A Mind Pure, Concentrated, and Bright

An interview with meditation teacher Leigh Brasington

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Can you explain what that is?
Sweeping is a systematic moving of your attention over every square inch of your body simply noticing whatever sensations you can notice. There may be physical sensations, such as hot, cold, pressure, tingling, and there may also be emotional sensations that arise. You simply notice what is there and move on with the systematic sweeping of your awareness over the body.
   
Sweeping has the effect of generating sufficient concentration for a number of people to be able to enter the jhanas. It's also a very effective insight practice.

So that's how you arrived at the jhanas.
Not really. Ayya Khema also taught metta (lovingkindness meditation), and I liked doing metta. So my practice for the first three years was to do ten minutes of metta, do the sweep and then follow my breath for a little while thereafter. That kept me going, and I sat with other teachers since Ayya wasn't around.
   
At my second retreat, which was at {the Thai teacher Ajaan} Buddhadasa's center in Thailand, I stumbled into piti while practicing mindfulness of breathing. The experience of piti certainly made me a lot more interested in meditating. I became a piti addict for a couple of years. {laughs} Sometimes I hear of people being worried about "jhana addiction." But I got over the addiction even without a teacher—I knew there had to be more than just getting high.
   
Then I went to another retreat with Ayya Khema. I had no idea that what I was experiencing was related to the jhanas. When I went into the interview with her, she said, "Tell me about your meditation practice," and I said, "I can get to piti," and she said, "Oh good, that's the first jhana; here's how you do the second." It wasn't quite the first jhana because I didn't have any control over it, but I quickly learned that and began learning more jhanas from her.
   
For two years I'd been experiencing piti and getting no encouragement from other teachers—in fact, some discouragement—but I'd just kept doing it because it felt so right. When I realized Ayya knew what was going on, and by then having some background in Buddhism, I could really appreciate her teaching. When the student is ready, the teacher reappears.

Did you keep working with the jhanas? Or did you do other practices? Actually, most of what I did with Ayya Khema was insight practice. When I started doing insight work in the post-jhanic state of mind I found that the number and scope of insights was astonishing. I learned so much more in a monthlong retreat with her than I had in the previous six years. It completely changed my life. Even my friends noticed a difference.

Speaking of retreats, what do your retreats on the jhanas look like? First off, although sometimes a retreat is billed as a retreat on jhanas, it actually is a retreat on dharma with jhanas included. I talk about the precepts, the Four Noble Truths, the five hindrances, and so on. Then I talk about the jhanas in detail, give the instructions for the first jhana, and afterward, go back to talking about insight practice. I usually go through the "Great Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness" and discuss and lead guided meditations based on the practices it describes. But if it's a student's first retreat with me and they haven't done jhana practice before, they're usually spending most of the time working on concentration, rather than working on the insight practices I'm teaching.

Do people come thinking they're going to jump through these jhana hoops?
At all of my retreats, the first thing I do is warn people that not everyone on the retreat will experience the jhanas. There's a percentage of people that's fairly constant who experience at least one jhana, one time. And there's a smaller percentage that get pretty skilled with jhana practice. The worst thing that anyone can bring on any retreat is expectation of any sort. However, it's really going to be in the way on a retreat dealing with jhana.
   
The second thing I talk about is that if you start fooling with deep states of concentration, you need to be prepared for your psychological stuff to come up. Normally we walk around with all of our stuff under control, but once you get deeply concentrated, the energy you use to keep your stuff at bay is not there anymore, and you're faced with it. The primary purpose of doing one-on-one interviews is to talk about the dharma and the techniques of practice. But if what's coming up in practice is your stuff, then we can use the interviews to try and work with the stuff.

Do you give more specific instructions in the interviews? Yes, I check in with the student and do a little more refining of the instructions. As I said, in order to enter the first jhana you have to generate a sufficient baseline of concentration. Some people find that mindfulness of breathing is the best method to get to access. Other people find that metta works best, and for others it's the sweeping method. Interestingly enough, some of the old TM practitioners resurrect their mantras and use that to get to access concentration. So part of my job in the interviews is to find out what method of access concentration is going to work best for a student.

Why do you think you're the only one of Ayya Khema's American disciples to teach the jhanas? She has other students who are more capable in the jhanas than I am, but they didn't feel like teaching. You have to find someone who is proficient in the jhanas, understands how they do what they do, and is willing to teach. The combination seems fairly rare. I'm the only one in North America, but there are about eight of her students who are teaching jhanas in Germany, and there's another in Australia.

If the jhanas are naturally occurring states that meditators find themselves in, as you did, how is it possible that teachers are not teaching about them?
Do you think that's a problem? You're asking the wrong person. I asked the same question of Ayya Khema. She didn't know either. After my experience, after seeing the insight that was possible, I was amazed more people didn't teach them. But for me, I can't see any way not to teach them. Deeper concentration just seems to lead to deeper truths.

Leigh Brasington's articles, teaching schedule, and links to many sources on the jhanas can be found at www.leighb.com.

Image 1: "Crouching Buddha: I see you," © Miriam Hernandez, Acrylic, Print, Transfer, Collage, Graphite on Plexi, 2001, 12 x 9 inches
Image 2: "Crouching Buddha: Dyne," © Miriam Hernandez, Acrylic, Collage, Print, Ink , China Marker, Transfer on Plexi, 2002, 10 x 8 inches
Image 3: "Crouching Buddha: Player," © Miriam Hernandez, Acrylic, Collage, Fabric, Graphite on Plexi, 2001, 10 x 8 inches

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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,.