Right concentration (sammā-samādhi) refers to the four jhānas. The word jhāna literally means meditation, but when the Buddha uses that word, he is referring to a specific collection of four increasingly refined states of meditative absorption. That’s why you often see jhāna translated as “absorption” and occasionally, as “meditation”. I decided to leave jhāna untranslated. The four jhānas are simply named the first jhāna, the second jhāna, the third jhāna and the fourth jhāna.
The four jhānas offer powerful stepping stones towards nirvana. The Buddha speaks very frequently of the jhānas, but I find his Discourse on the Five Factors (Pañcaṅgika Sutta) to be particularly helpful because he makes an explicit link between the jhānas and the “direct knowledge” that leads to nirvana, plus he gives colorful similes to illustrate his point.
In the first jhāna, you are, in the Buddha’s words, “quite secluded” from sensual pleasures and unwholesome states. That first jhāna gives you what the Buddha calls “rapture and happiness born of seclusion.” That is an extremely important stepping stone for you as a practitioner because it offers you the ability to reliably experience intense joy independent of sensual pleasures. Prior to this, you suffer from a reliance on sensual pleasure for joy, and in that sense, you are a slave to sensual pleasure. When you arrive at the first jhāna, however, you realize that you don’t need pleasant sensory experiences at all to be joyful, you can be ecstatically joyful just by sitting there with nothing happening at all. To be fair, many seasoned meditators can already access a reliable stream of joy way before arriving at first jhāna, but in my experience, that pre-jhāna joy tends to be subtle and not strong enough to, say, displace my craving for chocolate, whereas the joy in the first jhāna is intense enough to significantly focus the mind and for the mind to tell itself, “This is all I ever need right now, I need nothing else.” Though highly focused, the mind is not totally unified at this point (that happens in the second jhāna below), but it is sufficiently focused on the intense joy that if you had never experienced jhāna before, this may be the deepest meditative concentration you had ever experienced up till this point in your practice.
The pleasantness you experience starting from the first jhāna is why the Buddha calls the jhānas “pleasant abiding here and now”. Modern people may call it “blissing out.” But the first jhāna does something far more important than allowing you to bliss out: it gives you a vital insight that opens your door to nirvana. When you first learn Buddhism and read about the Buddha referring to sensual desire as a “fire” or “poison” that causes suffering, you may think it makes no sense at all. Satisfying sensual desire brings about so much pleasure, so how can sensual desire possibly be a cause for suffering? Surely it’s a cause for happiness. Once you experience the rapture and happiness in the first jhāna, however, the Buddha’s teachings on sensual desire suddenly makes perfect sense.
First, you realize that this joy born of seclusion from sensual desire is more refined, sustainable, and satisfying than the joy that relies on fulfilling sensual desire. Second, and more importantly, you realize it doesn’t have the same problematic side effects. Every shot of happiness that comes from fulfilling sensual desire necessarily plants a seed for future suffering: no matter how many pleasant sensory objects we have, they eventually change for the worse (eg, they get old, or decay, etc), or we habituate to them (so even the very same objects become less pleasurable or even unpleasurable over time), or we will eventually lose them, or we lose the ability to enjoy them due to our own eventual sickness, frailty or death. Worse still, just as when leper scratches his own sores, he makes it more likely that he’ll need to scratch them even more, in the same way, fulfilling sensual desire reinforces one’s reliance on and addiction to them. Hence, deriving happiness from sensual desire is like borrowing money from a loan shark who enjoy breaking knees: you get to enjoy the pleasure now, but you will surely pay much more than you get in the long term. Whereas experiencing happiness without sensual desire is like discovering that your rich grandparents left you a generous trust fund that gives you free money to spend every day. Once you realize you have that source of income, you would never want to borrow from a loan shark again, especially if the free money is more than what you can get from the loan shark. In the same way, once you have reliable access to rapture and happiness based on seclusion, you would understand why the Buddha calls sensual pleasure “low, vulgar, coarse, ignoble, and unbeneficial”. The mind then naturally lets go of sensual desire.
This is why the Buddha says the first jhāna is where sensual desire temporarily “ceases without remainder”, along with ill-will and cruelty. That is also why he calls the jhānas the place where “Mara and his following cannot go” and where the meditator has “blindfolded Mara”. Mara can only get a hold of you using the unwholesome intentions (of sensual desire, ill-will and cruelty), and while in the jhānas, you are totally free from them, albeit temporarily.
That is the reason the first jhāna is so important: it provides access to the inner joy that inclines the mind towards total freedom from lust and sensual desire, and thereby propels the mind towards wisdom and liberation from all suffering.
The Buddha’s simile of the first jhāna puts that inner joy on central stage. He says, “Just as a skillful bath man might heap bath powder in a metal basin and, sprinkling it gradually with water, would knead it until the moisture wets his ball of bath powder, soaks it, and pervades it inside and out, in the same way, the meditator makes the rapture and happiness born of seclusion drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of this whole body that is not pervaded by it.”
The second jhāna builds upon the first jhāna. In the second jhāna, all thinking subsides, and because of that, the mind becomes placid and unified, and you experience what the Buddha calls “rapture and happiness born of concentration.” This rapture and happiness is even more refined and sublime than the first jhāna, but the most important contribution of the second jhāna is the strength of concentration that allows for placidity and unification of mind. It is this unification of mind that turns the mind into a powerful force for breaking ignorance and developing wisdom. It is like trying to start a fire with sunlight. If you merely put tinder out in the sun, it’s not likely to catch fire, but if you use a magnifying glass to collect sunlight into a tiny spot of tinder, then it may catch fire. It is also like gathering the mass of oppressed slaves of Mara and uniting them, turning them into a single fighting force against Mara’s army. When all you have is a group of Mara’s slaves here and there, you have no chance against Mara’s oppressive army, but once those slaves are united into a single fighting force, then you can begin your resistance against Mara. The word samadhi literally means “to collect”, and the second jhāna is where this collection of mind begins to become a true force of wisdom to be reckoned with.
The Buddha’s simile of the second jhāna involves a lake, “Just as there might be a lake whose waters welled up from below with no inflow from any direction, and the lake would not be replenished by showers of rain, then the cool fount of water welling up in the lake would make the cool water drench, steep, fill, and pervade the lake, so that there would be no part of the whole lake that is not pervaded by cool water; so too, the meditator makes the rapture and happiness born of concentration drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the rapture and happiness born of concentration.” Once again, rapture and happiness takes central stage in this simile, but the image of a lake which has neither inflow nor outflow also alludes to expanded breadth and depth of the inner joy, and to the experience of placidity and collectedness.
Prominent jhāna teacher Leigh Brasinton, from whom I learned most of my jhāna practice, himself learned to reach the jhānas before he read the canonical Buddhists texts, so he learned about the Buddha’s simile only after he had mastered the second jhāna, and when he did, he exclaimed to his teacher, “that is exactly how the second jhāna feels like!” Hence, he feels that the Buddha’s simile of the second jhāna is not merely metaphoric imagery, but an actual description of the experience in the second jhāna.
The third jhāna builds upon the second jhāna. In the third jhāna, rapture fades away and you are left with happiness. The Pali words that are translated into “rapture” and “happiness” are “pīti” and “sukha”, respectively. Pīti is also translated as “uplifting joy” or “energetic joy” and sukha is also translated as “bliss”, “pleasure” or “non-energetic joy”. Pīti and sukha are qualitatively different types of joy, with pīti marked by energy and excitement while sukha marked by a calm sense of pleasantness. In the third jhāna, the mind becomes much more tranquil than the second jhāna, and with that tranquility, pīti becomes uncomfortably loud, so the mind abandons it and is left with sukha. With that, the Buddha says, “the meditator dwells equanimous, mindful and clearly comprehending.” It is not that those factors were not present before, but that with increasing tranquility and unification of mind, those factors strengthen exponentially and become prominent enough to start taking the foreground.
Hence, the most visible contribution of the third jhāna is the tranquilization of mind that leads to the abandoning of pīti, but more importantly, with a mind well pacified and unified, the factors of mind that lead directly to wisdom strengthen and come prominently into the foreground: equanimity, mindfulness and clear comprehension, supported solidly by sukha. For that reason, the Buddha says one who dwells in the third jhāna is declared by the noble ones as: “He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.”
The Buddha’s simile of the third jhāna is, “Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses that are born and grow in the water might thrive immersed in the water without rising out of it, and cool water would drench, steep, fill, and pervade them to their tips and their roots, so that there would be no part of those lotuses that would not be pervaded by cool water; so too, the meditator makes the happiness divested of rapture drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the happiness divested of rapture.” This simile is similar to the second jhāna, but with one visible addition: the lotuses. Is there a significance to the lotus imagery? Very likely so, since the Buddha uses the lotus as the symbol for buddhahood itself. In a conversation with the brahmin Doṇa, the Buddha famously said in verse:
“As a lovely white lotus
is not soiled by the water,
I am not soiled by the world:
therefore, O brahmin, I am a Buddha.”
My own understanding, based on the description of the third jhāna, is that the lotuses in the simile alludes to the wisdom factors coming to the fore. That is the most important contribution of the third jhāna.
The fourth jhāna builds upon the third jhāna. In the fourth jhāna, the mind abandons even the sukha and rises above and beyond pleasure and pain, joy and dejection. Equanimity is perfected. In that state, something extremely important happens: the mind now possess mindfulness purified by equanimity. The meditator “sits pervading this body with a pure bright mind, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the pure bright mind.” It is this mindfulness purified by equanimity that directly enables the penetration into the “direct knowledge” that leads to nirvana.
The Buddha’s simile of the fourth jhāna alludes directly to this purity of mindfulness. The simile is one where a man, after having taken a bath, “sits covered from the head down with a white cloth, so that there would be no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the white cloth; so too, the meditator sits pervading this body with a pure bright mind, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the pure bright mind.”
Jhāna teacher Leigh Brasington suspects this simile is more literal than most people think. When he first learned to enter into the fourth jhāna, his visual perception in that state was darkness (because his eyes were closed), so he didn’t really understand why the Buddha described it as “pure bright mind”, except perhaps metaphorically. Some years later, while on a retreat taught by Burmese jhāna master Pa Auk Sayadaw, he tried establishing very strong concentration, in this case concentrating on the breath and not losing attention to a single breath for three hours at a stretch, before entering jhāna. When he did that, he found that when he entered the fourth jhāna, his visual perception was very bright. He said imagine on a very bright and sunny afternoon, pitching a small white tent in the middle of an open field, and sitting inside that tent: your visual sense will be dominated by white brightness in all directions, and that is what the visual experience in the fourth jhāna at a sufficient depth of concentration.
The final step is to make use of this pure bright mind to acquire “direct knowledge”. The way to do it is to attend to the object of interest with this turbocharged mind. This is a mind that is unified with perfect attentional mastery, sharpened with perfect mindfulness, pacified with perfect tranquility, and unencumbered by hindrances, pleasure or pain, like or dislike. This is the mind most perfectly conducive to wisdom.
With that power of mind, the Buddha says, “a meditator grasps well the object to be reviewed, attend to it well, sustain it well, penetrate it well with wisdom.” He gives a simile of a person looking at another from a higher point of view, and because his point of view is elevated, he can see better. “Just as one person might look upon another—as one standing might look upon one sitting down, or one sitting down might look upon one lying down—so too, a bhikkhu has grasped well the object of reviewing, attended to it well, sustained it well, and penetrated it well with wisdom.”
Yes, it’s true that the jhānas are a great place to be just to bliss out and enjoy a “pleasant abiding here and now”. Indeed, when the Buddha was asked whether “an exclusively pleasant world” can be realized, he answered, yes, and that exclusively pleasant world is the jhānas. In fact, the Buddha even encouraged it. He said, “The four jhānas are called the bliss of renunciation, the bliss of seclusion, the bliss of peace, the bliss of enlightenment. This kind of pleasure should be pursued, developed, cultivated, should not be feared.” But far more important than that is using the jhānas to take the mind to a place where is it perfectly conducive to wisdom, and then using it to gain direct knowledge into nirvana. The Buddha calls it the noble five-factored right concentration: the four jhānas, and the gaining of direct knowledge using the fourth jhāna as the base of operations.
In summary, these are the five-factored right concentration on your path to nirvana, with the essential stepping stones each jhāna offers you:
- In the first jhāna, you gain the life-changing ability to abide in rapture and happiness independent of sensual pleasures.
- In the second jhāna, thinking subsides and mind becomes placid and unified.
- In the third jhāna, mind becomes tranquil, rapture fades away, and wisdom factors (mindfulness, clear comprehension and equanimity) come to fore.
- In the fourth jhāna, mind rises above and beyond all pleasure and pain, equanimity becomes perfected, and most important of all, mindfulness is purified by equanimity. Buddha calls it “pure bright mind”.
- Using pure bright mind, gain wisdom and direct knowledge leading to nirvana.
The Buddha offered three similes relating to the end result of this process. The first is a water jug full of water has been set out on a stand, a strong man can easily tip it in any direction and spill the water. In the same way, a meditator equipped with the jhānas have a strong mind that can realize any insight as easily as the strong man can tip the jar. The second simile is similar: a square pond on level ground filled to the brim, a strong man can open any of the four walls and the water will rush out. The third simile involves a masterful charioteer riding a chariot harnessed to thoroughbreds, driving on flat ground, he can easily drive in whichever direction whenever he wants. A meditator equipped with the jhānas is like that masterful charioteer.
In the same Discourse on the Five Factors, the Buddha states by applying your super-duper jhāna mind appropriately, you can “with the destruction of the taints, realize in this very life with direct knowledge the taintless liberation of mind and liberation by wisdom, and having entered upon it, dwell in it.”
In other words, my friends, nirvana.
2019/10/20: Clarified some points concerning the first jhāna, and added Leigh’s comments.
 Aṅguttara Nikāya 5:28
 Majjhima Nikāya 139
 Majjhima Nikāya 78
 Majjhima Nikāya 25
 Aṅguttara Nikāya 4:36
 The Pali version of this simile does not mention the bath, but the Chinese version does, and I decided to include it in the narration because I find the imagery a very useful part of the simile.
 Majjhima Nikāya 79
 Majjhima Nikāya 139