The Four Jhanas and the Four Immaterial States
The jhanas are distinguished by way of their component factors. The first jhana is constituted by the original set of five absorption factors: initial application, sustained application, rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness. After attaining the first jhana the meditator is advised to master it. On the one hand he should not fall into complacency over his achievement and neglect sustained practice; on the other, he should not become over-confident and rush ahead to attain the next jhana. To master the jhana he should enter it repeatedly and perfect his skill in it, until he can attain it, remain in it, emerge from it, and review it without any trouble or difficulty.
After mastering the first jhana, the meditator then considers that his attainment has certain defects. Though the jhana is certainly far superior to ordinary sense consciousness, more peaceful and blissful, it still stands close to sense consciousness and is not far removed from the hindrances. Moreover, two of its factors, initial application and sustained application, appear in time to be rather coarse, not as refined as the other factors. Then the meditator renews his practice of concentration intent on overcoming initial and sustained application. When his faculties mature, these two factors subside and he enters the second jhana. This jhana contains only three component factors: rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness. It also contains a multiplicity of other constituents, the most prominent of which is confidence of mind.
In the second jhana the mind becomes more tranquil and more thoroughly unified, but when mastered even this state seems gross, as it includes rapture, an exhilarating factor that inclines to excitation. So the meditator sets out again on his course of training, this time resolved on overcoming rapture. When rapture fades out, he enters the third jhana. Here there are only two absorption factors, happiness and one-pointedness, while some other auxiliary states come into ascendency, most notably mindfulness, clear comprehension, and equanimity. But still, the meditator sees, this attainment is defective in that it contains the feeling of happiness, which is gross compared to neutral feeling, feeling that is neither pleasant not painful. Thus he strives to get beyond even the sublime happiness of the third jhana. When he succeeds, he enters the fourth jhana, which is defined by two factors — one-pointedness and neutral feeling — and has a special purity of mindfulness due to the high level of equanimity.
Beyond the four jhanas lie the four immaterial states, levels of absorption in which the mind transcends even the subtlest perception of visualized images still sometimes persisting in the jhanas. The immaterial states are attained, not by refining mental factors as are the jhanas, but by refining objects, by replacing a relatively gross object with a subtler one. The four attainments are named after their respective objects: the base of infinite space, the base of infinite consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. These states represent levels of concentration so subtle and remote as to elude clear verbal explanation. The last of the four stands at the apex of mental concentration; it is the absolute, maximum degree of unification possible for consciousness. But even so, these absorptions reached by the path of serenity meditation, as exalted as they are, still lack the wisdom of insight, and so are not yet sufficient for gaining deliverance.
The kinds of concentration discussed so far arise by fixing the mind upon a single object to the exclusion of other objects – restricting the range of awareness.