The Dhyana-Samadhi Meditation Absorptions - Part 6


The Buddhist sutras do not describe the second dhyana in much detail, but the second dhyana also involves one-pointed concentration, inner purity, mental joy and physical bliss. We say that the joy and bliss of the second dhyana is higher than that of the first dhyana, but to really understand the difference between these stages requires you to experience them yourself, otherwise these various descriptions will simply be words you cannot digest.

It is the feeling of being freed from this world that generates the joy and bliss of the first dhyana, but the joy and bliss of the second dhyana are based on an even greater degree of detachment. In the first dhyana you feel wonderful because the mental discomfort caused by the five poisons is lessened, and you can become free from worry. In the second dhyana you feel wonderful because you can finally begin to feel free from the contamination of suffering.

People like to talk about the various samadhi and esoteric structures of the body, but from this progression we can realize that moral cultivation is actually a cultivation path as well as a means to free oneself from suffering. And so the cultivation roads of Socrates and Confucius, which stress the task of perfecting human virtue and behavior, are also seen to easily lead to the first and second dhyana accomplishments.

Unfortunately, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have no better words to describe all these various states, so the best we can say is that the second dhyana is more refined in terms of clarity, calmness and brightness than the first dhyana. The mental state of the second dhyana is even more calm and quiet than in the first dhyana and the accompanying feelings of joy and bliss are much more refined and stable. In the second dhyana, you will feel quite free of the pain and afflictions caused by normal mental and physical pressures, and this is freedom from the contamination of suffering.

How does one get to the second dhyana? The process is to initially achieve stable mastery over the first dhyana, contemplate its defects, and then abandon these gross factors so as to rise to the second dhyana. Through prajna observation you basically identify, and then abandon, those factors whose absence will lead to a more peaceful and refined state.

To put it yet another way, after gaining proficiency over the first dhyana, you use your prajna wisdom insight to recognize any coarse mental factors which still exist in that state. In so doing, you will eventually be able to identify the factors of applied and sustained thought (vitarka and vicara) which helped you initially enter the first dhyana. If you cultivate wisdom within the first samadhi, your wisdom will enable you to recognize that the mental factors of vitarka and vicara now appear as impediments to a more peaceful and higher stage of meditation. Thus to get to the second dhyana, these coarse mental factors must be abandoned.

While these mental factors are necessary helpmates for arriving at the first dhyana, to the higher stages of meditation they appear like ripples and wavelets in water that disturb its peaceful nature. Only when a meditator abandons the coarsity of these factors can they rise above the first dhyana to reach the second dhyana, which is more tranquil and sublime than the first. However, this transition may not be an entirely smooth affair. In the course of making progress, a practitioner might even feel they are retrogressing.

This feeling of being muddled during the transition is like the darkness before dawn but after it ends, the purity and clarity of the second dhyana will appear. Hence, during this transition phase, you do not hold tightly onto the first dhyana and prevent it from changing, but just ignore the evaporation of first dhyana coarsities until the transition process is over.

In terms of the physical body, Taoism would say that attaining the first dhyana requires that you refine your jing and transform it into chi. You cannot let your jing leak away, and you must cultivate emptiness so that jing can naturally transform into chi. This means that you must not attach to thoughts, you must avoid sexual leakage, and you must avoid putting any effort into using the sixth consciousness. If thoughts do arise, you should remain aware of them but you should not do cling to them or inject them with energy. Prajna awareness is what knows the thoughts but is not the thoughts themselves, and to recognize and abide in this empty awareness nature, which does not abide anywhere, is the proper road of spiritual practice.

If you practice in this way, then your chi mai will naturally open, your jing will transform into chi, your chi will become full, and you will reach the bliss and joy of the first dhyana. All it takes is time and effort and then the process will naturally transpire just as it should. As the Zen master Huang Po once instructed:

If you only learn to develop unmindfulness at all times while walking, standing, sitting and reclining, you may fail, in the course of time, to leap over [to Reality] solely because of your insufficient strength. But if you so continue for another three, five or ten years, you will surely awaken in the end.

Reaching the second dhyana requires that you go a step further than the first dhyana, and refine your chi to transform it into shen. When your chi is full you do not think of eating, and when shen is full you do not even think of sleeping, so the point after which you are near or firmly established in the first dhyana is a much safer time to undergo the fasting practices of the Tao school, as we saw in the stories of Milarepa and Yeshe Tsogyel. If you choose to undergo this type of ascetic retreat, you must also renounce your body and dedicate your life completely to this effort. You have to totally renounce honors, attachments and desire, even the desire for food and sex. Otherwise your retreat will be useless, or may end up in disaster.

Transforming chi into shen to attain the second dhyana also means you must reach the stage where your chi and mai stop moving; the mai will have opened and your "chi will stop," which means that your external respiration will cease and all the body's life force will come to a rest. While your external respiration ceases, your body's cells will continue breathing, and since your chi channels are all clear, this cellular respiration is all that you will need for the body.

When you can reach the second dhyana it becomes possible to remain buried underground for several days without oxygen and be revived later, but this is not the pathway to Tao, or spiritual cultivation. Some people in India and the Arab countries can do this feat through a type of artificial physical training other than mastering the second dhyana, so if you see this feat, be careful of jumping to conclusions that it is even a genuine dhyana attainment.



To attain the third dhyana, a cultivation practitioner must continue using the same method he previously employed in ascending from the first dhyana to the second. A meditator must attain the second dhyana, identify those defects that actually perturb its seeming serenity, and abandon those gross mental factors that now clearly appear to his or her discernment as irritations.

In the first and second dhyana, we say that joy and bliss are both present. In the third dhyana, however, a practitioner has made such meditative progress that the entanglement of mental joy, even highly refined, is now abandoned. At this stage, a meditator recognizes that the excitement of mental joy can disrupt his or her inner calm and serenity, and therefore abandons all traces of this type of thought. The feeling of physical bliss remains in the third dhyana, however, so we are still involved with the skandhas of form and sensation since bliss is felt by the physical body. However, this feeling of bliss is even more refined than in the two preceding dhyana. In fact, it is quite beyond anything felt by the beings within the Desire Realm.

Without the thought of mental joy to produce excitement, and due to the absence of other gross mental faults, an individual enjoying the third dhyana will not be lending support to any factors that might perturb their mind, and so they will develop a high degree of meditative equanimity. This equanimity will deepen even further when you reach the stage of the fourth dhyana. From a Taoist point of view, this mental equanimity is related to the fact that the third dhyana involves cultivating your shen and refining your shen into emptiness. From a physical standpoint, by the stage of the third dhyana you can also reach a point where your pulse will actually stop.

Technically speaking, we can therefore say that the third dhyana is characterized by equanimity, mindfulness, insight (discernment), bliss and single-mindedness. When people want to be brief about the matter, they simply say that it is characterized by bliss and single-mindedness (concentration). However, Buddhist Abhidharma analysis can expand upon this list of characteristics greatly. To give just one example, a complete Abhidharma analysis of the first dhyana reveals that it can be broken down into a list of thirty-three indispensable components, although we normally mention only five.

As to the longer list of factors characterizing the third dhyana, the characteristic of equanimity arises from the fact there is an absence of anything that might cause mental imbalance. It is a joy that is free from mental movement toward any type of object. Mindfulness is defined as a factor which holds an object in contemplation without letting it float away, and in the third dhyana, mindfulness protects this equanimity. Awareness or discernment is the aspect of wisdom that can scrutinize an object of contemplation and grasp its nature free of delusion, so awareness is associated with this mindfulness. It is because of discernment, or insight, that we can identify any defects that threaten the serenity of a particular dhyana.

In the stage of the third dhyana, your cultivation attainments are firmly grounded in the Realm of Form, and we can sub-partition this dhyana into three great levels. Each of these levels pertains to a particular Form Realm heaven with its own individual nuances that correspond to higher or lower degrees of purity and merit.


To reach the fourth dhyana, you will have to strengthen the third dhyana's stage of meditative equanimity by abandoning even the excitation of extremely refined physical bliss, with the result that you only experience pervasive equanimity. Thus, in the fourth dhyana you will only experience equanimity, mindfulness and one-pointedness of mind; physical bliss will have disappeared. As before, each of the mental factors remaining in this dhyana are more refined than in the previous three dhyana because the gross factors that previously contaminated the mind's purity are now absent. Accordingly, the mindfulness aspect of the fourth dhyana ranks above the mindfulness aspect of the third dhyana because of a higher degree of equanimity.

The reason why joy and bliss are progressively eliminated as you progress through the four dhyana is because they are actually factors which interfere with mental stability, so spiritual progress demands that these factors be abandoned. If you believe that the rapture of a saint is a high spiritual stage, wherein a saint loses control of both their body and mind through an experience of ecstasy, you can now understand that this is a very low stage of spiritual cultivation, and most probably is actually a deviation from the spiritual trail!

Each successive dhyana represents a progressive increase in mental purity and stability and detachment. This is because concentration and clarity increase as such turbid factors are successively discarded. As we have discussed, the general method one uses to ascend from one dhyana to the next is to progressively eliminate the coarse dhyana factors which you discover through your prajna insight, namely the insight discernment capabilities which are born through cessation-contemplation practice (shamatha-vipashyana).

Basically, through meditation you can attain the realm of a particular dhyana. After attaining a degree of stability with regards to that dhyana, you will eventually become able to contemplate its characteristics with some clarity. From this insight contemplation, you will be able to notice certain factors that are inhibiting a more perfect mental serenity, and so you abandon these factors to ascend to the next higher realm of spiritual attainment.

By the time we come to the fourth dhyana, the experiential realm has already completely progressed past any stages of joy and bliss, meaning a practitioner can only attain the fourth dhyana when they can finally leave behind all their different thoughts. That is the only way they can reach the requisite realm of calm, concentration and clarity which corresponds to the fourth dhyana--you must get rid of all your tiny troublesome random thoughts so that you become pure and clear and everything is empty.

When you feel the joy and bliss of the lower dhyana, this is actually because your discriminative thoughts are not yet abandoned, for otherwise, you could not know of these experiences. Feeling the joy and bliss of the lower dhyana also means that those realms are still involved with the skandhas of form and sensation. Thus, the state of the fourth dhyana is extremely empty, more peaceful and secure than anything so far experienced. We can also say that it involves cultivating the skandha of conception because it is no longer involved with form and sensation. Cultivating the fourth dhyana is also getting close to totally and entirely emptying the sixth consciousness of discrimination.

In the fourth dhyana you are finally free of a large degree of your discriminative thoughts, and with this accomplishment you can therefore look upon all the previous dhyana, and pre-dhyana stages, as being quite coarse in nature. Thus, we say that this stage is characterized by neither pain nor pleasure, but by great equanimity and single-mindedness of concentration. In the fourth dhyana, we say you have abandoned thoughts to become pure and clear, which is a state of great emptiness attainment. It is a state of pure being, and since there are but few thoughts of the ego at this stage, it is a state of relative selflessness that many Arhats take as a stage of liberation.

While the first dhyana is characterized by an absence of random thoughts ("thoughts stop" because you achieve one-pointed concentration), in the second dhyana you can find your chi stopping (the breath comes to a halt), in the third dhyana your pulse may stop, and in the fourth dhyana you can reach a great stage of emptiness which corresponds to purifying the skandha of conception. From this point onwards, you have to work on fully transforming the skandhas of conception, volition and consciousness so as to "abandon emptiness and return to Tao." This is the Stage of True Cultivation Practice that leads to the Stage of Buddhahood.

Naturally these various correspondences cannot be matched up in such a strict fashion; we can only say that these various stages from different cultivation schools are related. Hence, when this type of kung-fu materializes, you must not immediately jump to the conclusion that you have reached such a high stage of attainment. These are just the general indications from roughly matching Tao school teachings with Orthodox Buddhism, and the fourth dhyana accomplishment does not yet mean you have seen the Tao. It does not mean that you have achieved enlightenment, but you are very close if you can turn around to find the ultimate source of the mind's ability for attention and perception.

From another standpoint we can say that the first dhyana has both vitarka and vicara, or seeking and observation. When you get to the stage where there is no vitarka, but just vicara, this is the realm of the second and third dhyana. At this point there is just a mental watching, a consistent purity and clarity and concentration. The stage where there is no vitarka and no vicara characterizes the fourth dhyana as well as the formless samadhi of the Formless Realm. In actual fact, these higher instances are still the small stage of no vitarka and no vicara; they are not the absolute extinction of seeking and watching.



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