What Was Jhāna, Really?

Last night, during Uposatha,1 I took the opportunity to start a book I had been wanting to get into for a while, Reexamining Jhāna: Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology.2 In it, Grzegorz Polak argues that the Theravada tradition3 has misinterpreted the role of Jhāna4 as an optional attainment, when it is in fact presented as necessary for enlightenment in the Sutta Piṭaka.5 According to him, it’s simply a matter of misinterpretation by later Buddhists, who had difficulty grasping the meditative practice of the Buddha as separate from the Yogic tradition. One compelling piece of evidence is the Sandha Sutta (AN 11:10), in which the Buddha condemns Jhāna practiced as absorption on a single object, leading to the cessation of the senses, etc; and instead, praises Jhāna not dependent on anything.

Also yesterday, I was browsing through the news (not entirely sure that that’s a wholesome activity for Uposatha right now, given the current state of turmoil of the world), and I came across this article on The Guardian about some new research on the effects of LSD on the brain. The researchers confirmed, by looking at fMRI scans of the research subjects, a hypothesis in which psychedelic drugs effectively “bring down” consciousness to the level of raw sensory data, by inhibiting the brain’s previously learned stories about the way the world works. Now, to me, this sounds an awful lot like the description that the Buddha gave about the state of one who has attained Jhāna: that one sees things as they really are, that one makes one’s mind soft and pliable, etc.

Simultaneously, that reminded me of a theory in neuroscience put forth by a researcher named Michael Edward Johnson, in which the brain gradually accumulates energy up to a critical point, and then releases that energy and reorganizes itself in more efficient patterns. According to that theory this is what happens during our day-to-day living, through our accumulated emotional experiences, new lessons learned, etc. And also, importantly, according to him, a plausible hypothesis is that this is precisely what happens in the brain during psychedelic experiences and deep meditation, albeit in a much more accelerated way. He argues that the mechanism through which meditation works is by accumulating sense data and preventing it from being re-interpreted by our usual notions, which results in that critical energy accumulation point being reached, and the brain reconfiguring itself into more blissful states.

Anyways, this is all just a bunch of random thoughts. But putting all of these together does make me feel excited about the validation that neuroscience appears to be giving to the importance of meditation, and it’s easy to feel like some scholar or researcher somewhere is about to make a leap forward in our understanding of the physiological aspects of the teachings of the Buddha.