There Are Seven Levels

Here’s a question I received recently. It was proposed as a topic for my YouTube channel, but I think it might be better in writing.

Jhanas, those meditative states that one supposedly goes climbing until you reach the pinnacle of enlightenment. I have come across references to these in Pali suttas from time to time, and then a while back I came across this video of a talk given by a Chan teacher at Google:

 He actually kind of “puts down” Japanese Zen, claiming that Japanese monks went to China for a few years to learn Chan, but didn’t stay long enough to really get the whole picture. He has a student with him who says he used to study Zen but only really started to make progress once he switched over to studying with this Chan teacher. As far as I can tell, the main emphasis of this teacher’s school is on the jhanas. In the video, it is claimed that, upon reaching the first jhana, you have a decreased desire for food and sex. 

What is your view on the jhanas? They definitely exist for Theravadan Buddhists, and I guess apparently for Chan Buddhists as well. Are they real? If they are, why are they not taught in Zen? And if they are not, why in the hell did early Buddhists make up the whole crazy system? 

I think I know what Dogen might say to these questions, but I figured I would ask you and see if you might shed some light on the matter. 


Paul McCartney tells a story that once, in the Sixties, he and the other Beatles were doing some drugs. Paul suddenly had a great revelation. He told their roadie Mal Evans to write it down for him. The next day Paul remembered the incident and found the paper on which Mal had written his revelation. On the paper it said, “There are seven levels.”

I’d say jhanas are as real as any sort of label you put on some achievement.

Is “Eagle Scout” a real thing you can be? Well, sure, I suppose. When you’re in a Boy Scout uniform and there are other boys around who regard the Eagle Scout insignia on your uniform as being significant then I guess you’re an Eagle Scout. That insignia means some adult with a Boy Scout leader uniform decided you qualified for the rank of Eagle Scout. If that person’s judgement was sound, then maybe the rank reflects something significant about your character and abilities.

Whether you will retain those qualities after you get too old to be in the Boy Scouts is another matter. Whether you continue being a good Eagle Scout when nobody in authority is around to judge you is yet another matter. Whether your conduct is still worthy of the rank of Eagle Scout even after you’ve become a scout leader yourself is again another matter.

I think jhanas are like that. Do you want to call a combination of reduced desire for sex and food as well as the ability to convince a meditation teacher you have achieved that reduction of desire by the name “first jhana”?

If you do, I won’t try to stop you. But I don’t call it that. And I certainly wouldn’t waste my time trying to convince some meditation teacher to recognize my achievements and assign ranks to them.

The video my correspondent sent tells the whole story. I have never seen or even heard of these two “Buddhist masters” before, but it is crystal clear that their main interest in life is controlling and dominating other people. Whatever real interest they may have in Buddhism is insignificant in comparison to their interest in domination. This is unmistakable and painfully obvious.

Generally, people who desire to dominate others do so though economic or political power. But spiritual power can be an even more effective means of dominating others. Inventing levels of meditative achievement and setting yourself up as the one who determines if someone has attained those levels is a great way of controlling the lives of other people and making them beholden to you.

It’s so gut-wrenchingly plain that this is what’s happening in the video that it made me feel icky to watch it. I had to turn it off after a couple minutes.

I’m well aware that the early discourses of the Buddha are full of references to the jhanas. I’m also well aware that those early discourses were composed over 200 years after the man himself died. That’s plenty of time for a movement to turn from a sincere search for the truth into an institution that seeks to maintain power by controlling the lives of its members. So, I do not take it as a “given” that the historical Buddha invented the system.

It’s possible the historical Buddha came up with the jhanas as a metaphor to explain what happened to him in his practice. As often happens, the metaphor may have been misunderstood by those who heard it and taken as a statement of fact. Sort of the way some people claim there was a real Adam and a real Eve and a real Serpent in a real Garden of Eden.

Look. After you meditate for a while, stuff happens. Your understanding of your life changes. The way you perceive yourself and others changes. Since all humans are very much alike, these changes generally happen in similar ways. It is possible to plot a rough map of the stuff that generally happens to most people who get very serious about their meditation practice.

In the past, many people have tried to do that. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that people who have never meditated (or who haven’t done much meditation) come across these writings and mistake them for a system of achievements. They then try to measure their progress against what they’ve read about other people’s experiences. Or, worse still, they try to measure other people’s progress against these writings.

This leads to ambitiousness, jealousy, one-upmanship, people kissing up to authority figures, and all the rest of the foolishness that anyone involved in business or politics gets into. It also utterly destroys any benefits one might get from meditation.

This is why the Zen schools generally don’t bother with stuff like this. There are, however, Zen versions of the same sort of nonsense. One of the most popular is called the Five Ranks.

Again, this was apparently someone’s attempt to convey what they’d experienced in their own meditation practice. Sadly, it was subsequently turned into a silly game to measure the relative progress of practitioners. When used that way it has no value at all.

Personally, I find the whole thing to be ridiculous in the extreme. I’ve never bothered studying these systems in any detail because it’s so screamingly obvious what they are. I don’t know why any sensible person would put any stock in such utter bullshit.

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