Three Paths to Jhana
Revised April 15, 2021
This essay is based on a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahm.
Jhanas are the peaceful bliss states that hone our mindfulness to the maximum, allowing us to realize the insights that wake us up.....enlighten us.
These three paths to the jhanas are known as the three vimokkhas....the three releases.
1. Appanihita vimokkha - release via desirelessness
2. Animata vimokkha - release via signlessness
3. Sunnata vimokkha - release via emptiness
These paths are more like three different emphases rather than three separate paths. What is important is not what we focus on but how we focus: how we relate to this thing called meditation.
1. Appanihita - Desirelessness. Stop wanting to be somewhere else when meditating i.e. stop wanting our meditation to be different than whatever it is. Stop trying to get somewhere else. All that wanting, desire, is just shaking the mind, disturbing it and stopping the stillness from arising.
2. Animata - signlessness. The root of this word is nimata which means a sign, a label. There is a sign that indicates samadhi - stillness. It can't be put into words, but when we have experience with stillness, we get to recognize it's sign. If we focus on that sign it takes us into deep samadhi. It's an easy sign to focus on as it's so pleasant. If we say, "Still......still..........still..............still....................", hearing these words, the mind looks in that direction and starts to still. Once we know the sign of stillness really well, we can arouse it. But stillness goes away if we try to control it. So now, what is animata? It means not labelling our experience. It may be okay to label at the very beginning of meditation, to start slowing down the mind. But it's not helpful to continue labeling. Don't label meditations as good or bad. Analogy: Working 5 days a week and only getting paid at the end of the week on Friday. So why not work only on Fridays? Because we need to put in the effort on those other days to receive the reward of the pay check on Friday. So don't label meditations as good or bad. We are learning to change our habit energy on the difficult sittings and we discover peace and stillness on pay day! Both are necessary. As soon as we label or measure our meditation practice, along comes desire and control, which kill stillness.
Anicca is usually translated as impermanence. Ajahn Brahm finds the translation of uncertainty more useful in meditation practice. Our meditation practice is unreliable, uncertain. So don't judge it. Use this in daily life as well. If another person says something that could make us angry, see our interpretation of their words as uncertain. Don't judge them. Maybe we misunderstood. This helps us not get angry. Anger depletes us of energy and causes restlessness in our meditation practice. We can apply non-judging to other areas of our daily life. Whenever we catch ourself making a judgment, we can stop ourselves and use Thich Nhat Hanh's mantra, "Am I sure, am I sure?" It's amazing how free we become when we don't put labels on things.
Doing animata meditation leaves us with no goal to strive towards, nothing to criticize or find fault with. This type of meditation is usually started, in a particular sitting, once we have settled. Initially we use Right Effort to abandon the hindrances. Then when some degree of subtle piti/joy is present and has some stability, we start the animata practice. This is the point where we switch from flapping (Right Effort) to gliding (animata meditation). Now we give every moment the benefit of the doubt. It can be a scary practice because we have to let go of finding a foothold anywhere in the world. We don't know what we are supposed to be doing or where we are supposed to be going. We just watch each moment. Just enjoy being HERE. Allowing ourself to live in this uncertainty leads to incredible peace. The whole point is lessening the sense of control, of ownership. Letting go of trying to get anywhere. Whatever we expect the future to be, it'll be something different. So stop imagining. Just be here.
And we know we're really here when things start to vanish, including the sense of a self. Disappearing is the sign of animata. Usually the first thing to disappear is a sense of where our hands are. Then a sense of the rest of our body goes. If there were any aches or pains, these are now wonderfully gone! Then sounds in the room and outside disappear. What is left is peace, stillness, a feeling of bliss.
3. Sunnata - emptiness. Sunnata vimokkha, the path of coming into jhanas through emptiness means being empty of a sense of self. There is nobody in here, nobody is doing the meditation, so why are we striving? There is no one in here to achieve anything. By striving, we are just creating more of a sense of me, of a self. This can't be the path to awakening. This body, these feeling tones, these perceptions, this will, these consciousnesses are not mine, are not me. I am not the one who knows. I'm not the one who decides. If I was I could control this body, feelings, perceptions, will and consciousness. For example, if frustration arises, there is no one here who is frustrated. It's just frustration that has arisen. So this path is to remove all perceptions of a self. "I am not watching X" it's just the mind watching X etc. There is no one to blame for all those distracted thoughts, so no frustration arises. When there is no "I", there is no sense of self, no wanting. With no sense of self, there is no one to do anything, nothing to achieve. "The path is, but no traveller on it is seen." There's no one meditating. It's just meditation happening. Meditation is so easy when there is no one there. When we vanish, all the craving vanishes and things become still and peaceful. Stillness is the path.
These are three ways of becoming still. And when stillness ripens (on it's own time schedule, not ours!) we slip into jhana.
Best wishes on this wonderful journey.