With Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English: An Introductory Guide to Deeper States of Meditation, Bhante Gunaratana attempts to bring the same ease of understanding found in his highly regarded classic Mindfulness in Plain English to the development of deep states of concentration, or jhana, and their use on the path to liberation. This book is quite a contrast to his 1985 book on the jhanas and path of practice, The Path of Serenity and Insight, which was very academic in style and relied heavily on the commentaries. Beyond Mindfulness is written in an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand style that clearly seems based on the author’s personal experience with the path of concentration.
A number of years ago I served as attendant for Bhante during a retreat. I noticed that at the end of sittings he would often recite verse 372 from the Dhammapada:
There is no concentration without wisdom, no wisdom without concentration.
One who has both concentration and wisdom is close to peace and emancipation.
These intertwining practices of wisdom and concentration and the resulting emancipated mind are the themes of this new book.
The first part of the book focuses on setting the stage for Right Concentration. Bhante begins by defining concentration and its role on the path to liberation. He then describes the practices and qualities of mind and heart that are the foundation for both jhana and insight, including morality, mindfulness and clear comprehension, the strengthening of the Five Faculties (faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom), suppressing the Five Hindrances (sense-desire, aversion, sleepiness and sluggishness, restlessness and worry, and doubt) and the cultivation of lovingkindness (metta). Although he describes the development of breath meditation, it appears that metta practice actually plays the primary role in his approach to Right Concentration. The chapter on “Access Concentration” offers a clear sense of the experience of moving from ordinary distracted mind to the strong state of concentration called access, which just precedes the jhanas.
The latter half of the book offers chapters that go into some detail concerning the experience of developing each of the four material jhanas. These are followed by a chapter on working with the immaterial jhanas. The book concludes with a chapter on the “Four Stages of Awakening,” which Bhante refers to as supramundane jhanas.
There are two approaches to jhana, one based primarily on the suttas and the other on the commentaries. Throughout this book, Bhante defines Right Concentration as including the quality of mindfulness. He emphasizes that when in jhana, especially the fourth jhana, one should be able to nonconceptually see the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness of the jhana and its supporting factors. This places Bhante firmly within the sutta approach.
Bhante Gunaratana offers a clear sense of the depth of concentration needed for the insights leading to the stages of awakening. Whether one believes that formal jhana practice is a necessary part of the path or not, Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English makes a convincing case for the role of jhana.