindfulness Bliss and Beyond" is a clear-cut, logical and extremely useful map. This book has untold value to the novice meditator. It demystifies the process and explains all the pitfalls. I'll keep on re-reading it for a long time.
In the spirit of Brahm's book, let me give you a simile of mine. If all other meditation books are like the user manual for a new car you've just bought, then "Mindfulness Bliss and Beyond" is the Service Bible that's used by the dealer's certified mechanics.
on November 6, 2015
I've been studying Ajahn Brahm's YouTube videos on meditation for about a month. They've brought me peace of mind and bliss in my day-to-day life. So I decided to grab a copy of this handbook. It contains everything from his video taped meditation retreats laid out in an organized and in-depth way. The handbook goes beyond the videos. The methods are the same and they don't conflict with each other.
Let me first step back and say that Ajahn Brahm's teachings on meditation are the only ones that have ever worked for me. I learned meditation at a Zen center in Atlanta in 2002 and have practiced that style of Zen meditation on and off. I'd lose my practice whenever I'd find no joy in it. I felt more frustrated and the "concentration" I developed made me more on edge. It wasn't until I recently started learning from Ajahn Brahm that I realized I was doing it all wrong.
Of course Buddhists over the past 1000+ years can't seem to agree on anything, and Thich Naht Hanh's teachings on meditation conflict with Ajahn Brahms, for example, but I can tell you that I have experienced deep joy from Ajahn Brahm's interpretation of the Buddha's meditation methods. Therefore I'm sticking with it.
Thanks to Ajahn Brahm's methods, I'm meditating throughout the day whenever I can find spare time simply because I now love to meditate. Meditation never feels like a chore. I do it now because I want to.
on November 4, 2006
I'll confess right now, I know Ajahn Brahm and have for almost 15 years. I know that it took the better part of 10 years to write this book. I've been meditating and studying Buddhism for 18 years. "Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond" is simply the best book on meditation that I have ever come across.
Ajahn Brahm has written on a number of levels that enables him to give to both the beginning and experienced meditator...this isn't easy to do and Ajahn is the first I've seen who has been able to do this at all well, most writers will write for either the experienced or inexperienced meditator, Ajahn is the first to be able to write for both.
"Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond" is essentially Ajahn, it is warm, funny and profound. It is also designed to snare you into the world of meditation.
Read it, love it, use it.
on October 14, 2012
The jhanas are a central part of the practice taught by the Buddha, mentioned repeatedly throughout the Pali Canon and it is refreshing to see many contemporary teachers returning to the teaching of them as an alternative to the "dry insight" vipassana meditation which was only recently developed in the 20th century. In this book Ajahn Brahm says he teaches the jhanas, which he characterises as a kind of anaesthetic coma where the senses are turned off and all sense of the body and the outside world is lost. As an example of how literally he means this, he even tells the story of one of his students who fell into the state that he espouses and was rushed to hospital by his wife because she thought he had died. According to his definition, if you can sense anything, you're not in a jhana.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) these kinds of states are not what the Buddha taught as jhana. If they were, then the Pali Canon, which is full of descriptions of jhana, would be full of descriptions of monks in death-like comas. It isn't. In fact, the Buddha taught eight successive jhanas, the first four of which are states of heightened whole body awareness. Note the important difference - heightened awareness of the body, not unawareness of the body. Thought and feeling also play important parts in the first four jhanas, called the form jhanas. It is only the latter four jhanas which are called formless, where the awareness of form fades away, and these last four are not necessary for awakening.
Brahm also states that to get into jhana it is essential to have to have a "nimitta". He says that for most people this will be an imaginary bright light accompanied by a feeling of bliss. The trick is to develop this light and the feeling of bliss then get sucked into them. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, since few people experience this light) nothing like this is taught by the Buddha as part of the development of jhana. He doesn't mention the light. The feelings of bliss arise and then are allowed to continue and die down when they get uncomfortable, becoming joy and then equanimity, all with full body awareness. Attention is kept with the meditation object (usually the body or the breath) and not allowed to get sucked into the feelings.
These may seem like technical nit-picks, but they're very important. The kind of one-pointed absorption concentration (as distinct from the Buddha's whole body awareness concentration) that Brahm recommends can be developed, but it's got a lot to do with aversion, one of the three kilesas. Firstly, the desire for this kind of absorption is based on aversion for the world and is simply an extreme version of sticking your fingers in your ears and humming, closing your eyes and pretending that the world doesn't exist and neither do you. These states can sometimes be pleasant and restful and another Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Fuang, used them during an operation on his kidney because he didn't trust the anaesthetist. So they can be helpful in some ways in the short term, but they're not the jhana that the Buddha taught. The problem is that because they are based on a reduction rather than an increase in awareness, they don't help the development of insight. The second connection with aversion is when you come out of these states. As Ajahn Brahm says in the book, the world looks worse when you come out and the sense of dukkha is increased, because the world seems jarring compared with the peaceful anaesthetised state that you've just left. If indulged in for too long and too often, these absorption states that Brahm describes can lead to a kind of meditation hangover, a longing to go back to the absorbed state, an increase in distress with the world and aversion to it, even anger and mental instability, which Brahm bizarrely takes this simply to be an increase in sensitivity to the dukkha that was already there in the world rather than an unhelpful and possibly harmful effect of his technique. All meditation techniques can lead to an increase in the awareness of dukkha, but the strong and stable peace developed during the whole body jhanas taught by the Buddha leads to an increase in mental and emotional stability and an enhanced ability to deal with the world in a steadier and less reactive way.
Another problem is that a minority of people experience a nimitta as described by Brahm and this has led to an experience of striving and failure in many meditators trying diligently to follow his instructions. This is a pity because jhanas as taught by the Buddha are fairly easily obtainable by most people if they practice correctly and diligently, just as most people can learn a musical instrument or a foreign language with good teaching and enough practice.
In order to try and fit his own teaching into the Buddha's framework, Brahm attempts a bizarre reworking of the Buddha's teaching on breath meditation, the Anapanasati Sutta, taking it as a linear progression and splitting it between the third and fourth tetrads by inserting jhana between steps twelve and thirteen. In fact the sutta doesn't work like that. You can work on all four tetrads at once, and the development of jhana accompanies this work at all stages. Luckily the sutta is actually quite clear in itself. The Buddha's formula for jhana as a state of enhanced whole body awareness is also very clear and is probably one of the most, if not the most, repeated pericope(s) throughout the Pali Canon. The only way that Brahm can attempt to make his teaching fit with the Buddha's is to redefine perfectly ordinary Pali words like "kaya", "vitakka" and "vicara", to mean something completely different from what they mean everywhere else.
Brahm's attitude to other views of jhana is defensive and un-monk-like, to say the least. He accuses Thich Nhat Hanh of "irrational stubbornness based on bhavatanha, the craving to be" (probably more accurately translated as "craving for becoming"). (In passing, there may be something in this, since, as Brahm rightly says, Hanh bizarrely teaches that the Buddha didn't teach jhana at all and that all those repeated passages were inserted into the Pali Canon record of his teaching conversations after his death. Indeed, in recent years Hanh has seemed preoccupied with his own "continuation", and one's "continuation" is a central theme of his teaching). Brahm's accusation is ironic, as it would be quite plausible to see Brahm's own teaching of what he calls jhana as based on vibhavatanha, craving for non-becoming, non-existence, not to be. The problem is that you can't deal with your defilements by closing your eyes, sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending that you're free of defilements. You have to go the other way and increase your awareness of what you're doing, not decrease it.
The idea that there is no self is central to Brahm's teaching in this book, even though the Buddha taught that any kind of view about "the self" was wrong view and would not lead to awakening and release. Brahm refers to the Sabbasava Sutta where he says a question such as "Who am I?" is called by the Buddha unwise attention. Brahm recommends asking a different question such as "What is it that I take to be me?". Unfortunately questions such as this are also on the list of those defined as unwise by the Buddha in exactly the same paragraph. In the very next paragraph Brahm's stated view "I have no self" is explicitly defined as wrong view, along with all other views about "the self". Selective scholarship to say the least, and Brahm is a full time monk and I'm just a bloke who has studied the suttas in my spare time. The question as to whether there is a self, of whatever kind, is one which the Buddha refused to answer when explicitly asked.
So, a potentially harmful meditation technique which was not taught by the Buddha, teaching based on mistranslations and selective quotations, and a self-view in explicit contradiction of the Buddha's teaching as laid out in the suttas of the Pali Canon. Ajahn Brahm is undeniably a nice bloke, but really, this is pretty shocking for a senior Theravada monk.