Mind, Brain, Consciousness

Rūpa jhāna

Attending to the nimitta and becoming more confident and “interested” in the experience, the meditator settles into progressively calmer mental states, as though guided by the nimitta as part of an instinctive process of becoming increasingly peaceful and absorbed.

In the 1st rūpa jhāna, the meditator refines two (of the 5) jhāna factors, vitakka and vicāra. Vitakka (application of attention) is the meditator’s awareness of placing his/her attention onto the nimitta, and vicāra (sustained attention) is the awareness of the attention as continuous and sustained. A simile in the Visuddhimagga is a Bell. The clear strike of the bell is vitakka, and the ongoing reverberation is vicāra.

When the meditator masters vitakka and vicāra, it is as though the reverberation of the bell never completely ceases; even though inaudible, the meditator is able to now rest in the balanced feeling state of being attentive to the nimitta, with confidence, and with no urge to disturb that balance by seeking another object, or to reassure him/herself of contact with the nimitta by another act of vitakka.

The meditator’s practice has now moved naturally to the 2nd rūpa jhāna, characterised by the three remaining jhāna factors, pīti (attentive joy experienced in the body and mind), sukha (mental bliss), and ekagatta (one-pointedness of mind). A simile here is a clear and still Pool of Water, nothing needs to be added, and nothing leaks away. This is now predominantly a feeling state, with an increasing sense of absorption, satisfaction and joy. Joy (pīti) experienced in the body is felt as an energisation, sometimes at first quite coarse, causing trembling or vibration or even jumping of the body, masking the more subtle mental satisfaction or bliss (sukha).

As the meditator’s confidence grows, and as piti and sukha permeate body and mind, pīti becomes increasingly subtle. Contentment and stillness deepen, like the still pool of water, and the desire for excitement and stimulation fades as the meditation develops into the 3rd rūpa jhāna, characterised by just the two remaining factors, sukha and ekagatta. Any disturbance in the body has now faded, pīti has quietened, and any risk of falling back into cognitive processes of vitakka and vicāra is now remote. The simile here is a Lotus Flower, pure and unsullied, risen clear above the still pool of water. The experience is of deep satisfaction and bliss, and of feeling for the first time fully conscious.  

While the breath/nimitta and any sense of nāma-rūpa (subject-object) has become very subtle in the 3rd jhāna, the meditation can deepen still further into the perfectly balanced 4th rūpa jhāna. Pain has been let go in the first three jhānas, and now in the 4th jhāna any dependence on sukha or any need for satisfaction is also let go. The experience is of a pure, perfect balance, fully absorbed, characterised by equanimity (upekkhā). The simile is of being completely covered by a fine White Cloth, perfectly protected from any disturbance of pleasure or pain, experiencing the bliss of upekkhā. In the Vimuttimagga it is said that “the experiencing of the mind is the state of the fourth meditation jhāna”.

Simile of the white cloth

The simile of being enveloped by a White Cloth in the 4th rūpa jhāna is intriguing. It brings to mind another instance of the use of a white cloth in the now rarely seen, but very beautiful, Pansukūl ceremony, a form of blessing ritual to heal or extend the life of, usually, an elderly recipient. The recipient lies down and is covered entirely by a fine white cloth, and remains in a twilight, transitional realm while monks chant sections of the Matika, normally chanted for the dead. When the chanting ends, the senior monk “plucks” away the white cloth, and the recipient is symbolically reborn.

Originally, at the time of the Buddha (and a practice still followed today by some monks), pamsukūla referred to collecting rags discarded in a graveyard, usually from the shroud of a dead body. Such rags may be taken freely by a monk, cleaned thoroughly and dyed, and sewn into monks’ robes. In fact, pamsukūla robes were originally, at the very beginnings of establishing a Buddhist Sangha, one of the four “marks” or supports that defined being a Bhikkhu. Thus, the Vinaya states, “pamsukūlacivaram nissāya pabbajjā”4 – “this Going Forth has as its support rag robes”.

The simile of the White Cloth suggests that the 4th rūpa jhāna is a kind of transitional state, neither of the old world, nor yet quite entirely cut off from it. In the same way, taking ordination and wearing monks’ robes is a major life transition for a new monk. Also, anticipating the discussion of the arūpa jhānas, the quality of balance of the 4th rūpa jhāna has some similarities to the “in-between” and “neither-nor” qualities of the 3rd and 4th arūpa jhānas.

© 2012,

Arupa jhāna