A Mind Pure, Concentrated, and Bright

An interview with meditation teacher Leigh Brasington

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Leigh Brasington, 55, has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1985 and is the senior American student of the German-born Theravada teacher Ayya Khema. Raised in Mississippi the son of a Presbyterian minister, Brasington lost faith in the family religion at the age of 18, while reading James Michener's The Source, an epic novel that traces the history of Judaism. "Basically, God died that summer." A decade later, he "awakened to the spiritual dimension of life" while traveling through Asia on a round-the-world tour. Actual practice, however, didn't begin until several years later, when he attended a meditation retreat led by Ayya Khema, who eventually helped Brasington map his way through the jhanas and urged him to teach. [Khema died in 1997—see Tricycle, Spring 1998.] Today he spends several months of the year traveling the United States, Western Europe, and beyond, leading meditation retreats—most of which include jhana practice. Brasington works as a computer programmer in Alameda, California, where, among other projects, he recently designed a Tibetan word-processing program. In addition to working with Theravada teachers, he has studied for twelve years with the Tibetan Dzogchen master Tsoknyi Rinpoche. He spoke with Mary Talbot at the tail end of a jhana retreat in Chupadero, New Mexico, in July.

You have described the jhanas as being "the heart of the Buddha's practice:' How is it that they're so little known to most practitioners these days?
{Laughs} "I don't know" is the short answer. They're certainly all over the place in the suttas—they're mentioned in about half of the suttas of the Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourses of the Buddha) and in about a third of the suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya (The Middle-Length Discourses). The Buddha defined Right Concentration as the practice of the first fout jhanas, so it would seem obvious they'd be known everywhere, but they're not. It appears there was a split after the Buddha's death concerning the importance of the jhanas, and that dispute continues to this day.

Why does jhana practice seem to have been on the losing side of this split? One thing I could speculate is that as the monastic community withdrew into the forest and began practicing the jhanas, they began taking concentration to deeper and deeper levels. There certainly is a human tendency to say "If you're not doing it as well as I can do it, you're not doing the real thing." The view of extremely deep concentration was promoted by the Visuddhimagga, which gives the odds on a meditator learning all eight of the jhanas as one in one hundred million. Whereas if you look at the suttas, people are entering the jhanas all over the place.

So Westerners have never been much exposed to the jhanas. It's not the practice that was brought to the West. What principally came here was the Mahasi tradition—Vipassana, or insight meditation—from Burma, and some of the Thai traditions. I've heard that just a small percentage of the monks in Thailand meditate. Now, of that small percent, how many are actually doing jhana practice?

My teacher, Ayya Khema, taught herself the jhanas, by reading the suttas and the Visuddhimagga. But she didn't know if she was doing it right. So when she was in Sri Lanka, she began inquiring as to who was a jhana master with whom she could study. She eventually found Matara Sri Nanarama Mahathera and had an interview with him. She described what she was doing and asked, "Am I doing them right)" He said, "Yes. And furthermore, you must teach them. They are in danger of becoming a lost art."

So even in a place like Sri Lanka, which considers itself the guardian of Theravada Buddhism, the jhanas are in danger of being a lost practice.

Is there much known about the pre-Buddhist history of the jhanas? They definitely existed prior to the Buddha—he learned jhanas one through seven from his first teacher, and the eighth from his second teacher. Anapanasati—watching the breath as a form of meditation—is believed to be five thousand years old. The Buddha came along twenty-five hundred years later, and certainly during the intervening years people had stumbled into these altered states of consciousness. It happens remarkably often. On most of the retreats I teach, a significant number of the new students have stumbled into one or more of these states. So, given two and a half thousand years of people practicing anapanasati, a lot of people presumably discovered these states, and by the Buddha's time, they had systematized them in increasing order of subtlety of the objects.
   
It's interesting to note that the Buddha first entered jhana as a child, while sitting under the rose apple tree at what was probably a plowing festival. And on the night of his enlightenment, the first thing he did was step through the jhanas. In the post-jhanic state of mind, in the last watch of the night, he penetrated the Four Noble Truths.

Do we know exactly what the Buddha was doing? We don't know for sure exactly what the Buddha was practicing. There is a lot of dispute over how to define or interpret the jhanas. Perhaps the better question is, What's a useful definition? Is there some level of jhana that people can actually learn and will help them in their spiritual growth) Hopefully, this is the level at which I am teaching.

What is your definition of the jhanas?
I would define them as eight altered states of consciousness, each one requiring more concentration than the previous, and each one generating more concentration than the previous. The standard definition of the jhanas that's found in the suttas, such as in the "Greater Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness," describes the first four states, in very specific terms. [See "This Is Called Right Concentration,"] The last four jhanas build on the fourth jhana and are referred to as the immaterial jhanas.

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Kayla's picture

I am reading the book "Simply This Moment" by Ajahn Brahm and he also encourages jhana states. To him, it's a deeper place inside the mind, a place of great peace and bliss, a very profound place which gives one great insights into the mind.

Yuriy-Wisdom's picture

This is so difficult to attain... but so rewarding that once you get it, you will never look at material pleasures in the same way again. I experienced access concentration once (by accident I think). Have not been able to replicate it since, but have been learning and practicing sila, so it should come back one day. Maybe going on this retreat would help? Sila and regular meditation practice have helped build concentration slowly but maybe to experience those states you also need inspiration from a good teacher...

Yuriy

Sareen's picture

I am interested in hearing from people who have practiced in this way. It sounds like Leigh is recommending jhana practice be combined with insight practice. This makes sense to me, as I understand it there are warnings in a lot of buddhist writing that jhana practice can be a place to hide out. It seems to me that it could possibly be used to cut off from inner material. This could mean that this inner material would still be there when you got off the cushion, and your behavior and attitude in life could be unaltered and remain quite unskillful.

James Mullaney's picture

I would assume that in addition to morality, a safe and secure meditation environment is necessary to attain these deep levels of concentration,.