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Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Developments of Buddhism in the West

at the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, California
March 18 - 21, 2010

Panel I: Buddhist Experiences: Expressions and Subjectivities, 2:00 - 5:00 p.m.

The United States of Jhana

Erik Braun, University of Oklahoma

Vipassanā, or insight, meditation has become a hallmark of Theravāda (or Theravāda-derived) Buddhist traditions in America, especially among Western converts. While most North American teachers of vipassanā accept the classic divide between practices of concentration, on the one hand, and the practices of insight on the other, the common belief in insight meditation as the uniquely Buddhist meditative practice has led to its overwhelming emphasis. This has often resulted, in turn, in a characterization of practices of concentration, which lead to states called "jhānas," as extraneous, distracting, and even dangerous.

But recently some prominent Western Buddhist teachers, such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Henepola Gunaratana, have taught the attainment of the jhānas as valuable, even required. This paper will seek to understand why, first by tracing the origins of the focus on insight practice in Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century and by identifying the links to North American practices in the twentieth. I will then use this understanding of how insight came to prominence to reveal more fully the context within which the recent growth in teachings of jhāna cultivation has taken place. My paper will argue that in American society the belief in the value of personal experience reframes the long-standing tension in the Theravāda tradition between concentration and insight. Because jhānic experiences of concentration are understood to be available to practitioners of any religion, the seemingly affective and content-less nature of such experiences makes them a powerful bridge to other traditions in a globalized, multi-cultural society. I will suggest that for a still fledgling tradition in North America, this embrace of a wider range of experience within a Buddhist worldview can serve as a means to strengthen practitioners' Buddhist identities in a way particularly amenable to American culture. This is because cultivation of jhānas, while delaying the direct pursuit of enlightenment, enables the wholehearted pursuit of blissful experience, a mystical goal often valorized in Western spiritual traditions. This approach allows American practitioners, who are typically lay people, to fit what is perhaps a more blatant pursuit of happiness into a Buddhist ethos. To make these points, I will use the case study of the recent meditation master Ayya Khema and her student Leigh Brasington.

The emphasis on jhānic meditative experience is not foreign to Asia either. In Burma, the historical origination point for much modern insight meditation, the popularity of the jhānas is growing, too. Reference will be made particularly to the followers of the Pa Auk Sayadaw. A brief examination of the Pa Auk Sayadaw will allow the paper to view recent American stresses on the jhānas in a global framework. Indeed, this is perhaps a case where the development of an emphasis on the jhānas stressed among small groups of Westerners could work back to influence and change Theravāda Buddhism in a Southeast Asian society. This turn to the jhānas is thus a strong example of the multidirectional currents of influence across borders in a globalized age.

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