Practicing The Jhanas: Traditional Concentration Meditation as presented by the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw
Authors: Stephen Snyder & Tina Rasmussen
Publisher: Shambhala Publications Inc., 2009
Well, I first wanted to check this book out because I wanted to know more about the Jhanas (I’m reading up on different approaches to meditation, as it’s something I will be incorporating into my practice soon). Unfortunately, I should have picked up Knowing and Seeing by the Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw if that’s what I wanted. Practicing the Jhanas serves as sort of a companion to that book. Even though I hit a road bump before I even started reading the book, I soon found that I was in for a real treat. The book is the authors direct experience of practicing the jhanas (they studied with Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw – sort of the world’s current expert on the jhanas), and doesn’t delve into the back story or more substance about what the jhanas are. This is a good thing though. The book remains focused on one thing, providing you with a practical guide and companion while practicing jhana meditation. Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. Not only is it filled with constructive and useful information, it is also written well. The authors have used a tone that is warm, soft, and relaxing. It’s like they are there in the room with you, guiding you with their practical experience in a tone reminiscent of a mother soothing their child.
This book lays out nearly everything you would need to know when practicing the Jhanas, and makes for a great companion. But that’s why it isn’t especially useful to me at this point in my practice, as I’m not currently meditating( though that will be changing sometime in the next year). Also, the authors do stress the importance of using extended meditation retreats (nearly impossible in my financial and life state) to be able to master the jhanas. At first my reactionary mind cried out “elitists!”, but then I realized how correct they are. I can’t imagine even attempting to master the jhanas while meditating at home for an hour or so a day. In fact, they pretty much say that would be fairly impossible, and they’re right. Mastering the jhanas means being able to enter the jhanas in order quickly and thoroughly, something that may take a few hours to complete. They also emphasise that while on retreat, there really shouldn’t be any break in concentration. Even in between the sittings, while eating, showering or whatever, one should continually try to focus on the Anapana spot (this is central to samatha practice). In short, it takes a lot of work and skillful effort.
As a “Dharma Noob”, I thought it would be helpful to share an “ah-ha!” moment I had from each book I review. For this book, it came in the 2nd chapter when the authors write “Common knowledge of absorptions in the Buddha’s day may have minimized the need for him to give detailed instructions on jhanas, as people of his time were likely to be quite familiar with the instructions.”
I never really considered this before, but it makes total sense. This led to all kinds of questions in my mind. How much information was never written down or transmitted simply because it was common knowledge to the audience at hand? How much have we lost over time?
Anyway, I recommend this book to anyone that wants to practice samatha meditation and work with jhana absorption. However, if you’re just looking for information on samatha meditation or the jhanas, this book isn’t for you.